An Arid Heart
by Carlo Cassola, translated by William Weaver
Pantheon, 219 pp., $4.95
by Leonardo Sciascia, translated by Archbald Colquhoun
Knoph, 122 pp., $3.95
If anyone wanted a proof that still today there are two Italys, the Italy of the automobile and the Italy of the donkey, he could do no better than read these novels together. Cassola writes about the north, the “middle-class” life of a calm, pleasure-seeking society; Sciascia about Sicily which is like the Roman campagna of a hundred years ago as Stendhal described it, a haunting opera land of passions and baroque lies that seems half oriental.
Carlo Cassola is a workmanlike novelist who accepts the provinciality of European countries today by confining himself to a province of a province; in An Arid Heart this is the Tuscan seacoast between Marina and Leghorn. He is essentially a Flaubertian writer, minutely painstaking, with a style muted to the level of the lives of pedestrian people. You could hardly make a character like Charles Bovary interesting unless you were Flaubert, so one is not kept awake with excitement over An Arid Heart.
Anna and Bice, two orphaned sisters, are brought up by an unmarried aunt who works as a seamstress in a growing seaside resort (the time is before World War II). Seasons pass, the “summer people,” who are another race, come and go, Anna has no feelings for the local boy who wants to marry her, and despises the girls who go with the visitors. Eventually she and Bice both fall in love with Mario, a young man doing his military service at Marina. He jilts Bice for Anna, and Anna encourages him to make love to her. When Mario goes away, Anna—though she wants nobody else—eventually falls for a worthless young man in Cecina, the nearest town, and becomes his mistress. As she doesn’t love him, the adventure soon comes to an end, but when Mario writes to her from America proposing marriage, she answers by telling him the whole story, though knowing that the truth will put an end to their relationship.
The core of An Arid Heart is the molten sea and the beaches and pinewoods of this piece of coast, with the railway running in and out of tunnels between unattractive shapeless towns like Cecina and Leghorn. Cassola puts his story back before 1939 when “getting brown” was not yet obsessive and the beach-revolution, which now employs hundreds of thousands of professional Tarzans and amateur Bardots, was only just beginning. It was then still possible for a girl like Anna to fall back on well-worn simplicities of nature.
If Cassola tries to follow Flaubert’s footsteps along a provincial strip of seaside, Sciascia is an Orwellian. He has adopted the form of fiction, and has written a first-class story of suspense, almost a thriller. But his aim is a moral one, he wants to bring home to his readers what it is like to be a Sicilian under the mafia. As his translator says in an introductory note, “This book has little need for a preface, since it is, as it were, a close-up …