Vittorini, Elio (Vol. 14)
Vittorini, Elio 1908–1966
Vittorini was an Italian editor, short story writer, novelist, and critic 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 ficiton; his dialogue, narrative pace, characterizations, and settings reflect a strong indebtedness to Hemingway. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Sergio J. Pacifici
[Diario in pubblico] is easily another indisputable proof of the vitality, intelligence and range of one of the foremost contemporary Italian men of letters…. It is a prime document to understand in depth the socio-political scene of today's Italy, as well as Vittorini's own poetics. In a larger sense, too, it is a history full of valuable observations on the cultural torment endured by a whole generation of Italians brought up under fascism. (p. 95)
These pages … contribute substantially to presenting a sharper image than the other, woefully neglected side of this artist's complex personality: that of the critic, the vigorous social and political polemicist, the passionate and sharp raisonneur who comments upon a multitude of crucial issues of his, and any other modern generation….
Diario in pubblico is a kind of spiritual and intellectual autobiography, written without the usual concessions, retractions, revelations of a sensitive artist (say, Gide) who is writing his life for posterity…. Vittorini dislikes skirting an issue, no matter how unpopular his point of view may be. He is interested, rather, in presenting a documented history of his growth, as a man and an artist, and I believe it fulfills this task even when it presents views that may seem puzzling or contradictory. (p. 96)
[The] book does have a certain coherence in that the image that emerges out of its pages is...
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The informed reader who, years hence, in perusing In Sicily may bluepencil the obvious derivations in an iterative prose that shows the lesson of Hemingway, of Gertrude Stein, of Sherwood Anderson, of William Saroyan, will easily resist the temptation of dismissing the book as an Americanese pastiche—if he has a fine ear. He will, furthermore, recognize the creaking emphasis in some of the dialogue, in many of the situations, in the painfully constructed allegory; but he will see right away that this clumsiness is honest, that it does not mark just a climactic moment in Italian literary fashions (i.e., the American style after the Paris vogue): that it represents, in short, a significant gesture. The gesture belongs more to ethical and political history than it does to poetry, to be sure…. [But in] protesting oppression, organized violence and obscurantism at the outset of World War II Vittorini was speaking as the poet he is, whatever doctrine may have inspired him at the time; and the stratagem of allegory, meant to elude the prying eyes of censors, was not a mere piece of convenient machinery.
For it was, yes, surface doubletalk with a hidden political purpose, a cunning weapon for an engagé writer in times of distress; but more than that, and almost in spite of its intrinsic aim, it had something to do with that innocent doubletalk which is the ambiguity of fable. Vittorini may be dear to many, signally those who...
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The surface impression of [Conversazione in Sicilia] … is a transparently simple plot, with a pervasive air of fable and persistently paradoxical use of language. It was immediately acclaimed a classic and is still considered the purest literary distillation of the anti-fascist experience in Italy. It holds an oblique fascination for Italian writers and intellectuals as a cardinal point which must be accounted for in any attempt to grasp the intellectual directions of modern Italian writing. But is it sufficient to take the book as a political denunciation? And if so, why was it written at such a level of poetic abstraction? The purpose of the present essay is to try to answer these questions by defining the novel as a "polyvalent" text (a technical term borrowed from serial music) and hence to set out four possible "values" which the variables in the text may correspond to, and argue that since no single interpretation can account for the complexities of Vittorini's style, they all merge ultimately in the fourth, which is the level where language is pure literary play. In fact, the "polyvalence" of the plot finds a precise analogue in the multiple (or "polysemous") resources of the style, because the latter refuses to be harnessed to a single meaning, continuously constraining grammar and word-order into unorthodox patterns. (p. 108)
It is true of no modern Italian novel so much as Conversazione that the written page...
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The journey of Silvestro in Vittorini's Conversazione in Sicilia follows the lineaments of heroic myth. Its sequence of quest, discovery, and rebirth has been associated with the lives of a string of heroes—Ulysses, Parsifal, Aeneas, Theseus—and may be justly considered to have escaped the narrow confines of topical Italian neorealism. Yet an aspect of the myth relates specifically and poignantly to Italian literature as a whole: this is the general lack of one powerful father-figure as a dynamic element in the plot…. [The] persona of the Gran Lombardo in Vittorini's novel … [functions] as a crucial link between Silvestro and a transient series of father-figures; and between Vittorini and Dante. (p. 70)
Silvestro's fatherlessness is paralleled by the plight of a society that must be rebegotten…. Vittorini stretches an arc from Silvestro to his ancestor (the maternal grandfather), thereby recreating the father. The effect is to trace his matrilineal descent, but also to emphasize the capital value of the Gran Lombardo, who adumbrates this development. Much of the value of Conversazione in Sicilia is to be found in its paratactic structure, furthered by a litany of repetitions that challenges the reader to heightened responsibilities…. Within the book the Gran Lombardo points past the figure of the insignificant and inadequate father back to a mythicized grandfather. Like the Gran Lombardo, Silvestro's...
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It has taken twenty-six years for Elio Vittorini's central work [Women of Messina] to reach us in translation; years that have turned a tract for the post-war times into a document of historical interest, and have confirmed its predictions, justified its ironies, fulfilled at least some of its economic and social prophecies. Yet it keeps much of its power and even a certain glory. Its interest is now more aesthetic, less social, than it was in its early days; its qualities appear in its structure and nature as a novel rather than in its political message; its utopianism has been, if not silenced, at least softened with time, disappointment and clear-sightedness. Vittorini himself, when he died nine years ago, a luminous figure on the Italian literary scene rather than a great name outside it, had lost much of the ardour with which he first wrote it. Indeed, for years he kept returning to the original, correcting and rewriting it….
In the original, Women of Messina is difficult for an outsider, being full, like most of Vittorini's writing, of nicknames and elisions, and of the ruminative, repetitive confusion of Italian speech when used by simple people in a choral, back-and-forth sort of way. Wave-like and incantatory, it repeats itself, shifts into patterns and moves collectively in certain directions, orchestrated by sympathy or antipathy, using words to say something beyond their usual meaning, and mood to express...
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Women of Messina is [a] fascinating oddity…. It is a strange book to appear in 1975, written in a style, all too faithfully rendered in the English, based closely on the prewar Hemingway whom Elio Vittorini so much admired.
This makes it quite difficult to read even if, as one is assured, it authentically expresses the inarticulacies of Italian peasant communication. But it is also a curiously appropriate tract for our times, for it recounts the trials and vicissitudes of a commune dedicated to, or at least based on, self-sufficiency and mutual support….
[The] outside world intrudes: the scorn of the city-dwellers for the peasant community's lack of information and modern comforts is enough to foment discontent and, soon, decay. These days, the temptations are all the other way; but that does not invalidate the message, or diminish the solid if rather low-key satisfaction to be had from the book.
Neil Hepburn, "Poisoned Man," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Neil Hepburn), Vol. 94, No. 2420, August 21, 1975. p. 254.∗
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