Vittorini, Elio (Vol. 6)
Vittorini, Elio 1908–1966
Vittorini was an Italian novelist, editor, and short story writer. His works have been translated into at least eleven languages. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Vittorini's concerns were not only personal and literary. An active anti-fascist before the war, he flirted with communism afterward. Politics, though, was an insufficient vehicle for a man more visionary than revolutionary, an advocate not so much of change in governments as change in the human heart. Women of Messina (revised 1964), on which he worked more than two decades, is his most extended and successful social statement. (p. 28)
While employing a variety of techniques to describe the villagers' recapitulation of the history of civilization, their movement from wheelbarrow to donkey cart to truck, Vittorini details a more general theme: the opportunity for human improvement he saw in the energies released by the leveling of Italian society in the war. For Vittorini postwar Italy suffered hunger, dislocation and privation, but also had a unique chance to sweep the decks clear, to establish more humane systems of living. (pp. 28-9)
Vittorini is remarkably free of dogmatism. He does not, like Orwell, postulate malevolent systems that rob naive workers of freedoms and ideals. Instead he throws up his hands—more in amusement than despair—at creatures who are more interested in buying cars and refrigerators than in establishing genuine communities. There are, as in any work, a few minor flaws. Sometimes he skirts preciosity, and occasionally he strikes a hollow note. But we can forgive this in these memorable visions of resonantly meaningful life, presented with high good humor and lyric intensity. (p. 29)
Anthony Covatta, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 23, 1974.
The imaginative overtones of minor events shape Women of Messina, a novel of which one might say with equal truth that nothing important happens in it or that it concerns itself only with the important…. Women of Messina provides little plot, in the ordinary meaning, and skimpy characterization. Yet it involves the reader richly in an enormous action, making one feel and see the tumult of a country struggling back after war: the confusion and exhilaration of masses traveling aimlessly to assert their power to travel; the excitement of imagining city life, for those not in it, and the excitement of planting grain, and of clearing land mines; the awareness of possibility in a country denuded of all that makes ordinary life plausible. The women of Messina, exemplifying endurance, create the community men need through their sheer determination to survive. Survival is the novel's action—survival through community and work; and the book's ironic ending reveals how the need to survive converts itself to moral flaccidity as survival becomes easy. Elegantly written, even in translation, powerfully imagined, impelled by the force of conviction, the book violates normal expectations of the novel to demonstrate that characterization need not depend on individuation. The women achieve heroic stature through what they do, we feel little need to know who they are. The artist's control creates novelistic shape through contemplation of large events in their petty aspects…. (p. 287)
Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1974.
Whether we have a masterpiece in Women of Messina is open to question. Perhaps it is unimportant anyway. Masterpieces may be unbecoming to the anti-idealism of the sobered twentieth century. What we do have in Women of Messina is a novel of grand scale and ultimate ambition. Vittorini wanted to tell us all he knew about how and why human beings behave as they do. Parts of everything Vittorini stood for are in it. When he first published Women of Messina he had survived the disease of Italian Fascism and taken heart at his country's rise from the ruins of World War II. He revised it and revised it in the mood of disenchantment with Italian Communism's ability to effect social change. Finally as he struggled to give Women of Messina the scope of a lifetime, Vittorini himself was dying of cancer.
Women of Messina was to be a parable of Italy's resurrection from the war and the story of displaced men and women who believed in one another. It was to be a story of an awkward romance and Vittorini's statement of what men and women need from one another. It was to be Vittorini's comedy of bumbling authoritarianism subordinated to his larger vision of human beings reaching beyond themselves for a common good. In various versions and with assorted expository side trips, Women of Messina became Elio Vittorini's hope and resignation, his childhood and memories, his battle with language and his quarrel with contemporary Italy. Vittorini strove to push his art to its outer boundaries.
Time will show where Vittorini went. At the moment Women of Messina asserts itself like a peak above a darkened plain. It is a novel of large ideas. Even its flaws are so big they cannot be quickly forgotten. Continually striving to find primary human truths in the war wreckage of lives, Vittorini at the least dramatized emotions and drives we immediately recognize as our own. And he tells us a story of reaching, grasping, letting go that parallels the cycle of life itself. The scope of Women of Messina belongs to a different order from Vittorini's other fiction. In Sicily, The Red Carnation and The Light and the Dark were all parts of 'the one truth' Vittorini sought to express. Women of Messina attempts to bring all the truths together and make a coherent whole of them. It is the kind of novel a man writes once in a lifetime, never finishes to his satisfaction, and surrenders rather than completes. (pp. 56-8)
Altogether Vittorini wrote seven novels and short novels, a book of stories, and a huge diary. Best known and perhaps most important is In Sicily, a short novel about a young man's spiritual malaise and his return home to see his mother. Its debts to Ernest Hemingway are especially large, but the impact of American fiction on all of Vittorini's work shows itself continually—in Vittorini's speech, the pace of his narratives, his choice of characters. Vittorini felt a deep empathy toward America, a country he never visited. Perhaps there is a message for us in his life. He was most productive when he found the greatest meaning in American history and art, and as he laboured under a hostile political regime. Both were essential to Vittorini's art: something to value and something to oppose. (p. 59)
He wanted fiction that would lead to a new understanding of existence. Fiction as a formal method of teaching is an activity destined to depress its practitioners, as Vittorini learned. But he tried to make his fiction a way of understanding life and a method of engaging it. Women of Messina is Vittorini's largest aspiration in that direction.
He wrestled with the existential proposition. The world is a brute. It is indifferent to human need and offers no moral guidance. Yet, man lives, and not alone. He must choose from the alternative means of survival and, almost by intuition, find a moral order. He must invent morality. Vittorini, the working man turned intellectual, found his moral order the only way anyone finds it, from experience. He invoked human interdependence and social justice. He put his art in the service of his beliefs. If the art sometimes suffered—and it did in Women of Messina—Vittorini would pay the price and total the cost later. (p. 60)
Women of Messina tells us how much Elio Vittorini loved ideology and how troubled he became that ideology alone produces no change in the world…. He settled for a hymn to aspiration sung with ardour in a novel churning with social movement and alive with the voices of human need. Vittorini stumbles and halts as he tries to understand these needs. He even loses track of them during his moments of ideological exhilaration. But Vittorini always writes from within. He never makes errors of emotion that tell you a novelist is writing to be writing.
Elio Vittorini cared deeply about how we become more than bundles of reflexes and imprint ourselves on our time and place. To read Women of Messina is to enter the company of a writer who takes command of your faculties. He tells you a story that, it seems, you must hear even when you grow tired of it. It is important. You know this instinctively. And Vittorini moves you to the necessary next step for art. Reality. You must believe his story. Everything has been altered. The reality is not immediate. The reality is inside you. What Vittorini imagined in an Italian village decades ago is the essential human condition. (p. 63)
Webster Schott, "Vittorini and 'Women of Messina'," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1975), April/May, 1975, pp. 56-63.