A Case for Textual Harassment

Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver

These days, especially in the United States, implacable copy editors demand of authors not only stylistic revisions but even changes in plot, new endings, whatever commercial necessity dictates. But when we Italians recall the summary way the novelist-editor Elio Vittorini dealt with young writers some decades ago, can we honestly say that they ordered things so differently in the past?

Take the usually overlooked fact that the first version of a well-known poem by Philip Larkin originally went: “They do you harm, your father and mother.” It was only the insistence of Larkin’s editor that inspired the now famous variant. And the first draft of Eliot’s Waste Land opened: “April is the cruelest month. And March isn’t all that great, either.” Weakened in its impact by this peevish insistence on climactic details, the earlier text denied April any implied link with the rites of vegetation. As everyone knows, Ariosto at first submitted to his publisher a very brief poem that went: “Of women and knights, arms, loves, courtly rituals, and bold ventures I have nothing to say.” And that was that. “How about developing it a bit?” the editor suggested. And Master Ludovico, who was having enough trouble as civil governor of a remote Tuscan province, said, “What’s the use? There are dozens of epics of chivalry already. Leave it. I want to urge poets to try new genres.” And the editor replied, “Yes, of course, I understand, and, personally, I agree with you. But why not try approaching the form from another angle? With irony, for instance. Anyway, we can’t sell a onepage book, particularly one with only two verses on the page. It looks like imitation Mallarmé. It would have to be a limited, numbered edition. So unless we can get Philip Morris to sponsor it, we’re screwed.”

The Manzoni case is important. He began the first version of his novel with “That stretch of Lake Garda.” It seems simple enough, but if he had stuck to that lake, he might have written the whole history of the Venetian Republic and never got beyond Riva. You can imagine how long it would have taken Renzo to get to Milan. He’d never have made it in time for the bread riot. And afterward nothing significant would have happened to the poor youth. Lucia would have sought protection from the Nun of Rovereto, an abbess of impeccable behavior; the whole novel would have ended after a few trivial mishaps before the happy wedding…. Even Brother Cadfael has more exciting adventures.

The Leopardi story is still more serious. The wandering shepherd of Asia, in the first draft, cried: “What are you doing, Jupiter, in heaven? Tell me, what are you doing, silent Jupiter.” Nothing wrong with that excellent planet, of course, but it is visible only during certain seasons and has hardly any emotional or metaphysical connotations. In fact, Leopardi’s composition consisted of just a few verses, at the end of which the …

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