Brian Moloney (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "The Novels of Franscesco Jovine," in Italian Studies: An Annual Review, Vol. XXIII, 1968, pp. 138-55.
[In the following essay, Moloney argues against the common critical analysis of Jovine's novels as strictly political works, contending instead that they are works of psychological, sociological, and emotional complexity.]
Of all the so-called 'neo-realists' who flourished in the 1940's, Francesco Jovine (1902-50) is one of the most interesting and, in spite of his comparatively small output, one of the most complex. His first novel, Un uomo provvisorio (1934), is a psychological study, and in his last, Le Terre del Sacramento (1950), he succeeds in welding into a unified whole psychological analysis, description of his native province, and vigorous social protest. If he has not yet received the attention he deserves, it is because his complexity has led to his being interpreted in a variety of ways by critics who seem determined to pin on him descriptive labels which are manifestly inadequate.
The element of social criticism in his writings and his membership of the communist party inevitably made him the darling of the Marxists, and both they and the anticommunists have in common an inability to see anything other than the political aspect of his work. G. Rimanelli, writing under the pseudonym of A. G. Solari, for example, states:
Per chiudere su Jovine, diremo che è nostra convinzione che uno scrittore (e della razza, poi, di Francesco Jovine), quando diventa partigiano e propagandista di un'idea, e quest'ideologia sopravanza su tutto, polemicamente, è destinato a perdere sempre qualcosa della sua arte e della sua indipendenza artistica.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile this attitude with that of Pancrazi:
Il carattere o tono dominante dei due romanzi . . . (i.e. Signora Ava and Le Terre del Sacramento) .. . è il pittoresco .. . un pittoresco se mai patetico, sfumato, di colori teneri.
Pancrazi is here laying an excessive and exclusive emphasis on the element of the favoloso which other critics have also seen in Jovine and exaggerated at the expense of the political element. This attitude derives largely from Luigi Russo, who insisted on the favoloso, the canto, and the coralità. In other words Jovine, for Russo, is a latter-day Verga, and just as in his discussion of Verga he neglected the economic factor, so in his discussion of Jovine he neglected his contemporary relevance and the element of social protest. 'Talvolta si può avere il sospetto che la rappresentazione sia realisticamente esatta e felice, ma mancante di una vena di canto,' he observes of Le Terre del Sacramento. De Castris, on the other hand, not only sees the importance of the psychological themes, but specifically and repeatedly compares Jovine's characters with those of Svevo. He sees Jovine as 'l'unico nel suo tempo' to understand 'la vera sostanza della lezione di Svevo,' which in its way is as exaggerated as other interpretations, partly because other novelists, D'Annunzio and Borgese, demonstrably influenced him, partly because others, notably Moravia, also learnt from Svevo.
These different critical attitudes to Jovine all derive from the multiplicity of his themes—the study of the disorientation experienced by the poor young provincial intellectual in the big city, the poverty of the peasantry and their hunger for land, the inertia of the provincial gentry and their almost feudal power. De Castris vaguely suggests that this multiplicity is only apparent, and that maturity merely brought a change of perspective. Sapegno, too, sees 'la stretta coerenza di uno sviluppo, che ha le sue radici nella fondamentale onestà dello scrittore, nella sua fedeltà a certi temi, a certi ambienti, a un certo linguaggio originario ed autentico: fedeltà che non esclude, nel suo ambito, uno sforzo costante di progressiva chiarificazione e semplificazione. . . . ' Certainly there is coherent development and fidelity to certain themes; the means by which equilibrium was reached will be the subject of the following pages.
Jovine's first novel, Un uomo provvisorio, was published in 1934. It is the story of a young doctor, Giulio Sabò, who leaves his province, the Molise, and goes to Rome. There his scepticism and introspection reduce him almost to suicide. Sabò in this respect resembles nothing so much as one of Svevo's early characters, but unlike Alfonso Nitti and Emilio Brentani, Sabò is saved—saved by a return to his native province, by the resumed practice of his profession, forced on him in an emergency, and by love, all of which bring him an involvement with life which he had never had before. The analysis of Sabò the introspective dreamer is conducted on a superficial level, characteristics are asserted by the narrator rather than shown in action, and the solution is arbitrary and external. At the same time, there are other themes—the observation of life in the Molise, the life of the gentry and the professional classes, which Jovine depicts as decadent, and glimpses of peasant life. These become prominent only in the second half of the novel, when Sabò returns home because of his father's illness, and are reported rather than made alive, while there is only the most tenuous connexion—in that memories of childhood help his recovery—between them and Sabò's return to health.
The novel was badly received, but mainly for reasons extraneous to literature and art, although one should perhaps add that had the reasons been soundly based, its reception might have been equally bad. Sergio Lupi, writing in Roma Fascista on 18 July, 1935, rejected it 'perché noi abbiamo trovato una ragione morale per vivere, e non ci sembra che si possa vivere indifferentemente o provvisoriamente.' The second adverb is a cut at Jovine, the first a clear reference to Moravia, and to link the two together was perceptive. Like Gli Indifferenti, Un uomo provvisorio is set in Rome; the insistence of both authors on grey skies and rain provides an appropriate setting for the uniform dreariness of the central character's life and both novelists frequently use the word noia to describe their protagonist's condition. Like Michele, Sabò is tormented by a vivid imagination and excessive reasoning power: 'Aveva pensato di vivere infinite vite senza viverne una veramente.' (This assertion compares unfavourably with the way in which Moravia makes Michele live out his fantasy-life.) These resemblances make it clear that Moravia was another key figure in Jovine's formation.
His account of life in the Molise brought upon Jovine the anger of the Fascists and led to the banning of the second edition of the novel. Jovine had not intended to attack the structure of Southern society, but he had in fact done so indirectly, and the official reaction was not surprising in view of the way in which Fascism was reinforcing the power of the big landowners. Jovine's views on the problem of the South were well founded. He observed carefully the society in which he lived, and he had read widely, studying particularly the origins of brigandage and the history of the Risorgimento in the South. He was appalled by the feudal structure of Southern society, with its traditional hierarchy, which, as a Marxist, he interpreted as involving the systematic exploitation of the peasantry. It is not surprising that his second novel, Signora Ava, published in 1943, which takes its name from a personage in Southern folk-lore, should have been to a large extent a product partly of his historical reading and partly of his own observation, linked with memories of stories narrated to him by his father, who owned a small estate, as he took him round the countryside or which he had heard told on winter evenings.
Before this second novel appeared, however, Jovine published in 1940 a collection of short stories, Ladro di galline. It was the first of four such collections, which, taken all together, do not add up to an outstanding achievement. The stories are at times competently, even brilliantly, told, and contain vivid sketches of Southern life based on sympathetic observation, but the moments of insight, tension or drama, are the exception rather than the rule. Ladro di galline, for example, has only two memorable stories. The first of these is "Malfuta, o della fondazione di un villaggio," the story of the stratagem by which conservative peasants, suspicious of all authority, are compelled to move from their old village, which is slowly being carried downhill by a landslide, into a new settlement. The atmosphere of suspicion, conservatism, poverty and brooding violence is conveyed with compassionate accuracy and with some delightful humorous touches. The second is "Ladro di galline," in which Gentile, the illegitimate offspring of a village prostitute, becomes the husband of convenience of another prostitute. When the ignominy of his position penetrates his simple mind, he seeks revenge in the only way he understands; he tries to steal the hens of the man who is in bed with his wife, but in his drunken state he is detected, savaged by watchdogs, killed, and thrown into the river like so much refuse. But even in this volume, Jovine seems too preoccupied with a psychological analysis which is inappropriate to the peasant situations he is describing. This might not matter in the case of Gentile, but it is out of place in other stories, such as "Sogni d'oro di Michele" or "Ragazzo al buio," in which the analysis is external and intellectualistic, and in which there is too much bravura description, verging at times on the precious. The two sets of themes are not yet fused into an organic whole, and the style, in spite of Jovine's ability as a narrator, lacks a certain incisiveness.
In 1945, Jovine published two further volumes of short stories. They were L'impero in provincia, subtitled Cronache italiane dei tempi moderni, and Il pastore sepolto. The first of these is perhaps the more satisfactory. The Empire is the Fascist empire, the province the Molise; the volume consists of seven stories, arranged in chronological order, illustrating the effect on Guardialfiera of Fascism, war, the German occupation and the liberation. This use of a contemporary setting indicates that Jovine is looking for a period of violent change in which to situate his stories. In "L'impero," La vigilia shows the first influences of the march on Rome, with the gentry turning Fascism to their own ends. "Il monumento storico" is a comment on the absurdity of the attempts of local fasci to obey to the letter instructions issued by the central government. Orders are given to organize a march to a local monumento storico. After much perplexity, the only one they can think of—and they locate it only with difficulty—is the remains of an observation post built by the Neapolitan army in 1743. Best of all the tales, perhaps, is "Martina sull'albero," in which an old peasant woman protects her worldly goods—a bag of flour and a pig—from a pair of thugs by sitting up a tree and pelting the marauders with hard, unripe pears. These three stories have in common a rich vein of humour and satire, but in the others, Jovine is unable to strike the right tone, and in any case the concept behind the collection is too neat, too intellectualistic. In the second collection, Il pastore sepolto, I would single out the story which gives the volume its title, an account of village family life which strikes exactly the right note for a puzzled child's view of a family crisis, and also "Giustino d'Arienzo," in which Jovine returns to the theme of the young provincial's attempt to make his way in the big city. It is more satisfactorily handled here than in Un uomo provvisorio, and dealt with even more satisfactorily in the 'racconto lungo' "Uno che si salva," which is one of two stories in the volume Tutti i miei peccati, published in 1948. The title-story, a complicated and improbable intrigue of sexual fascination and blackmail left without a solution, is a failure, but in "Uno che si salva" the vanity and day-dreams of the anti-hero, Siro Bagnini, are ruthlessly exposed for what they are, and he comes to the very edge of disaster. As the title implies, however, he is saved, and the mechanism of his salvation is the disillusionment caused by the discovery that not only is his mistress a prostitute but that he is the only one not to know it—he is the intellectual counterpart of Gentile—and the presence of the sensible girl who packs him off home to the village where he was once a maestro elementare. His weaknesses are judged more sharply than were those of Sabò, but the solution is still, in part, external.
In all these short stories it is possible to pick out Jovine's recurrent themes: the psychological study of the young provincial intellectual, rootless and uncertain, gullible and doomed to disappointment; the careful observation of life in village and provincial town, isolated, backward and stifling; and vigorous protest against social injustice. So far Jovine has not succeeded in fusing them into a balanced work on a large scale, and so far, except in a few short stories, his technique in the handling of episodes has been very uneven. It is only in his last novel, Le Terre del Sacramento, published in 1950, that Jovine gives them unity and finds a technique to match. Signora Ava, the novel which precedes it, has therefore to be read both in its own right and as marking an important stage in Jovine's development, namely the beginning of his maturity.
Signora Ava is a popular folk-figure, personifying an age fabulously distant from our own. (One of the peasants in "Malfuta" says, 'Caduta una casa? Non ne cadeva una dal tempo della signora Ava.') The novel is prefaced with a quotation from the Southern folk-song:
O tiempo della Gnora Ava
nu vecchio imperatore
a morte condannava
chi faceva a' 'mmore.
It was clearly this quotation and the dedication—'Alla memoria di mio padre, ingenuo rapsodo di questo mondo defunto'—which enabled Russo and others to insist on the element of the favoloso, and it may well have been this aspect of the novel which brought him fame in 1943, but in seizing on this aspect, critics have followed the obviously unsound procedure of applying to the author words which he uses to describe his characters:
I più vecchi si compiacevano di questa funzione di cronisti, e, senza volerlo, con quella operazione naturale alla mente che è volta a rendere armoniche le disarmonie del passato, davano ai semplici fatti narrati un ritmo di favolosa invenzione . . . Il passato cosi inconsapevolmente composto e armonizzato si coloriva di bellezza.
Signora Ava is set in Guardialfiera in 1860. Structurally, it falls into two parts, each of which focuses attention on a different character. The first part concentrates on Don Matteo Tridone, an elderly priest, unorthodox, ignorant, scraping a living as best he can, since he has no parish of his own, by performing ecclesiastical functions for which he is paid in kind, and by acting as a kind of domestic bursar to a private school. The most vivid and comic episodes—including what must be one of the best hilarious sequences in modern Italian literature—centre on him. Subordinate to Don Matteo in the first part, but the most prominent character in the second part, is Pietro Veleno, a young peasant who works as an odd-job man for the De Risio family, the village landowners. Pietro has grown up with, and falls in love with, Antonietta, the daughter of Eutichio De Risio and the favourite niece of old Don Beniamino, whose money she is destined to inherit. Pietro becomes increasingly conscious of the barrier of class, so that the more attractive Antonietta becomes, the more inaccessible she seems. Meanwhile, political disturbances are increasing; Pietro and another peasant are compromised when, on the orders of the De Risio family, they replace in the village church a portrait of the King of Naples previously removed by the revolutionaries, who now seem to be losing. But the redshirts return, the De Risio family make Pietro their scapegoat; he flees and ultimately joins a group of bandits. They attack a convent, which, by one of those coincidences which reveal the flimsiness of the novel's construction, is the very one at which Antonietta is convalescing after an illness. To save her from the rest, Pietro seizes her as his share of the booty and discovers that his love is returned. There follows a brief, tender idyll which culminates in Antonietta's pregnancy. They then attempt to escape to the Papal States which Pietro naϊvely conceives as an earthly paradise with pardon for all repentant sinners. Instead of reaching this promised land, Pietro is arrested as he is about to cross the border.
Signora Ava is clearly unevenly balanced and badly constructed. Humour dominates in the first part, pathos in the second; there is too much caricature in the first part, too much melodrama and too little humour in the second. To compensate for these defects there is the evocation of a society and a way of life, and round Pietro and Don Matteo is grouped a rich gallery of vivid, living characters. These include Eutichio De Risio, the head of the household, who ruthlessly exploits the peasantry by lending them seed at exorbitant rates of interest and schemes to get possession of common land; his son, Don Carlo, slothful, ignorant, fat, newly qualified as a doctor and practising medicine, like Carlo Levi's Gibilisco, as a hereditary feudal right; Don Giovannino, a former Carbonaro, who runs a private school to prepare young men for university; his...
(The entire section is 7430 words.)