Friday, September 7, 2012

They know how to read and write – that’s the trouble - comic Giovanni Verga

I do not remember if it is where I first heard of Giovanni Verga, but a 2003 James Wood article from The New Republic is what caught my attention.  This was back before Wood sold his freedom to The New Yorker, when he could write about Verga just because he wanted to, with no of-the-moment publishing hook, no new biographies or translations.  My favorite Wood piece, maybe.  He works through a couple of stories not in Little Novels of Sicily which I have not read, “Jeli the Shepherd” and “Rosso Malpelo.”

Wood argues that the comic effect of Verga comes directly from the pitilessness of the narrator, from the very fact that the narrator seems to be embedded within the world of the stories.  The less he questions this values of the world, the more the reader wants to question them.  “Thus Verga’s fiction is peculiar because his characters are not free – they are all i vinti [the defeated], and the narrator knows it – but his readers are free to resist such determinism, and are indeed slyly encouraged to do so by Verga’s very narration.”  The narrator is just tellin’ it like it is – I mean, just look at these people! – but I can say no.

I suppose I can resist resisting and just take Verga as a chronicler of injustice.  The priests are as bad as the peasants, who are as bad as the gentry, who are not that far from becoming peasants themselves:

They know how to read and write – that’s the trouble.  The white frost  of dark winter dawns and the burning dog days of harvesttime fall upon them as upon every other poor devil, since they’re made of flesh and blood like their fellow men, and since they’ve got to go out and watch to see that their fellow man doesn’t rob them of his time and of his day’s pay.  But if you have anything to do with them, they hook you by your name and surname, and the names of those that begot you and bore you, with the beak of that pen of theirs, and then you’ll never get yourself out of their ugly books anymore, nailed down by debt.

“The Gentry” begins with this paragraph.  The rich landowners, the people who are called Don So-and-so, they are the “they,” not the narrator, and not “you,” meaning me.  I guess I am one of the peasants, or should imagine that I am.  But the story is in this case about one of the Dons, Don Piddu, whose misfortunes (“failure of crops, mortality among his cattle, his wife sick, his daughters all marriageable, handsome, and ready”) are as bad as those of the peasants.  Maybe he can get rid of one of the daughters by “den[ying] himself the bread of his mouth to take his daughter to the party in a silk dress open in front as low as her heart,” but it is too late and he goes bust, “and when the peasants disputed with him, they left out the Don and called him plainly thou.”

Like “Malaria,” this nine-page story still has the tales of two more characters to cover.  It ends with a grim punchline on an advantage of knowing how to read and write.

The Wood article is now in The Irresponsible Self (2004); the quotation is from p. 128.  That “sold his freedom” thing was just a bitter joke!


  1. Thanks for this series of posts on Verga, Tom. I knew nothing of him apart from his name, so I've been enjoying these introductions to his work.

  2. Good. Verga is clearly worth more exploration. He is what he seems, and then he is a couple of other things, too.

  3. I haven't gotten to him yet myself, but what an excellent companion to The Leopard this would seem. Same story, both sides. That said, I did not entirely enjoy the bleakness of The Leopard. Sciascia would also not be out of place as a companion piece, I think.

  4. Oh yes, there is a strong sense of continuity in Sicilian literature. Pirandello was a Verga fan, too.

    One chapter of The Leopard,the kind of out of place one about the priest who goes home for a visit, is pretty clearly a tribute to Verga.

  5. That's just the bit I was thinking of! Excellent.