Thursday, 2 July 2015

Italian Literature's Identity Crisis, by Mari Biella

Italy is one of those countries you just have to love. It has some of the best countryside and most interesting towns and cities in the world; it’s the country of the Renaissance, of glorious art and architecture. Its wine, fashion and food are widely considered to be second to none. Besides, how can you not love a country shaped like a boot? Yes, there’s no doubt about it: Italy gets rave reviews all round.

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!


Umberto Tosi said...

Brava Mari! Well said. By happy coincidence, right now, we're doing our best at Chicago Quarterly Review - where I am an editor - to help fill that English-speaking world's knowledge gap about contemporary Italian literature.

Our literary magazine's current offering -"The Italian Issue" - long in the making (guest edited by Michela Martini) -features more than 200 pages of outstanding, newly translated writings from the 1960s to the present, by more than three dozen Italian language poets, fiction writers and essayists.

You can get a peek here, including a list of the writers:
.. or here:

Chicago Quarterly Review has been in print continuously for the past 21 years. Alas, it's not available in e-book form as yet, but I'm working on that.

Dennis Hamley said...

I know you're right, Mari. I like Italian detectives but the ones I go to first are Brunettti and Aurelio Zen, by Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin respectively. Yes, English can be a curse and when it returns to being a rough dialect spoken on a wet island we'll all be in trouble.Talking of Dante, there's a very good new writer in Writers in Oxford who recently published independently a remarkable YA novel called Ante's Inferno, which gets kids actually inside the poem. I thought it was brilliant and asked her why it hadn't been taken up by a mainstream publisher. She told me it was because they all said that modern kids would neither know Dante or like him if they did and they wouldn't understand what the book was about and it was generally far too difficult for them and anyway it was about things they wouldn't want to know. To repeat Sue in yesterday's comments, Dear God. Twenty years ago editors would have bitten hands off to publish it.

Lydia Bennet said...

Great post Mari, very thought-provoking - certainly Scandi crime is huge here in the UK now and virtually nobody speaks those languages, so that's not the barrier. Perhaps there's just not enough translation going on? The success of Italian crime on TV and the popularity of those like Leon must be a promising sign.

Leela Soma said...

I could watch Montalbano every day, just to see the crumbling beauty of Sicily and listen to the Italian and watch the subtitles to try and find familiar words! You are so right about lack of translated works. It is not just in Italy. In India the publishing world is becoming aware of the numerous languages that need to be accessed by the huge population and are at last taking the first steps to recognise the 14 National languages and the 200 plus dialects. The translations of the work of Dalits(the old untouchables) is particularly appealing to me. Literature even literacy was the reserve of the rich and priestly classes,so there is a need for a concerted effort to get works more accessible to all people in society. Your great blog gave us a peek into Italy's lit scene. Hope much more is done to get this subject debated and acted on. Thanks Mari.

Reb MacRath said...

Terrific post, Mari. Glad you mentioned Calvino, whose Invisible Cities is one of my favorite books.

Reb MacRath said...

Despite its identity crisis, the influence of Italian Lit on other countries' has surely been phenomenal. Byron could never have written his comic masterpieces--Beppo, Vision of Judgment and Don Juan --if not for ottava rima. Boccaccio may have invented it but Pulci's mock heroic epic Morgante Magiore showed Byron the stanza's comic potential for English rhyme. Would love to read more on the subject of Italian influence.

Mari Biella said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. It's frightening, Dennis, to think that a good novel was turned down for being 'too difficult' - if readers aren't even given the option to stretch their minds a bit, doesn't that become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I love Invisible Cities too, Reb - it's one of my all-time favourites, in fact!

Leela Soma said...

Mari, I just came across this today and thought it was fascinating: Leonardo da Vinci: A Chinese Scholar Lost in Renaissance Italy by Angelo Paratico
In his latest book, Hong Kong-based writer and historian Angelo Paratico suggests that not only that the Mona Lisa is—or might have been—Leonardo’s mother, but also she was—or might have been—Chinese.

Susan Price said...

Leela - translating the work of Dalits sounds like a wonderful project.

Susan Price said...

And Umberto - love you, but wish you didn't have a giant spider behind your head every time I look at you!

Alice said...

I think you are right about a lot of this. A large part of the problem is that not nearly enough work by Continental European writers is translated into English. We in England kid ourselves that we are so international but actually we are horribly parochial. (I say this as someone who lived abroad for sixteen years). There is also a cultural problem. We are dominated by an Anglo Saxon / American idea of what a story is. Stories have to develop and 'go somewhere.' Often Continental European stories don't. Think of all those wonderful French films which are simply slices of life and 'go nowhere' but are fantastic nevertheless. The English publishing industry is simply not going to buy a story which, apparently, 'goes nowhere.' But things are changing - look at what Peireine Press are doing. And look at the recent success of Eleanor Ferrante. Now there's an Italian who is attracting attention. But I bet it has been a struggle to get those books translated and out on the English market.

Áine said...

And even the translations may be a problem. I think I remember reading that Nabokov created different puns for different language versions of his books because they were not easily translatable. Learning something of the Tuscan language would be interesting. I read The Leopard last year at the urging of John A. A. Logan who mentioned it in one of his blogs here. I prefer those "slice of life" narratives you mentioned which "go nowhere" but teach us about the language, culture, thought patterns and mores of the writer and his/her country.

julia jones said...

What a worthwhile blog -- though I still feel slightly guilty for getting my Italy fix via Michael Dibdin and Donna Leon. For me Italy speaks most directly through music, but that's not exactly up to date