Salt in the Wound
The Man Who Plays Alone
A Passion for Sicilians: The World Around Danilo Dolci
There is no doubt in my mind that one of the few living Italian novelists of the first rank writing today, perhaps the best of all, is the Sicilian Leonardo Sciascia. This statement is not so bold as it sounds. The competition has lately become weak and scarce. Most well-known contemporary Italian novelists have stopped writing serious books for a variety of reasons: some are dead (like Pavese and the other two Sicilians, Vittorini and Tomasi di Lampedusa); some alive but resting on their oars (like Silone, Moravia, Soldati, and Carlo Levi); or some (like Pasolini) find the movies a more rewarding and less Procustean field of activity.
Who is left? Minor provincial masters, promising young men who may or may not write anything durable in the future, and patient craftsmen who fabricate intricate pastiches, men whose efforts seem directed mainly to surprise or shock the ordinary reader. This is, of course, an old tradition in Italy, which goes back to the baroque saying of Cavalier Marino: “É del poeta il fin la meraviglia.” Some of these books manage to astound some of the people all of the time (a few literally frighten them out of their wits) but do not seem to have what it takes to last.
Sciascia’s books look as if they could. He appears to possess some of the gifts of a great writer. To begin with, he writes extremely well. (This is not indispensable, to be sure—Italo Svevo wrote wretched Italian, a spiky commercial jargon translated from the German with provincial idioms—but it is useful.) His use of language is economical, forceful, transparent, intense. He keeps a curb on his emotions. His books are original inventions, solidly constructed, conceived as one smooth unit from which it is almost impossible to cut a page, a paragraph, even a word. His reality is multiform and can be looked at from several sides. Though reportorial accuracy surely adds nothing to the excellence of works of fiction, the reader is stupidly pleased and reassured to discover that Sciascia’s facts are as reliable as Hemingway’s. (Hemingway’s description of Milan during World War One, for example, is as meticulously exact as a scientific survey, down to the names of obscure streets, small hotels, bars, apéritifs, cigarettes, the habits and talk of the people.) In addition to all this, Sciascia has one advantage many Italian writers envy him for. He is Sicilian.
More famous Italian writers have come from Sicily than from any other Italian region of comparable size. (Among those best known abroad are Verga, Pirandello, Vittorini, and Tomasi di Lampedusa and, among the less known, Capuana, Di Roberto, Rosso di San Secondo, Brancati, Patti, to mention only a few.) In other words, Sciascia (like famous novelists from the American South) had the luck to be born in a defeated, impoverished, tragic, and misunderstood land where injustice and brutality prevail, where emotions run secretly beneath the surface like Carso rivers and sometimes explode violently like …
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Sicilians and Others December 4, 1969