Andrea Giovene Essay - Critical Essays

Giovene, Andrea

Giovene, Andrea 1904–

An Italian novelist and the founder of the literary periodical Vesuvia, Giovene has studied law, architecture, archaeology, and painting.

If logic were the handmaiden of literary creativity, there would be a constant stream of published novels by that numerous tribe known as the Italian nobility. For who seems better equipped to add to the riches of the genre than these scions of ancient families who are so closely attuned to the nineteenth century, the very century in which the novel reached its zenith? Addicted to the past, permeated from birth with the traditions, legends and exploits of glamorous ancestors, they appear to be the natural repositories of all the stuff from which wondrous tales can be wrought. But, alas, only once in a blue moon does a Prince Lampedusa appear on the scene….

Andrea Giovene [is] the scion of an ancient Neapolitan family…. (p. 16)

The publishers are bragging when they suggest that there is some resemblance between the art of Giovene and that of Proust and Lampedusa. [The Book of Sansevero] has none of the drama or narrative pull that made The Leopard totally absorbing. And although the author is nearly as narcissistic as Proust in his literary viewpoint, he has neither Proust's profundity nor his passionate involvement with other human beings.

Giovene's style is formal and elegiac, with frequent flashes of poetry and insight which the translator has rendered admirably. But a comment the author drops about the novelist Manzoni applies better to his own work: "There was a barrier between him and spontaneity which art was not able to overcome." (p. 18)

Jerry Mangione, "The Prig's Progress," in Book World (© 1970 The Washington Post), November 22, 1970, pp. 16, 18.

If Andrea Giovene can be called a great writer manqué it is not because he just misses greatness but because he aspires to a degree, perhaps even a kind, of greatness which he cannot achieve. About this, there is something both noble and a little absurd, as there is about the whole of his vastly long and ambitious Book of Giuliano Sansevero [published in America as The Book of Sansevero], of which The Dilemma of Love is the second volume to be translated into English. The series of novels follows the fortunes of a Neapolitan nobleman, the narrator, born around the turn of the century; the second volume thus finds him in his thirties during the second decade of fascism, when a legacy allows him the freedom to live and build in one of the remotest corners of Calabria and for years to cut himself off from the rumbustious and ridiculous goings-on in the rest of Italy.

Like its predecessor, this novel has all the trappings, indeed almost the air and flavour, of a great work; unlike its predecessor, it is exquisitely translated—so masterly, in fact, is Bernard Wall's language that at times one is almost persuaded that the original must be the masterpiece it is not. But though literate and often attractive—particularly in its descriptions—it fatally lacks any real grandeur or size; above all, any deep understanding of people. Like a small man in a large overcoat, however lavishly frogged and braided, it has somehow a puffed-up, inadequate air; there is a sense of straining after imagery, after meanings and patterns that scarcely seem to matter. And yet The Dilemma of Love is a much more satisfactory novel than the earlier one, partly because it has a unity of place the other lacked, and a single theme and set of characters; it is more close-knit and appears less pretentious, both artistically and socially. Its theme is Arcadia, paradise, and the loss of it.

Andrea Giovene has often been compared with Proust, and nearer home, more closely, with Lampedusa. The Proust comparison is absurd (there is not, for one thing, the smallest pinch of humour anywhere, at any time, in the whole of The Book of Giuliano Sansevero); the Lampedusa one, perhaps, more apt. But Lampedusa, for all the trappings of rank and history, created in The Leopard a world that still (however rarified) has relevance to ours, lit by a mind of singular brilliance. Sansevero's world has much that superficially recalls it, but no brilliance, no mastery of its forms: a world dimmed to middlingness by a middling creator.

"Lost Arcadia," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 26, 1973, p. 84.

As a documentary novel, The Dice of War [the third volume of The Book of Guiliano Sansevero] is successful. One reads on for the information it gives and much of that information is interesting….

But, like the earlier novels in the sequence, The Dice of War is fatally ambitious, fatally unable to see its own limitations; it is simply not as important, as meaningful, as it seems to suggest it is, as its author appears to think it. The whole of The Book of Giuliano Sansevero, indeed, is pretentious and inflated; not unpleasantly so, just sadly over-written and conceived on too grand a scale for its talent. Never, for a moment, is there a trace of humour; never does the hero view himself with irony. He has an extraordinary story to tell, much of which (it is clear from the biography on the jacket) his creator experienced; even after a lapse of thirty years or more it is hard to face squarely the terrible events he lives through and is almost killed by. In them he behaves in a way that is meant to be admirable but comes across as priggish and self-absorbed. And no other characters impinge on this self-absorption, although, after three volumes of his company, one still has little sense of the narrator's being, or even of his presence and personality.

It is incident that carries the book along, as it was descriptions (of a whole way of life, as well as its detail and artefacts) that carried The Dilemma of Love. Remove them, and little remains: some dry philosophizing, a sense of emptiness, of mental mediocrity…. Andrea Giovene seems like those ambitious writers who deal only with large subjects and important themes and even at their most intimate seem to be making speeches; his long novel—not just this volume of it—is a great work manqué.

"The War in Words," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 8, 1974, p. 125.

Giulano [the narrator of Giovene's "The Dice of War"] … has appeared in two earlier novels, "The Book of Sansevero" and "The Dilemma of Love." He is now an officer in the Italian Army…. "The Dice of War" is an ample, meditative chronicle. Giuliano responds to violence by perceiving the suffering of its victims and feeling more deeply for his fellow-men and women in their roles as fellow-sufferers. He perceives a good many other things in his realistic annals: he offers very precise observations on the disastrous effect of Fascism on the Italian people; corruption and cowardice, he says, have infected the upper and middle classes and eroded the morale of the peasants, who are being removed from countrysides they love and made to fight in countries in which they evince little interest and for which they have even less animosity. (p. 187)

This is the story of an ordeal, of a man who feels that he has been put to a test by "the Divinity who rules the world" and has answered by saying no to evil. Giuliano's humaneness never deserts him, and in the cruellest situations he always finds someone who is in some way good—dutiful, generous, honest, and/or innocent. The villains who created so many victims fade from our vision; we simply see living French, Greeks, Germans, and Italians as suffering individuals. A man who observes this and cares about it even though he, too, is suffering greatly is remarkable, and one wonders what the sources of this remarkable goodness are. Giuliano's references to Homer, Socrates, and Caesar, his appreciation of the classical heritage common to Greece and Italy, suggest that for him, and perhaps Giovene, too, the antique, the classical tradition (which I suppose the modern West is in the process of forgetting) still has a vast sustaining power. Giuliano's dignity recalls such a noble figure as Hector. Homer's fairness to the Trojans allows us to appreciate them; though these enemies of the ancient Hellenes are not winners, they are nonetheless heroes. Yet the purpose of Giuliano's narrative—to bear witness on behalf of all those suffering men and women he saw, who had become "my brothers and my sisters"—is as much Christian as it is classical. The book's affecting conclusion, his homecoming, evokes both the women of Troy and the women of modern Italy…. (pp. 188-89)

Naomi Bliven, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 9, 1974.