The art of Italy lies in its fiction, too

Translations From The Italian

September 16, 2001|By Alane Salierno Mason | Alane Salierno Mason,Special to the Sun

In times of economical air travel and weak European currencies, there's no excuse for not going to Italy. That doesn't mean, however, just retracing the steps of Frances Mayes from market to table in Under the Tuscan Sun. Nor does it mean that the Italy beloved around the world -- the Italy of delicate frescoes, Baroque churches like wedding cakes, exquisite food and wine, and warm, beautiful people, stylishly dressed -- is the only one worth visiting.

Italian literature gives keys to many other Italies -- though little of it makes its way into English. Much published in the past has fallen out of print, restored mostly by the heroic efforts of small publishers such as Vermont-based Steerforth Press, which has reissued works by the great 19th century Sicilian realist, Giovanni Verga.

Verga's Little Novels of Sicily (Steerforth Italia, 145 pages, $12) are a magnificent window onto a Southern Italy of the not-so-distant past, wracked by malaria, dependent on erratic harvests, volatile seas and whimsical overlords. Verga's eye on human nature is unsentimental, hilarious and tragic by turns. Anyone nostalgic for the warm embrace of "community" should read Verga to be reminded that real human communities are not just places of colorful local characters and shared celebrations but are riven by ambition, jealousies and old quarrels.

D.H. Lawrence loved Verga's work so much he translated it himself, not only the Little Novels but also Mastro Don Gesualdo, a sprawling novel of parochial ambition, both grimmer and funnier than Verga's masterpiece, The House Under the Medlar Tree.

Lawrence's translations are often awkward and inaccurate, yet still preferable in their energy to the new, purer but stiffer translations by G.H. McWilliam in the recent Penguin edition titled Cavelleria Rusticana and Other Stories (274 pages, $12.95).

The Prince of the Clouds by Gianni Riotta (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 290 pages, $24, paperback forthcoming in December) is a more contemporary view of Sicily, the story of Carlo Terzo, a scholar of military strategy who has never accepted (from a military point of view) Italy's defeat in World War II.

Terzo never, himself, enjoys the glory of putting his theories into practice until, toward the end of his life, he defends a group of leftist peasants from hired bandits. The sympathetic portrait of Terzo -- a man whose experience of life and death is entirely intellectual, who spends most of his life ashamed that for all his study and talk of warfare he has never seen a man die -- can for a literary author only be a gentle self-mockery.

This kind of self-criticism is rare among Americans but endemic, it seems to me, among the better part of the Italian intelligentsia (Riotta is co-editor of La Stampa, one of Italy's leading newspapers) -- while the rest seem to preen with even more extravagant flair than members of intelligentsias elsewhere. (For a close-up of preening writers and editors in [1970s?] Rome, one might visit a roman a clef by Luigi Pirandello, the newly translated, if with a somewhat labored feel, Her Husband [Duke, 256 pages, $24.95].)

A more forceful and vivid tour, in the Verga tradition, of neglected corners of the Italian social landscape, is Elsa Morante's recently reissued History: A Novel (Steerforth, 738 pages, $19.50). Morante is often remembered as the wife of Alberto Moravia, whose novels have been recently reissued by New York Review Books and written about brilliantly by Bill Marx in the Boston Review.

Yet many believe that Morante was the real talent in the family, and History: A Novel is indeed an extraordinary book. The story of a schoolteacher in Rome and the two sons she adores -- one the offspring of her rape by a German soldier -- Morante's novel is most Italian in its characters' unabashed displays of affection for one another, and perhaps also in a certain sentimental weakness around children and house pets. But most important, it portrays, in loving detail, the experience of unique individuals as they are manipulated by the homogenizing, untrustworthy, not-to-be-taken-completely-seriously forces of history -- and history's actors, like Mussolini, who "irrevocably yoked his own carnival chariot to the other's [Hitler's] funeral hearse."

In contrast to such "mortuary mechanisms," Morante's memorable characters have a potent way of taking the abstractions of language and making them concrete, as does the protagonist's dying husband: "Mammuzza mia, this death is too narrow. How can I get through? I'm too fat, I am." Human and emotional reality, in Morante's view, is always "too fat" for the abstractions of history, and especially for the tyrants who "want to turn everything into arithmetic: add, subtract, multiply, until the numbers come out zero!"

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