Erasing the Past: Ignazio Silone's Self-Revisions

By Leake, Elizabeth | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Erasing the Past: Ignazio Silone's Self-Revisions


Leake, Elizabeth, Queen's Quarterly


Probing the personal histories and private writings of well-loved authors is a tradition that came into its own in the twentieth century. Searching through journals, letters, and historical documents can reveal a great deal of fascinating new information about how a person evolved as a writer, thinker, and all-around human animal. But along with the potential for new appreciation, there is always the danger that we will discover that out heroes have been guarding more than just their privacy.

IGNAZIO SILONE'S (1900-1978) fame as a cultural icon and folk hero of the Italian left is based in equal parts on his history as a professional revolutionary and as a novelist. His credentials within the nascent Italian Communist Party (PCI) were impeccable; over the course of ten years he held a series of high-profile positions starting from the party's very inception in 1921. In spire of his unwavering support of Communist ideals, however, by the late 1920s Silone was beginning to question the ethical viability of the practices of Communism as they were then evolving, to the extent that in 1929 he took a leave of absence from his official responsibilities, and left Italy for Switzerland. Though this exile was self-imposed (he went to a clinic in Davos in the ostensible hope of improving his health), only a year later he would write that he was unable to countenance the "... cretinous and criminal behaviour the Communist party (was) assuming." (1) He would be expelled from the party in 1931.

Rather than turn his back on the party, he then translated many of his experiences into fiction. Though in his writings he took aim primarily at the Fascists, he was nonetheless not beholden to the Communists and did not shy away from implicating them as well (and, to a lesser extent, the Catholic Church)--if not in the outright violence against the poor of which he accused the Fascists, then at least of an equally dogmatic suppression of the peasants' political awakening beyond what was immediately useful for the party's own ends. Silone's writerly persona capitalized on his own history as a former militant, which provided him with the stories to tell and the ideological space, highly ambivalent though it was, from which to write. And write he did. While in exile he wrote Fontamara, Bread and Wine, and The Seed beneath the Snow, novels whose searing portrayals of the peasants of his region under Mussolini are some of the most tragic testaments imaginable of the brutality and oppression of the era; four more novels, two plays, and a series of essays would follow once he returned to Italy. With the publication of Fontamara in 1933, Silone established himself as a champion of the rights of the pour and oppressed and a critic of authoritarianism in any guise. Within Italy, while his reception has varied in part according to the political motivations of his readers, he has nonetheless been read regularly for the last sixty-odd years and has been appreciated by many. Outside of Italy, his novels have been consistently popular (Fontamara, for example, has been translated into 27 languages). In 1965, his readership both at home and abroad reached new heights with the publication of Uscita di sicurezza ("Emergency Exit"), a collection of stories and essays that caused his re-discovery by a segment of the North American counterculture population, as well as a sales-inducing literary scandal that ensued when Silone was "denied" the Premio Viareggio, a prestigious literary prize.

His novels, each more or less cut from the same cloth, deal principally with the theme of individual conscience and its vexed relation to overarching belief systems, both spiritual and ideological. For example, Bread and Wine, arguably his most famous novel, centres on the spiritual crisis of an idealistic and ascetic young militant who returns to his natal village to re-evaluate his commitment to party politics. The novel's protagonist, Pietro Spina, was interpreted by his readers as being modelled closely on Silone's own experiences. …

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