Monday, January 26, 2015

The yellow plain and the great purple-grey sphinxes - Grazia Deledda's After the Divorce

Grazia Delleda’s After the Divorce (1902) is a novel written a lot like a lot of novels are written now.  I would not have guessed it was so old.  Information is handed out as needed, not all at once.  The writer lingers on minor details.  Not every dang thing is explained every dang time.

First paragraph:

On the floor by the bed in the Porrus’ guest room a woman wept.  She crouched, rocking her head on her arms, sobbing in utter despair.  Her shapely figure, tightly laced into a yellow cotton bodice, rose and sank like a wave on the sea.  (1)

Then a little bit of this and that in the room, a cricket, a bit of sky where “a single yellow star shone” – yellow again, too bad I didn’t keep an eye on that – and the sound of a horse’s hoof on the cobbles.  The point of view is at some distance, impassive, willing to let the woman weep.

Soon enough – next paragraph, we get a name (Giovanna) and a place (Nuoro, the Sardinian town where the author was born).  The characters, setting, and story fill out.  Giovanna’s husband is on trial for murder.  What will happen to her when he is sent away? 

‘The new divorce law is going to be passed soon,’ Paolo said.  ‘A woman whose husband is serving a long sentence can become free again.’  (8)

That short first chapter, along with the title of the novel, gives a pretty good idea about what goes on in After the Divorce.

Deledda wrote frequently about the Sardinian peasants from her home, and all of their trials, errors, bad luck, and superstitions.  The husband here, for example, is not really defending himself from an accusation of murder because he feels he is being deservedly punished for marrying Giovanna in a civil ceremony, not in church.  You idiot.  Well, where would fiction be without such people?

Giovanni Verga’s dry stories of Sicilian peasants from twenty years earlier are a reference point, although to me this novel sounds nothing like Verga, even if Deledda shares his compassionate brutality, but is rather quite French.  Zola, Flaubert, that crowd.  A distant narrator, mostly limited third person moving easily among characters, details turned into motifs, metaphors mostly limited to the world of the characters, bursts of descriptive excess amidst the plainness:

The windows, whose stone sills burned in the sun, looked out over the whole village, blackish-brown, like a pile of spent charcoal, under its green veil of trees.  Beyond lay the yellow plain and the great purple-grey sphinxes.  In the burning afternoon silence, the incessant peal of the church bell sounded like the clang of a chisel working wearily away far-off in the centre of those mountains.  (115)

Yellow again.  I had not noticed that until I began assembling this post.  Oh well.  How I would like to visit Sardinia.  I could visit the Museo Deleddiano.

I would read another Deledda novel.  I will read etc.  A priest names Elias Portolu is a minor character in After the Divorce.  Her next novel, available in English, is titled Elias Portolu.  Maybe I should try that one next.

Page numbers from the 1995 Northwestern University Press edition translated by Susan Ashe.


  1. I read Deledda's The Church of Solitude late last year and was left wondering what all the fuss was about. Unlike you--kind of, at least--I thought she seemed a throwback more than a modern as a writer although I did enjoy the "bursts of descriptive excess amidst the plainness" that you mention.

  2. The one you read is from 34 years later. Maybe Deledda got worse. That is all too common.

    In an important sense, most novels written today are formally throwbacks, so we can both be right here.

  3. Now here is an odd question and comment: How do you manage to read so much so quickly? (I read at a snail's pace, and then -- within a day -- I seem to forget most of what I have read.) You continue to impress me with you range and capacity. Press on, constant reader, press on!

  4. So Italian, that bit about the civil ceremony vs. the church and the enormous portent of the change in divorce law. I read Deledda's Reeds in the Wind (Canne al vent) a few years back, and it's a novel I still think about frequently - perhaps especially now as I'm reading Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, in which one finds the same tension concerning a writer who left and yet can't stop looking back, with love and a sort of fascinated rancor, at her origins. Color seems important in Deledda, and her descriptions (if Reeds in the Wind is indicative of her other work) seem unusually saturated.

  5. I read about 100 pages per day. That does not seem so fast to me. Luckily, it adds up.

    This Deledda novel is only 170 pages.

    Now I know: next time, pay attention to those colors!

    I was going to suggest that, but forgot - yes, Ferrante readers should take a close look at Deledda. I wish some would. The state of Ferrante reviewing is not good, and one reason is that so few of her English-language readers know anything about her literary tradition.

    1. Canne al vento, not Canne al vent.

      Anyway, I hope to write something about that eventually - Ferrante's immersion in her literary predecessors - but I'll just say for now that having turned to Italian literature this year has made reading Ferrante's novels a vastly richer experience than it would have been without a bit of familiarity with that tradition, of which Deledda is definitely a part.

    2. That would be great. I do not understand the Ferrante reviewers who act as if she has written some kind of unfiltered memoir. You've seen Rohan Maitzen's meta-review? Probably, I plug it so often. Maitzen is no expert in Italian literature, but the strange rhetoric of the (professional!) reviews set off her critical fire alarm. The absence of literary context is just one of the gaps she notes.

    3. Yes, thanks for bringing Maitzen's essay to my attention, a terrific place to start when taking a look into these books. I know almost nothing about Italian literature, but can't help but notice Ferrante's references, often explicit (her narrator pretty much comes out and tells the reader what she's doing in her writing), to some of those who came before her. Grazia Deledda seems quite an interesting precursor to Ferrante. That anxiety over civil vs. church marriage, for example, is common enough, I suppose, but it does make an appearance in Ferrante's work - with a not dissimilar degree of drama.

    4. Pure instinct - inference from absence - but my wild guess is that Ferrante's novels are highly allusive, full of imitation and pastiche, not "honest" in the sense those reviewers mean but deeply immersed in literature.

      Then again, maybe she just writes name-changed memoirs.

  6. Once i read 100 pages a day, or more. Now if I manage 100 pages it's a cause for celebration. (I have nothing to say about Deledda or Ferrante as my ignorance is almost complete.)
    I just need ten years on a desert island with a well stocked library and kitchen!

  7. A couple of hours a day of real reading, that's typical for me.

    1. How many hours of real writing, though? That's the trick to your productivity that's most impressive to some of us mere mortals. To me anyway.

    2. The important, dismaying ratio is: three minutes of restlessly preparing to write for every minute of actual writing.

  8. I'm reading this too at the moment; I'm about halfway through. It's good, but I preferred Elias Portolu. (Il Madre is still my favourite though). I agree there is something of Zola about her writing.

    Remarkably for such a small town, Nuoro produced another significant c20th literary figure, Salvatore Satta, whose "Day of Judgment" describes the same world from a more aristocratic point of view.

  9. That is remarkable. Seventy years later, another run at the same place, the same people. Very interesting. I had not heard of Satta.

    All right, barring catastrophe, I will at least read Elias Portolu soon.