Reading – Italian
Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis
Ugo Foscolo (1802)
Ultime lettere has as its model Goethe's Leiden des jungen Werthers, both epistolary novels of main characters with impossible loves, who end up committing suicide. I gather that Foscolo's work also has a strong political bent, which Goethe also sometimes displayed, though not in Werther. Both works are reportedly partly autobiographical.
I should reread Werther.
Giuseppe Rovani (1865)
Cento anni is, like Le confessione d'un Italiano, one of the very long historical novels of the nineteenth century. It is considered a giant work in more ways than one. My edition comes to more than 1,300 pages.
Making it to page 452 by now, I find –
… pare che il celebro sestetto della Centerentola – O che nodo avviluppato – sia scritto espressamente dal maestrone per essere poi applicato come epigrafe al nostro libro.
… it seems as if the celebated sextet of Cinderella – Oh, what a tangled web – was written expressly by the great master [Rossini] to be later applied as the epigraph of our book.
Indeed. The plot has convolutions and unlikely twists that are seldom found outside of opera, or of soap opera.
At the end of the first volume, just short of 700 pages long, the author notes that he is about to introduce the protagonists of his story, what has happened so far being incidental preface.
The work attains its length, not by having a lot to say, but by being wordy and full of digressions that contribute nothing. I'll pick up the second volume in a while. For now, I find its characters all flat, and nearly all scoundrels to nitwits. I am not sure how it managed to acquire its reputation.
It is late December, and I am resuming with Volume II.
By September, I have finished the awful thing. I have never wasted so much time on a single book. The author seems to have not much too say other than that things changed in Italy, chance played a role, and the human race includes a lot of pompous and sleazy characters. As far as his style, he is not a man to use two words when you could say exactly the same thing in four hundred. I have no idea how this wreck could have achieved the status of a semi-classic.
At least I have definitely learned from it to be much more cautious in my approach to long books. I make it an almost-always rule to finish things I've started. But for that principle, Rovani's wanderings would long ago have landed in the trash.
Il barone rampante
Italo Calvino (1987)
Italo Calvino has had, in all of his writing that I have read so far, an amazing ability to create different forms of narrative, never re-writing the same book with a different cover.
This book shares with other works of Calvino an allegorical form. Cosimo Rondò climbs into a tree to avoid having to eat snails for dinner. He moves from one tree to another, never coming down.
Aside from posing various practical problems that are resolved, such a life poses curious questions about the relations of society with such an outlier, especially one who has placed himself above his fellows. With the distance, the interdependencies of Cosimo and the community seem only to grow. He is able to provide services that the ground-dwellers can't manage for themselves, and they climb up ladders and contrive all kinds of devices for Cosimo's needs. It is quite a provocative tale.
Le Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori
Giorgio Vasari (1550)
I will start off with a sample of Vasari, reading the ultimate of his Lives – of Michele Angnolo Buonarroti Fiorento, more commonly known as Michelangelo. (I have been struggling for an approach to reading some very long books, including this one. I can't imagine myself wanting to read the Lives from first page to last, any more than I would read a cookbook or a dictionary in that fashion.)
Many people have speculated on how Michelangeo went about his stone carving. I recently happened across a view that he started all his work as relief carvings, which grew deeper and deeper, and eventually acquired backs. That seems to me improbable in that it would be vastly more work than needed, especially because he grew up in a stone mason's home. Vasari won't answer the question – no one really has the answer – but thinking about it makes me curious about how the man did get to where he got.
The life of Michele Agnolo is basically a chronology of his major works, with descriptions and a lot of superlatives. I believe that it is likely true that, as Vasari states, he worked day and night, so there isn't a lot else to tell. There are a few interesting tidbits of information, such as that the raw material of the famous David was a misshapen piece of stone begun by another sculptor, in which Michelangelo was able to visualize the statue that we know today. The writing is basically hagiography, however, providing little information or impetus to read more of it.
La coscienza di Zeno
Italo Svevo (1923)
Zeno's grasp of himself and of those around him is feeble. He constantly lies to himself and to them, without any intent of deception – he always believes what he is saying at the moment, however incongruous with immediate reality it may be. This implausibility seems contagious, in a way, causing him to associate with people who are similarly inept in their assessments and social efforts, triggering them to like behavior. It all makes one think of one's own daily life and wonder, am I doing the same thing?
Svevo was a friend of James Joyce, and their work is often compared. I'm not sure that I find them closely comparable, but I have read this book with interest. I will have to go back and reread Svevo's Senilità. I think I probably missed a lot the first time around.
Confessioni d'un Italiano
Ippolito Nievo (1867)
The Confessions is one of the major literary works of the nineteenth century in Italy. Perhaps because of the book's length and complexity, there was not an English translation published until 2015. He wrote it over nine months when he was in his eighties. Like Manzoni's, his writing included a single major work.
Ecco la morale della mia vita. Et siccome questa morale non fui io ma i tempi che l'hanno fatta, così mi venne in mente che descrivere ingenuamente quest'azione dei tempi d'un uomo posse recare qualche utilità a coloro, che da altri tempi sonno destinati a sentire le conseguenze meno imperfette di quei primi influssi attuati.
This is the moral of my life. And since it was not I, but the times that created it, so it came to my mind to describe simply the action of the times upon a man might be of some use to those who at other times are destined to feel the less incomplete consequences to such first influences.
Like War and Peace, it is a sprawling work, full of the values of community, both at the level of family and of country. I enjoyed it considerably. It is full of wit and amusement, the work of a very observing author.
The figure of la Pisana is memorable, standing in the very first and last pages of the book. The narrator's love for her is endless, though he well knows her faults and never comes to be her lover. It makes me think of another notable character, Solveig in Ibsen's Peer Gynt, who fully knows Peer's egregious shortcomings but is prepared to wait out her life for him. This kind of unconditional love is one we more often associate with mothers.
Edmondo di Amicis (1886)
Cuore is a popular book about school boys, written to follow the structure of an Italian third-grade class, with daily short lessons and weekly reviews. And lessons they are – the book is heavily didactic. It teaches that all should accept and care about each other, even when they are different or some are unfortunate. It teaches love and respect for country, civic institutions and their members, and family.
Its patriotic values fit well into the Risorgimento, or Italian unification. It has been translated into many other languages and has been popular in times and places of nationalistic values. By the same token, it fit well for fascism and socialism in many contexts. There are interesting details in the Wikipedia article about the book.
Its very approachable reading level is for me, and frankly a welcome relief after the steep challenges of Orlando Furioso.
Italo Calvino (1993)
Italo Calvino had a perhaps unparalleled ability to write different kinds of books, nearly always with great success. His Italian Fables is a collection in three volumes of folk stories gathered from many parts of Italy. Each of them is only a few pages long. A few show signs of having been acquired from foreign models, but nearly all appear to be original. While the story lines tend to fall into a finite number of groups, the details are tremendously inventive.
This is the third language in which I've read large collections of folks stories. The tales of the Brothers Grimm are a German analogue. Charles Perrault collected French tales, many of them familiar to us today, such as the one we call Little Red Riding Hood. It took me a few years, off and on, to get through the multivolume collections, including this one with its two hundred stories but it has been immensely worthwhile.
In the last story of the Fiabe, the main character in the end decides that he has lived long enough and fulfilled the last of his wishes. He is harvested by the Grim Reaper, without grimness. It is a very suiting ending.
Ludovico Ariosto (1516)
Orlando is a melange of episodes, remarkable for the consistent style and world view. The story wanders in all seriousness through countless improbable turns. To pick a random example, the voyaging Astulfo disembarks onto what he seems to him a small island, unheeding of the advice of those around him. It turns out instead to be a large whale, which swims away with him on its back. For another writer (such as Grimmelshausen), this might have been material for high slapstick and farce. For Ariosto, it is a tragic turn in a story of nobility and chivalry.
I have read the first of two volumes of this, 658 pages so far. It is against my policy to leave a started book unread. However, famous as it is, it is just not very good, as Montaigne remarked. It wanders aimlessly from place to place, and it is very slow going because it is written in the Italian of the 1500s.
Italo Calvino (1983)
Italo Calvino had a large output, with an ability to write an amazingly different book each time around, remaining unpretentious the while. This short novel is a particular prize. Its main character continually discovers great chasms of understanding when he asks a question different from those we have accepted answers to, when he looks at something new he hasn’t dealt with before. There is a second layer to things in the structure of the book, which is organized into a 3 x 3 x 3 pattern of 27 short chapters.
I found it utterly delightful.
I promessi sposi
Alessandro Manzoni (1827)
Alessandro Manzoni’s one novel, titled in English The Betrothed, is probably the most famous and widely read Italian novel. Manzoni is also noted as being the dedicatee of Verdi’s Manzoni Requiem. It is a sprawling but loveable and approachable work. It ends:
Lucia però ... disse un giorno al suo moralista, cosa volete che abbia imparato? Io non sono andata a cercare i guai: son loro che sono venuti a cercar me ...
Renzo, alla prima, rimase impicciato. Dopo un lungo dibattere e cercare insieme, conclusero che i guai vengono bensì spesso, perché ci si è dato cagione; ma che la condotta più cauta e più innocente non basta a tenerli lontani; e che quando vengono, o per colpa o senza colpa, la fiducia in Dio li raddolcisce, e li rende utili per una vita migliore. Questa conclusione, benché trovata da povera gente, c'è parsa così giusta, che abbiam pensato di metterla qui, come il sugo di tutta la storia.
But Lucia ... said one day to her moralizer, what do you think I have been taught? I didn’t go out looking for hardships, they came looking for me.
Renzo, at first, remained speechless. After a much debate and puzzling together, they concluded that difficulties often arise because someone has created an occasion for them to arise; but that the most prudent and most innocent behavior is not enough to keep them away; and that when they come, fault or no fault, faith in God helps ease them, and makes them useful for a better life. That conclusion, even though arising from humble folk, appeared so appropriate that I have decided to put it here, as the essence of the story.
Antonio Tabucchi (1994)
In this very refreshing story, a staid, overweight, middle-aged man happens to meet a young one "out of Central Casting," who is expectedly a bit immature and rebellious. The generational conflict has an unusual outcome that has some political overtones, but I don't think the story is simply political.