Saturday, February 14, 2015

He said, rather spitefully, that he did not sell Italian books - Foscolo's apocalyptic literary Italy

Foscolo’s great innovation was to politicize Goethe’s novel, to use the structure of The Sorrows of Young Werther to write a novel about a young man’s desire for a united Italy, free of outside control.  Admittedly I found some of Jacopo Ortis’s rhetoric on the subject to be tiresome.  I am curious how contemporary Italians find it.  Even though Italy has been united for 150 years now, the subject has never gone away.  But I do not read Italian literature for the politics.

Yet Foscolo insists I am wrong.  The argument that runs through Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis is that Italy is literature, that a united Italy already exists in literature and somehow needs to be immanentized.  Over the course of the novel, Ortis visits numerous tombs and monuments to writers, as well as living writers, actual people dragged into the novel.  The tomb of Dante in Ravenna (“On your funeral urn, Father Dante! As I embraced it I became all the more determined,” 115); the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli in Florence (“as I approached them I found myself shuddering,” 84); the last home of Petrarch in the Euganean hills (“I approached the house like one about to prostrate himself on the tombs of his ancestors,” 18).

He visits the poet Giuseppe Parini in Milan.  “He is afraid of being expelled from his professorship and finding himself constrained, after seventy years of studies and glory, to dies begging for his bread” (91).  Ortis does not visit Vittorio Alfieri, who “refuses to make fresh acquaintances, and I would not presume to ask him to break this resolution of his, which is probably the result of the times in which we live…” (85).

Alfieri is mentioned or quoted as many times as any writer, comparable to references to Dante and Petrarch.  Most of the Alfieri quotations are from Saul.  I am mentally addressing anyone who thinks Wuthering Expectations is full of obscure writers.  No, famous writers, only the best known writers.

The living are necessary because there is the paradoxical risk that if Italy is literature then Italy is already dead and entombed.  In a bookshop in Milan, Ortis asks for the Autobiography of Cellini:

They did not have it.  I asked for another writer, but he said, rather spitefully, that he did not sell Italian books.  (91)

In another scene, a nobleman brags about “the prodigious library of his ancestors” (41) but is really only interested in their title-pages, in completing his collection.  Ortis’s vision of history, and thus of the future, is apocalyptic:

Often I imagine this world in chaos, and heaven, and the sun, and the ocean, and all the spheres in flames, in nothingness.  But if only in the midst of this universal ruin I could clasp Teresa once more – only once more in these arms – I would cry out for the destruction of all creation.  (64)

I have no real idea where the author, Foscolo, is in all this.  Maybe he meant the passage as a criticism of Ortis’s deviation from revolutionary fervor.  I doubt it.  There is nothing like this in The Sorrows of Young Werther, that is all I am trying to say.

Tomorrow I will move ahead a few years – more Foscolo, more Italian writers, and more tombs.


  1. From what little you show, I don't think he innovated so much as improved Young Werther!

  2. We maybe value Goethe's novel differently. Foscolo gets nowhere near Goethe's ending, for example.

    But everything I describe here really is new. Nothing like it in Goethe's book.