A Chorus of Cruelty


“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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.