Saturday, September 8, 2012

The phantoms had passed away - Giovanni Verga's metafictional love affair

It occurs to me that I can make up for my illness-evaporated post with a final Giovanni Verga piece written write now.  That it took me this long to come up with this idea suggests that I have not entirely recovered.   I can write about Verga’s metafiction.

Little Novels of Sicily does not tell a story, I would not say that.  I assume that the stories were, for the most part, originally published in magazines or newspapers, but I do not know that.  Whatever the reason, design or variety, the world Verga is reporting on or creating quickly fills out.  One story is about a priest, another about gentlemen; one about daily life, another about a festival.  In “So Much for the King,” a peasant cab-driver – except the cab is a litter carried between two mules – is hired to carry the Queen of the Two Sicilies.  In a number of places, Verga reminds me that the stories are all set before the unification of Italy, before the massive changes of revolution and emigration, although a coda sometimes carries the story past 1860.  That priest, for example, “had to hide in a hole like a rat, because the peasants… wanted to do him in.”

The revolution comes in the next to last story, “Liberty,” when the peasants turn on their oppressors, real and theoretical, and one kind of injustice is violently replaced with another.

Day broke: a Sunday with nobody in the square, and no mass ringing.  The sexton had burrowed into his hiding hole; there were no more priests.  The first-comers that began to gather on the sacred threshold looked one another in the face suspiciously; each one thinking of what his neighbor must have on his conscience.

If you get the comedy of Verga at all, that last line, “his neighbor,” is hilarious.  Maybe there is a sort of narrative, and this is how it ends, or begins again.

But there is one story left in the book, “Across the Sea.”  A man and a woman (“wrapped up in her furs”) are on a steamer approaching Sicily.  He is clearly in the middle of an attempt at seduction.  Although a “sad Sicilian folksong” can be heard nearby, we have clearly moved into a different kind of story.

As they near Sicily, the woman asks the man to point out the famous features, and he does, the mountains, the olive groves, and something more:

It was as if all those places were peopled with people out of a legend, as he pointed them out to her one by one.  Thereabouts the malaria; on that slope of Etna the village where Liberty burst out like a vendetta; below, beyond, the humble dramas of the Mystery Play, and the ironic injustice of Don Licciu Papa.

Earlier stories are titled “Malaria,” “Liberty,” “The Mystery Play,” and “Don Licciu Papa” – why, this fellow is our author!  Once in Sicily, he revisits the scenes of his tales, although almost everyone is gone – “[t]he phantoms had passed away.”  The love affair sputters along.  The story ends with a farewell to Verga’s lover and to his Sicilian characters, and with a metaphor that makes this out-of-place story clear:  the writing of the brutal, miserable Little Novels of Sicily was itself a kind of love affair.

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