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Posts Tagged ‘Italian literature’


Cover illustration: an image of a painting by Felice Casorati, a favorite painter of Natalia’s (whom her father presented as a not-so-comic tyrant then naturally abhors)

Of one of the Nazi functionaries Levi meets in Periodic Table, he writes: “, “è nostro dovere giudicarlo, non perdonarlo” [it is our duty to judge him, not forgive him].

Prison Box: Inventory (Rome, February 1944)

copy War and Peace
cyrillic type
(fading, spine bent)

cashmere scarf,
arm length
(dirty, white, torn)

photographs of a girl,
two boys
and a woman (frayed at the edges)

pencil stubs
(carbon
tips spent)

lined spiral notebook
(nine pages left,
yellowed, blank)

pair of wire-rimmed glasses
(left lens shattered,
nose support gone)

— from Peg Boyers’ Hard Bread, a poetic autobiography for Natalia, this poem the imagined box of things she could have gotten after her husband, Leone, had been tortured to death

“See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” — Faustus, in Christopher Marlowe’s play

Gentle readers and friends,

Perhaps not altogether by chance, I’ve been reading a series of Northern Italian and Jewish writers tragically directly relevant to what is happening in the US and elsewhere today — slowly before our very eyes, keeping at this point millions of people quarantined at home with no testing for said virus, or humane exit plan (except death for millions). This in a course I’m taking with Judith Plotz at the OLLI at AU (as after all she picked the books and authors); most of them written between the mid-1930s and not long after WW2; you see the assigned books above. I’ve not been content with these, but added to them Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues (with her rightly much admired “Winter in Abruzzi”), a book of essays on her and Peg Boyer’s extraordinarily good recreation of her autobiography; I went back to Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (which I read in Italian in the early 1990s), about If not now, when?, and Carlo Levi’s Fear of Freedom, in William Weaver’s Open City (an account of his relationship with post-war writers in Rome (these three and Ignazione Silone, Alberto Moravio, Elsa Morante).

I cannot recommend them too strongly —

The longer texts assigned were all ultimately forms of life-writing. In The Periodic Table Primo Levi retells his life through a series of ironic essay-stories which take their immediate inspiration from 21 different chemical elements, each of which allows him to tell of aspects of his life more or less chronologically, as boy and man in Northern Italy, before, during and after WW2, often seen from the aspect of him practicing his profession as a chemical engineer (this helped save him from death in the extermination camps). We meet his family, friends (Sandro and Rita who help him resist fascist culture), people he loved, whimsical utopian dreams, and (in one case) now exposes for committing without ever with understanding or acknowledging the evil enacted. We are led to see how central to our lives is chemistry. Personal stories filled with life’s troubles, philosophical reflections, whimsical irrational doings, often intertwined with his sense of an imposed alienation and stigmatizing as a Jew lead to our seeing a collective experience of humiliation and oppression lightly presented. Unusual and elusive accounts of life in a laboratory or chemist’s shop often ending in a characteristic sobering gesture. I liked especially the individual scenes, with their unexpected turns. This is a kind book by a kind man who has endured much.


Primo Levi at the New York Public Library

Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings (another translation of the book’s title) feels de-centered: she hardly ever gives us her or her family’s thoughts hidden from the collective outward life; the anecdotes are mostly about others, with her as the quietly presiding POV. Yet the book is about her life, starting with the time she has consecutive memories at age 5 to near the end of her life when she visited England with her second husband, and now somehow freed of her immediate Italian world can spill out what happened the intimate events and calamities inflicted on her family and close friends and associates as well as their relationships, achievements, losses. Family sayings are repeated phrases, words, sentences that the family uses as collective comic glue for themselves. And we can track them (as they add and subtract people) from one place to another as they move around Italy, or are forced to move, hide, become imprisoned, escape (her brother swam across a part of the Mediterranean in winter to reach unoccupied France). Part of the reason for her reticence is this is a memoir, all the people are real, and the events really happened, so she must protect them and herself. I suggest frustration at this led Boyers to write the feelings and thoughts we do surmise (we are given enough to extrapolate) in poems that give Natalia’s repressed reactions and only partly expressed critiques and celebrations full play. I loved her plain matter-of-fact style: simple sentences expect us to provide in-depth understanding as when she says of Jewish and other displaced now vulnerable peoples they are “without a country.” While the surface is prosaic, quietly telling about all sorts of interesting people (many involved in politics and literature), the underlying pattern is tragic. Boyers calls her style and tone “astringent yet passionate.” The refrain: I never saw him again (of her husband); they never saw one another again. Like Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room, she produces a portrait of humanity as seen through the lens of a personal rich Italian secular-Jewish culture — during a time of aggressive fascism.


Natalia Ginzburg

One of the unexpected pleasures of Boyers’ poems is that in elaborating, imagining Ginzburg’s relationships to a number of Italian writers mentioned and central to her book (e.g., Pavese), we get close to these.


Peg Boyers reading her poetry

Christ Stopped at Eboli is more than a poetic masterpiece; it is a political argument and ethnographic study. It covers the year he spent in internal exile — a peculiarly Italian form of imprisonment descending from the Roman period, where a person is cut off, exiled from his or her community, isolated in a remote spot and watched to keep him or her from any kind of political activity, news of the world he or she understands. (A number of the Jewish and socialist/communist literati in Italy were treated this way: Ginzburg’s memoir includes a couple of years in Abruzzi.) Carlo Levi may be said to have thoroughly internalized his exterior culture — he acts as physician (he was trained to be a doctor), paints (his vocation), writes, joins in tangentially — which culture during his sojourn expands to sympathize with these strange and victimized (for centuries) people he finds himself among, whom since the Northerners know little of them, he is determined to bring before the world of his readers (the book was written in 1946 after Mussolini fell from power). I think his conclusion that these people live in a timeless realm they cannot be plucked from wrong: they have been given no opportunity, no good choices (like the working class whites of the US), exploited by every group that has taken power over them, and the result has been seething just repressed destructive violence. (The lesson for our era is more direct in Carlo Levi’s book’s conclusions than the above books.) He compels our attention by the riveted and insightful nature of the chronological settling in and living alongside story he tells. His sister visits him at one point, and we see this world from her experienced sophisticated compassionate eyes.


Carlo Levi

Late in life both Carlo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg became directly politically involved, both as independents in the parliament with ties to the socialist parties. They wrote journalism, she worked for Einaudi all her life. Both seem to have been known by other much respected writers and artists — from Croce to Pavese and Elsa Morante. It is a small and elite world these people belong to, but one with a pro-social democracy tradition – now under threat too.

*************************************************


Movie poster

I’ve now begun the fourth author for this term, Giorgio Bassani whose Garden of the Finzi-Continis (I have the Isabel Quigly translation) has some wider fame because there was a popular movie adapted from the book. I began this autobiographical novel after reading an apparently famous meditation: “A Memorial Tablet in the Via Mazzini.” He differs from the other three by his name (no Levi), because he comes from Ferrara (the others Turin and Rome), and because his tale is of fascists. This epitomizes one of Bassani’s central themes: the moral problem of assimilation. A man whose has suffered unspeakably from the camps and seen so many friends worked to death, outright killed (probably raped — this is only very recently recorded as on Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin) sees his name as having died on a memorial plaque on a wall where there was once a synagogue. He wants to inform all that he is still living, but they are willing (good of them) to acknowledge the mistake and seemingly welcome him back, seemingly sorry for all that has happened, in fact they want him to be silent about what happened, to enable their own forgetting of the roles they played in betraying neighbors, often enough taking their furniture, their things, their property, their positions. It seems to be his moral duty to assimilate in the way demanded in order that the society can return to functioning. But is it? What happens is the one survivor refuses to pretend nothing happened, refuses to forget, demands his house and furniture back. And we see that the others (outright fascists and those who supported the fascists) want to return to the status quo that favored them after the war as well as before. They want to carry on wearing fascist costumes, acting like fascists (the partisans with their machine guns are behaving like fascists).

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis seems to be about how uUnlike the Levis in Turn), Bassani’s family in Ferrara, surrounded by fascists and sometimes fascists themselves, were not aware that they could and would be destroyed — they thought their insulated wealth protected them. This naivete is found in Olivia Manning’s depiction of a wealthy Jewish family in Bucharest in her Balkan Trilogy: with what ease the father is imprisoned, personally crushed, his property taken from his family whose best option is flight (if they can manage it).


Giorgio Bassani

The relevance here works a little differently. With the increased monopolization of all trade by a few giant corporations, the film has become one of these unaffordable super-expensive DVDS, no longer on Prime Video on Amazon (gradually such films are being removed) and available only as a blu-ray, merely now very high-priced. A 4 part film of Christ Stopped at Eboli is available only in Italian (as who would get a profit from this, so why provide translations) and at astronomical prices.

While I have my own long-time favorites in Italian poetry from the Renaissance and again the later 19th century to our own time, I’ve been introduced to new poets I hadn’t read or known about. Bassani’s style in his novel seems to be long sinewy sentences moving back and forth in time, drenched with an edgy-raw sort of nostalgia, but here is a poem by him where the emphasis falls on the here and now. The problem is what do you do when fascistic groups have taken over the land you live in and are working to do all they can to impoverish (so as to enrichen themselves) and terrify you into submission. (I cannot reprint the stanzaic form, which you can see here.)

The Racial Laws

The magnolia smack in the middle
of our Ferrara house’s garden is the very
same that reappears in almost every
book of mine

We planted it in’39
ceremoniously
just a few months after
the Racial Laws were brought to bear
it was a solemn-comical affair all of us
fairly lighthearted God permitting despite
being encumbered with the dull historical appendix
Judaism

Walled-in by four walls forewarned
Soon enough it grew
black luminous wide-rimmed
pointing decisively up towards the imminent
sky
full day
and night with grey
sparrows dusky blackbirds
unflaggingly scanned from below by pregnant
cats and by my
mother—
she too confined defenceless behind
the windowsill forever brimming
with her crumbs

Straight as a sword from its base to its tip
twenty-some years on
it overtops the neighboring roofs
beholding every bit of the city and the infinite
green space that circles it
but now somehow stumped I can guess
how it feels unsure
of a stretch up there in the heights a narrow space
in the sun
like someone at a loss
after a long journey
as to which road to take or
what to do
Giorgio Bassani, tr. James McKendrick


Felice Casorati — untitled

Ellen

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Nievo

confessioni-di-un-italiano-181x300

Dear friends and readers,

As felicitously translated by Frederick Randall, Confessions of an Italian, edited, introduced and annotated by Lucy Riall, Confessioni di un italiano (or Confessioni d’un Ottuagenario or Confessions of an Octogenarian), a profound and extraordinarily instructive 19th century novel about the risorgimento became our summer project on Trollope19thCStudies. We didn’t mean it to become that, but the book is very long, not susceptible to skimming, and so complicated, meandering in its storyline, and going through so many revolutions in so many different areas of Europe from the 1790s to nearly 1859 that it took time. It began as a suggestion by me after I read and sent to the listserv group an essay by Tim Parks, “Revolutionary Italy: The Masterwork,” NYRB (April 2, 2015) which praised the book so highly and did not honestly tell some of its flaws and problems.

It does live up to Parks’s promise in this way: it is a sort of alternative to Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, which those who read 19th century novels will have heard of, and perhaps read, an equally long novel set in the 17th century, a sort of cross between Walter Scott and Victor Hugo. Unlike Nievo’s novel, it is set in the past, and does not begin to touch on revolutionary issues openly. Nievo’s book was published posthumously, and because it was radical in its approach (even to call yourself an Italian was problematic), it never achieved the circulation, much less the translations Manzoni’s work did. Randall’s translation may be the first to make the book readable to an English reader. See Angela Scordo-Polidori, “Beyond good and evil: Pisana and the birth of the Italian nation.” Italica 91.3 (2014): 343+, an essay on why, how the book was repressed, retitled, marginalized.

risorgimento
19th century Italian history painting – probably a depiction of Garibaldi

Here are a group of reviews which do justice to its finest qualities as well as suggesting that you do need to have an interest and some knowledge of Italy, the 19th century world of revolution, and willingness to meander, a love of meditative reading to enjoy it. One offers a summary which I’m going to attempt (briefly I promise) too. Dacia Maraini, a good 20th century novelist, lists and describes it as among the great novels of 19th century Italy, in the way that Trollope used to be discussed for 19th century English novels. And a Thackerayan blogger (who must have patience if he reads Thackeray’s lesser known historical fiction, to say nothing of Pendennis which I never finished) found it something of a chore: Wuthering Expectations.

I admit that each time I put it down, having finished the very long chapter or (as we got towards the end) couple of chapters for the week before, was not enthusiastic to start up again, as I didn’t feel compelled by a forward thrusting story nor did I become intensely involved with individual characters who lasted sufficiently — I kept preferring characters who would be killed off, or twisted into repressed people (like Clara, turned into a nun), or who’d disappear into flight or exile. It was too masculinist: women, our narrator asserts, exist to give birth to men, love to be nurses to men, all self-sacrifice, and their surprisingly free sexual lives must be kept hidden by him (for fear not just of the contemporary reader at the time, but as part of a code of not telling truths about women’s lives today). But I was startled to learn the heroine, who I didn’t like much, was a TV character in a program on Italian TV, is today the source of feminist controversy about the book: La Pisano is seen as standing for Italy itself. See Stephanie Hom Cary, “‘Patria’-otic Incarnations and Italian Character: discourses of nationalism in Ippolito Nievo’s Confessioni d’un Italiano.” Italica 84.2-3 (2007):214+.

TVprogram

Then each time I’d pick it up, I’d become involved again, interested, wanting to read Carlino’s thoughts, learn more of this ancien regime world (to which we kept returning) as the Castle of Fratto in Venice. A world recreated and evoked ironically and so vividly in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which I read in the Italian as Il Gattopardo. Lampedusa’s novella might be read as an ironic coda to this book of revolution: here’s what the people turned to afterward. And then the revolutionary struggles, and then Napoleonic (a sort of Stendhal Julien Sorel world is evoked in some of Italy), and then the rigorismento and then reactionary regimed world of failed wars (Byron turns up, we spend time in Greece and Turkey). At each turn each group which ended up in charge (and it felt like musical chairs) turned out to be utterly self-centered, corrupt. The few idealists (like Garibaldi) were wished away, not helped deliberately. I’d soar with his meditations: thoughts on shadows of the mind, imagination, time and memory — to the point I bought myself the edition in a Pleiade-like Italian text (with much fuller and better notes, and an introduction by Marcella Goria which made the book pertinent today).

Arguably there are twelve different novels at least trying to get out, sometimes for a stretch a story which should have taken far more pages to come to life, or deep anguish is there and passed over. The first volume sets the scene at length: the world of the castle the boy grows up in, the destructive legacy. The second volume, the large perspective of the cities and movements across Italy, with the new arrangements of the 1830s, all collapsing ending in many deaths, exiles, women married off, gambling, in nunneries. Volume 3, the reaction and concluding wars and resolutions of the 1850s, including a long section taking place in America (south) where we see colonialism from the standpoint of settler colonialists. The author returned to war and died before he could revise. He is writing out of fear he would soon be killed. He saw all these people around him being ferociously slaughtered – and he records this fictionally. He wishes he could live to 80 but does not think he can and the book is his wish-fulfillment to live.

*********************
castello-di-tricano
Castello di Tricano

A few notes:

The narrator is an old man of 80 looking back to where he grew up as a child. He was a menial servant, a bastard nephew (his mother’s marriage a kind of Jane Eyre story where she dies in the streets after rebelling against an arranged marriage) in a great castle-house in the land just outside Venice. All the facets and types of the great house and its liens. There is a sophisticated in his understanding of the underbelly of political groups in charge, of the under-groups for position n household, in larger offices, in the countryside, and we are shown how in the end it’s the individual’s personal interests that makes him decide to do this or that.

I cannot begin to survey the characters. One of my favorite characters was Lucilio Vianello, a well read sensitive type, a reader, whose father makes him a doctor, and who eventually has to flee to England to remain alive (perhaps modeled on Mazzini) — his story early on has a biting satire on medicine at the time. Gradually a three sets of lovers emerge, and they (like Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, change with an era, play different but not unexpected roles, have children and their children children. The book’s undertow is deeply melancholy. We see how the Venetian curia and other Italian regional leaders retained power through their use of violence, prisons, egregious taxes; how the church kept its stranglehold on thought, families their place by ruthless use of arranged marriages. The matriarch spends her life gambling. A story of a smuggler, someone who began by trying to evade the horrendous taxes, harassed and hounded by the judiciary, the thugs who are looking for a Scott-like mysterious person on a horse, he dwindles into a hanger-on at the castle, who understands the tightening nooses around others and is protected not because he’s personally liked, but again for what he stands for. The way of life in the cities and great houses, in the peasant countryside, and why people cling to it, of Italian catholicism and its hypocrisies, a sharp sceptical light playing over everything (from gambling casinos to inward passionate natures. How men with groups of thugs backing them up is finally the basis for much local power, given legitimacy by laws, prisons. Some of the analogies with what happens are with today’s military oligarchy, its use of torture, with Austria-Hungary as the colonialist power.

Again and again Nievo has in mind an Italian great book, or poem, and is writing a story or producing a character which is a modern revitalization of the older type — Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Foscolo, then minor types too, like Melusine. In the 19th century — and today too — poor people’s children led hard lives. We have this deeply romantic sequence of the boy escaping to the landscape and his dreams of himself as a hero with an utterly transgressive and endlessly deceitful) La Pisano as his beloved, a twist on the Daphnis and Chloe, Paul et Virginie scenario. We hear of the English romantic poets in their lairs too. This is the romantic period.

La Pisano is an Armida where we are shown the hypocrisy of the Venetian culture. Yet Carlino appears to accept the marriage of La Pisano to an old corrupt man and accept her liaison with an officer, Miniato. Then he rejoices when she leaves these people out of boredon and also disgust at their political behavior. She flees to him and they have a renewal of days of love. More troubling: he insists not only has she remained a virgin since marriage (or chaste), she has never fucked. I must use that word because there is every indication that lots of foreplay is what she repeatedly has indulged herself, all the men she has known, and Carlino too. This sick point of view that without genital intercourse sex doesn’t matter and one remains chaste is what we have seen in our own culture publicly more than once (if fucking is deniable) and is found in books from Richardson’s Pamela to the worst porn. When she visits Clara she lies endlessly. Carlino talks about honor and propriety as a surface thing so their living together is shameful only if it’s known. Elena Ferrante’s choice of anonymity has a long historical context.

19thcenturyItalian
19th century Italian school

The relationship between Carlino and his father is as problematic for a 20th century reader: the man deserted him, and first turns up well into Volume 2; it seems that is just what happened, no close parental nurturing is expected; the father is still this numinous figure partly because he comes across with money, partly because he enacts physical bravery. Children were expected to abase themselves; this is one of several areas Nievo never questions personally as Carlino. There are epistolary sections to carry us back and forward in time in these kinds of sudden non-explorations. The final section includes a long diary-journal. It’s a book which crosses waters and lagoons.

It’s structured as Carlino emerging from and then returning home, and then emerging again to join this and that group, a brief arduous quest, meeting world-historical people (from Napoleon to then famous generals and political leaders), and then collapse. On and off in the book he and La Pisano live together; at one point to save their lives they must flee to England, he is badly wounded, weak, so she turns into a beggar-prostitute to support them, and grows ill (TB) and dies. She has persuaded him into an arranged marriage, which at first seems equable but his wife is anything but an idealist, and their several children lead very different lives (from utopianist, to entrepreneurial careerist, to someone in retreat as a close son, a daughter, an exile who keeps slaves and dies abroad), only 2 out of 6 surviving to the end ….

*************************

aj-woolmer-venise
One of the novel’s romantic covers

In one section close to the book’s end: Count Raimondo (this is the heir to Castle of Fratto) finally writes a book that has been long in birth: A Historical Analysis of Venetian Trade. The whole section is unusually comic, especially to someone who has written anything today, published or self-published a book, endured all the joys and trials and tribulations of the early writing, the attempts to obtain a publisher and their grating refusals, and then somehow publish it. In Raimondo’s case he finally self-publishes (does it by subscription). Then he reads reviews of it, and discovers most of the reviews hardly bothered to read it (at least with any care), that the reviewers copy one another and not to accurately so that by the ninth copied-out half-review the book’s real tone and interests is wholly lost. Few are interested in anything but what happens today so eventually people say they’d like to read it for help in modern trade. The title is a satire on Venice’s power. What struck me most was how little has changed since the mid-19th century — I could recognize so many behaviors I’ve seen today.

I am a very unusual reviewer not necessarily for reading a book, but reading it carefully and writing a genuinely descriptive and analytical review. I sometimes think in self-satire that I do this because I’ve nothing better to do with my life. I didn’t have the problems of publishing — that came from the famous person Raimondo couldn’t seem to harness (in my case John Letts) but much of the rest of the process I experienced. Tyler wrote: “I loved all the stuff about Count Rinaldo trying to get his enormous book published – I wondered whether Nievo was trying to prophesy about how his own book’s publication would go … Some experiences haven’t changed much in the book publishing world in the last 150 or so years [since the rise of a literary marketplace and all its types of people]. We have the author presenting an indirect mirror of the way he supposes his book might get into print and be treated. Alas he didn’t live to do it – and as he seems to fear his own death there is poignancy in this section too.

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mantova-ippolito-nievo-carlo-cerati
A statue of Nievo in Mantua

The book is more relevant to us today than Tolstoy’s War and Peace to which I’d compare it. Its strength is its candour about how power works, who has it, groups of thugs as behind it, and in the end its depiction women. The history. Tyler wrote: “It almost reads like a long dream, nearly a nightmare, from which we eventually hope to awake and find a unified Italy.” It’s a much darker and despairing book than is being structured into the plot-design. It needed revision to bring out its more nihilistic apprehensions. Nievo wants a unified Italy but no where is there any sense that any place or group of people who will support this. Its great weakness is its important characters are insufficiently realized.

This from a 1906 enthusiastic review of the book by Kennardon (Italian Romance Writers, Brentano, 159-92):

Each phase in the life of Carlo Altoviti answers to an historical period; each stage of the national evolution corresponds with a crisis in his life. His childhood is spent in the midst of the obsolete feudal Venetian world, in the Frioul … No history could present a more accurate or more vivid description of the political and social life in the Italian Venezia, during [the] early years of the nineteenth century, than this romance of Nievo’s…. But it is more than a history of a political movement, more than a vivid picture of the social life of the times. [It may be read as] a psychological study; full of reality, power, and modernity. It lives!”

Germaine de Stael was the first writer to produce a treatise arguing that a particular text (say a novel) mirrored and explored, was a piece of the national culture it came out of. Before that people didn’t think of or discuss texts in that way. Another innovative aspect of Nievo’s book is he is doing just that (for more on this Nicolaek Iliescu, The Position of Ippolito Nievo in the Nineteenth-Century Italian Novel, PMLA, 75:3 [Jun., 1960]:272-282).

The listserv we read the book on being one usually devoted to Anthony Trollope, I’ll conclude: we might think of Trollope’s short story about the “Last Austrian who left Venice” as another coda to this novel. It takes place towards the close of the Austrian occupation and during its short span, a revolution is fought, and the Austrians ejected. Our heroine who decides she loves an Austrian officer must leave with him if she is to be his wife. Her brother and mother stay in Venice, loyal to their new national and old Venetian identities. If Lampedusa ironically shows us the same upper class groups are still in charge, and everyone still loving the old castle-countryside culture, Trollope brings home to us how important it is that different peoples forced to live together in an militarily occupied country genuinely come together, and that individuals hold fiercely to a social identity even when they see how it is imposed while resisting the thwarting of individual fulfillment. Nievo’s modernity is in line with Trollope’s.

piazza-flaminio
A 19th century image of the occupation of Venice

Ellen

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