Giovanni Verga
Giovanni Verga; drawing by David Levine

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 an English-speaking audience for a long time; and the verdict is thoroughly favorable. “The greatest Italian novelist after Manzoni” has been the common twentieth-century judgment; and if this ranks him only above Fogazzaro, D’Annunzio, and various epigones of Manzoni—if, in short, the field of the Italian novel is not thick with masterpieces of the first rank—Verga’s is nonetheless an authentic European reputation, and his books deserve to stand on the same shelf with those of Balzac and Hardy.

About the man who in a life of more than eighty years enjoyed little more than a decade of supreme achievement, we know (by his deliberate choice) almost nothing. He was so little interested in himself that he did not know the date of his birth; so secretive that when, during the early 1870s, he formed part of a literary-journalistic circle in Milan, and it was a question of each man ordering his meal in a restaurant, Verga would not speak aloud—the waiter must come, bend over him, and receive his instructions in a whisper.

The broad facts are not altogether obscure. He was born at Catania, Sicily, eldest son of a titled family with properties around Vizzini, an inland hill town near the southern tip of the island. (But neither the title nor the properties amounted to a great deal—the baroness Rubiera of Mastro-Don Gesualdo may represent the kind of upper class into which Verga was born.) The boy’s local schooling, such as it was, ended in 1861, and in 1865 he went to Florence as a journalist, perhaps in part as a result of the love affair described mistily in “Across the Sea.” There were a couple of other romantic connections, more or less discreet, in the course of his life, but he never married.

During the 1870s, he moved to Milan and wrote a series of novels, never translated into English, dealing with social intrigue in bourgeois circles after the manner of the French psychological novel, then much in vogue. What caused him to break off with this sort of fiction and embark on the fiercely realistic and brutally concise stories of Sicilian life that made his literary reputation, has been the subject of much critical discussion. Verga himself said that he had run across a ship captain’s account of a voyage, so stripped and uncluttered that it revealed to him in a flash the sort of thing he had long been wanting, subconsciously, to write. Others trace, in what have been called his “society” novels, a latent strain of resentment and dissatisfaction at the values implicit in conventional “success”; and this could have led to a sharp revulsion. Still others deny that in the shift from a setting among northern gentry to one among the most wretched of Sicilian peasants, any major spiritual revolution was involved at all. In both milieus, human beings are betrayed by their own strivings to the working of an all-powerful and malignant destiny.


However that may be, Verga turned abruptly and almost completely to the Sicily of the poorest, most abject peasants as the scene of his fictions; and though I Malavoglia was not well received, Mastro-Don Gesualdo was. In addition, profits from the operatic version of Cavalleria rusticana (to which Verga asserted his claim by means of a lawsuit) made him relatively prosperous. He returned to Catania in 1894, and there lived out the last twenty-eight years of his life, toying with the idea of completing a cycle of novels (to be titled I vinti, “The Conquered”), within which his first two books would find a place beside three others. He never wrote more than a small fraction of the fist of these, never wrote anything, in fact, remotely comparable to the work of his great period. The socalled thirty-year silence (which resembles strikingly the even longer silence of Manzoni after his supreme achievement) has remained a problem for students of Verga. He tended to be a controlled and parsimonious rather than a lavishly inventive writer; some themes, characters, and even phrases from the short stories are revived for a second appearance in the novels. Quite possibly, after about 1890 he just had nothing more to say.

Thanks to the University of California Press, new translations of the two major novels and of selected stories by Verga are now available to English readers. Giovanni Cecchetti of UCLA is the principal agent of this renewal. He has redone Mastro-Don Gesualdo and a generous selection of the stories, as well as providing a new introduction to I Malavoglia in the 1964 translation by Raymond Rosenthal. (The novel in its English version bears the title The House by the Medlar Tree.) There was a crying need for a new translation of the latter book, the fist in order of composition and arguably a more unified and impressive achievement than its later counterpart. For both previous translations of I Malavoglia (by Mary A. Craig in 1890 and Eric Mosbacher in 1953) were made from a badly bowdlerized text, reduced by more than fifty pages from the original, often by ripping out big, clumsy chunks of a page and more at a time.

Now restored to its proper dimensions, the novel fully justifies Lawrence’s tremendous adjective, Homeric. On the other hand, where Cecchetti follows the path previously trod by Lawrence in translating the other novel and some of the stories, it’s not clear that his version is invariably an improvement. Lawrence may not have had a flawless command of Italian idiom, but his ear for colloquial plebeian English was unfaltering. In any event, the Lawrence versions are available now only through the reprints of Greenwood Press, and the new California renderings—mostly for better, but partly also for worse—are going to be the standard ones. The three volumes make a handsome set, and they contain among them just about all the Verga any non-professional reader will want.

Details of translation and presentation must, however, be secondary to an appreciation of the novels themselves. They are not exactly easy to get into. Verga’s concern to obliterate the authorial presence leads him to bypass the conventional introductions, descriptions, and explanations. Though both novels are concerned with a single figure, much of the story is told chorally, through the words and acts of the villagers—and since they always have nicknames and sometimes several, besides being referred to as someone else’s nephew or cousin, a cast of characters is indispensable. Even then, an attentive reader will have moments of wondering, “Who’s this?” Everybody knows everything about everybody in the village, and what he has done, time out of mind; outside the village, hardly anything else exists. Scandal is vicious, universal, and undying; matchmaking, which combines the delights of sexual talk with those of property calculation, is the common enterprise.


After sex, avarice: money, the possession or absence of it, is a pervasive theme in both novels, and it leads directly to a haunting, recurrent vision of human loneliness. Mastro ‘Ntoni Malavoglia of The House by the Medlar Tree falls into debt, after a lifetime of grinding labor at his traditional calling, through a single exceptional speculative misfortune. The sum is no great matter, but for a poor fisherman overwhelming; for the rest of the book Mastro ‘Ntoni and his family struggle desperately to escape from their debt. Nobody helps them, and when Bastianazzo the son is drowned at sea, the neighbors who come to console the family can talk of nothing but how much the house is worth, and who is likely to get it when it is put up for sale.

As the Malavoglia family is isolated from others by their poverty, so Mastro-Don Gesualdo is cut off by his wealth. He is a mason by trade, who through frantic, unremitting labor accumulates a fortune in lands and goods (the key word in Italian is roba, “possessions”). Partly for business and partly for social reasons, he is persuaded to marry Bianca, daughter of the poor but aristocratic Trao family; a potent consideration making for the marriage is the fact that Bianca is already pregnant by her fatuous, impoverished cousin. But of course Gesualdo’s efforts to ingratiate himself with the upper classes are worse than futile. The gentry despise him, avoid him, sneer at him behind his back and sometimes to his face; the peasants from whose ranks he rose are torn between jealousy and contempt. His own brother and sister are more envious and bitter than anyone else; parasitic themselves, they grudge Gesualdo his success. The daughter whom he calls his, and on whom he tries to bestow a “good education,” is ashamed of him, and refuses to bear his name. The duke to whom he eventually marries her—against her wishes, and in the teeth of his own experience with a loveless marriage—wants nothing but the money she brings with her.

Idyllic passages in the book are rare; they are those in which the hard-bitten peasant is briefly at one with his land and the good things he can make it produce. At Canziria, with his herds, his flocks, and his submissive, undemanding mistress Diodata, and at Mangalavite where he shelters and feeds a torrent of refugees from the cholera, Gesualdo’s soul expands, and one sees briefly the man he might have become. Though both he and Mastro ‘Ntoni are hard men, neither is really malignant. Mastro ‘Ntoni is too honest at heart to make use of the sneaky legal subterfuge that is offered to him as a way to escape his debt. And Don Gesualdo, though he knows the marriage has been a bad bargain for him, adores his wife and her daughter—to the point of their ultimate destruction in fact, but without a glimmer of malice, with nothing but the best intentions.

Verga’s world is not only remote and backward, it is deliberately archaic. The cholera epidemic that figures in both books dates historically from 1837, i.e., from about three years before Verga’s birth; the revolution that creates so much fury and misery and so little change, must be that of Garibaldi, which took place when Verga was about twenty. His Sicilian countryside is very dark. Some of the peasants in I Malavoglia think the unusually dry weather is caused by the new telegraph lines, which draw moisture out of the clouds and drain it away to the city. Everyone in this novel lives by folk sayings, proverbs, and superstitions, empty of meaning but satisfying as mouth-filling substitutes for thought.

In representing such simple souls out of the primitive past, Verga doesn’t use more than a light dusting of dialect. A full Sicilian idiom would have been mostly incomprehensible to his readers, and he doesn’t attempt it; rather, he writes a kind of indirect free discourse, reproducing the cadences, inflections, and special point of view of his characters, and intervening in his own person as little as possible. His perspective is, thus, extremely short; events are seen through the eyes and ears of the people actually experiencing them, and build toward a shape only in the reader’s retrospect. Verga’s pages, moreover, are largely devoid of introspection. None of his characters have a complex or resonant inner life. The codes by which they are required to live are severe and brutally unfair, as the Verga characters are only too aware; but their protests and questionings are muted.

The final downfall of the Malavoglia family comes about when the grandson, young ‘Ntoni, gets into a knife fight with the local customs officer. To get him off, an idiot lawyer intimates that he was protecting the honor of the family, because his sister had been having an affair with the customs officer. By the code of village morality, the insinuation, though false, makes the sister a prostitute; she therefore leaves home without protest, and endorses the verdict by becoming a prostitute in some distant city. Her elder sister, though completely innocent—indeed, a byword for docility and virtue—is subject to the same brutal judgment: if one of the Malavoglia girls is considered a prostitute, all are tainted. So marriage is out of the question for Mena, even though she has a devoted and faithful suitor. As for young ‘Ntoni, her troublemaking brother over whom the whole imbroglio arose, he serves his time (five years at hard labor) and returns briefly to the village to say goodbye before consigning himself to eternal exile. There is a touch of fin-de-siècle fatalism in these narratives that represents a less durable element of Verga’s art. Thus when Mastro ‘Ntoni has had a successful run of anchovy catches, when his fish are all salted and barreled away, it’s like death and taxes that some catastrophe will prevent him from making the long-anticipated profit that would enable him to regain the house by the medlar tree.

A criticism of the translations, since it involves mainly Cecchetti’s command of English idiom, must concentrate on details, taken chiefly, for convenience’ sake, from the first part of Mastro-Don Gesualdo. For example, Bianca, pleading with Baron Nini, is made to say, “Look…I am in your hands…Like Mother Dolorosa.” (Yes, that is the Mater Dolorosa, disguised in an idiom unknown to English, Latin, or Italian.) Again, the hateful Donna Fifi, snarling under a show of good manners, is made to remark to Bianca, “Hi!…Bianca!…I thought you have already left!” Some names present awkward problems. The wife of the chief of police appears in the story; he is referred to as “il Capitano,” or “il signor Capitano”; but Cecchetti confers on her the name “Mrs. Capitana,” leaving unclear or worse whether she is being called by her husband’s name or his title. (Lawrence refers to her consistently as “the Captain’s lady.”)

In the field of expletives, Cecchetti impoverishes Gesualdo strikingly. Under stress, this uncouth fellow has a wide range of Italian swearwords, from “Sangue di Ginda!” to “Malannaggia!” to “Corpo del Diavolo!” to “Santo diavolone!” and “Corpo di…” and “Sangue di…” (all from the first three pages of Chapter IV, Part One). Cecchetti translates all six of these expressions in the identical way, as “Dammit!” or “Goddammit!” When, a few pages further on, Gesualdo cries out, “Santo, santissimo!” once again Cecchetti translates “Goddammit, Goddammit!”—which is also his English equivalent for “Corpo di bacco!” and the much milder “Accidenti!” Surely our English idiom is not so impoverished as to provide only one equivalent for nine different expressions in Italian.

This is mostly a matter of color, combined with natural, idiomatic expression. But there are passages where Verga’s point is really obscured by Cecchetti’s muffled English. At the very end of the novel, when Gesualdo is dead and the servants in his son-in-law’s house are discussing what a nuisance he has been, one says, “Pazienza servire quelli che realmente sono nati meglio di noi.” Cecchetti translates, “Never mind serving those who were really born better than we.” That’s the Cassell’s dictionary equivalent for “pazienza,” sure enough; but Lawrence gets the real point when he renders the sentence, “Bad enough to wait on those who were really born better than we.”

In short, a good ear and a sharp eye will find in Cecchetti’s translations (though not in Rosenthal’s) occasional passages where the meaning doesn’t quite come clear, or the characters seem to be speaking a tongue with which they’re almost familiar. Lawrence too does some odd things with Verga’s idiom; for example, Gesualdo discoursing with his rural mistress Diodata is made to slip into broad north-country dialect. But imperfect though most of our renderings are, the force and magnitude of the original novels impose themselves. Verga is one of those figures whose shadows, already long, seem unlikely to grow less.

This Issue

December 20, 1984