Life in the Country by Giovanni Verga, translated by J. G. Nichols, Hesperus Press 2003
If someone had asked me a month or so ago what I knew about Verga, I’d have said that he was the author of Cavalliera Rusticana – or, rather, the author of the story on which Mascagni’s famous opera is based. I might even have burbled a bit about D. H. Lawrence having been an admirer. In other words, I’d have been selling Verga short, both in terms of his stature as a writer, and also, I think, in terms of his aesthetics: he disapproved strongly of Mascagni’s overt emotionalism, and of what he regarded as his sentimentality. He aimed for an objectivity that was very far removed from the passionate outpourings of the verismo style of Italian opera, or, indeed, from the relish in excess that is all too easily found in Zola. Indeed, in one of the stories in this collection, “Bindweed’s Lover”, he states explicitly his artistic credo:
… it is my belief that the novel, the most complete and human of all works of art, will triumph when the attraction between all its parts and their cohesion are so perfect that the process of its creation will remain as mysterious as the development of the human passions. Then the harmony of its form will be so perfect, the sincerity of its content so obvious, its style and its raison d’être so inevitable, that the hand of the artist will be absolutely invisible, and the novel will bear the stamp of a real happening, and the work of art will seem to have been made by itself, to have matured and arisen spontaneously like a natural occurrence, without keeping any point of contact with its author. It will therefore not preserve in its living shape any stamp of the mind in which it germinated, any trace of the eye which glimpsed it, any hint of the lip which murmured its first words like the Creator’s fiat. May it exist for its own sake, simply because it must be and has to be, throbbing with life and yet as immutable as a statue in bronze whose author has had the godlike courage to be eclipsed by and disappear into his immortal work.
I wonder to what extent Verga was aware of the irony of speaking directly as the author of the importance of keeping the authorial persona in the background; or of writing such a purple passage of prose (assuming the translation here reflects the qualities of the original) on the desirability of rendering “absolutely invisible” the “hand of the artist”. Given the obvious intelligence of the author, I’d guess he was well aware of the irony; however, despite the irony, his aims were real enough. The author must not in any way lead the reader: the author should ideally be, as far as possible, in the background.
I cannot help wondering, however, to what extent this is possible. It has always seemed to me when reading, for instance, Flaubert – another author who tried to keep his authorial persona in the background – that the further the author retreats from the front of the stage, the more apparent his presence is: it is the very absence of the author from the spotlight that alerts the reader to his presence somewhere in the background. For no story can write itself. Even when the author is not commenting directly, even when the reader’s sympathies are not explicitly directed, the author’s presence is apparent from the story he has chosen to tell; from the details he has chosen to highlight, and those he has chosen to suppress; from the way he has chosen to structure each individual sentence, and to pace the overarching narrative; and, indeed, in countless other features. Flaubert’s personality is a strong presence in his fiction, as Verga’s is in his, even when he is not addressing the reader directly. And, whatever Verga’s aims, I , for one, think this a Good Thing: the last thing I want from any work of art is anonymity – for that is what making “the hand of the artist absolutely invisible” amounts to – and Verga is far from anonymous: he may not direct the reader’s sympathy explicitly, but such things need not be explicit.
Take, for instance, the story “Rosso Malpero” –which literally means “Red Evil-Hair”, and is translated here as “Nasty Foxfur” – one of the most perfect short stories I think I have read. Its protagonist is a poor lad working in brutal conditions in the mines of Sicily, and orphaned at an early age. We are told about him:
He was called Nasty Foxfur because he had red hair. And he had red hair because he was a bad, malicious boy, who gave every promise of ending up a complete villain.
Is it possible to take these words at face value? Does the author really need to direct our sympathies explicitly in favour of this brutalised little boy?
Neither is there any need for Verga to spell out the love the boy has for his father. Early in the story, his father is involved in a mining accident, and is buried under thousands of tons of sand: there is no hope even of digging the body out. And Verga tells us of this little boy desperately trying to shovel away the sand with his bare hands:
The others started to laugh … Foxfur did not reply, he did not even weep, he dug with his fingernails in the sand there, inside the hole, so that no-one noticed him. And when they came near him with the light they saw such a distorted face, such glassy eyes, and such foam around his mouth as to inspire fear. His fingernails were torn out and hung from his hands all covered in blood. Since he could no longer scratch, he bit them like a mad dog, and they had to seize him by the hair to drag him away by main force.
We are not taken into the boy’ mind, but we don’t need to be taken there: the “objective” description of the physical details tells us all we need to know about what was going on there. We aren’t even fooled by that little touch about the state of his face inspiring “fear”: Verga, far from remaining in the background, far from refusing to direct the reader, has chosen every single detail carefully to ensure that the reader is feels not fear, but compassion.
The boy had clearly been loved by his dead father; and he, in turn, loves his father’s memory. And yet, in that brutal and utterly heartless environment in which he lives, he is not aware even of the concept of love, and he cannot account to himself the feelings he has for his dead father: he doesn’t know what name to give them.
Neither can he begin to understand the affection he feels for an even younger lad, who comes to work in the pit: this younger lad, while working as a bricklayers’ assistant, had fallen from a bridge and dislocated his thigh, and here, at the pit, when carrying sand, he “hobbled so much that he seemed to be dancing the tarantella”. And, we are told laconically, “that made all the men in the pit laugh”. They call this lad Frog, on account of his being crippled, and unable to walk properly. Foxfur – for so he is called throughout the story – takes him under his wing, but there’s no sentimentality about the attachment: although Foxfur really is attached to the crippled little boy, he beats him mercilessly. He beats him because violence is the only way he knows to express his feelings for any other human:
At times he beat him without cause and without mercy … if Frog did not defend himself, he beat him harder, and more furiously, and said to him: “Take that, jackass! … If you haven’t even got the guts to defend yourself against someone who doesn’t even hate you, it means you’ll let every Tom, Dick and Harry walk all over you!”
And yet, Foxfur loves this boy: he does not know what that means, and throughout this story the word “love” is conspicuous by its absence, but he loves that boy in the only way he knows how. When the younger boy falls ill, Foxfur does all he can to help; and when the boy dies, he is heartbroken – although, even here, he does not know what “heartbreak” means, and can’t understand the feeling. And he can’t understand why Frog’s mother should weep over her dead boy “as if her son were one of those who earn ten lire a week”.
The story is bleak and dark, right up to its desolate final sentences; but curiously, it is not nihilistic, as it could well have been in lesser hands. For underneath the endless exploitation and cruelty, there is an awareness – all the stronger for never being explicitly stated – of nobler human feelings and impulses that even conditions such as this cannot quite kill.
The other stories in this collection are hardly less remarkable. “Cavalliera Rusticana” – translated here as “Rustic Honour” – is nothing like Mascagni’s opera (marvellous though I think that is): the story is, once again, sparely told, with not the slightest hint of the sort of wallowing in emotion that we so often take for granted in Italian opera: it is, once again, a bleak tale, stripped to the bone and narrated without even an ounce of excess fat.
I must admit that as I read story after story – mainly on buses during our recent holiday in Sicily – I found myself thinking “What has Verga been all my life?” I am hard pressed to think of any other writer I have encountered for the first time in the last few years who has made such an impact on me. The first story in this collection, “A Reverie”, is not among the strongest; but fortunately, neither is it amongst the most characteristic. The other stories bespeak a writer of individuality and stature, and to whose works I shall undoubtedly be returning.