Tuesday, August 4, 2015

they thought about all that had happened, which seemed dark, very dark - yeah, no kidding, it's Giovanni Verga

Remembering all these things, they let their spoons drop in their soup bowls and they thought about all that had happened, which seemed dark, very dark, as though the deep shadows of the medlar tree hung over it.  (Ch. 15, 255)

Just three pages from the end of The House by the Medlar Tree here, and the surviving characters are thinking what I was thinking, pretty much, although I did not drag the tree back in, which is a little heavy.  The actual title of the novel is I Malavoglia, which would be The Malavoglia, the name of the family, not an impossible title in English but I see why no one uses it.

There was a time when the Malavoglia were as thick as the stones on the old Trezza road.  You could find them even at Ognina and Aci Castello, all seagoing folk, good, upright, the exact opposite of what you would think from their nickname.  (Ch. 1, p. 7, first two lines)

So even the family name needs a translation or explanation.  “The Ill-willed” or something like that, suggests Cecchetti, or “The Malevolent.”  “[T]hey always had their own boats in the water and their own roof tiles in the sun” (7).  Everything goes great for them until the third page of the novel, when the eldest grandchild is called up for military service, a huge irony because Sicily did not have a draft until Italian unification – “it was just what he deserved, and that it was all due to that revolution out of hell which they’d made by unfurling a tricolor kerchief on the church tower” (9), or so says the priest, who we saw yesterday on his way to his fried spaghetti.

But as luck would have it the boy was built without a flaw, as they can still make them at Aci Trezza, and the conscription doctor, when he saw that hulking young man in front of him, said that his only defect was to be planted like a pillar on those huge feet which looked like cactus blades. (9)

More irony, since the flawless grandson eventually does more to destroy his family than anyone else, aside from the acts of God – storms, cholera – with which the gentle, pitying novelist blasts his characters.

Maruzza was already in bed, and in the dark at that hour her eyes looked as though death had sucked them dry, and her lips were as black as coal.  In those days neither the doctor nor the pharmacist went about after sunset; and for fear of the cholera, even the neighbors barred their doors and pasted pictures of saints all over the cracks.  (Ch. 11, 172)

Giovanni Verga mostly writes in a plain style, using language and metaphors his characters would use, but these little surprises pop up, like those saints.  The sentence is one of horror, really.  The death of human fellowship.  “But little by little, their black kerchiefs around their necks, they began to go out on the street, like snails after a rainstorm, pale and still bewildered” (173).  Sharp as a knife, black as coal, cackled like a hen – I am pulling more ordinary similes from the same page as those more vivid and surprising snails.

The next Verga novel, Mastro-don Gesualdo, is more of a pain to find, but I will see if I can get it.  The characters start richer, so they should have further to fall.   Verga planned to write a five-volume series “collectively titled I vinti (The Doomed)” (p. viii), but only completed these two books.  Maybe two is enough.


  1. Maybe two is enough. Yes, a group read of five such novels of Verga could end in mass suicide. But he's so funny, too (to wit: the huge feet like "cactus blades").

    Even the snails bit is worse than it seems, given that snails were a staple food source in Sicily when the going got tough, and the going doesn't get much tougher than in Verga's Aci Trezza. "Pale and still bewildered..." and about to be eaten up by one another.

  2. I tried to read Mastro don Gesualdo once, but didn't get very far. I seem to remember it was all too much realism for my brain.

  3. Keeping in mind that I read this Verga novel weeks ago, before my vacation, I feel I have the strength for another, weeks from now. But I will need something different after that - time for Pirandello or something.

    Scott, absolutely right about the snails, good point.

  4. After being entranced by Verga's short stories last year, i bought myself Judith Landry's translation of this novel. i haven't read it yet, but I most certainly will.

    Verga, in his short stories, displayed a skill that I suppose all writers of shories should have - the ability to communicate much more to the reader than is explicitly said. (Sometimes he communicates the very opposite of what is explicitly said.) I wonder whether he changes the tone of his narrative voice for a longer narrative such as this. Most writers of prose fiction tend either to be the master of teh short and concise, or of the long and expansive, and few seem equally at home in both.

    I have a problem as well with authors who introduce a large cast of characters all at once, and expect the reader to remember who they all are and how they relate to each other. (I had this problem with Turgenev's "Rudin", though not, I'm pleased to say, with his subsequent novels.) From your previous post, I see that Verga does this too, which I must admit is a bit disappointing. But I do not mean to pre-judge: on the basis of what I have read of him so far, he was a consummate writer, and I am happy to go where he sees fit to lead me.

  5. It is worth reading the novel to see how Verga uses much the same techniques as in the stories. They stretch more than I would have guessed. As chaotic as it feels, it is the use of the village that prevents monotony. The villagers are not a chorus, but rather people with their own stories, many stories.

    But this novel ain't "Rosso Malpelo"!

  6. I found it fascinating to see Verga's take on presenting "people with their own stories, many stories" adopted by Matilde Serao, the Neapolitan writer, who was strongly influenced by him. She manages to pack into a short story nearly as many characters as Verga packs into I Malavoglia. To create the intended effect of presenting a society with all its warts, it takes a village. And the village here is in a sense the main character.

  7. Serao is on the list for my next university library run.