Monday, November 16, 2015

In small towns there are people who would walk miles to bring you bad news - they'll even write novels - Giovanni Verga's Mastro-Don Gesualdo

Giovanni Verga’s Mastro-Don Gesualdo (1889) is another tough one.  The title character is a mason who works his way to wealth but makes the mistake of marrying into the corrupt, diseased, decaying, immoral, filthy Sicilian village aristocracy.  The social setting is a couple of notches higher than in The House by the Medlar Tree (1881).  Verga planned to write a five volume Zola-like series, each of which moved further up the social scale, but he only completed two.  Giovanni Cechetti, the novel’s translator, speculates that he did not know enough about the upper classes.  The evidence from this novel suggests that he loathed them like cholera and could not stand to spend any more time with them.

Like The House by the Medlar Tree, Mastro-Don Gesualdo a kind of Job-story, with the character starting at a peak, making one greedy mistake, and then gradually losing everything, very gradually, mostly due to the resentment of his neighbors, siblings, and in-laws.

Somebody who was born as poor as Job, and now had become stuck up, and was a sworn enemy of the poor and the liberals!  (294)

This is presented as a kind of opinion of the mob as they loot one of Gesualdo’s storehouses.  The ironic inversion (by Verga) and complete misunderstanding (by the mob) of the story of Job gives the ethos of the novel pretty well, as do lines like this:

In small towns there are people who would walk miles to bring you bad news.  (180)

Against this background, the narrow materialist Don Gesualdo becomes a tragic figure.  He is a genuine entrepreneur, his plans are out in the open, he has a certain amount of self-control, and he is not a parasite, which separates him from almost every other character in the book.  Sicily is a nightmare.  In a Zola novel, I would treat Gesualdo with suspicion.  In a Verga novel, he is a hero.

Verga novels are mob fiction.  Chapters are built around crowd scenes – a fire, a festival, a theater performance.  The characters come in waves.  By the end of the book, I pretty much knew who was who.  It took a while.  That family Gesualdo married into has seven aunts and uncles and I don’t know how many cousins, aunts like Baroness Rubiera:

The panic knew no bounds when people saw Baroness Rubiera, paralyzed, fleeing away seated in an armchair, because she could not fit in a sedan chair, since she was so enormous, and four men struggled to carry her, with her head hanging to one side, her big face livid, her purple tongue half out of her slobbery lips, with only her eyes alive and uneasy, and her almost dead hands traveled by a constant quiver.  (211)

The novel is full of grotesques, done in by illness and petty-mindedness, dragging Gesualdo down to their level because he dared to rise above his own.

I would say that I should reread Verga’s novels if I ever plan to go to Sicily, except that they might make me change my plans.  They are terrifying yet bursting with life.

Maybe one more post on this book.


  1. several of the quotes indicate that verga might have a sense of humor. or maybe he just really hates the people he's writing about. hard to tell, sometimes. i had a copy of "medlar tree". i started it a couple of times but couldn't stay with it. it's amazing you're able to read so many different kinds of books. i think i'm envious...

  2. He definitely has a sense of humor. Some of that humor has a strong taste of bile, though.

    The two Verga novels - they are hard ones to begin. I had to read like a bulldozer for a few chapters. His short stories do not require so much horsepower.

  3. i think i need to install a supercharger, or at least get a tune up...

  4. Right, some books need a reading-chainsaw, to clear the brush before proper reading can begin.

  5. Yes, definitely a sense of humor, but rather dark and unforgiving. Despite - or perhaps because of - the grotesqueries, I'm eager to read this novel and see how it compares to I Malavoglia.

    Verga's unwritten Zola-inspired novel of the upper classes seems to have been written by his less famous fellow Catanian Federico de Roberto. The Viceroys, of which I've only read a 100 or so of its 600 pages, is about as searing a portrayal of the rich as one is likely to find anywhere, with a Verga-style bitterness and contempt combined with an equally Verga-style dark Sicilian wit. It's out of print, but being republished early next year.

  6. The Viceroys was tempting. But awfully long. A new edition, though, hmm, still tempting.