What of Italian literature, though? Ah, this is where things begin to go quiet – at least outside Italy.
Italian literature has something of an identity crisis in the English-speaking world. Italy, at a fleeting glance, just doesn’t appear to have a literary tradition to rival those of France, Germany, Russia, Britain, or the United States. Mention ‘Russian Literature’, and vast numbers of writers will spring to mind: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Pushkin, Turgenev, Bulgakov. If someone mentions ‘Italian literature’, what or who do you think of?
Well, there’s Dante, obviously. La Divina Commedia and La Vita Nuova are classics not just of Italian, but of world, literature, and most modern English-speakers will have heard of Dante’s unrequited love for Beatrice – who, after all, can resist a good love story? Yet it’s questionable how many of those English-speakers have ever sat down and read Dante’s works, which is understandable in a way; in these secular times, a long poetic journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven may hold little obvious appeal to the average reader. Ah, well – it matters not. Themes and subject matter, like writers, go in and out of fashion, but Dante is assured a place at the head of the Italian literary table.
Apart from Dante? Well, there’s Petrarch and his sonnets. There’s Boccaccio and his Decameron, hauntingly reminiscent in style and structure of our own Canterbury Tales. Machiavelli’s treatises on the brutal realities of Realpolitik are as relevant today as they ever were, as a cursory glance at Italian politics will confirm.
And then? Surprisingly little, actually, until you arrive at the nineteenth century; in fact, Italian literature only really begins to come into its own in the latter half of the twentieth century, with the emergence of writers such as Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, and Italo Calvino. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a masterpiece of Italian literature, was published posthumously in 1958 (it was rejected by publishers during Tomasi’s lifetime; one considered it ‘unpublishable’, which should give hope to struggling writers everywhere). In the present day, Italian gialli (crime and detective novels) are popular with English readers; indeed, Inspector Montalbano is probably every bit as popular in Surrey as in his native Sicily.
Still, there’s something of a shortfall in the English-speaking world’s appreciation of Italian literature. Why?
It’s unsurprising, in a way. The Italian language, like modern Italy, has existed for just over 150 years. Until the advent of national TV and radio broadcasts, it was not widely spoken; even today, many Italians are in effect bilingual, preferring to speak local dialect in day-to-day life, and switching to standard Italian only when confronted with outsiders. Linguistic confusions, along with so many other contradictions and inconsistencies, help to make Italy such a glorious, interesting muddle of a country. Dante, Boccaccio and Machiavelli all wrote in literary Tuscan, which lies at the root of modern Italian. ‘Lingua Tusca magis apta est ad literam sive literature,’ (‘The Tuscan language is better suited to the letter or literature’) declared Antonio da Tempo of Padua. But, of course, most Italians did not speak Tuscan, and so, perforce, could not read or write in it either.
|Lake Como, the setting for Manzoni's novel I Promessi Sposi.|
In fact, it was not until 1827 that a novel that was both in Italian and in the realist, European vein was published: Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). I Promessi Sposi is marvellous, but in terms of its potential readership it had one major drawback – at the time, it was written in a language that hardly anyone, some educated Tuscans aside, actually spoke or understood. Only today is Manzoni’s work both widely read and recognised as the major contribution to Italian literature that it truly is.
All of which leads to some rather more general thoughts. Those of us who both live in the modern era and speak and write in English are perhaps phenomenally lucky. We just happen to speak the language that is, at the current time, the lingua franca (for how much longer is another question altogether). Linguistic divides are, perhaps, less broad for us than for those who write in other languages. Yet I sometimes wonder whether foreign-language writing gets the attention it deserves in the English-speaking world. In Britain, at least, one might blame a lingering nervousness about foreignness, together with the common suspicion that, in cultural terms at least, the Channel is wider than the Atlantic. And then, of course, there is the simple language barrier. Much tends to get lost in translation, however competent the translator.
Which is a shame, because one of the great things about fiction is that it allows you to glimpse other places, other times, other points of view. Reading English-language works might be like coming back home again; but we shouldn’t be afraid to venture out of our comfort zones every so often, and try something new. Viva la differenza!