Marc Slonim (review date 27 August 1967)
SOURCE: "European Notebook," in The New York Times Book Review, August 27, 1967, pp. 16, 18, 22-3.
[In the following excerpt, Slonim remarks on the merits and weaknesses of Poveri e Semplici, particularly in light of its status as a winner of the Italian Strega Prize for literature.]
[There] is nothing remarkable about Poveri e Semplici (Poor and Simple), a 163-page novel by Anna Maria Ortese, which won the [Strega] prize by a small margin. Some critics feel that Ortese's other novels, such as the neorealistic portrayal of Neapolitan paupers, Il Mare Non Bagna Napoli (The Sea Does Not Wash Naples) and the poetic and fantastic Iguana are superior to Poveri e Semplici. In any case the award given to the 52-year-old Ortese is not only a recognition of her indubitable talent but also a homage to a human being who during much struggle and suffering has preserved her dignity and integrity.
Ortese usually writes with a delicate grace, excelling in impressionistic sketches, and Poveri e Semplici is conceived in this lyrical, fragmentary and almost evanescent manner. Under the guise of a fictitious autobiography, Ortese presents a group of young Communists who live and work in Milan, struggle against poverty and anonymity, dream of universal brotherhood, have sentimental love affairs and nurture idealistic hopes for the advent of socialism. In the early fifties they disagree about Stalin and lose many of their illusions, but their simple and naive attitudes toward their own life and that of the world are hardly changed. Ortese's prose renders the urban landscape well, but it lacks real substance, and often lapses into sentimentality. Based more on moods than on a definite plot, Poveri e Semplici follows the Arcadian, idyllic tradition, deeply rooted in the Italian artistic past. Despite its faults of construction and a hasty ending, it is pleasant in the same way as primitive water-color illustrations are, but it can hardly be rated an important work of fiction.