Monday, August 3, 2015

One must be happy over other people’s good fortune - Giovanni Verga, The House by the Medlar Tree

Giovanni Verga, The House by the Medlar Tree (1881).

This novel was kinda hard.  I rarely say that.  Verga sets up a Sicilian family, not exactly poor – they own a boat and the house seen in the English title – and proceeds to systematically grind them to powder.  Unpleasant in its way, but not what I mean by difficult.  I mean Verga made me work a little bit.  The tough part comes in Chapter 2, when, after the short introduction of the Malivoglia family in the first chapter, Verga plunges into the village, introducing dozens of intertwined characters, little tags or relations or something to give poor me a hope of remembering them, if there were not so many at once.

Since Don Franco was an educated person he read the newspaper and made the others read it too; and he also had the History of the French Revolution, which he kept handy under the glass mortar, and so, to kill time, he quarreled all day long with Don Giammaria, the parish priest, and they both made themselves sick with bile, but they couldn’t have lived through a day without seeing each other.  (18)

Pretty good in isolation, but a couple of lines later add in “Don Michele, the sergeant of the customs guard…  and also Don Silvestro, the town clerk” plus “the Mangiacarrube girl, one of those girls who sit at the window, as brazen as they come” (20) and then “La Zuppidda, the wife of Mastro Turi, the caulker, suddenly popped up” (21).  Two pages earlier I had been told, by other characters, that Don Silvestro is interested in La Zuppidda’s daughter, but has been refused, “’[w]hich means that Mastro Turi Zuppiddo prefers the eggs of his own hens,’ Master ‘Ntoni replied” (19).  Several characters have multiple names, too.  The edition I read has a Cast of Characters at the beginning, thank goodness.

Many readers say they like novels, as opposed to short stories, because novels are “immersive.”  They should love The House by the Medlar Tree.  Kersplash!  Maybe that is not whatthey mean by “immersive.”

“Don Giammaria is having fried spaghetti for dinner tonight,” Piedipapera declared, sniffing in the direction of the parish house windows.

Don Giammaria, passing by on his way home, greeted all of them, even Piedipapera, because, times being what they were, you had to keep on the good side of even such troublemakers; and Piedipapera, whose mouth was still watering, shouted after him: “Say, Don Giammaria, fried spaghetti tonight, eh!”

“Hear that! Even what I eat!” Don Giammaria muttered through his teeth.  “They even spy on God’s servants to count every mouthful they take!”  (28)

A few more lines with the priest, not a particularly important character in the novel, and Verga hops to another character.  Verga is going to give everyone’s point of view, maybe just for a line, just a single thought, which as here is not really about spaghetti but is rather a comment, usually somehow resentful, about some other character.  Verga’s Sicilians are not exactly models of solidarity.

“I’m very glad about it,” said Uncle Crocifisso, who’d also come to watch, his hands clasped behind his back.  “We’re Christians, and one must be happy over other people’s good fortune.  The proverb says: ‘Wish your neighbor well, because you too will profit.’”  (56)

This particular character is a monster, and thus the perfect character for this speech.  The terrible irony is that in Verga’s world, this sort of sentiment has to be spoken aloud.  People have to be reminded of it.  And even then, they don’t mean it.

I read the Raymond Rosenthal translation.  It is, Giovanni Cecchetti writes, the first English translation of the complete text.  Earlier versions (by Mary Craig and Eric Mosbacher) cut a fifth of the text for the usual prudish reasons, so avoid those.


  1. Uncle Crucifix: that's funny. Sicilian irony. Is Crocifisso a mobster? That's a good name for a mobster.

    This reminds me of Fortunata y Jacinta, all those characters coming at the reader at once.

  2. Very funny your interpretation of "immersive." I don't know many other novels wherein one has to deal not only with a large population of characters, but also with all of those characters snooping and poking around one another's business. Nothing goes unnoticed in Aci Trezza, which sounds like it must have been one of the world's most claustrophobic seaside villages (I visited last year - it's not mired in crushing poverty any more, but neither did it seem exactly welcoming). It helped that most of the characters seem to cycle through like they're on a lazy Susan. I can't get "the Mangiacarubbe girl" out of my head; the tag keeps coming around like the refrain from a comic song. "Not exactly models of solidarity," no - half of the considerable misery in the town is its poverty, and the other half is its people.

    I read the Judith Landy translation. I do not know if it has been cut, but it came highly recommended by another translator.

  3. Uncle Crucifix is also known as Dumbbell, and he is basically a loan shark, so I assume he some kind of mobster, but the text is not explicit. There some other mafiosi behind the scenes - one of the Malavoglia, a big dope, goes to work for them. Uncle Crucifix gets a story that might as well have showed up on The Sopranos. He marries a young wife, but out of greed, not lust.

    Fortuanta y Jacinta, that's a good example. Germinal has been another one. We mentally trim as we read, guessing whether we will need this particular character later. Here, and in Zola and Galdos, the answer is Yes, so pay attention.

    You visited the village, Scott (seraillon Scott)! That is some good, dedicated literary tourism. Because that place is miserable.

    The Landy translation looks good. It's the right length. I said the bad old ones cut a sixth, but I was wrong - a fifth, a full fifth. Apparently there is an Italian edition once used in schools that has the cuts, and one of the translations is of that edition! Sad.

    1. One other note about the town. I don't think I've ever read a novel with fewer references to literature. I counted exactly one - to Ariosto - but I actually think even that refers to the tale being in common folkloric currency among the people rather than to the poem itself. That said, Verga nicely buries a literary reference in his choice of locale: Aci Trezza is fronted on the sea by enormous black rocks (by far the most striking aspect of the place, and worth the visit) said to have been thrown there by the Cyclops who was trying to sink the fleeing boats of Ulysses and his men. And indeed the Aci Trezza of the novel is like a village that's been pelted into submission by rocks heaved at it by some blind, malevolent giant.

      A fifth of the book cut out? Unbelievable.

    2. There is a point where a character starts telling a folktale, which was almost shocking ,there is so little literature in the book.

      The tradition after Verga - Pirandello, Sciascia, on to Camilleri - they all write books full of books.

    3. That's the reference I'm referencing - not even a reference, just a naturalistic telling of a folktale.

      I find it so curious that despite Verga's deliberate suppression of anything overtly "literary" in this novel (and in his other work), he picks these names - Malavoglia, Crosifisso, Mangiacarrube - that are almost as suggestive as any in Dickens.

    4. The names, I know. I was wondering that, too. Or maybe they are just naturalistic details. Maybe everyone in Sicily had a nickname.