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A Chorus of Cruelty

1.

Cruelty,” wrote Emil Cioran, “is a sign of election, at least in literature. The more talented a writer is, the more ingeniously he puts his characters in situations from which there is no escape; he persecutes them, he tyrannizes them, he traps them in dead ends, he forces them to run the whole gamut of their agony.”

Of no writer could this provocative intuition be more true than the great Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga. Yet eighty years after his death the author of “Cavalleria Rusticana” continues to be presented to the public as first and foremost a humanist worthily celebrating the passions of the ordinary man and drawing attention to his difficult lot through well-documented descriptions of changing social conditions. G.H. McWilliam concludes the introduction to his new translation of Verga’s Sicilian novellas thus:

Verga’s great merit lies in his ability to arouse compassion whilst avoiding completely all traces of sentimentality, and this is because he presents life as it is, free from the distortions of idealistic perspectives. His narratives are an unfailing source of interest, not only to those who care about good literature, but also to the historian, for whom his novels and short stories provide an invaluable record of social conditions at a critical stage of modern Italian history.

Reading such reassuring words one is bound to ask whether there mightn’t be some taboo that prevents us from saying what it really is that draws us so powerfully to this man’s violent and irretrievably pessimistic stories.

Yet if much of the literature on Verga is at best uneasily half-true, the author himself is always the first to set us on the wrong track. Rarely has a great writer’s work been so uneven, his long and earnest reflections on his various endeavors so mysteriously distant from their impact on the reader. Sensing at some deep level, perhaps, that the impulses driving his writing were such that they would require considerable disguise before they could be allowed to circulate in polite society, Verga’s critical efforts seem to have been largely if unconsciously devoted to developing that disguise, not only for the world, but for himself too.

That he never managed to settle on any particular cover, ducking in the space of a long creative life from the elegant society novel, through various forms of worthy social realism, and finally to a formulation that anticipates absurdism, suggests that the real inspiration lay he knew not where. He poured his genius into many bottles, haphazardly it sometimes seems. Only in the one he initially most despised, the short and shamelessly regional novella, did it yield its full and explosive flavor. Only there, albeit with all the insipid decanting of translation, can it still produce its decidedly intoxicating effect outside the Italian language.

Born in 1840 into a family of impoverished gentry in the Sicilian city of Catania, Verga learned early about the importance of maintaining a certain reputation and the difficulty of doing so when resources are scarce. Wealthy Uncle Salvatore had inherited all the family estates on condition that he remain unmarried and use the income to assist his younger brothers and sisters. Life, Giovanni would have realized, is a tangled web, and contracts are often notoriously different in letter and in spirit. Few people are naturally generous. Money was not forthcoming. His two spinster aunts, miserly beyond belief, became known as “the mummies.”

Still, things can sometimes work out in the most unexpected ways. By the time Giovanni’s elder brother Mario married Uncle Salvatore’s illegitimate daughter Lidda, differences had been resolved. And this was just as well, since money doesn’t only serve to keep up appearances. In 1854 a cholera epidemic forced Giovanni’s parents to flee Catania to the safety of the family’s country estates. Others of course were not so lucky. Years later Verga’s writing would be full of characters fighting tooth and nail for the good opinion of others—their very identity depends on it—only to be defeated by illness, drought, or, worse still, some irresistible passion that destroys them from within. Beneath it all runs a ferocious sense of outrage. But about what exactly?

In 1860 Garibaldi arrived in Catania. The Bourbon regime was collapsing, the state of Italy was born. Verga, who had already written a novel with the heady title Amore e patria, joined the new Guardia Nazionale and started a political weekly under the slogan “Roma degli Italiani.” But far from joining a glorious struggle for national unity, the young novelist found himself involved in the repression of popular revolt. The harrowing story “Libertà” tells how the people in a small village on the slopes of Etna, misunderstanding the meaning of the “liberty” the Piedmontese King Vittorio Emanuele was bringing them, butchered the local nobles and began to fight over who should get what land. A few days later Garibaldi’s troops arrived to restore order and butchered the villagers. In a fascinating article written in 1970, Leonardo Sciascia reveals how even Verga, the least squeamish of novelists, played down the cruelty of the soldiers of unification.

In any event, by 1865, and availing himself of another of money’s advantages, Verga had bought himself out of the National Guard and sailed to Florence, then capital of Italy. D.H. Lawrence, who first discovered Verga for the English-speaking world and gave us the earliest translations, speaks of him leaving Sicily “to work at literature.” Like everything else in Lawrence’s brief introduction to Lit-tle Novels of Sicily, the words are wonderfully apt. Verga was a worker. Avid, anxious for money and fame, he labored at his literature, as so many of his characters would labor doggedly in field or quarry or fishing boat. All the same, it would be many years before he found the yoke that could most successfully harness his remarkable energies.

Verga later disparagingly described his early novels as tales of “elegance and adultery.” “Real Italian novels,” Lawrence generously calls them, “a little tiresome, but with their own depth.” Casting about for something more satisfactory, Verga even had a shot at the Gothic. But in the middle of “Castello di Trezza,” a hopelessly complex story of betrayal, multiple murder, and ghosts who may not be ghosts, the second wife of the cruel baron, on hearing of the tragic death of her predecessor, finally addresses these prophetic remarks to her terrified maid: “Even if you took away the ghosts, the clock striking midnight, the storm that slams open doors and windows, the creaking weathercocks, this would still be a terrifying story.” Whether or not the illumination came to Verga when he wrote that snippet of dialogue, his project from now on would be to strip the “terrifying story” that was ever inside him of its melodramatic mechanics and give it to us straight.

Published in a fashion magazine in 1870, “Storia di una capinera” (“Story of a Blackcap”) was halfway there. We have the underlying play of forces, but not the milieu. Briefly: the young Maria is taken out of her convent school to escape a cholera epidemic and goes to join her family in the country. Her mother died young. Her weak father remarried a rich woman interested only in the fate of her own daughter. There is no money for Maria’s dowry. She must take the veil. But in the country she falls in love with a rich neighbor, Nino, and he with her. Needless to say Nino is intended for the sister with the dowry.

Presented as a one-way epistolary novel, Maria writes to a convent friend of her awakening to love, then her brutal segregation after the romance is discovered. Heartbreaking chapters have her shut in her room listening to merrymaking down the passageway. In one brief, breathless appearance at Maria’s window, the handsome Nino lets us know that he understands the cruel injustice of it all. But he does nothing to break the social ties so efficiently woven around him. Maria herself sees her love as an indulgence and a sin against her fate. Later, when she has taken the veil, she will be granted a view through the cloister grating of Nino and her stepsister, who have come to announce their engagement. A final letter from an older nun tells of Maria’s sickness, insanity, and death.

Flawed as it is, the novel is fascinating for the contradiction at its core. Maria yearns with all her heart for society, company, love. Her essential experience is that of isolation. But the society she longs for is supremely cruel and only united in its exclusion of the person it has no time for. Maria is poignantly attractive in her need for others, but it is this that destroys her. The reader can only conclude that she needs to get tougher herself.

Always ready to have his work travel with forged papers, Verga allowed the first edition to be published with a preface by the protofeminist Caterina Percoto, who presented the novel as a protest against the exploitation of women. It was a big success.

But is Verga straightforwardly on the side of the victim? A few years later the short story “Springtime” would tell the simpler tale of a love affair between an ambitious but indigent young musician and a girl who works in a dressmaker’s shop. When the man finally gets a valuable contract he drops the girl, who is heartbroken. The cruelty is now presented as an inevitable part of life; the man’s interests in career, artistic fame, and money are entirely natural. This is his destiny. One can no more quarrel with it than with a mother’s desire to marry off her own child rather than her stepdaughter. Is there a sniff of justification in the air here? Or rage at life itself?

One of the few salient events in Verga’s hardworking life would be his affair with a woman married to a wealthy man in Sicily. In an embarrassingly naked first person, the story “Across the Sea” tells of just such an affair and of the woman’s return, despite all the love that she has sworn to her lover, to Sicily, and to her husband. The lover is appalled and feels betrayed, but, like Nino in the earlier novel, he does nothing to keep her, and so he also betrays love. Verga wrote the story before his mistress, Giselda Fojanesi, in fact went back to her husband. He had a career to think of. He must “work at literature.” How fascinating all this must have been to Lawrence, whose presence in Sicily in 1919 and consequent discovery of Verga had largely to do with his having made the opposite gesture: he had run off with the married Frieda and abandoned society altogether.

In any event it seems only appropriate that when Verga at last found his voice, money was the stimulus, along with the need to maintain a social façade. It was 1874. His publisher had just turned down not one but two novels. Verga considered giving up, then fought back. A literary review invited him to contribute a story, something he was not in the habit of doing. But “in order to resolve economic problems resulting from his desire to cut a fine figure in Milanese society,” writes the critic Carla Riccardi, he accepted. In three days he wrote “Nedda.” “The merest trifle,” Verga remarked, and made a point of saying he had only written it for money.

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