Open Doors and Three Novellas

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The work under review collects together for the first time four novellas—“Open Doors,” “Death and the Knight,” “A Straightforward Tale” and “1912 + 1”—that were first published separately in Italy between 1986 and the year of Leonardo Sciascia’s death, 1989. An introduction to the title story by Marie Evans, its translator, is provided with this edition, together with an afterword by Joseph Farrell, who translated “Death and the Knight” and “A Straightforward Tale.” The four novellas offer both a condensation of the themes that preoccupied an author who has been perhaps somewhat unjustly neglected in the English-speaking world and an opportunity to assess the significance of those themes. In a paradox that Sciascia’s ironic turn of mind might have appreciated, these posthumous works can be regarded as an introduction as well as a culmination.

Leonardo Sciascia was not merely one of the most important Italian writers of his generation but a writer who regarded his Sicilian birth and heritage as both a treasure and a challenge. The history, temperament, and idiosyncratically uneven development of his native island form the core of Sciascia’s artistic and intellectual interests. It is through the medium of his fidelity to Sicily that Sciascia has meditated upon his career-long concern with fundamental issues concerning the elusive but compelling natures of justice, passion, reason, and crime. Sciascia’s attachment to Sicily also has served to reveal that island in a light that contrasts in a marked, explicit, and deliberate manner with that in which Sicily usually has been stereotyped, namely as a place of backward people, primitive feuds, and violent gangs. Sciascia frequently finds ways of reminding his readers that he is by no means the first to scrutinize Sicily through the essentially humanistic lens of literature. Allusions to the plays and stories of, in particular, Luigi Pirandello are commonplace in Sciascia’s work, and in the author’s notes to “1912 + 1,” the concluding novella in Open Doors and Three Novellas, Pirandello is said to share first place in Sciascia’s affections with the nineteenth century Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni. Unlike Pirandello, however, whose influence has been confined largely to twentieth century theatrical history, Sciascia’s influence is likely to be the manner in which he has reformulated the perception of his people’s cultural substance and complex historical lineage.

At the same time, and as Open Doors and Three Novellas confirms, it would be a distortion of Sciascia’s attainments and significance to consider him as merely a parochial writer. His work is not confined to Sicily in either a geographical or any other sense. Sciascia is as fully equipped to represent the tensions and conflicts of mainland Italy from either a contemporary perspective, as in “Death and the Knight,” or a historical one, as in “1912 + 1,” as he is to depict the judiciary of Palermo during the reign of Fascism, which is what he does in this collection’s title story.

Consideration of Sciascia’s work must take into account the extremely catholic range of his literary allusions, which in Open Doors and Three Novellas run the gamut from Michel Eyquen de Montaigne to Regina Winnage, a writer who, as Sciascia remarks, “apparently, today enjoys the tranquility of oblivion.” Sciascia’s notable usage of learned citations from the giants and other contributors to the European, as distinct from the Anglophone, literary tradition lends to his work an obvious, and sometimes ponderous, dignity and graveness. Yet, in a European context, it enacts with appropriate complexity questions concerning the present relevance and applicability of this tradition. In this enactment, a striking account of the relationship between core and periphery in postwar Europe can be discerned. Although it can hardly be claimed that Sciascia’s work represents the last time that the European literary tradition is used as though it retained the status of secular orthodoxy, its presence in this work as a reliable speculative instrument acts as much to remind the reader of contemporary misgivings about the reliability of thought and its formal manifestations as it does to ratify the instrument’s efficiency. Despite the apparently peripheral character of Sciascia’s origins and primary interests, his work can reasonably, if not necessarily completely, be identified with the present-day problematic condition of European humanism.

Although Sciascia works are densely populated with Old World intellectuals, the main impact their presence makes on his work is not merely illustrative or referential. Much more fundamental is these figures’ formal influence. Perhaps Sciascia’s most significant claim to strictly artistic importance is his invention of a form that not merely bears out, but bears homage to, his intellectual antecedents. The name of this form is racconto-inchiesto, or “investigative story,” which uses...

(The entire section is 2060 words.)