Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Grazia Deledda's Elias Portolu, or how an ex-con becomes a priest

Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce (1902) has a minor character, a priest, named Elias Portolu.  Her next novel is set in the same Sardinian town and is titled Elias Portolu (1903).  Perhaps it is the same character.

Happy days were coming for the Portolu family of Nuoro.  At the end of April their son Elias, who had served his time in a penitentiary on the continent, would come home; then Pietro, the older of the three Portolu boys, was to be married.  (Ch. I, p. 1, tr. Martha King)

Okay, maybe it is not the same character.  Elias returns from prison reformed in the sense that he does not fall back in with his former bad crowd.  His new problem is that he is tormented by love and lust for his brother’s fiancée, Maddalena, and she reciprocates (they are on horseback in this scene, sharing a horse):

Not only did her voice tremble, but her hand, poised on Elias’s belt, was also trembling, as was her whole body collapsed against his back.  He was also vibrating like a broken string and a shadow veiled his eyes: it was the same anguish, the same rapture as his dream.  (III, 64)

But in fact it is the same character.  Elias Portolu is the story of how this man becomes a priest:

In short, it seemed that a ferocious beast thrashed around in that pale young man with the mild appearance who was often seen sitting near the hut, immersed in little holy books.  (VI, 117)

As a means to escape sexual temptation, entering the priesthood is likely a bad move, and Portolu’s path to a religious vocation is painful and dangerous, at risk until the last sentence.  So as far as that goes, well done, Grazia Deledda.

The character is perhaps most interesting for the dream-like states that come upon him, apparently lingering psychological effects of prison, or, as he always thinks of it, “that place,” not even able to think or say the word “prison” without mental preparation.  Portolu’s interaction with the natural world up in the Sardinian mountains, where he works as a shepherd, interact curiously with his prison experience.

Meanwhile Elias, on top of the rock, with his vitreous eyes fixed as though enchanted by the pure splendour of the moon, was unmoving, immersed in a confusion of visions.  He felt the same bewilderment, the buzzing, the vague dizziness that he had felt in the family courtyard on the evening of his return [from prison].  (V, 90)

His father is watching him, wondering if he is “’Planning a crime?  Thinking of becoming a priest?’”  In a book of flattish characters, title character aside, the father is a lot of fun, always bragging about his wealth (which does not appear to be so substantial) and insulting his sons by telling them they are “made of fresh cheese.”

The characters are on the flat side because the main interest of this novel, other than the journey of Elias to the priesthood, is social or cultural.  A long scene at the beginning of the book is set during the Feast of St. Francis; a later scene is set during Carnival.  The ordinary life of the Sardinian shepherds is mixed with their holidays and entertainments.  Meanwhile, the extraordinary life of Elias Portolu mostly takes place within his head.


  1. "fixed vitreous eyes"-excellent. i get that sometimes as a result of having worked for the gas company for 25 years. do you read these novels in italian? just curious...

  2. You don't sound that enthused. I liked this more than After the Divorce. Now I read your review of this, I see the theme of the returning convict clearly. La Madre, which is the other one I've read, retains the theme of the priest plagued by lust.

  3. English, I am afraid, everything in English.

    I like what the novel did, but I guess I did not find that it did much. The movement of Elias towards (and occasionally away from) priesthood was genuinely impressive. I would read more Deledda books. La Madre, certainly. I guess after that one there are not that many more in English.

  4. Do we ever learn what crime Elias Portolu committed - or was said to have committed or is it one of those books?

  5. Do we learn the crime - I don't think so. Nor do we learn if he was guilty of whatever crime sent him to prison, although it is clear that he was guilty of something.

    If Elias has trouble thinking about prison, he apparently finds it impossible to think about the life that sent him there.

  6. It sounds as though the varieties of religious experience -- or spiritual awakening -- are not high on the author's list of positive experiences in a person's life. Hmmmm.

  7. Yes, this is a story where religious experience is painful, and spiritual truth requires a sometimes brutal stripping away of earthly things. The final result is perhaps positive. But the road to it is hard, painful and hard.

  8. Thanks for bringing this writer to my attention, Tom. I looked her up: Nobel laureate 1926; how could I not know of her?!

  9. That Nobel ain't no guarantee uh nothin. Endurance, quality, nothing.

    The two books I read have a humanistic quality that make her a good Nobel candidate.