A prolific writer is often viewed as a force of nature, and Grazia Deledda’s writing has been called “instinctual,” yet her letters and her autobiographical novel, Cosima, written in the last year of her life and published posthumously, testify to her conscious determination to be a writer and to perfect her skills. Deledda’s work is the product not only of a facile gift but also of an apprenticeship. There were three periods in her career. The first one, extending to 1900, included at least sixteen volumes of long and short fiction. It was a period of training, when her major themes and images emerged from a mass of second-rate prose. From 1900 to 1915, Deledda wrote all of her best novels, establishing herself as a major novelist on the European scene. During the last twenty years of her life, although she continued to publish at an impressive rate, she failed to reach her earlier effectiveness. Only with Cosima, as she looked upon her years in Nuoro, did she again find her voice, speaking of that youthful “Other” whose willfulness and vitality could not be suppressed by family tragedy or dismal circumstances.
Two basic elements of Deledda’s fiction must be considered first: the setting and the influence of the female experience. The setting of almost all Deleddian fiction is Sardinia, an island that had always been cut off from the life of the mainland. Until the twentieth century, it remained a land of wild natural beauty and ancient customs, inhabited by shepherds and hostile to the powers that ruled it from afar. Deledda grew up in Sardinia, conscious of the rigid local customs yet separated from “the people” by her social status as the daughter of a landowning family. Her early short stories and novels described the Sardinian environment with clarity but as if from the outside, as an ethnological phenomenon and a picturesque setting.
In La via del male, one of her first significant novels, the author indulged in descriptions of the island’s beauty; at the same time, she wove a love story based on the devotion of the “primitive soul” of a servant-shepherd, the repressed sexuality of male serf and female landowner, and a code reminiscent of the tradition of courtly love, filtered through folklore. Progressively, however, Sardinia became an integral element of Deledda’s fictional world. As she moved to the Continent, she began to appropriate the geographically identifiable Sardinia, to transform it into a land of her imagination. This Sardinia endured as the background against which she drew her characters, the passions, and rituals of her scenario; the island landscape in its changeability became the visible manifestation of states of mind. Seldom did Deledda use urban settings for her novels, and when she did, the city would only be vaguely sketched—as, for example, in La danza della collana.
The other major element in Deledda’s fiction is the female experience, which in many ways parallels the experience of the Sardinian: It is secretive, marginal, in conflict with itself, and yet it is also a source of strength and a fierce sense of identity. At the age of seventeen, she wrote in a letter that Whole months without going out of the housea cheerful house, but looking onto a street where there is never a passer-by.I am not allowed to do anything in the house, except engage in those ethereal occupations that increase boredom.
Inaction and solitude fed Deledda’s ambition and helped her to focus her energies. In her novels, the rules of silence and submission exasperate the passions of her characters. Once again, Deledda draws from an experience that is intimately familiar to her. Metaphors and images come frequently from domestic activities, from the universe of female experience, feelings, and values. Herprotagonists, male and female, are described in terms of femaleness. Physically, they tend toward androgyny; as they struggle to submit to the prescriptions of an archaic culture, they become aware of their profound “difference.” Sensuous and passionate in a world hemmed in by taboos, they retreat into themselves. The contemplation of nature brings them peace; secrecy and silence become sources of strength and guarantee them a measure of personal freedom. The motifs belonging to the two main sources of Deledda’s inspiration thus find their confluence.
The world vision of the novelist, however, was a complex one. Deledda knew the impact of different factors impinging upon human experience. In some novels, such as Ashes and Marianna Sirca, she gave particular attention to the barrier separating classes that lived in daily intimacy; in others, such as Reeds in the Wind, she concentrated on the economic imperative. In all of her novels, Deledda spoke of the subversive power of sexuality and of the contradictory demands made by the pagan and the Christian traditions, one ruled by the mystique of blood vengeance, the other by a message of peace.
No matter what the emphasis, each novel is built around a cluster of recurrent themes. Passion is at the center; it may involve desire for power, wealth, or freedom, but it is always manifested as erotic desire. Sexuality is the impulse that cannot be denied, and it is the first spark in the challenge to any taboo. This centrality of the sexual dimension, as the primary subverter of order, places Deledda’s fictional universe well within the sensibility of the early part of the twentieth century, when the exploration of the role of human sexuality was central in literature and science.
Desire causes transgression. Here, Deledda’s characters reveal their weakness, their tendency toward ambivalence and self-deception. They do not rebel fully and do not consent to their “sin,” but they are unable to abide by the ancient rules. Guilt is inevitable for them, and with it an obsessional need for expiation. Deledda has been compared to the great Russian novelists because of her insistence on the themes of sin, guilt, and expiation, yet the similarities are only superficial. For Deledda, the taboos cannot but be challenged, even if the transgressors must suffer for their acts and sometimes for their very wishes; the defeat of desire can only be acknowledged with sadness.
Deledda’s protagonists, as most critics have observed, are not the object of psychological study; they are not meant to be. Rather, they reenact a cycle of rebellion and defeat in a context where the forces of clan, class, and religion necessarily overpower the individual. Pietro Benu, the servant-shepherd in La via del male, may obtain Maria Noina in marriage after many struggles, but the crimes he has committed transform their union into a punishment, a tool for atonement. In Ashes, Olì’s ardent sensuality will be expiated through her own and her son’s suffering; to this suffering, mother and son will desperately consent. Marianna, the outlaw’s lover in Marianna Sirca, can be the handsome bandit’s wife only at his deathbed; they both pay for falling in love “in a far away, otherworldly place” when they see their faces reflected together in the water of a deep well.
While Deledda’s protagonists reenact this bitter cycle, her peripheral characters look on helplessly. Deledda frequently assigns such peripheral roles to old people who have known life’s errors, often sinners who have moved into the mountains in order to find peace. Their wisdom, however, cannot influence fate. They are sought after for advice, but their advice is not heeded. They are the archetypal images of a conscience that can only weep over the ruins caused by passion and transgression.
Deledda’s style has baffled her critics. To what extent her Sardinian language influenced her writing would be difficult to assess. Her early readings were hardly a school for writing excellence, and that may explain Deledda’s long...
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