Elio Vittorini’s novels are, above all, dynamic works whose “unfinished” quality reflects the author’s restless search for a type of writing that would tell “the truth” about the world. In an important statement he made about his own activity as a writer, in the preface to the 1948 (Italian) edition of The Red Carnation, he spoke of his desire to write not “books” but “a book,” that book which one writes and rewrites in order to tell “the truth that must be told.” Because that truth changes with a changing world and a changing awareness, the task of pursuing it is never ended.
Looking at Vittorini’s novels, one notices that almost all of them moved through successive versions. In addition to interruptions and stylistic corrections, the texts underwent title changes, cuts, additions, and much crucial rethinking of plots and characters. It is true that outside circumstances such as the war and censorship caused certain projects to stall, though not for Vittorini only; such external events impinged on many lives. For Vittorini, the practical obstacles were compounded by self-imposed dilemmas—the result of his integrity as a writer who wanted to “understand,” to remain close to the suffering world, to be an interpreter and a witness to the world’s becoming.
The same commitment to understanding the world and to changing its social order caused Vittorini to search for a new way of writing. Each novel is an experiment in language and approach, a painstaking effort to subvert the tradition. From The Red Carnation, which began as a fairly traditional psychological novel about an adolescent’s awakening, only to veer toward the exploration of a social and political crise de conscience (crisis of conscience), Vittorini went on to explore the impact of fascism, war, and industrialization on people’s lives, feelings, and imagination. His late novel, Le città del mondo (cities of the world), which turned back to an earlier interest in a peasant universe mythically interpreted, significantly was left unfinished. In spite of Vittorini’s efforts to complete it over a span of fourteen years, its theme and technique revealed an incongruity with Vittorini’s new consciousness and with his rejection of a worldview that remained rooted in an agrarian culture.
Above all, there is in Vittorini’s work a pervasive conviction that literature, its voice and its experiments, do matter to the world and its history. Vittorini’s prose, written in standard, plain Italian, uses repetition, dialogue, and poetic techniques to achieve its effects. Fictional events emerge from the interaction of characters with their societal environment, against the background of the voices and actions of a choral or collective presence. Thus, poetry and history find their confluence in Vittorini’s fiction.
The “book” that Vittorini visualized as the ideal goal to which his fictional work tended, relies heavily on recurrent themes and myths. The most important is the theme of childhood, which is closely related to what has been called the Robinsonian myth (Robinson Crusoe is mentioned frequently by Vittorini as a work that profoundly influenced him). Immersed in the environment of a mythical island, childhood is the time that transfigures reality. Sicily, Sardinia, and Robinson Crusoe’s island become one, as the child repeats gestures, retells stories, reinvents rituals, dreams again ancient dreams. Throughout Vittorini’s career, his imagination was drawn back to the island myth, but the contemplation of the privileged moment of childhood (although viewed by him as essential to the development of human consciousness), of an appreciation of the community of people and of the fictional world, became in time a temptation, a means to escape awareness, a regress. One cannot remain in that magic circle of purity and certainty; there are outrages and a grieving world waiting out there.
Thus, traveling is an almost perennial activity for Vittorini’s characters. The theme of the journey, though, is not a romantic search for self, to be actuated through the discovery of exotic solitudes. It is, rather, a search into the self through the weaving of a network of human relationships, along the pattern of another network, that of railways and highways in a specific place, the Italian peninsula, at given historical moments. Traveling means leaving one’s isolation; it means conversing, meeting people, sharing food, establishing or reestablishing roots. For the adolescent or the inexperienced person, traveling is an education; for the adult, it is an opportunity to engage in narration, to find an audience, to influence and inform other people. As seafarers used to ply the seas in search of comradeship and knowledge, Vittorini’s travelers haunt train compartments and truck beds, with a great sense of adventure, in a country where the events have set whole populations in motion. During such travels, one hears about, and at times meets, extraordinary people.
Two of the mythical figures in Vittorini’s repertory, the Great Lombard and the Queen Bee, may be met under just such circumstances. The Lombard is the embodiment of the moral tension that lies at the core of Vittorini’s world, a man who is “like a king” and is even physically imposing, tall and massive, blue-eyed, flanked and admired by beautiful daughters. He is made restless, however, by a need to tend to “other duties,” higher duties that make a man more of a man, duties that go beyond those prescribed by the Judeo-Christian tradition and would satisfy the new yearnings of the human conscience, which is no longer content with the old Commandments. The Queen Bee is woman in her maturity, giving but independent, sensual but clearheaded, protective only when needed, a powerful “blessed old sow,” “full of honey.” Together, usually presented as Father and Daughter, they embody the images of male and female adulthood in Vittorini’s mythology.
In Sicily, the novel that placed Vittorini among the major voices of European literature, brings together all the themes and the concerns of its author. Above all, the style of this novel expresses the intensity and complexity of Vittorini’s artistic and political preoccupations at a particularly crucial time in his life.
Theprotagonist, Silvestro, is a prey to “abstract furies” that have to do with “the lost human race,” in a dismal winter in the north, with depression mounting as rainwater seeps into his old shoes. His visit to his childhood island, Sicily, and to his mother’s house is a descent into a different world, a journey that heals and exorcizes, as Silvestro looks at landscapes, villages, people, and his own parents with the eyes of an adult. The novel chronicles a journey of mythic dimensions, lingering with...
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