The House by the Medlar Tree
The She-Wolf and Other Stories
By the end of his short story titled simply “Malaria,” Giovanni Verga has reduced his protagonist to the nadir of absolute misery. The innkeeper Carmine, known as “Killwife,” because his four wives and all his five children have succumbed to malaria, has himself managed to survive, but barely. Broken in body and spirit, he drags listlessly about; his inn, buried deep in the fever-ridden fields of eastern Sicily, attracts no customers. After fifty-seven years in it, he is turned out, and continues to exist only by getting a job as a crossing-guard by the new railroad. There—in the old but still vital Lawrence translation—
he saw twice a day the long line of carriages crowded with people pass by; the jolly companies of shooters spreading across the plains; sometimes a peasant lad playing the accordion with his head bent, bunched up on the seat of a third-class compartment; the beautiful ladies who looked out of the windows with their heads swathed in a veil; the silver and the tarnished steel of the bags and valises which shone under the polished lamps; the high stuffed seat-backs with their crochet-work covers. Ah, how lovely it must be travelling in there, snatching a wink of sleep! It was as if a piece of a city were sliding past, with the lit-up streets and the glittering shops. Then the train lost itself in the vast mist of the evening, and the poor fellow, taking off his shoes for a moment, and sitting on the bench, muttered, “Ah! for that lot there isn’t any malaria.”
The scene is a miniature of nineteenth-century Sicily, and of Verga’s Sicily in particular. The fabled Mediterranean island vied with that of Ireland for the title of most miserable and poverty-ridden land in Europe. Its peasant population was suffering, like that of Ireland, the worst fate they could possibly imagine—its members were being driven from their farms and hearths. The strong went into exile on the mainland or overseas; the weak died in the nearest ditch. And meanwhile the glittering engine of European progress rushed by, roaring with impatience to bring affluent idlers from one amusement to the next. The scene is typical of Verga in its strong sense of social protest; it is typical also in the weak gestuke of resignation with which it concludes.
Verga is not exactly a novelty on the 1984 literary scene. Born in 1840, he lived till 1922. His two major novels date from 1881 and 1889, and both were translated into English—the first (I Malavoglia) early but badly in 1890, the second (Mastro-Don Gesualdo) not until 1923, but then very well indeed, by D. H. Lawrence. In addition, Lawrence translated two collections of short stories, Vita deicampi and Novelle rusticane (“Malaria” comes from the latter), and, in 1890, the lead story of Vita dei campi was converted to a popular opera, Cavalleria rusticana, with music by Pietro Mascagni. Thus much of Verga’s work has been available to …