I arrived in Italy in 1981 with barely a word of Italian. My strategy for learning the language was simple. Each afternoon, between my morning and evening teaching, I spent three or four hours in Verona’s main public library reading novels and writing down every word I didn’t know, every syntactical structure I wasn’t familiar with, then trying out what I had learned in conversations with my long-suffering wife.
Since the task was arduous at first, I began with contemporary writers who used a fairly simple style – Natalia Ginzburg, Alberto Moravia, Carlo Cassola – then began to look at the more difficult writers of the day, Elsa Morante, Italo Calvino and the young Aldo Busi. Later, as my Italian improved, I went backward in time: the war years – Pavese, Fenoglio, Brancati – the early 20th century – Svevo, D’Annunzio, Pirandello – the 19th century with its extraordinary riches, Verga, Manzoni, Nievo, Foscolo and for the first time a poet, Giacomo Leopardi.
There I stopped a while, since to go back further is to find an Italian that is quite different from the Italian of today. I had been in Italy at least ten years before I finally read Boccaccio and Dante in the original, at which point one felt one had arrived at bedrock, the support that underpinned, or at least conditioned all the rest.
So my slow discovery of Italy, where I never really planned to live, though now it seems I have spent all my adult life here, went hand in hand with a long exploration of the country’s literature. I thus came to realize, in a way I never really had during my literary studies in England and America, how profoundly a people’s character and destiny are bound up with and reflected by its literature. The Italy I was learning to deal with day by day, house-buying, holidaying and tax-paying, talking to in-laws and public officials, fellow fans at the football stadium, doctors, mechanics and shopkeepers, was the Italy of Gadda and Pascoli and Bassani, the Italy of The Betrothed, The Malavoglia, The Leopard. Literary criticism, and particularly the variety that developed around modernism, encourages readers, and above all students, to look at a text as something sovereign and separate from its surrounding world and even the writer who had written it. As I grew into Italy through the 1980s and 90s, I became powerfully aware that, on the contrary, context is vital to understanding literature and that the novels themselves mean more and are more rewarding when seen together, read in relation to each other and to the world that produced them.
The most determining aspect of context where literature is concerned is of course language. Those who know and have lived in a second language will be aware that they think and behave and express themselves somewhat differently when moving away from their mother tongue. Identity shifts; if language does not absolutely drive thought, it certainly conditions our thinking. The very feeling of the words and the nuances they express are aligned with centuries of history and collective behaviour. The English word ‘proper’ which subtly aligns morality with social decorum and even class distinction has no parallel in Italian. Similarly English translations of the Italian words furbo (sly) and pignolo (fussy) convey none of the rich social humus these words immediately evoke in the Italian mind. In 1985, when I began my first literary translation, Moravia’s Erotic Tales, I was finally bound to take this reflection on board, to realize how profoundly any piece of prose changes when subtracted from the enchantment of the language it was conceived in. To a large extent it is the language, as much as the content and originating environment, that puts writers and their work in intimate relation to each other.
From the earliest days in Italy I had found myself being asked to translate. I translated sales brochures for bank safes and industrial ovens, installation manuals for diesel filter factories, a trade paper for the Italian stone industry, catalogues for art shows, a fashion magazine for designer shoes. This turned out to be the best possible preparation for translating literature, since there is no strict distinction between literary language and language tout court. Over the next ten years I translated Moravia, Calvino, Tabucchi, Calasso and many others, while later I would be invited to offer a new version of Machiavelli’s The Prince and to translate a selection from Leopardi’s great diary, the Zibaldone. Not only did this bring me closer to these writers and the way they wrote, it also led to one of the greatest strokes of fortune in my working life. The New York Review of Books began to invite me to write about Italian authors. Generously, they entrusted me with a consideration of a new translation of the complete works of Nobel winner Eugenio Montale. Amazingly, they waited the full year it took me to read the poet in original and translation and feel I was ready to say something about him. Thus began the collection you now have in your hands.
From the beginning I was eager to make these pieces something more than one-off reviews. I wanted to give readers a sense of the Italian world the writer moved in and how he or she positioned him or herself in relation to the main issues of the day, and indeed those issues which go far beyond the day and seem inseparable from Italianness itself, a particular way of framing problems of illusion and reality, a powerful tension between the imperatives of political action and the desire to be spared involvement of any kind. I wanted the pieces to call to each other as indeed the writers themselves call to each other and become fully themselves when read together. I wanted them to become a book, a whole.
Not all of these pieces speak specifically of literature. There are reflections on Mazzini, Garibaldi and Mussolini, figures who still play important roles in Italy’s collective imagination. There is a discussion of a movement of painters, the Divisionists, who sought to find a particularly Italian way of making modern art. There is – and it’s one my favourites – a portrait of the gloomy and brilliant painter Mario Sironi, who, amongst many other things, became Fascism’s most prestigious and influential artist and designer. The fact is that as Italy finally became a nation in 1861 literature and art were called upon to reinforce the ‘official’ Italian language, then spoken by only five percent of the population, and to give the new nation a modern identity. Even where writers rejected this project – one thinks of Pavese – they could not help being in relation to it. Any Italian novels from the 19th and 20th century take on a whole new richness when one becomes aware of the idealisms and scepticisms of the day. The Garden of the Finzi Contini means more if we understand the national debate the need for intellectuals to participate in public life and indeed Bassani’s own involvement in the Action Party. Verga’s novellas carry an even greater pathos when seen in the context of a desire to bring regional identities into the national mind set.
It was not easy to decide exactly what shape this collection should have, which authors to include and which to leave out. The book was never conceived as offering an overview of all major Italian authors, more as a reflection of my own literary explorations over the years. In particular, I decided not to include contemporary novelists. There has definitely been a marked shift in Italian writing since the 1980s and the death of the generation that included Moravia and Bassani, Ginzburg and Morante. Rapid globalization has created a situation where 70% of the novels in Italian bookshops are translated, most of them from English. A writer growing up in post-war Italy would have begun to think of literature as an international rather than national phenomena while at the same time being aware of the disastrous failure of Italian nationalism under Mussolini. So one has the feeling that many Italian novelists today – Ammaniti, Ferrante, De Carlo, Saviano – write with a new awareness of an international audience as if mediating between different worlds, accommodating a readership which is not entirely familiar with Italy. This does not make them any less Italian, but part of a new reality. It seemed, if nothing else, a useful cut off point, and perhaps an excuse for a second project focused entirely on contemporary Italians.