Friday, March 20, 2015

Umberto Saba's prose - as though they were the honorable dead

Poetry is to many people an allergen, or even a toxin, but fortunately Umberto Saba also wrote prose, short fiction and memoir that grew shorter over time until he published them as “shortcuts” and “very short stories.”  There is also a late, unfinished novel, Ernesto, that I have not read.  What I have read is a book titled The Stories and Recollections of Umberto Saba (1993), translated and assembled by Estelle Gilson.

The fiction is mostly about the poor and the Jews of Trieste.  “And at one and the same time, she felt both a certain compassion for him and a desire to grab him by the throat and throttle him” (“Valeriano Rode,” 54).  That is a wife describing her idiot husband, but the line could easily appear in a number of places, perhaps used by the reader.  High quality short fiction circa 1910 was populated by frustrating nitwits; this is not unique to Saba.  See “The Lottery Numbers” for a powerful example, where a husband;s refusal to let his wife play a set of lucky numbers turns out to be the tipping point of a series of resentments that destroy the marriage.

Or the best story, “The Hen,” in which a young man buys his mother the wrong gift.  He once had a pet hen:

…  the hours he spent with the hen were truly his own; whether he had her sit,  perch, really, next to him on the brick steps between the kitchen and the dining room, steps that turned a strange red in the setting sun and reminded him if the steps outside purgatory that he’d seen in a religious painting, or whether, hugging her so tightly to him that she shrieked, and happy in his belief that he had so much time ahead to live and enjoy the pleasures of the world (and thereafter, he’d have all eternity), he would talk to Có-có about daring deeds and journeys, and about future joys, in effect, about everything that went through his head.  (76-7)

Saba’s sentences do not usually roll on like that.  The story is a warning about the pain of trying to revive childhood pleasures and illusions.  This from a poet who is constantly returning to his childhood in his writing.

Saba has another subject – Trieste, the war and its aftermath.  Encounters with writers: his Triestine neighbor Italo Svevo who “used to drop in on me almost every evening” at the used bookshop, Curzio Malaparte who “tried to help me when I was in trouble,” and that maniac, “the Glorious One,” the “immaculately white-suited” Gabriele D’Annunzio, to whom Saba says he owes “three poems from his [Saba’s] Autobiographia” and “a recipe for preparing that superb pasta with tomatoes.”

Then there is the bookshop itself, an accidental career – “I bought it intending to throw all the old books in it into the Adriatic and to sell it empty at a higher price” – that became something else:

During all the years of fascism it was a refuge, sheltering me from loudspeakers.  It’s fairly hopeless for a poet to make a living in literature.  And during those years it seemed more hopeless than ever.  However, the antiquarian books, whose existence I’d just discovered, didn’t upset me or reflect the hateful face of the present, the way almost all of the new ones seemed to do.  What’s more they gave off a sense of peace, as though they were the honorable dead.  (“The Story of a Bookshop,” 141)


  1. Er…I don't suppose he bothered to share D'Annunzio's "superb" tomato pasta recipe?

    He almost sounds like Saramago in that passage about the antiquarian books.

  2. I'm glad to know my beloeved Curzio Malaparte helped him out.

    The paragraph about the antiquarian books is beautiful, but it saddens me because of how easily it speaks to me; my novel wears the hateful face of the present; Saba would not have approved it.

  3. Scott, you will be so disappointed. Saba’s wife makes an exact duplicate “with a prepared tomato sauce called Pancaldi, whose existence I hadn’t known of.” Saba is form Trieste – the whole “pasta in sauce” thing was exotically Southern to him.

    Miguel, Saba might be more forgiving of our present. His went through a bad, bad stretch. He says he was never interested in the contents of antiquarian books, which is what made him good at the job.