Elio Vittorini Essay - Vittorini, Elio (Vol. 9)

Vittorini, Elio (Vol. 9)

Vittorini, Elio 1908–1966

Vittorini was an Italian editor, short story writer, and novelist whose anti-Fascism colored much of his fiction. In Conversation in Sicily, however, he transcended the limitations of political fiction to produce his finest work. Vittorini was stylistically influenced by American fiction; his dialogue, narrative pace, characterizations, and settings reflect a strong indebtedness to Hemingway. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

[In Il Sempione strizza l'occhio al Fréjus (Twilight of the Elephants) the] hovering narrator [of Conversazione in Sicilia (Conversation in Sicily)] is gone, and the story is told in the first person by a member of the family it describes. This short novel is relatively plotless and consists of no more than a setting, a half dozen or so characters, and a series of conversations. Vittorini is thus freed from the difficulty he has in Uomini e no of surmounting a rather banal adventure-thriller plot. The structure returns to the simple network of dialogues that was so effective in Conversazione in Sicilia, although the motif of travel, of the seeking wanderer, is missing. This simplicity allows Vittorini to concentrate on the matters of cadence, of flat but deftly sketched character, of poetic ambience, where his touch is sure. The result is a minor but charming and relatively successful piece of fiction. (p. 194)

[The] mother, who defends [the grandfather, the "elephant" of the title,] and interprets him for the others, contends that he built practically every other monument of the history of civilization as well: the Milan cathedral, the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids. This theme of universality escapes pompousness simply through the ironic and half-playful way it is presented. The children are skeptical; the mother is firm in her faith.

She may mean more than we think she means. She's not stupid. She certainly doesn't mean anybody except grandfather, that great seated bulk, but if she wanted to indicate his whole race and ours she could only point to him. It's only he that she refers to as "your grandfather," "our grandfather." But there is no reason why she shouldn't use the name of "grandfather" for all those in the world who are like him.

"Those who are like him" include his fellow workers on the Fréjus, those who built the Duomo, the Colosseum, the Chinese Wall, the Pyramids. And who else? The reader who sets out here like Dante in his letter to Can Grande della Scala to find allegorical levels will have practically no place to stop. First of all the grandfather is a real grandfather, a "naturalistic" character whose background and temperament can be accepted quite literally. Second, he can be identified with Vittorini's own youthful experience as a construction worker; the grandfather personifies a nostalgia for hard work, common action, exposure to the elements, the solving of physical problems through determination and ingenuity. As a kind of part-time Marxist Vittorini regards the real advances of civilization as material, technological, rather than intellectual, and while the grandfather is not exactly anti-intellectual he is hardly a scholar or abstract thinker. At the next level down there is a somewhat ironic religious implication: the grandfather as Jahveh. Finally, the grandfather with his roots three generations back in Italian history represents the nineteenth century, the Risorgimento, the heroic epoch in Italian destiny…. (p. 195)

And yet when the novel is weighed as a whole, in its final aesthetic effect, it is possible to ignore all these complicated hints and regard the grandfather simply as a kind of tough nexus of humanity, "more a man" than the others. In Vittorini's frame of values the workers, those who make things with their hands, those who are in contact with basic physical realities, are admirable; bureaucrats, exploiters, and policemen are not. Those who suffer are più uomo; those who make suffer are less, or not man at all. Like the Gran Lombardo in Conversazione in Sicilia, the grandfather is più uomo as well in his patriarchal virility. Contrasted to him in this whimsical Holy Family, the mother's husband (he is given no other name) plays a kind of semicomic Joseph. Joseph may be a saint, but what a pitiful figure he cuts next to Jahveh! (p. 196)

If the novel has any plot at all it depends on the intrusion of an outsider into the family: the highway worker called Smoke-Face who is laying asphalt on the road outside the house…. It is the invention of this character that saves the novel from a rather pointless dialogue, taking place entirely within the family, without beginning or an end…. The grandfather represents the past, Mazzini and Garibaldi, Vittorini's own youth; Smoke-Face represents the possibility that something like the grandfather can be reborn in the present. This is the possibility—to put it in political terms—that a modern proletariat can recapture something of the energy and idealism of the Risorgimento. At the religious level of the novel Smoke-Face represents the rebirth of the God, and so on. The pattern of the novel is meaningful no matter which of the various frameworks is applied to it, or even if no particular framework is applied to it, if it is taken quite simply as the story of a family and an outsider who makes friends with it…. Smoke-Face surmounts this difficulty and manages to be perfectly human and yet emblematic, metaphorically significant, at the same time.

[A somewhat] playful complexity of meaning is attached to the meal which Smoke-Face shares with the family, the central event and in fact the only real event of the novel. It is a kind of Last Supper: Black-Face shares the bread of the family, predicts certain sufferings and transcendences, and offers them a salted anchovy (the fish is a paleo-Christian symbol) which only the elephant-grandfather is allowed to touch. The others sniff its odor, and put its salt on their bread. But the meal is more meaningful and a good deal more ingenious as an "economic satire" in the manner of Swift. Except for their weekly quota of bread, most of which is eaten by the elephant, the family lives on chicory which they gather along the roads. Boiling this in a huge pot, they ladle it into bowls and eat it for their one meal of the day. But in this manner, the mother fears, the children will grow up not knowing how to eat soup or cut up chicken. So at every meal there is an elaborate pantomine in which they pretend to eat other things, and always with the proper table manners: antipasto, fried potatoes, meat, fruit, and wine sipped from empty glasses. The meal in which Smoke-Face joins them is a particularly elaborate one, with an oil-cruet, fruit bowls, and even triple silverware added to the ordinary settings. With tears of hunger streaming down their cheeks the children go through the motions of eating. The meal is a parody of polite bourgeois etiquette; the "modest proposal" is that children, while starving to death, should nevertheless learn good table manners by pretending to eat air. This forestalls in advance the bourgeois criticism that the lower classes are uncouth and would not appreciate the better things in life if they were given to them. Smoke-Face here serves the function of the outside observer, always a useful device in fiction where a customary situation or procedure must be explained to the reader. He comments that he too would like to take part in the charade and learn how to eat chicken. "Never had a chance to learn," he says, laughing. But this joke is not his real response to the ritual of the meal. In the mock-religious framework of the novel his responding act is to offer them the fish which is both spirit (the odor which is all the children get) and flesh (the meat eaten by the elephant). (pp. 196-98)

Smoke-Face produces a reed fife … and plays on it. He has learned this skill, he explains, because ever since childhood it has been his dream to be a sorcerer. This idea echoes back and forth in an "operatic" conversation that dominates most of a chapter. (p. 198)

The man takes his full glass in his hand. He laughs and empties it. He has already said that he didn't know why he was looking for his theme. Now he answers my mother: "But yes, lady. It's for enchanting elephants."

"Elephant" in this sense is simply physical humanity, the warmth of companion flesh. Smoke-Face goes on to explain that he had never understood why he liked to sit next to a working companion or a traveler on a train, and then realized that he "liked to be near an elephant." At this point elephants, fifes, and sorcery begin to emerge as another metaphor for the personal and technical problem Vittorini discussed in the preface to Il garofano rosso: how to express a highly personal emotion through the outworn and banal apparatus of fiction? how to communicate realities and yet transcend conventional realism? In both Conversazione in Sicilia and Il Sempione strizza l'occho al Fréjus the answer is conveyed in musical terms: the "something which does for the novel what music does for the opera," the fife that "enchants elephants." In the later novel the metaphor first emerges in the pantomine dinner. The linguaggio or style (metaphorically the fife-playing) makes even this improbable scene seem acceptable. But here the technique seems to turn inward on itself in the Gidean manner. The meal is made "real" in two ways: the reader accepts the improbability because of the whole style and treatment of the chapter, and inside the framework of the novel the family accepts the food as real through the "enchantment" of their own way of talking about it. Through language the meal becomes a ritual, and the fact that the food is unreal no more interferes with the validity of the ritual than the invisibility of the Divine interferes with the vailidty of the Mass. "Music does something," and this music is externalized both by the poetic and echoing quality of the dialogue and by Smoke-Face's piping. Thus Smoke-Face, in addition to prophet and revolutionist, is also the artist.

Before he leaves the family Smoke-Face offers a final and cryptic piece of wisdom: he explains how elephants die. Never in all of Africa is a dead elephant seen in the jungle. Instead, when their last hours come upon them, they make their way to "secret cemeteries, unknown even to them while they're alive." There they simply stretch out and die, a burden on no one…. In the final chapter [the grandfather] puts his coat and hat on, takes his stick, and without a word wanders off toward the woods. The mother refuses to let the children go after him, commenting, "We too are elephants." But the ending of the chapter is ambiguous, in the whimsical and antitragical way that dominates the whole tone of the novel. "It's not the beginning of night, it's the end," the mother tells them. And she explains that the workmen who are going to their jobs will find the grandfather and bring him home again. "Meanwhile let him get disenchanted," she advises. ("Ma si sbizzarrisca," literally "Let him get rid of his bizarreries.) The bizarreries are, perhaps, the sentimental romanticism of the Risorgimento, but they are also the enchantments of the novel itself, the fife-playing. Is it really possible to get rid of these? The tension between enchantment and reality is the essence of Vittorini's method. (pp. 198-200)

Donald Heiney, "Persons and Nonpersons," in his Three Italian Novelists (copyright © by The University of Michigan 1968), University of Michigan Press, 1968, pp. 189-200.

The novelistic language of Vittorini is not essentially a realistic one. In a 1933 article he distinguishes between two kinds of writers: those who make you think, "Yes, that's the way it is," and those who make you think, "I had never supposed it could be like that," and in this way suggest a new mode of experience, a new "how" to existence. The experience communicated in a work of fiction is of course specific, fixed to a single place on the map and a single point in time; in this at least Vittorini is a realist. But the effect on the reader (and Vittorini is as much interested in the psychology of the reader as he is in the creative process) must not be bound to or limited by this specific…. [He] approaches the aesthetics of Mallarmé and the Symbolists; poetry is concerned not with things but with the general emotions generated by things…. But Vittorini does not go this far. His fiction remains tied to a world of sunshine, melons, wine, rain, human voices. Yet one of the points of his method is to demonstrate that melons and sunshine are the same for all men, to affirm the universality of sensory experience. Underlying this is a notion of solidarity, of the resemblance that links all men together in the human condition. Men feel heat and cold in much the same way, and this is a reminder that all men hunger and suffer in their lives, feel love and hate, and finally die. This concept of the community of experience is the connecting link, a tenuous and not very satisfactory one, between Vittorini's aesthetics and his politics. The sensations of the novelistic hero, which are also those of the author, are projected as possibilities for the reader and for all men. (It is important to note that they are "possibilities"; Vittorini's fiction does not so much evoke the reader's own experience as suggest new things that might happen to him.) The solidarity of feeling thus becomes the solidarity of politics; or at least Vittorini attempts to bring the two together. The difficulty is that, while all men feel heat and cold in the same way, they may not necessarily feel the same about such political questions as freedom and the artist's relation to the state. The relative failure of Vittorini's later fiction turns around this difficulty. In Conversazione in Sicilia (Conversation in Sicily) this fundamental tension is resolved more successfully than it is in any of the rest of his work. The reason is that at the point where he began to conceive this novel, in late 1936, he had finally grasped the aesthetic principle that his whole career was to turn around. And, paradoxically, the existence of censorship helped him by rendering abstract or "poetic" the overt political element that was to weaken later novels like Uomini e no (Men and Not-Men) and Le donne di Messina (The Women of Messina). Obliged to be vague and general, Vittorini turned vagueness and generality into an emotional device of great power. (pp. 161-62)

"Putting the reader inside" [the narrator's experience] implies at least some degree of universality, if not in the experience itself then at least in the work of art that reflects it. This is the basic task of his writing in the middle period of his career: to objectify the subjective. Conversazione in Sicilia is not a travelogue of Sicily, and it is not really a portrait of regional manners…. [For] Vittorini the events happen to the protagonist, a visitor who sees the train-travelers and Sicilian villagers from the outside, as much as he may empathize with them. These secondary characters are important, in fact, only insofar as they provoke impressions, emotions, and inward processes in the narrator. Vittorini's mature style, the style of Conversazione in Sicilia, is an effort to find the verbal equivalent of certain emotions. The narrator's disclaimer that the furies are "not what he wants to tell about" we may take as an artistic feint, a tactic to direct the reader's attention to the surface of the narrative before it is led to what is underneath. This is the real meaning of Vittorini's statement that poetry "does not remain tied to the things from which it originated" and "can be related, if it is born out of pain, to any pain."

Yet the view that Vittorini is a regionalist is not entirely unsound. Sicily is used as a major setting in only two of his novels, Conversazione in Sicilia and La Garibaldina. But underlying his whole work there is a matrix of personal experience: the abandonment of primitive Sicily for an urban north, and a later attempt to recover this innocence and primitivism of his youth…. In Vittorini's work there is always the implication of a kind of geographical polarity: on the one hand the north, cities, civilization, white collars, books, intellectualism; on the other hand the south, the land, wine, sunshine, the basic and primitive elements of existence. Fascism he associates with the north, even though fascist policemen and bureaucrats (Mustache and No Mustache in Conversazione in Sicilia) are often southerners. The "screaming newspaper placards" are of the city; fascism is made out of paper, it takes over the apparatus of the city and civilization and uses it as a weapon against the country. Vittorini's origins were small-town and petty bourgeois, and in spite of his youthful experience as a construction worker he never quite made the transition to the proletariat. The workers are ostensibly the heroes of the Resistance novel Uomini e no and of the "Autobiografia in tempo di guerra," but his deepest emotions are always tied to childhood, to Sicily, to the sea and sun. This is precisely the difficulty with his later leftist or "collectivist" fiction: the tension between the outward political apparatus and his innermost emotions is unresolved. In Viaggio in Sardegna, an extremely revealing book, he begins what is ostensibly a travelogue by confessing, "I know the joy of spending a summer afternoon reading a book of adventure half-naked in a chaise-longue, by a house on a hillside overlooking the sea. And many other joys as well: of being hidden in a garden and listening to the wind barely moving the leaves (the highest ones) of a tree; or of hearing in the sand infinite sand-existences crumble and fall; or of getting up before dawn in a world of chickens and swimming, alone in all the water in the world, by a pink beach." These are not precisely the joys of a dedicated revolutionist. Vittorini's retreat into primitivism is … a retreat that the political part of him regarded as a kind of betrayal. The tension is especially apparent in the badly unresolved conflicts of Le donne di Messina, his most pretentious and yet in many ways his least successful work. In short, Vittorini's career as a writer is in some respects an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. At a certain point in his life, regarding himself as a poet in the most technical sense of the term and addressing himself to purely poetic problems, he produced a single novel that transformed the Italian literary scene to a greater degree, probably, than any other book of his generation. But he was able to maintain this purity only during a brief period of his life, the ten years or so that came to a climax in 1942. The years before 1932 are apprentice years…. And with Uomini e no in 1945, and perhaps even earlier, with the "autobiographical" fragments written during the war, he turned from this poetic vocation to the problem of littérature engagée, to the attempt to make a "collective novel" that would reconcile the individual and political elements in his own nature. By 1946 he had practically abandoned fiction to devote himself to political questions…. [If] the artist's innermost nature is not political then it is impractical to impose a political framework on his talent; abstract furies are difficult to collectivize. This is the reason for what every reader feels: that Conversazione in Sicilia is his only fully resolved and totally successful work of fiction. (pp. 163-66)

Vittorini's particular contribution was to attack the problem [of the prosiness and flat factualism of modern fiction],… and to apply to it a particular framework of rhetoric: that of the opera. When he speaks of opera it is Italian opera that is meant, and particularly Verdi…. When the "something" provided by music is added to the libretto the result is the total technical effect that Vittorini calls linguaggio: "… that which results from the action and the music together, as the unified language of the composer." It was a "something" comparable to music that he sought to add to prose fiction. His new concept of the novel, at the point where the partly unsatisfactory Il garofano rosso and the unfinished Erica lay behind him, was a form that achieved its effects through pattern and rhythm, emotion-provoking in the diffuse and unspecific way that opera provokes emotion, "poetic" without being bound by the conventions and limitations of verse.

The manner of telling of Conversazione in Sicilia balances two more or less antithetic elements: on one hand its generality, the Dantesque element of allegory, and on the other hand the quite specific setting and circumstances of the action…. The opening paragraph is a stylistic model or matrix of the whole novel. Beginning with the word "I," it is simultaneously vernacular and rhythmic, more intricate than it appears. As in a musical composition certain motifs or images are introduced, set aside for the moment, and then repeated with variations…. The paragraph ends with "a mute dream, hopelessness, quietude." The following passage, like an aria continued by another singer, takes up these images from where the first has left off … and continues with other images which it adds in turn…. This catalog of concrete objects is an important clue to the nature, or more precisely the effect, of the abstract furies. (pp. 167-69)

The words police and fascist never break through to the surface, and this is not only because the novel was published under censorship. The passage [describing the train journey] deals with an immediate and local political phenomenon, and yet in another sense its implications are general or universal. The effect achieved is something like that of the Expressionistic drama: character is depersonalized and turned to type, while at the same time retaining enough surface detail to lend an impression of concretion…. The effect of censorship was precisely to encourage a style of ambiguity, a style which is vague on the surface but speaks quite precisely to those who possess the key. This tendency to abstraction, to a style of suggestion rather than overt statement, is evident in a number of other writers who developed under fascism…. Like the argot of prisoners, it is a language that proceeds on two levels, an overt surface and a concealed or semi-concealed code. This "duplicity" or tendency to say two things at once, it goes without saying, is also characteristic of poetry itself. (pp. 171-72)

[The dialogue in the train scene between Mustache and No Mustache] might be a duet of two pompous courtiers in Verdi, for example from Rigoletto…. In Vittorini's novel…. political implications remain, for the most part, at this "operatic" level, a level that is emotional and aesthetic rather than ideological in any overt sense. (p. 172)

[When] the expression più uomo recurs in Conversazione in Sicilia, there is a connection in Vittorini's mind to the Spanish War and all its political implications. The phrase is not very clearly defined either as a literary image or as a political concept; it is deliberately left diffuse. But the implication is clear that fascism is man-destroying—that Mustache and No Mustache have become dehumanized puppets, whereas the Great Lombard and the others of the novel who "feel the need of doing something for the sake of conscience" are reinforced and enhanced in their humanity. This is connected to Silvestro's own inability, in the early part of the novel, to feel or love anything in the world around him; fascism anesthetizes the feeling and desiring part of man, leaving him in the "quietude of hopelessness."

This metaphorical framework of the Great Lombard and più uomo recurs frequently in the remainder of the novel. Somewhat later Silvestro, in a conversation with his mother, inquires whether his grandfather was a Great Lombard. When the mother asks what a Great Lombard is, he merely replies, "a man." This leads to a kind of repetitive litany that continues for several pages…. The repetition is not syntactically rigid; there are backings and turnings, divagations in which the mother remarks that in Nicosia they make bread with hazelnuts on top or that she once had a pitcher from Aidone. But in its singsong return to the same refrain the passage is as invariable and monotonous as a children's chant. It arrives finally at the question for which all the other questions have been only preparation: "Didn't he say that our present duties are obsolete? That they are rotten, dead, and there's no satisfaction in performing them?… Didn't he say there was a need for other duties? New duties, not the ordinary ones? Didn't he say that?" The mother doesn't remember whether he said this or not. But she does remember that "basically" he wasn't content with the world, but was content with himself. Clearly the grandfather was più uomo, a giant who spoke straight and saw clearly; a Great Lombard.

Technically this scene is an ingenious piece of indirection; the innuendo of the dialogue is always present under the surface but never emerges, or emerges only in cryptic form in the reference to "new duties."… [The] mother herself performs an important function, although she herself is unaware of it. In the quasi-religious pattern of allegory underlying the novel she represents charity, the Latin caritas. This has nothing to do with philanthropy either organized or unorganized; it is simply the state of mind of selfless love…. The mother personifies a concept basic to the novel: that the religious impulse may exist outside the organized Church, and even, under conditions like those of fascism, in opposition to the organized Church. (pp. 173-76)

[The] political implications remain implications, remain abstract, and this lends them a universality that extends beyond the local and temporary problem of fascism. It is for this reason that Conversazione in Sicilia, while a "revolutionary" novel in a general and ethical sense, manages to transcend the limitations of a political tract, even so skilled a one as Malraux's L'espoir. It manages to do this because Vittorini, for all his concern with politics, is primarily an artist and relates to the writing of his novel primarily in artistic rather than politic terms. The concept of the autonomy of art recurs frequently in Vittorini's essay; like Moravia he rejects the Marxist concept of art as a "superstructure" explainable in terms of the economic and political conditions that produce it. (p. 179)

Vittorini was involved in fascist politics; fascism interfered with his artistic development and had the power to deprive him at any time of his freedom or even his life. There is therefore a control, an irony, in his half-veiled allusions to political conditions, but there is no Homeric serenity. It is this pressure under the surface, in fact, that produces the characteristic and strangely powerful effect of the novel. As it progresses and passes its point of climax—the dialogue with the knife-grinder—the narrative becomes successively more personal; Silvestro develops from a passive narrator into the central figure of his own story. (p. 180)

There is no doubt that in the figure of Ezechiele the "possibility" of anti-fascism is specifically connected to writing, to the literary vocation…. It is obvious that Vittorini has projected himself into Silvestro the linotype-operator, whose job it is to put letters together and who suffers from abstract furies. But there is no doubt that the abstract concept of Writer, or artist-as-revolutionary, is connected as well to this Ezechiele who records the history of the offended world, and who greets Silvestro in some mysterious way as a brother.

[In the] final episode the motif of personal involvement or commitment emerges unmistakably as the dominant note, one that, like the theme of an operatic finale, gathers and assimilates the earlier motifs of the work. In this involvement Silvestro, the author, and the reader are merged into a single consciousness, a consciousness that becomes "more man" in its recognition of the frailty and guilt of common humanity. There is no mistaking the skill with which this is done. The conventional apparatus of the scene—the dream, the ghost, the banal religious symbolism—are no more damaging to Vittorini's final effect than similar conventions are to Verdi's. The narrative has been freed from the banality of its events and devices by "something which does for the novel what music does for the opera." The encounter with Liborio is a moving, strange, and original scene; there are few passages to match it in Italian literature or the whole of modern writing. It is followed by a kind of epilogue in which the mother washes the feet of a stranger who turns out to be the father: a prodigal father greeted by a forgiving son. But even this rather banal piece of allegory is saved by the oblique and poetic manner of its presentation. (pp. 181-82)

Donald Heiney, "Elio Vittorini: The Operatic Novel" (originally published in a different version in Three Italian Novelists: Moravia, Pavese, Vittorini, University of Michigan Press, 1968), in From "Verismo" to Experimentalism: Essays on the Modern Italian Novel, edited by Sergio Pacifici (copyright © 1969 by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1970, pp. 161-83.

[There] exists within [Conversazione in Sicilia] a closely articulated pattern of historical, biblical, and literary allusions…. [This] pattern of allusions is strongest in Part Four, Part Five, and the Epilogue…. (p. 75)

The nucleus for almost every cluster of significant allusions in the first four parts of Conversazione in Sicilia is formed by the name of one or another of the novel's characters. The reader's attention is directed to the allusive potential of names by the first real event of the book: Silvestro receives a letter from his father, Costantino, asking him to go to Sicily to visit his mother, whom Costantino claims to have abandoned. This pairing of the names, Costantino and Silvestro, must evoke an association with the Donation of Constantine in the mind of any Italian reader familiar with the frequent references to that legend in the Divina Commedia…. [The] father's letter hands over responsibility for the mother to the son in much the same way as the Emperor Constantine's document supposedly handed over responsibility for the Western Empire to Pope Sylvester. The difficulty of this allusion, as of so many others in this novel, lies in the obliqueness of Vittorini's interest in the material to which he alludes. Whilst he clearly did not share Dante's concern that the medieval Papacy had been contaminated by its assumption of temporal powers, he may well have wished to hint that the Catholic Church, at the time he wrote this in 1937–8, had been seriously contaminated by the closeness of its association with the Italian Fascist State. Moreover, in suggesting a parallel between a simple family issue and a major historical event, Vittorini introduces a theme which … becomes central to the whole novel: the indivisibility of personal moral obligation and of major political action. (pp. 75-6)

[There is a] clear Dantesque allusion in the nickname 'Gran Lombardo' given by Silvestro to the impressive old Sicilian farmer he meets on the train…. It evokes the phrase 'la cortesia del gran Lombardo' used by Dante (Paradiso, XVII, 71) of the member of the della Scala family, probably Bartolommeo, who first gave him hospitality after his banishment from Florence. Vittorini's 'Gran Lombardo' … possesses precisely the qualities of nobility and generosity which Dante attributes to Bartolommeo. However the main effect of this allusion is surely to establish that the journey of the exiled Silvestro back to Sicily is to be directly compared in its spiritual and political seriousness with the journey undertaken by the exiled Dante in the Divina Commedia….

Vittorini brings together, in the character and name of Concezione, two aspects of motherhood which the Christian West has traditionally held to be distinct. On the one hand, she is a kind of primitive, sensual, fertile, pagan Earth Mother: 'Mamma dei Meloni.'… On the other hand, she is a kind of Virgin Mary (her name-day is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), who gives generously to her sons and to the sick people of the village without expecting anything in return, who suffers, uncomprehendingly, the death of one son, and to whom all human beings are essentially the same, only differing from each other in their outward condition. (p. 76)

A tight web of allusions is also woven around each of the four men, Calogero, Ezechiele, Porfirio and Colombo, who set themselves up as Silvestro's temporary mentors in Part Four.

Calogero's name, when we eventually learn it, reinforces the impression that he is a profoundly self-contradictory figure. His passion for weapons suggests that he is a militant, a rash man of action on the political level. His name suggests, on the contrary, a meditative, even saintly, man. It derives from two Greek words which mean 'a good old man'. (Silvestro insists though, in a still deeper paradox, that his Calogero is young….) In Italian, calogero denotes a monk of the Greek Church. More specifically though, the name recalls a St Calogerus of the fifth century who made a pilgrimage from Constantinople to Rome (a pilgrimage to the origins of his church comparable with Silvestro's pilgrimage to the island from which he originated). It is certainly significant that this saint then became a hermit in Sicily and an important figure in Sicilian folk-lore. Moreover, it must also be relevant to recall that one of the most important moderate opponents of Fascism in the 1930s was a philosopher called Guido Calogero, who helped to found the liberal-socialist movement in 1936. (A note in Vittorini's Diario in pubblico reveals that he was greatly preoccupied at the time of writing Conversazione in Sicilia with the apparent impotence of liberal socialism as a force to oppose Fascism.)

The moderate, meditative associations of Calogero's name thus serve, in effect, to undermine or even cancel out the philosophy of militancy which he expresses with such vigour. On the level of topical comment, this may be taken as a sharp critique of the moral and political confusion encountered by Vittorini amongst those who opposed Fascism in the 1930s, whatever form their opposition took. On the level of universal comment, Vittorini is implicitly raising a query about the adequacy of any single philosophy of opposition to oppression. (pp. 77-8)

The name, Ezechiele, naturally recalls the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who whilst he recorded the corrupt condition of the Jews of his time, was above all concerned to pass on God's instructions about the future of the Jewish people and the establishment of a new theocratic order centered on a rebuilt temple. Ezechiele's mode of speech likewise leads one to think of him as a kind of prophet…. Ezechiele perceives his duty then as being to record the details of the evil men do to each other, to record oppression and to feel compassion for the oppressed. He seems to suggest that it is a purer philosophy than Calogero's militancy, and Silvestro appears attracted by its internal consistency. It is certainly the philosophy of many an honest, observant intellectual in Italy during the Fascist period. But Ezechiele's philosophy is clearly not the philosophy of a prophet: he is, at best, a compassionate historian. He strikingly fails to fulfil the promise of his prophetic name and manner. (p. 78)

[Porfirio's] red flag registers with a receptive reader as a half-disguised emblem of socialism, and the fact that the name, Porfirio, itself denotes a kind of red confirms that this is a serious allusion. Porfirio is also the name of the philosopher of the third century A. D. (Porphyry of Tyre), well known to Italians through a dialogue in Leopardi's Operette morali. Porphyry went to study under Plotinus in Rome, where he suffered a mental breakdown and contemplated suicide: suicide is the subject of the dialogue by Leopardi in which he figures. He eventually took a trip to Sicily to restore his health. The parallel with Silvestro's journey to Sicily and his state of mind when he set out is too striking to ignore. Porphyry was a Neoplatonist and a strong anti-Christian.

So when Silvestro meets Porfirio, the reader might well expect him to emerge as a man of revolutionary socialist attitudes, pessimistic and anti-Christian…. [But] Porfirio places his hopes not in political revolution (nor in human compassion) but in some form of religious remedy…. So Porfirio's message, too, contrasts strongly with the various associations evoked by his name.

When Silvestro and his three companions enter Colombo's tavern, they find a number of men singing a song whose weird refrain '"E sangue di Santa Bumbila"' is repeated four times…. The scene apparently brings to Silvestro's mind all the occasions in the past when men have drunk wine, either in a purely social setting or in the religious setting of the Christian communion (which itself commemorates the Last Supper). The reference to the blood of Santa Bumbila reinforces the religious association of wine and blood…. I would suggest quite simply that Bumbila is the name of a mock-saint, made up from the Sicilian word bumbulu crossed with the Italian word bombola, both of which mean 'wine-flask'. Thus the drinkers are singing not, as it first appears to be, a hymn to a martyred saint, but a drinking-song addressed to the wine itself: the blood of Saint Wine-Flask. (And indeed bombabà is an old word for a drinking-song.)

The relevance of this ambiguous refrain becomes clear as the … [celebration] degenerates into a simple drinking party. Colombo is the crucial figure in this process of degeneration. His name evokes very obvious associations. In the first place, it recalls biblical references to the dove: in the Old Testament, the dove which returns to the ark with an olive-twig is the first sign to Noah that the Flood is receding and that God has had mercy on him (Genesis 8. 10-13); in the New Testament, the dove is the visual representation of the Holy Spirit (see, for instance, John 1. 32-3). The name, Colombo, also recalls the great discoverer, Christopher Columbus. So, if we take all these associations together, the tavern-keeper's name may well lead us to expect him to be an adventurous man of strong religious faith. But again, the character's words and actions fail to fulfil the promise of his name…. [Silvestro's last impression of Porfirio includes] an allusion to the strange little story in Genesis about how Noah, having survived the Flood, took to farming. Amongst his crops were grapes, from which he was the first man to make wine. He got drunk on the wine and was found naked by one of his sons on whom he therefore put a curse (9. 20-3). So Noah was 'padre … del vino' in two senses: father of wine, and the wine-sodden father of the son who witnessed his disgrace. The implication here is that Silvestro has witnessed the corruption by wine of Porfirio, who had formerly seemed, like Noah to be the one man who was not corrupt.

The four men's susceptibility to wine is only an image for the ease with which their ideals can be corrupted. It confirms the reader's suspicion that the contradiction observed between the name of each character and his stated philosophy indicates the inherent weakness of that philosophy. It also reinforces his sense, gained partly from the curious manner in which the allusions associated with the four characters overlap with each other, that the weakness of each is interwoven with the weaknesses of the others. On the level of topical comment, this appears to represent a wholesale rejection of the great range of responses to Fascist oppression which could be found in Italy in the 1930s. The broader implication would seem to be that the roles of the militant revolutionary, of the compassionate observer, of the religious man, of the dispenser of panaceas for the ills of the world, are individually inadequate, but also essentially indistinct from each other. (pp. 78-80)

The significant allusions to be found in Part Five are not clustered, as allusions in the earlier parts are, around the names of the novel's own characters, but mostly around characters from two of Shakespeare's tragedies in which Costantino used to act….

[There are references to] Macbeth and Hamlet …, both indeed about the murder of a king by the man who usurps his throne. The presence of father, mother and son in Silvestro's fantasy suggests that he is thinking of himself as being about to play the role of Hamlet—with all its associations of self-doubt and evasion of duty. Part of the function of this episode is to illustrate Silvestro's increasing consciousness that he may himself be an actor with a central role in the drama….

[There is a] very striking parallel between Silvestro's encounter with the ghost of his soldier-brother, Liborio, and the appearance of ghosts in Hamlet and Macbeth…. The implications of these parallels for Silvestro are serious: he must begin to feel either that he has a personal duty (like Hamlet) to put right the wrong that others have done, or that he is himself indirectly responsible for the crime that has been committeed (like Macbeth). (p. 81)

[Silvestro's] perception of the world has undergone a permanent change as a result of the revelation in the cemetery of his personal responsibility for the injuries done to the world…. The sky is full of black crows at which people in the area are firing, though none is hit. The whole scene recalls the words spoken by Macbeth just after he despatches the murderers to kill Banquo:

                       Light thickens; and the crow
     Makes wing to th' rooky wood;
     Good things of Day begin to droop and drowse,
     While Night's black agents to their preys do rouse.

What Vittorini adds to Shakespears's identification of crows with murderers is a topical allusion to black-shirted Fascists and the observation that they are invulnerable to attack. (pp. 81-2)

[In the epilogue, the] descriptions of Costantino, as a Christ-figure taking on himself the sins of the world, as a prodigal son, and as a travel-weary Odysseus, are clearly applicable also to Silvestro himself. So, when Silvestro glimpses his father at the very end of the book, he wholly identifies with Costantino's situation, having now come to realize that his father, partly through acting Shakespeare, has long understood the nature of oppression and of the responsibility we all bear for the sufferings of others, in a way which has eluded Silvestro. That is why it is inappropriate for him to greet his father.

Identification of the host of allusions present in Conversazione in Sicilia requires us to reassess the significance of the novel in two major respects. First, we need to recognize that the novel offers, especially in Part Four, an acute and fairly specific critique of the various postures adopted by men of good will living under Fascism immediately before the Second World War. Secondly, it makes a far more demanding assertion, especially in Part Five, of the universal moral and political responsibilities of the individual than any critic has hitherto been prepared to concede. It is, paradoxically, through its near-hermetic allusiveness that Conversazione in Sicilia achieves a fierce moral and political exploration. (pp. 82-3)

Michael Hanne, "Significant Allusions in Vittorini's 'Conversazione in Sicilia'," in The Modern Language Review (© Modern Humanities Research Association 1975), January, 1975, pp. 75-83.