Although the literary canon of Ignazio Silone may be divided into several fairly distinct phases or periods, a number of themes and motifs serve to unite his works into a single vision of life. One of the most obvious of these is the use of Abruzzi villages as the setting for his fiction. A second common element is a fascination with the idea of the hero as a solitary figure who must strive to restore communion with his fellow human beings. Yet another may be found in the persistent motif of the hero’s return to his native region, an experience that triggers a flood of ambivalent emotion in more than one Silone character. Finally, the symbolic role of women and the emphasis accorded to acts of self-sacrifice and renunciation also help to unify Silone’s works. Taken together, these elements create a peculiarly Silonean frame of reference in which the vicissitudes of history and circumstance test the capacity of the human spirit to endure and prevail.
Fontamara, Silone’s first novel, portrays the injustices suffered by a mountain village at the hands of the Fascist state. In one sense, the entire village is the hero of this work, with its collective sorrows and bewilderment serving as the focal point of the action. While the emphasis rests on this common tragedy, the novel also reveals its author’s interest in the reactions of individuals caught up in the aggregate patterns of human fate. Thus, the fortunes of the village of Fontamara are interwoven with the private destiny of one of its sons, Bernardo Viola. Viola’s hopes for a better life, a life enriched by love and freedom from poverty, are dashed on the rocks of the times in which he lives. Having journeyed to Rome to seek his fortune, Viola is betrayed by the false promise of urban life under Fascism and, upon hearing of the death of the woman he loves in Fontamara, he confesses to crimes he has not committed in order to allow a young revolutionary to go free.
Viola’s personal sacrifice, though certainly noble, is less than redemptive as far as Fontamara is concerned. The young revolutionary who has been freed because of Viola’s sacrifice makes his way to Fontamara and sets up a clandestine newspaper, which the villagers decide to call What Must We Do? When the authorities trace the paper to Fontamara, the village is attacked and many of its inhabitants murdered by Fascist militiamen. The few survivors are described at the end of the novel as asking the same question that had served as the title for their newspaper: “What can we do?” The novel thus closes on a highly ambiguous note, for the villagers’ query is never answered. This ambiguity deepens the tragedy that befalls the village and Viola, who ends his own life in a jail cell. Fontamara thus portrays the defeat of human hope on both the collective and the individual levels. It seems content with alerting readers to the dangers of Fascism and to the tragic triumph of history over human desire. The bleakness of Fontamara presents a challenge to Silone’s basic faith in the resilience of the human spirit, and it was only in his later works that he could clearly respond to the haunting question with which this early text ends.
Bread and Wine
In Bread and Wine, his second novel, Silone discovered resources on which he could draw for the remainder of his literary career. These resources were both thematic and technical: The title of the novel suggests the power latent in the communion of humankind and the dynamics of literary symbols that point beyond the present moment to a better future.
Pietro Spina, the novel’s hero, returns in disguise to his native Italy from exile in Belgium. Because he is still a hunted man, Spina assumes the identity of a priest and calls himself Paolo Spada. As a “priest” of the secular gospel of brotherhood and social reform, Spina feels himself bonded to the lives of the humble rural folk through breaking bread and drinking wine with them. As the plot progresses, the terms of this secular Eucharist become more and more explicit, until in the episode of the funeral meal for a young Socialist, Luigi Murica, who has been killed by the Fascist authorities, the full meaning of the novel’s title is revealed. The many grapes needed to make wine and the ears of grain necessary for the production of bread speak of the merging of individual human lives into a common identity. It is the strength of this new corporate identity that provides the hope that beyond the present misery lies a brighter future.
This dominant theme is even hinted at by the novel’s time scheme, a span of approximately nine months, to which the period needed for the maturation of grapes and grain and that allotted for human gestation correspond. The motif of gestation applies to subtle changes undergone by Spina himself during the novel. The limitations of his devotion to political principle are suggested by the hero’s growing interest in people rather than in doctrine and by the episode of the apparent suicide of the embittered revolutionary Uliva in Rome. For belief in causes, Silone substitutes a compassion rooted in the experience of human solidarity. Lest the novel seem blindly optimistic, however, the fate of the old Don Benedetto, priest and teacher of Spina, is included. Don Benedetto attempts to maintain his faith and personal integrity in the face of the progressive corruption of Church and state and is finally murdered when he drinks poisoned sacramental wine while saying Mass. The figurative implications of the old priest’s death mitigate the hope inspired by the novel’s central image of communion by reminding the reader that wine also symbolizes blood, sorrow, and death.
In the novel’s two most prominent women, Bianchina Girasole and Christina Colamartini, Silone presents both the two sides of human nature, body and soul, and a dual vision of Italy dominated by Fascism. Bianchina, a rural girl who eventually becomes a prostitute in Rome, represents the physical degradation endured by the oppressed Italian people. Christina, the daughter of an aristocratic old family, is devoured by wolves after following Spina into the mountains as he tried to escape capture by government authorities; her fate represents the death of the human spirit under Fascism. At the close of the novel, then, the promise of human solidarity suggested by the image of communion is imperiled. Spina’s flight to the mountains may be read as an allusion to Moses on the mountain or Christ at Golgotha, but in fact the text of Bread and Wine is silent concerning his fate. This ambiguous closure, though it recalls the end of Fontamara, also transcends it, for Spina, unlike Viola, is still alive and thus may return to reestablish his communion with the peasants of the Abruzzi. For this reason, and for many others, Bread and Wine is a more satisfying and affirmative novel than Fontamara.
The Seed Beneath the Snow
The Seed Beneath the Snow is designed as a sequel to the message...
(The entire section is 2905 words.)
Silone, Ignazio (Pseudonym of Secundo Tranquilli)
Silone, Ignazio (Pseudonym of Secundo Tranquilli) 1900–
Silone, an Italian novelist of great power, is best known for Bread and Wine, his compelling fictional indictment of Italian Fascism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
With his very first novels, Fontamara and Bread and Wine, Ignazio Silone won a following of readers who soon came to feel they were his secret friends. Silone could go almost anywhere in the world and find men who, having like himself experienced the failure of socialism, would immediately know how to register and value the muted slyness and sadness of his books, quite as old companions can speak to one another through a shrug or a smile.
For such readers, but surely for others, too, Silone's every word seems to bear a special quality, a stamp of fraternal but undeluded humaneness. It is really something of a mystery, which literary criticism with all its solemnities seems unable to penetrate: how a man who writes so simply and unpretentiously can nevertheless make everything he publishes uniquely his own. For almost four decades—the most terrible of our century, perhaps the most terrible in Western history—Silone has been a transforming presence: the least bitter of ex-Communists, the most reflective of radical democrats.
His work is wry, sometimes saturnine; sardonic, sometimes disillusioned. Brought up in the Abruzzi, he knows and loves the Italian peasants, but knows and loves too well for even a trace of sentimentalism. Educated in Italy, a nation cursed with the gift of rhetoric, he seems immune to all the enticements of verbal display. He can make small things (a casual gesture by a character, a quiet phrase of his own, a minor anecdote) into tokens of all the redemptive possibilities in this century of betrayal. He brings together in his writing the grit of the peasant and the fever of the intellectual, so that to read him is to encounter the oldness, the weariness of Europe: all those wise and tormented priests who keep moving through his stories, all those hunted and doubting revolutionists broken on the wheel of memory….
What moves us, I think, is the sense we gain that while no wiser or politically "more correct" than the rest of us, Silone is, both as writer and person, profoundly contemptative, with every problem, every doubt, every failure of this age of failed revolutions having become part of his inner being.
And there is something else: the miracle—for it is a miracle—of his relationship to the people about whom he writes, the peasants of Italy. Silone is entirely free of the false identifications and grandiloquent delusions of Populism; for while he comes from the people, he is no longer of them…. Yet in all his books he is utterly free of those sins of aristocratism which stain the work of so many twentieth-century European writers. The miracle of Silone's relation to the peasants lies neither in distance nor in immersion, but in a readiness to leave and return, to experience estrangement yet maintain affection, to know in himself both the relief of deracination and the steadiness of rootedness. In this balance of response there is at least as much desperation as affection. Silone cares neither to deceive himself nor others: he does not romanticize the peasant figures who, together with the heretical priests and dissident revolutionists, embody his notion of character as moral example. He knows these peasants too well…. Yet he believes in the peasants, at least in those potentialities of which they themselves are seldom aware. For Silone has learned how to wait, even for that which may never come. (pp. 280-82)
Fontamara is the one important work of modern fiction that fully absorbs the Marxist outlook on the level of myth or legend; one of the few works of modern fiction in which the Marxist categories seem organic and "natural," not in the sense that they are part of the peasant heritage or arise spontaneously in the peasant imagination, but in the sense that the whole weight of the peasant experience, at least as it takes form in this book, requires an acceptance of these categories. What makes Fontamara so poignant as a political legend … is that he is a patient writer, one who has the most acute sense of the difference between what is and what he wishes. The peasants are shown in their nonpolitical actuality and the political actuality is shown as it moves in upon them, threatening to starve and destroy them; Silone does not assume the desired relationship between the two, though he shows the possibilities for a movement into that relationship; the book is both concrete—wonderfully concrete—in its steady view of peasant life and abstract—a brilliant paradigm—in its placing of peasant life in the larger social scheme. The political theories behind the book resemble the lines signifying longitude and latitude on a map;… they are indispensable for locating oneself among the mountains and plains and oceans; they are what gives the geography of society meaning and perspective. (p. 284)
[It] is precisely from … scrupulous examinations of conscience and commitment that so much of the impact of Bread and Wine derives; no other twentieth-century novelist has so fully conveyed the pathos behind the failure of socialism. Bread and Wine is a book of misery and doubt; it moves slowly, painfully, in a weary spiral that traces the spiritual anguish of its hero. The characteristic turning of the political novelist to some apolitical temptation is, in Silone's case, a wistful search for the lost conditions of simple life where one may find the moral resources which politics can no longer yield. This pastoral theme, winding quietly through the book and reaching full development only in its sequel, The Seed Beneath the Snow, is not an easy one for the modern reader to take at face value: we are quick, and rightly so, to suspect programs for simplicity. But in Silone's work it acquires a unique validity: he knows peasant life intimately and, perhaps because he does not himself pretend to be a peasant, seldom stoops to pseudo-folk romanticizing. (p. 287)
Bread and Wine is a work of humility, unmarred by the adventurism or occasional obsession with violence which disfigures the political novels of André Malraux and Arthur Koestler. Whatever the ideological hesitations of Silone's novels, they remain faithful to the essential experience of modern Europe; and to the harsh milieu of political struggle they bring a cleansing freshness, a warmth of fraternity. (p. 288)
After some years of silence … Silone managed a notable recovery. In the late fifties and early sixties he published two short novels, The Secret of Luca and The Fox and the Camellias, which seem to me … works that are both pleasing and fresh. Though never a literary modernist (Verga, not Joyce, is his master), Silone has always been an original writer, most notably in his use of anecdote as a major element in narration and in his readiness to employ the novel as a medium of conversation with the reader. These two novels show that in his quietly restless way he succeeded in breaking past the crisis of the middle years, not because he had solved his problems of belief but because he now wrote with the ease of a man who knows these problems will stay with him until the day of his death. (p. 289)
The form Silone developed in these books is peculiarly adapted to his intellectual condition. He now favors a brief, compact, and unadorned narrative, with very little of his earlier richness of anecdote or contemplation. The validating detail we associate with the novel as a genre is almost entirely absent. Silone drives his events forward with such a singleness of purpose that one soon realizes he has some commanding idea in sight; yet these tales—for they are more tales than novels—do not succumb to the abstractness or didacticism of allegory. They demand to be read, at all but one crucial point, as accounts of ordinary human experience. I would be inclined to call them realistic fables: realistic in that they are clearly meant as imitations of "real" life, and fables in that they are strictly pruned to the needs of Silone's theme, composing themselves in the reader's mind as a kind of quizzical exemplum. (p. 290)
Silone's novels contain a profound vision of what heroism can be in the modern world. Like Malraux, he appreciates the value of action, but he also realizes that in the age of totalitarianism it is possible for a heroic action to consist of nothing but stillness, that for … [many] there may never be the possibility of an outward or public gesture. For Ernest Hemingway heroism is always a visible trial, a test limited in time and symbolized in dramatic confrontations. For Silone heroism is a condition of readiness, a talent for waiting, a gift for stubbornness; the heroism of tiredness. Silone's heroic virtues pertain to people who live, as Bertolt Brecht put it, in "the dark ages" of twentieth-century Europe. (p. 293)
Irving Howe, "Silone: A Luminous Example" (originally published in a different version in his Politics and the Novel; © 1957; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), in his Decline of the New, Harcourt, 1970.
A new book by Ignazio Silone is both a literary and a political event. A novelist and essayist, he was one of the outstanding figures in Italy's early Communist movement. During the 1920s he was actually in charge of its underground activities against the Fascist régime.
In 1927 a visit to Moscow and participation in a session of the Executive Committee of the Communist International marked the beginning of his estrangement from the movement, which he finally left in 1930. The incident that led to his eventual "renegacy"—as his disenchantment and withdrawal was termed by his erstwhile comrades—is vividly described in the main chapter of Emergency Exit, and supplies the title of the volume.
[He is a] pure-in-heart idealist and not a politician, whether "regular" or revolutionary….
Hatred of Fascist and Communist tyranny and duplicity did not blind Silone to the shortcomings of the masses, all his compassion for their plight not withstanding….
Silone is just as disappointed in the bulk of the radical intelligentsia which in some countries, and particularly in France, went along with the Kremlin rulers. He has bitter words for Jean-Paul Sartre, who in the name of "progress" justified the Soviet massacres in Hungary in 1956. In a remarkable passage Silone says: "In [Sartre's] view, a writer who is really alive cannot be for anything but progress; on the other hand, progress, in the modern era, is identified with the working class, which, in turn, is 'identified' with the Communist Party: the Communist Party, as everyone knows, 'is identified' with Soviet Russia and the People's Republics, which of course are to be 'identified' with History."…
Max Nomad, "Cutoff from Hammer and Sickle," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1968 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 9, 1968, pp. 40-1.
The genius of Ignazio Silone lies in his faculty of [dealing] with the world not through an intercessor—some political, social, or psychological theory—but directly, and on the simplest terms. In this scholastic age, when every activity has a theory to explain and obscure it, so ideal a Protestantism on the part of a cultivated man is bound to appear perverse or disingenuous. The human preoccupations of Silone's books scandalize our sophisticated humanism; they are as unseemly as an outburst of religion within the church. Just such an untimely intrusion of the spirit is the theme of The Story of a Humble Christian.
The author is well aware that he is in a false position among the schoolmen of the scientific era. In the introduction to this powerful work, entitled "What Remains," Silone says: "Now it's clear that I'm interested in the fate of a certain type of man, how a certain type of Christian fits into the machinery of the world, and I wouldn't know how to write about anything else." The Christian he has in mind is the man often miscalled saint, prophet, or mystic—the man who sees what is real and declares it. Direct and simple, how can he help but antagonize orthodoxies and institutions? Silone has himself passed through two great orthodoxies, official Christianity and official Marxism, and that experience has led him to certain conclusions about the nature of our business as men….
Silone's plain and vigorous style is infinitely more difficult to reproduce in a translation than a more elegant, more bookish prose would be….
The spirit that animates the six acts of The Story of a Humble Christian is the spirit of religion—in despite of dogma and institutions. It should not be necessary to suggest that that spirit is at the origin of any reasonable philosophy, any reasonable view of our own nature and needs. But the idea of religion, like the idea of politics, has been so traduced by the actions of its official servants that to decent men it almost necessarily means obscurantism, as politics means fraud. Silone has never made either of those errors. He has always suggested that religion is properly the sum of our values, and politics the conduct that promotes those values. In his earlier books the polity that might incarnate our values had come more and more to appear incompatible with government. In this play, his conclusion is more explicitly anarchist: men cannot find God or the good while their institutions separate them from their fellows. It is our privilege that so sound a moralist is also a great artist.
Emile Capouya, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 24, 1971, pp. 31, 41.
What can a writer do—I mean the kind of writer who yields himself to the political struggles of his time yet wishes to remain faithful to his calling and his craft? He can bear witness and tell the truth. He can assault the cant of brutal men in power and of hard-spirited ideologues lusting for power. He can tell us stories and fables that recall the imagination to humaneness. And if he is brave, stubborn and unafraid of loneliness, he can even help redeem the age in which he lives.
I think of Solzhenitsyn, Grass, Orwell, Camus and Silone, all sneered at these days by our campus guerrillas and pop revolutionists, yet the writers who ought to be seen as the true heroes of our culture. Immune to the virus of authoritarianism, these writers insist upon linking the hope for social change with the values of political liberty. They move in and out of popularity, going their own way, independent and authentic.
Foremost among them stands Ignazio Silone …, author of "Fontamara," a fable of peasant revolt in Fascist Italy, and "Bread and Wine," a profound novel about the disillusionment of a sincere Italian Communist. Silone is a writer whose every word yields a radiance of good faith, a pleasure of spirit that is indifferent to power and hostile to ideology. He is a churchless Christian and a partyless Socialist who keeps returning to a central problem of modern life: the problem of power, its tendency to corrupt those who hold it, to leave impotent those who refuse it, and to torment those who wish to shorten the distance between the ends for which they suppose themselves to live and the means by which they do live.
So generalized, the problem may be beyond solution. Yet in a number of his works Silone deliberately creates extreme situations in which a good man finds himself torn between the demands of action and the constraints of morality. He offers no solution, and knows that the actuality of experience is more shaded than this counterposition of absolutes might suggest. What interests him is a fictional test case, the experience of the man who submits himself to this terrible problem—"the fate of a certain type of man, how a certain type of Christian fits into the machinery of the world."
It is the mystery of the good man, his appearance and persistence, that absorbs Silone, just as, in a different context, it absorbs Solzhenitsyn.
Irving Howe, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1971, pp. 4, 5, 42.