Features May 2004
Giovanni Verga’s verismo
On the Italian realist novelist.
. . . il vero
dell' aspra sorte e del depresso loco
che natura ci die . . .
—Leopardi, La Ginestra
Italy, a late united nation, lagged too in producing a modern narrative literature. That had to wait till the twentieth century. She did nevertheless produce two outstanding if very different novelists in the nineteenth century: Alessandro Manzoni, whose I Promessi Sposi (“The Betrothed”), written in the 1820s, is a vivid, discursively narrated work of Romantic historism; and Giovanni Verga, writing toward the end of the century, the chief figure of Italian verismo and one of the great European realists, though little recognized outside his own country. D. H. Lawrence, who admired both writers and translated three of the latter’s books, asked—complained—back in the 1920s: “Who still reads them, even (outside the classroom) in Italy?” You can ask the same question today. In 1947 Visconti made a movie, La Terra Trema, out of Verga’s I Malavoglia (known in English as “The House by the Medlar Tree”), filming it in the very Sicilian fishing village—Aci-Trezza—that is the setting of the novel. Yet the postwar fascination with Italy and the neo-realist Italian movies and novels, for which the realist Verga was an inspiration, didn't make him better known abroad; he remains an obscure figure. This has its good side, because reading Verga is to experience the shock and pleasure of unfamiliar great writing. The big names of nineteenth-century prose narrative come preceded by a marching band of reference, allusion, and criticism; you seem to know them before you know them. But Verga, about whom one has known little or nothing, is news.
Giovanni Verga was born in 1840 into a landowning family in the city of Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, almost in the shadow of Etna. He began to write early. In 1865 he departed for the mainland, first to Florence and then Milan. A young provincial, he was entranced by metropolitan excitements: high society, love affairs, art, journalism, literature. Fashionable life—fashionable sexual life—provided much of the matter for his early efforts as a novelist, which tended toward the insipid. But he hadn’t shaken the dust of his native island from his feet. Sicily began to intrude itself into his work. This was a time in which the young writers of Italy, where the old rhetorical traditions were still strong, were responding excitedly to the new ideas of French realism and naturalism exemplified by Flaubert, the Goncourts, and Zola. Especially Zola’s example moved Verga (but Verga’s realism is not at all Zolaesque). And at the end of the 1870s one of literature's many miracles occurred. A hitherto mediocre writer renounced a shallow subject matter and a traditional style to write a series of vivid, violent short stories and two novels about the abysmally poor, primitive Sicilian life in the midst of which he had grown up.
If Verga’s realism took its lead from France, that doesn’t mean he was a country cousin trailing after “the literary smarties in Paris” (Lawrence’s phrase). Verga sounded his own note. Sounded is the right word for a style that echoed his characters’ own speech—was their own speech. With his laconic narrative art he anticipated a later time; with his peasant stories he echoed as early a time as Boccaccio’s. The nineteenth century on the whole was long-winded, slow-paced, descriptive, achieving its masterpieces by a fullness (often fatness) of exposition. That is one way. Verga’s was the way of brevity, an intense abruptness striving for absolute impersonality—because any trace of the author’s presence was “the mark of original sin.” Of course such absolute impersonality is impossible. But a repudiation of the self-delighting fine writing of the Italian rhetorical tradition—that was possible.
Italy before her unification in 1860 was a backward country with a supercivilized past. Her upper classes looked northwards beyond the Alps in emulation of the civilization of northern Europe. And following the Risorgimento she modernized quickly—that is, the Italian north did. Yet what independence and unification revealed was that the south, the glorious south of ancient times, was stuck fast in semi-feudal sloth and squalor. Among the educated classes of the north, two main ways of looking at the south emerged. This is now the subject of an interesting study, The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question, by Nelson Moe.1 One way saw the Italian south as fascinatingly picturesque, full of the romantic charm of a remote part of the world left behind by time. The other, realistic way, of which Professor Moe makes out two branches, saw it as almost another country, primitive, nasty, miserable, with Italy south of Naples or even Rome being regarded as where Africa began. This Italian south cried out for modernization. But another kind of realism saw its primitivism as an uncorrupted, more authentic, more vital life. The great Italophile Stendhal praised Italy as a place where greed and generosity, tenderness and violence, passionate love and passionate hatred were still freely expressed; in The Charterhouse of Parma, he jeered at his fellow Frenchmen whose civilization had left them only one remaining passion, the one for “money, which gave them the means to strut about importantly.” In Italy itself he distinguished between the civilized north and the region south of the Tiber where “you’ll find the energy and exuberance of savages.” This “question” of the south was a matter of lively discussion in the intellectual circles of Milan in which Verga moved.
This “question” of the south was a matter of lively discussion in the intellectual circles of Milan in which Verga moved.
He dealt with the question in an early story, “Fantasticheria” (translated by D. H. Lawrence as “Caprice”). It is addressed to a Milanese society lady by the Sicilian narrator who had been her lover-guide on a trip to the island. Her caprice was, when seeing from their railroad car the fishing village of Aci-Trezza, framed like a picture in the train window, to say, How pretty it looks, how nice it would be to spend a month down there. So down they went with her mountain of luggage. In two days’ time she was bored to death and left. Close up, Aci-Trezza lost all its picturesque charm. Her lover too couldn’t have pleased her much, for with gentle mercilessness he exposes her bourgeois blindness to the humanity of the Sicilian poor, her triviality of mind and occupations.
“Fantasticheria” is less interesting as a story than as an introduction to his remarkable first collection, Vita dei Campi (“Life in the Fields”); among these are “The She-Wolf,” “Rosso Malpelo,” “Ieli [the Herdboy]” and “Cavalleria Rusticana”—all works taut with Verga's narrative intensity. Three of these four stories end with dire retribution for sexual violation. The brilliantly told “She-Wolf” has something of a classical suggestion in its tragic movement. The She-Wolf is called that by the village women because, a kind of maenad with her “arrogant breasts,” coal-black eyes, and red lips, always roaming about, she has devoured “all their sons and husbands” and even the village priest, insatiably. The story’s few pages, which cover a lot of barely indicated time, don’t produce an effect of speed but rather of deliberateness, inexorability—that is, tragedy. Behind the She-Wolf hovers the shadow of the classical-romantic figure of the Fatal Woman: Clytemnestra, Vittoria Corombona, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The She-Wolf, indeed all the characters, speak an Italian whose colloquialisms and touches of dialect make the language more theirs than the author’s. Everything is seen—heard—from close up, in the midst of things; there is no narrative remove. Verga’s Italian realism has a lyrical quality. Sometimes Flaubert’s realism, sometimes Zola’s naturalism are touched with poetry; in Verga it isn't a touch, it’s an element. And this poetical element allows freer admittance to the shadow of the Belle Dame lurking behind the She-Wolf, and behind the Belle Dame, Eve, and behind Eve, even farther back, Lilith. A peasant tragedy of carnal love, “The She-Wolf” doesn’t lack the emotions of pity and fear. Yet they are muffled by the apparent neutrality of the story’s telling, which only adds to its force.
The tragic carnal of “The She-Wolf” changes to the tragic pastoral of “Ieli.” This story is told a little less dispassionately because of Verga’s fondness for the protagonist, his endearing herdboy, who lives out in the fields with the horses he herds, and whose innocence and goodness go back before the Fall. Thanks to his friendship with Don Alfonso, a gentleman's son, and Mara, a farmer's child, whom Ieli adores, his hard childhood is happy. The three children enjoy an idyllic companionship wandering the countryside. The novella darkens as it moves through the vicissitudes of Ieli’s life to culminate in catastrophe. Mara, palmed off as a wife on the guileless, still adoring shepherd (as he now is) because her reputation has been lost for “carrying on” with Don Alfonso, continues to carry on. Such falsehood seems impossible to Ieli. But when he sees Mara walk into the arms of Don Alfonso to dance with him at a sheep-shearing feast, the truth overwhelms him. With a single stroke he cuts Don Alfonso's throat, just as he had cut two kids’ throats a minute before for the feast. The few words of the conclusion bring one up short with their revelation of how things that torture our consciousness were self-evident to a simpler time.
Brought before the judge, Ieli says, “What! How shouldn’t I have killed him? He’d taken Mara!”
“Tragedy seems to be the cathartic element which is necessary whenever human values must be saved,” Giovanni Cecchetti writes in his introduction to his Verga translation, The She-Wolf and Other Stories (1973). Nanni, a returned soldier, defends himself and his family—the all important Sicilian family—against the She-Wolf, and against himself, by killing her. Gentle as Ieli is, he kills to expiate a perfidious violation of friendship and marriage. Behind Verga’s imperturbability is a warm, a beating heart. That is not the case with Flaubert; behind the objectivity of Zola you find a heart that beats too, but for social justice. Impersonal Verga differs from impersonal Flaubert and impersonal Zola in being, really, personal.
The underlying emotion of these first two stories is pity, tragic pity; of the third, the shattering “Rosso Malpelo,” pitifulness. You would think pitifulness less profound than tragic pity, even when it is hardly the pity of a King Lear. Yet the infinite sadness of “Rosso Malpelo” is more harrowing than the pity of “The She-Wolf” and “Ieli.” But no—I feel that the tragic fury of carnal desire in “The She-Wolf” yields only a little in emotional force to the very different, unpurged desolation of “Rosso Malpelo.” The boy whose nickname gives that story its title is called malpelo (“evil-haired”) because he has red hair, and he has red hair because he’s wicked and malicious—“an ugly thing, a surly, sullen brat whom everybody avoided, that you gave a kick to when he got too close.” The “you” speaking here are the Sicilian villagers whose men go down into an underground quarry to dig sand (as Malpelo and other children do too). It is their voices, a cruel village chorus—and also Malpelo’s own voice—that give the story its hard sound: the boy’s voice too because he has accepted into himself the village’s view of him. “[K]nowing he was malpelo, he tried to live up to that name”; if anything went wrong he was to blame, and even if he wasn’t he was, because it was just the kind of thing a malpelo would do. You see, “I’m malpelo,” he says, almost boastfully. The only affection ever shown him was by his father, who was called the Jackass and half shut out from the village by contempt, as his son is completely shut out by revulsion and fear. The father, working overtime, dies under a sand fall he should never have exposed himself to, just like a jackass. The people hardly bestir themselves to rescue him. The boy howls with terror and grief, digging the sand like a madman to find his buried parent. The miners have to drag the crazy creature away by his hair.
How simply the story is told. As James Wood writes in an excellent essay, “The Unwinding Stair,” it seems to have the simpleness of the unclothed, unselfconscious ages. “Rosso Malpelo” is also not simple. It has a doubleness. There is the surface text, the words of the village chorus, which is betrayed by the under-text. This duplicity isn't always easy to interpret. Professor Moe says that Malpelo is wholly “committed to the . . . violence and oppression in which he lives. There is little that is charming or pleasant about him.” Wood, among other, more sympathetic words, says he is “a vicious, pathetic, feral child. . . . Certainly he is nasty.”
Cruelly treated, the boy is cruel in turn—or so it seems.
Cruelly treated, the boy is cruel in turn—or so it seems. Verga turned the story—or I should say its language—over to the villagers. It’s the latter’s judgment that we hear. When the text uses the third person, it isn’t the auctorial third person but the third person of “free indirect discourse,” what German aestheticians were the first to identify as erlebte Rede: the thoughts, sentiments, intentions, etc., etc., of the characters—here the village collectivity—given in their own words. They are “free” to say how they understand things. And their understanding of the filthy, ragged, skulking Malpelo is pitiless. What has lack of charm and pleasantness got to do with Malpelo’s terrible story—or his supposedly being feral? He’s not the savage one, the people of the village are.
Yes, he beats the poor stumbling pit donkey mercilessly, saying “This way you’ll die sooner!” But we come to understand these words better at the end of the story. “He certainly felt a strange pleasure in remembering the ill treatment . . . they had made his father bear, and the way they had let him die.” Is it a strange pleasure for a son to remember with hatred the abuse suffered by the father he loved, the indifference shown to his fate?
“Out of refined cruelty he seemed to have made himself the protector of a poor little [new] boy,” a hobbling cripple whom the miners call the Frog. When the Frog whines under a heavy load, Malpelo scolds and hits him—it is his harsh way of encouraging him to be brave and strong. “Beat the donkey with all your might, as he would beat you if he could,” is the kind of advice Malpelo gives Frog. But he also helps Frog with work too hard for him, buys the sickly boy wine and hot soup, carries him on his back, visits him when he is dying. This is what the communal voice calls “refined cruelty.”
After Gray the donkey had died, Malpelo and Frog went to look at the carcass—a kind of memorial visit. “See those ribs of Gray? Now he doesn’t suffer any more. . . . No more! No more! . . . But it would have been better for him if he had never been born.” Here Malpelo echoes a sentiment you find expressed from Sophocles to Auden. Behind his beating the donkey lurked some kind of thought that he was hastening the kindness of death. “If [Malpelo himself] was beaten, it didn’t matter . . . to him, for when he would become like Gray or like Frog, he wouldn't feel anything any more.”
Of no account because without family, he is the one sent to explore the mine’s perilous winding passages. One day, as he knew must happen, as had happened to others, he doesn’t return. Even if he didn’t look forward to it, he had accepted that death was an end to suffering. Against the social reality of his world, where man is a wolf to man, Rosso Malpelo, the surly, sullen brat, who loved his father and was kind to poor Frog, had struggled without help, in ignorance, in the only way he knew, to assert human generosity and love.
The communal chorus Verga had discovered as the narrative form for “Rosso Malpelo” he carried over to his novel I Malavoglia (“The House by the Medlar Tree”) on a greatly enlarged scale. It has a cast of fifty characters, the natives of the poor fishing village of the already mentioned Aci-Trezza. All are individuals with names (and nicknames), have individual voices that shout and whisper, hold forth and denounce, murmur and mutter, wail and weep and laugh—a medley that rises and falls like the sound of the sea at their door. Within this vocal world the novel tells the story of the fall of one family, Malavoglia, overwhelmed by misfortune after misfortune, honorable, well-intentioned people (in contradiction to the “ill will” of their name). Behind Verga’s deadpan, you detect a looking back to an older, nobler time, as Leopardi did, in disaffection with “progress.”
Italians count The House by the Medlar Tree Verga’s masterpiece. It is strikingly original in its language and structure. The best translatioin of it that I know is by Raymond Rosenthal (who translated Primo Levi’s Periodic Table so brilliantly). Yet his English fails, it seems to me, to catch the choral character of I Malavoglia. In the Italian the village chorus is literally a chorus, musical, poem-like—so Rosenthal and the Italian critics describe it. But how can English syllables catch that Mediterranean music, flavored with dialect and resounding on almost every page, Sancho Panza-like, with proverbs that are almost impossible to bring over in any true-sounding form? In English what you hear is a confusion of names and voices, cacophonous rather than choral, wearisome even after you learn by rereading to find your way about in it. You can catch a sense of gaiety in the village noisiness, however, and a rough humor.
The pathetic story of the Malavoglia family, in English, teeters on the edge of sentimentality. Lawrence wrote that the novel “is rather overdone on the pitiful side. . . . Just knock off about twenty per cent of the tragedy in I Malavoglia and see what a great book remains.” What would you knock off first? Certainly the young Malavoglia daughter going wrong in the big city (let her get into some other kind of trouble!); then you would have your choice of smaller bits and pieces. But that would still leave Master 'Ntoni, the patriarchal head of the family, at the center of the novel, and he is a bit of a Mr. Peggotty. In Verga’s own language, so Italian critics claim, he is able to avoid sentimentality. Perhaps so—language is crucial with Verga. I don’t know enough Italian to have an opinion. And as I can’t hear, and therefore feel, and therefore know the novel in its vital vocal texture, I’ll cut off my discussion of it here.
Verga followed The House by the Medlar Tree with his other major long fiction, the very different Mastro-Don Gesualdo.
Verga followed The House by the Medlar Tree with his other major long fiction, the very different Mastro-Don Gesualdo (1889). No “choral novel,” it tells its story in a more or less familiar nineteenth-century style. And it is different too in its moral feeling. The Malavoglia have the heroism of endurance in the face of misfortune, loss, and poverty. Their ethic of family and work invigorates their struggle to live, gives it emotional and moral purpose. In Mastro-Don Gesualdo Verga shifts his attention from poor fisher people to the gentry-aristocracy of a rural town. And not a soul among these highborn (or the town’s lowborn) has anything the least bit fine or brave about him—or her: what horrors the women are! All is greed, motive-and money-calculation; vanity, envy, and fear. This is Verga’s verismo (verità, the truth) for fair.
Don Gesualdo has climbed up from ragged, hod-carrying poverty to be the richest man in the region. He is a better person than his fellow townsmen, when his greed allows him, but he is undone by marrying into the aristocracy. Of course they despise him. He dies in the end sick and unregarded in the wing of the palazzo of a polite, ice-cold Palermo duke who had married Gesualdo’s daughter, or rather his money.
Why should the novel’s subject—a Maestro (a skilled worker, Gesualdo had been a stone mason) among the Dons—seem paltry and dreary, though surely interesting enough? Did Verga not have his heart in writing about the gentry? Was it written out of his head, unlike his peasant stories, as the second step in his Zolaesque project (abortive) to achieve a five-novel series that would go up the ladder of Sicilian society? There are flashes of the sun-tortured, stony, glaring Sicilian countryside, and one longish episode, when taking refuge from the cholera, in which greenery, flowers, and fruit contest the grayness, not to much avail. There is something, too, repellent about the novel. Not because its people are repellent—a novel with disgusting people can be fascinating; I cite the extreme example of Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome. Mastro-Don Gesualdo has plenty of truth, verità, but truth from which artistic spiritedness, grace, are absent.
Very different, with their highly developed art of simplicity, is his Novelle Rusticane (“Country Tale”  or Little Novels of Sicily in Lawrence's translation). These, with the stories of Life in the Fields, put Verga, I believe, in the front rank of short-story writers. The country tales being mostly about peasants, Verga is at home with his material. One story, however, is about the gentry and begins so:
They know how to read and write—that’s the trouble. The white frost of dark winter dawns and the burning dog days of harvest time fall upon them as upon every other poor devil, since they’re made of flesh and blood like their fellow men, and since they’ve got to go out and watch to see that their fellow man doesn’t rob them of his time and his day’s pay. But if you have anything to do with them, they hook you by . . . the beak of that pen of theirs, and then you'll never get your name out of their ugly books ever again.
There is no lack of spirit in this writing, maybe because he is writing about gentry fallen into poverty and troubles so that their class brutality has been humbled enough for him to pity them: Don Giovannino is sold up for debt, hiding his face for shame; Don Marco’s fields are obliterated by lava pouring down from Etna; Don Piddu finds his dowerless daughter in the arms of a stable boy, and for a second sees his sick wife, magistrates, the police drowning in a “sea of blood.” Don Piddu is counselled by his confessor “to offer his [loud] anguish to God.” And this provokes the narrator to conclude the story, most unusually, with a comment of his own: “But what the priest should really have said to Don Piddu was: You see, your honor, when the same trouble falls on other poor folks they keep quiet, because they are poor, and can't read and write, and can’t let out what they feel without getting sent to the galleys.”
“The Gentry,” “Malaria,” “Property,” “Liberty”—if you knew nothing more about them than their titles, you’d think they were essays. Indeed in a certain sense they are: non-dramatic story-essays that arrive through their concrete, realistic matter at a general truth. In “The Gentry” the narrator himself, as we’ve just seen, speaking as a village priest would speak, points the moral. Such a moralizing of narrative is old, the realism of the representation new.
In “Property,” Mazzarò, once a poor peasant his boss of a baron used to kick in the pants, amasses a huge amount of it (including all of the baron’s), hardly pausing even to eat. When old and ailing and reminded to forget property and think about his soul, Mazzarò rushes out into the courtyard like a madman and kills his ducks and turkeys so as to possess them still. He had laid up treasures on earth which resisted the corruption of moth and rust, but not flesh that would resist the corruption of time. Verga doesn't hesitate to find for his tales truths as old as those in the Sermon on the Mount.
Some of these tales seem to me perfection of their kind. “The Orphans” is a masterpiece, of an unsurpassed art of simplicity. It recalls Isaac Babel, but is not outdone by him, not outdone by anyone writing in his mode of narrative. In it the inconsolable Meno has just lost his second wife, a treasure, whose like he'd never find again, who wouldn't let him call the doctor for her, who got up the day before she died to see to the foal just weaned, who didn’t wash herself so as not to dirty water, who took care of him like a servant, who loved his little girl by his first wife because she was her niece, and whose dowry he'd have to give back because they'd had no children—was there ever anybody so unfortunate? The women surrounding him try to reassure him but he can’t be reassured, they offer him a bite which he can’t eat but eats, they are already scheming to find him his third wife (and do). But it is impossible to give an idea of the story’s now strong, now subtle shades of feeling, of its significant trivial details, of its calm, pitying, humorous sense of the eternal onward going of human life.
Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Leopard claimed to speak for Sicily, eternal Sicily. In Verga’s strong light the flimflammery, the clichés, the hoity-toityness of that glittery work seem especially clear.
Verga was an Italian patriot, liberal in his political sentiments like many another.
What kind of realism is Verga’s verismo? If we apply Erich Auerbach’s definition of modern mimesis to him, what do we find? That definition requires three things: the serious treatment of everyday reality; the serious representation of the socially inferior; all shown against the background, as part, of contemporary historical change. Verga’s work satisfies the first two requirements, but not the third, of historical fluidity, of a matrix of constant contemporary historical movement. His narratives do have their small indications of the changes taking place in Sicily in the nineteenth century, for example: Garibaldi’s red-shirted soldiers who had just overthrown Bourbon rule reestablishing law and order—reestablishing the way things had always been—in a revolted villages as recounted in “Liberty”; or the military conscription instituted by the Piedmontese Victor Emmanuele II, implied in “The She-Wolf” by Nanni’s being a returned soldier. Yet these are indirect indications of matters which exist on the periphery of Verga’s Sicilian peasant world, to which he gives no weight. What does he give weight to?
Verga was an Italian patriot, liberal in his political sentiments like many another. But unlike many another, as a writer, he ignores all questions of reform, amelioration, politics, desirable social change. His Sicily is eternal, essentially the same under the Piedmontese as under the Bourbons. The peasantry he paints are engaged in the eternal struggle to live of a beset humanity, not Sicilians slowly emerging into the modern world, emigrating to America, forming into parties, soon to die in a world war, etc. etc. His representation of the oppressed Sicilian peasantry isn’t liberal-progressive but Christian (and anticlerical, like Boccaccio’s). Raymond Rosenthal quotes him as saying that it is “by listening, only listening, that one learns to write.” Verga listened, as a genius listens, with a profound commiseration that reached deeper than politics or sociology ever can.
New to The New Criterion?
Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.Subscribe
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 9, on page 18
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com