Giovanni Verga's Verismo
Greenberg, Martin, New Criterion
... il vero dell' aspra sorte e del depresso loco che natura ci die.
--Leopardi, La Ginestra
Italy, a late united nation, lagged too in producing a modern narrative literature. That had to wait till the twentieth century. She did nevertheless produce two outstanding if very different novelists in the nineteenth century: Alessandro Manzoni, whose I Promessi Sposi ("The Betrothed"), written in the 1820s, is a vivid, discursively narrated work of Romantic historism; and Giovanni Verga, writing toward the end of the century, the chief figure of Italian verismo and one of the great European realists, though little recognized outside his own country. D. H. Lawrence, who admired both writers and translated three of the latter's books, asked--complained--back in the 1920s: "Who still reads them, even (outside the classroom) in Italy?" You can ask the same question today. In 1947 Visconti made a movie, La Terra Trema, out of Verga's I Malavoglia (known in English as "The House by the Medlar Tree"), filming it in the very Sicilian fishing village--Aci-Trezza--that is the setting of the novel. Yet the postwar fascination with Italy and the neo-realist Italian movies and novels, for which the realist Verga was an inspiration, didn't make him better known abroad; he remains an obscure figure. This has its good side, because reading Verga is to experience the shock and pleasure of unfamiliar great writing. The big names of nineteenth-century prose narrative come preceded by a marching band of reference, allusion, and criticism; you seem to know them before you know them. But Verga, about whom one has known little or nothing, is news.
Giovanni Verga was born in 1840 into a landowning family in the city of Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, almost in the shadow of Etna. He began to write early. In 1865 he departed for the mainland, first to Florence and then Milan. A young provincial, he was entranced by metropolitan excitements: high society, love affairs, art, journalism, literature. Fashionable life--fashionable sexual life--provided much of the matter for his early efforts as a novelist, which tended toward the insipid. But he hadn't shaken the dust of his native island from his feet. Sicily began to intrude itself into his work. This was a time in which the young writers of Italy, where the old rhetorical traditions were still strong, were responding excitedly to the new ideas of French realism and naturalism exemplified by Flaubert, the Goncourts, and Zola. Especially Zola's example moved Verga (but Verga's realism is not at all Zolaesque). And at the end of the 1870s one of literature's many miracles occurred. A hitherto mediocre writer renounced a shallow subject matter and a traditional style to write a series of vivid, violent short stories and two novels about the abysmally poor, primitive Sicilian life in the midst of which he had grown up.
If Verga's realism took its lead from France, that doesn't mean he was a country cousin trailing after "the literary smarties in Paris" (Lawrence's phrase). Verga sounded his own note. Sounded is the right word for a style that echoed his characters' own speech--was their own speech. With his laconic narrative art he anticipated a later time; with his peasant stories he echoed as early a time as Boccaccio's. The nineteenth century on the whole was long-winded, slow-paced, descriptive, achieving its masterpieces by a fullness (often fatness) of exposition. That is one way. Verga's was the way of brevity, an intense abruptness striving for absolute impersonality--because any trace of the author's presence was "the mark of original sin." Of course such absolute impersonality is impossible. But a repudiation of the self-delighting fine writing of the Italian rhetorical tradition--that was possible.
Italy before her unification in 1860 was a backward country with a supercivilized past. Her upper classes looked northwards beyond the Kips in emulation of the civilization of northern Europe. …