Wednesday, September 5, 2012

This was an injustice on God’s part - introducing Giovanni Verga's Little Novels of Sicily

In an irritating but inevitable Wuthering Expectations first, I missed a post because, staggered by illness, I was too weak to write or even read.  Evidence suggests I am again capable of writing, although I suspect I am still too weak to think.

I have no complaints, though, since I was not afflicted with typhoid, or worse, the malaria, as are so many of the Sicilians Giovanni Verga writes about in his comic 1883 masterpiece Little Novels of Sicily:

And truly the malaria gets into you with the bread you eat, or if you open your mouth to speak as you walk, suffocating in the dust and sun of the roads, and you feel your knees give way beneath you, or you sink discouraged on the saddle as your mule ambles along, with its head down.  (“Malaria”)

They had it rough, those Sicilians back then, before the big wave of American emigration.  “During the ‘fifties and ‘sixties,” writes translator D. H. Lawrence in his introduction to the book, “Sicily is said to have been the poorest place in Europe: absolutely penniless.”  I might want a qualifier or two to remove that “is said,” but they would be reasonable qualifiers.

Verga, in a long career, wrote other books about other walks of life, sentimental romances and so on, but it is his cluster of books about Sicilian peasants that have lasted, both in Italy and abroad:  The House by the Medlar Tree (1881), Mastro Don Gesualdo (1889), and more short stories, including “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1880), the source of the opera (I have not read any of these, not yet).  The advocacy and skillful translations of Lawrence have surely helped keep Verga alive, up to a point, in English.  Stylistically, I do not see all that much in common with Lawrence, but all of the misery and brutality and hopelessness likely reminded him of home.  Zola is another connection that seems more theoretical than stylistic.

Now, Chekhov, that one I can hear, even though the two authors worked without knowledge of each other.  Facing similar problems, they developed similar tools: distant narrators, a sense of ironic comedy in the face of the most horrifying tragedy, and a sparse use of fancy language.  Verga has a touch of Sholem Aleichem in him too, when he gets close to his characters:

Only one thing grieved him, and that was that he was beginning to get old, and he had to leave the earth there behind him.  This was an injustice on God’s part, that after having slaved one’s life away getting property together, when you’ve got it, and you’d like some more, you have to leave it behind you.  And he remained for hours sitting on a small basket, with his chin in his hands, looking at his vineyards growing green beneath his eyes, and his fields of ripe wheat waving like a sea, and the olive groves veiling the mountains like a mist, and if a half-naked boy passed in front of him, bent under his load like a tired ass, he threw his stick at his legs, out of envy, and muttered: “Look at him with his length of days in front of him ; him who’s got nothing to bless himself with!”  (“Property”)

Verga has his own tricks, though, some good, good tricks, which if I am lucky I will write about later.  I used the word “comic” up above and will perhaps return to it if I ever get my thinking cap on straight again.


  1. I'd heard of him, of course - mainly as the author of Cavalliera Rusticana - but registering yet another "I haven't yet read him" brings home to me how daly read I really am, despite pretensions. That passage you quote certainly is comic, but in a sense that forces us if not to re-define Te term, then, at least, to categorise its many different varieties.

  2. PS Illness is so tiresome, isn't it? It gives you time off from work, yetdenies you the mental or physical strength to do all the things you wantt o do in your time off. Hope you are fully recovered soon!

  3. I tried to read Maestro Don Gesualdo last year or the year before, but found it in the end too boring (too realist). It's a typical c19th story about a man from humble origins who becomes rich through industry but isn't at first accepted into society.

    That was translated by Lawrence too. I imagine the subject-matter appealed to him.

  4. Himadri, thanks, yes, it was an utterly wasted day. Other than the part where I recovered my health.

    I am glad you caught the comic tone at the end - that's the essence of Verga at his best.

    I wondered if the novels might have some pitfalls the stories avoid. Little Novels has a story related to what you describe, but it is only 9 or 10 pages long. A number of the short stories actually tell multiple stories, so just a few pages for each one. Fluid might be a good word for the effect.

    There is also a surprising turn to metafiction at the end. Well, right here I have a number of topics to write about.

    As an encouragement to the curious - maybe this does not encourage others as much as it does me - Little novels of Sicily is only 145 pages.

  5. I commented on your next post (the one you hadn't yet written) before getting to this one, so I'm very glad to know you've recovered and that you had such good reading material to help you along. Yes, Little Novels of Sicily is only 145 pages, but what a treasure in such a small package. I've had Medlar Tree out of the library for enough time to inconvenience a slew of other potential readers, and it keeps staring down from the shelf at me as though asking, "So what are you waiting for?"

  6. "Evidence suggests..." Hahahaha. With comedic touches like that, you won't be sick for long.

  7. I am epistemologically full of doubt, I guess. Illness can do that to a fellow.

    I'll try to get to one of the novels soon. You know, next couple of years, that kind of soon.