Giovanni Verga’s first novels were romantic, predictable, and superficial. His masterpieces of verism were written between 1880 and 1890, and for the last thirty years of his life, though full of good intentions, he produced relatively little. In one of his earliest novels, A Mortal Sin, which could be called an autobiography of wish fulfillment (in the story, a young Sicilian, footloose in the big city, both achieves literary fame and wins the beautiful woman he loves), the author strives for a veneer of realism by claiming that his story comes from authentic documents that have come into his possession. Although Verga in his maturity would disown this novel, the writer’s task to re-create reality is already taken seriously in it. Sparrow tells the story of a young girl forced to become a nun against her will, in the manner of Denis Diderot’s The Nun (1796). For years Verga’s most widely read novel, Sparrow consists of letters allegedly written by the girl herself. The blackcap of the title is a fragile bird Verga claims to have seen once and been reminded of later when he learned the girl’s story.
In the preface to Eva, Verga again asserts the veracity of what he writes, although this time not insisting that it is true, but rather that it could have happened. Although the character of Eva is lost in the bombast of the novel’s conventionalities, Eva’s speech is precise and reflects her personality. Further, Eva’s decision to leave Enrico for a rich lover stems from Verga’s firm belief that love, without the social coercion afforded by marriage or without the nostalgia caused by separation, cannot survive routine when lovers live together. Also emphasized is the incontestable power of financial security to nurture art and love.
Hardly an advance over Eva, Tigre reale (royal tigress) concerns a consumptive Russian lady who lives in Florence and falls in love with a young Sicilian. Despite its title, another early novel, Eros, is the most complex of this group and the one least trammeled by the unreality of the dreamlike eroticism that fascinated the early Verga. The aristocratic Alberto, a type Verga never again explored in his novels, grows up without a family, searches for love, makes many mistakes, and ends his life with a gunshot. Although the often realistic and colloquial language coincides with character, Verga as author obtrudes upon the reader his strong dislike for the aristocratic world he is portraying.
The appearance in 1874 of the short story “Nedda” marked the point at which Verga abandoned his autobiographical theme of aristocrats searching for love and began to seek a commoner world apparently closer to his heart, the world of the Sicilian “primitive.” It was at this point that Verga joined the literary movement known as Verism, the Italian equivalent of the realistic and naturalistic schools in France. Verga had long followed French literary trends closely and admiredÉmile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, and Guy de Maupassant. The views of Maupassant, whose success did much to stimulate interest in the short story in Italy, were especially compatible with Verga’s concept of good writing. In fact, there developed between the two a mutual respect, and Maupassant even offered at one time to write a preface for Little Novels of Sicily when it appeared in French translation.
Verga’s cardinal rules of good writing were in the process of emerging: The story must tell itself without evidence of or interference from the author, and language must coincide in every way with the characters who are speaking. The sparenarrative style that Verga achieved in his best work, however, did much to alienate the critics, who were also put off by his pessimism and the harshness of his vision. The characteristics of the Italian novel had been set by Manzoni thirty years earlier, and it was unacceptable for a novelist to deviate from this norm. Certainly Manzoni had written of the harshness of real-life situations, but the harshness of Manzoni is balanced by his deep religious belief, a feeling absent in Verga’s writing.
Verga’s intent, expressed as early as 1878 and clearly based on the inspiration of Honoré de Balzac’s The Human Comedy (1829-1848) and Zola’s The Rougon-Macquart Family (1871-1893), was to compose a cycle of five novels to be called “La marea” (the tide)—later changed to “I vinti” (the doomed)—that would scrutinize successive stages in people’s struggle for material security. The first novel of the cycle, The House by the Medlar Tree, would involve the struggle of a Sicilian family for minimal needs alone. The search would evolve to outright greed for riches typified by a middle-class character, Mastrodon Gesualdo, in the second book of the series. “La duchessa di Leyra” (begun in 1907), still with a Sicilian setting, would explore aristocratic vanity in Palermo, and “L’onorevole Scipioni” (the honorable Scipioni) would study political ambition in Rome. Finally, “L’uomo di lusso” (the man of wealth) would portray a character who possesses all these desires and is consumed by them. These last two titles were only projected works; Verga never completed his planned five-volume series.
The House by the Medlar Tree
The first book of the cycle, “Padron ’Ntoni” (Master ’Ntoni), was to be named after its main character, but Verga decided at the last minute to name the novel after the family, I malavoglia (an emphasis lost in the title of the English translation). The tragic error of the Malavoglias, a family of fishermen, is their speculation in a shipload of lupine (a forage crop), to be paid for from profits yet to be made. A storm at sea sinks their boat, the Provvidenza, and causes the loss of the lupine cargo and the death of Master ’Ntoni’s son, Bastianazzo. Because the debt must be paid, their cherished house by the medlar tree is lost and the family risks disintegration. The tragedy pervades the book, but the poetic psychology of their moral code, especially their family ties, raises the book far beyond the commonplace and gives it a rare dignity. True to Verga’s belief that an author must not interfere in his or her story, the major characters do all the narrating, and the minor characters act as a chorus for the reader,...
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