“Life in the Country” by Giovanni Verga

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.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carl McLuhan on November 30, 2014 at 10:13 pm

    Hi again, Himadri:

    Thanks for the introduction to Verga. I knew absolutely nothing about him, but what you comment upon makes him sound very much like one aspect of the realist movement in which Zola was also a believer. They were born in the same year (1840) and Zola would undoubtedly have lived longer had his life not been cut short.

    It’s the kind of realistic detail, entering upon the gruesome but pulled back by the human connection, that reminds me of Zola. The details of the finger-nails, coupled with the laughter of the commoners at the boy’s expense, or the cruel/humane treatment of “Frog,” seem to me to be characteristic of Zola’s work. We read “La Terre” a few years back, and had similiar thematic details such as the cruelties within families and society which go unpunished, indeed, almost unnoticed, except for the reader of course. These strong elements were quite likely part of the Zeitgeist in the late 19th century.

    I’m glad that you enjoyed this collection; I’ll certainly look him up.

    Carl

    Reply

    • Hello Carl, I knew little of Verga, and had read nothing by him, until I went to Sicily a month or so ago, and packed in my luggage a volume of Verga’s short stories, and Lampedusa’s The Leopard (of which more later).

      It hadn’t registered with me that he was born in the same year as Zola. And clearly, Verga’s subject matter – he wrote mainly about Siciliam peasantry – inevitably has much in common with Zola’s. And yet, the differences seem as prominent as the similarities. Zola loved excess: he loved laying on teh horrors, and – some may say – wallowing in it. he loved to shock. And he succeeded: the closing chapters of La Terre still give me nightmares! But verga’s aesthetic was different, I think: he preferred a clasical restraint. At times, his spare style seems almost laconic – something one could never accuse Zola of! He often presented the mere bare bones of his narrative. Some time, I’ll have to read his novel I Malavoglia: I’d like to see if he uses this style in a longer narrative, and, if so, how it works.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by alan on November 30, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    Thanks for that.
    “the novel, the most complete and human of all works of art” – I agree , and as for being “purple prose”, I wish I could write prose like that, purple or otherwise.
    I agree with you about the improbability of authorial anonymity in a novel but I am not sure about “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”.
    When we move away from the novel and into drama I think that anonymity becomes a little bit more possible, and perhaps a virtue. More than one person has said that they cannot hear the authorial voice in Shakespeare – I suspect that I’m not the only person who’d like to hear your thoughts about that.

    Reply

    • That’s the problem with quoting large chunks from the book you’re talking about: if the prose is good, it makes your own look trite and insipid.

      Authorial presence (or otherwise) – particularly in relation to Shakespeare – is a good topic for discussion. I personally enjoy a companionable authorial presence. (I wrote something about it here.)

      The problem with trying to determine Shakespeare’s presence is that his work is so multi-faceted, any single reader can but pick up a small subset of the totality of his various themes and concerns. Thus, we all create our own image of Shakespeare. The image isn’t necessarily wrong, as such, but it’s only part of a much larger story. But yes, it would be worth discussing at some time after the festive season, when I am sufficiently sober and not hung over.

      Reply

  3. “a month ago” – I am so disappointed you missed my series on Little Novels of Sicily from a couple of years ago. Hey, wait a minute!

    I’m going to read more Verga in the new year, I have promised myself – a couple of novels & a return to the stories. I doubt there is another as good as “Rosso Malpelo.”

    Reply

    • You are right to be disappointed: I certainly had read your posts on Verga – as is evidenced by my responding to one of them – and my forgetting about them is best put down, I think, to the deleterious effects on the brain of advancing years. But thank you for the reminder: it gave me a good reason to read them again, and to concur with your observations on his style.

      For instance:

      ” Zola is another connection that seems more theoretical than stylistic.”

      I was nodding away in agreement on reading this. born in teh sam eyear, both writin about peasantry, neither looking away from the horrors – they should similar, but they aren’t: they could not be different in terms of artistic temperament.

      “The less he questions this values of the world, the more the reader wants to question them.”

      Absolutely! This very lack of questioning on the author’s part directs the reader’s response.

      I gather from your post that there exists more stories by verga in English translation: i shall certainly hunt them down. And I need to get myself also “The House by the Medlar Tree” – “I Malavogloia” – that I believe is published by Dedalus Books.

      I am intrigued also by your seeing in Verga echoes of Sholem Aleichem. he is another of those many writers whom i have bene intending to read for some time, but haven’t yet got round to.

      Reply

  4. I took Verga along to Sicily (I Malavoglia) and was ever glad I did. For one thing, the book came in handy when we were looking for the road out of Catania towards Aci Trezza (one glance at the cover and the gentleman who’d stopped to help us was able to point us the right way). But for another, Verga has an extraordinary ability to ground one to the harsh realities of life so invisible when one is a tourist in a place. Except for its extraordinary rocks, said to have been thrown into the sea by the cyclops to prevent Ulysses’ escape, Aci Trezza could today be almost any Mediterranean beach town. But it was impossible to look at the fishing boats in the harbor without thinking of the terrible struggles of the poor Malavoglia family and of the crushing poverty that Verga conveys so searingly. Your question is a good one – how an author engaged in the enterprise of literature can realistically hope to hide him or herself in the background. But I will say that Verga does that as well as, if not better than, any writer I’ve encountered. I Malavoglia is perhaps the least “literary” novel I’ve read, in the sense of its betraying almost no detectable, overt preoccupation with literature itself.

    Reply

    • I Malavoglia is most certainly on my to-be-read list. As is perhaps fairly obvius from my post, I am very much taken by what I have read so far by Verga. I read those short stories on the bus between Catania and Palermo, and between catania and Agrigento, and as I was reading, I was trying to picture the action of these stories set in the landscape I was observing out of the window.

      Reply

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