Open Doors and Three Novellas

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2060

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.

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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 either historical or contemporary events as a basis for speculations concerning such inscrutable areas of human and social behavior as motivation, judgment, violence, and heterosexual relations.

Behind what seems in Sciascia’s work to be no more than a scrim of events, there stands a weighty though not quite overbearing architecture of cerebration. Here is an author who, rather than pull his own intellectual punches, seems on the contrary to reprove the world for doing so with such consistency. Events attain an emblematic significance as speculative occasions. The writer of fiction functions not merely as a maker of stories but as fabulist of reason, releasing through the material of narrative the spirit of argument. The blend of story and essay, in which two distinct narrative strategies interact tensely in mistrustful but collaborative relation, offers a unique insight into such problematic artistic concerns as the interaction between writer and background, form and content, tone and theme. The “investigative story” also provides Sciascia’s work, for all of its occasional heavyhandedness, with a brand of skeptical openness that is most expressive of the author’s keen and brooding intelligence.

Given the somewhat marginalized character of much of Sciascia’s material and the impenitently and rather severe intellectual backdrop against which this material is displayed, with a resulting density of texture that makes the works both difficult to identify with and replete with a consciousness of their own integrity, it comes as a surprise to find that much of his fiction is cast in that form of the detective story known as the police procedural. It can be noted, however, that Sciascia’s detectives, representative examples of which are to be found in both “Death and the Knight” and “A Straightforward Tale,” owe more to literature than they do to life, deriving their rationale and credibility from the distinctiveness of their individual thought processes, rather than from their participation in a team effort.

In “Death and the Knight,” which borrows its title from the celebrated sixteenth century engraving by Albrecht Dürer, the cancer-stricken detective-protagonist is known only by the name “the deputy.” Despite his physical condition, he steadfastly maintains the right to carry out his investigation as he sees fit, resisting facile solutions to his typically enigmatic last case and encountering the facts unearthed by his investigation as confirmations of the continuing need to be skeptical. His anonymity has the effect of drawing attention away from his personality toward his principles, from physical data to mental processes, and from the solicitous attention of his chief to the vulnerability of going his own way, a vulnerability that is all too forcefully brought home to him by the story’s end. The allegorical Dürer engraving, a copy of which “the deputy” owns, draws attention to the story’s allegorical ambitions. Such an emphasis reveals detective, case, investigation, and culmination to be a means of talking not about the Italian crime rate but about more eschatological concerns, although it should be pointed out that Sciascia is too worldly a writer to deprive this story of every semblance of a conventional context. A suspicion of corporate corruption with murder as one of its consequences provides “Death and the Knight” not only with a plot but with a thematic counterpoint to the cultural and intellectual ethos that the dying detective embodies. It is a disturbing possibility that with the death of “the deputy” the ethos dies too.

“A Straightforward Tale” can be read as a counterpart to “Death and the Knight.” Here, what at first seems to be a routine investigation, distinguished satirically by the counterproductive competition between various branches of the police authorities, ends in revelations about the police’s cowardly, self-serving, murderous corruption. Here, too, the police officers are anonymous and known only by rank. Their corporate presence is what distinguishes them from the portrayal of the police in “Death and the Knight.” The absence of individuality is implicitly an absence of the qualities of gallantry, persistence, singularity, and ultimate frailty that knighthood connotes and that are exemplified in “Death and the Knight.” The lack of integrity in “A Straightforward Tale” reflects on the values of the story that is its equal and opposite, just as the title of “A Straightforward Tale” is satirically ironical, while the title of “Death and the Knight” compounds that story’s note of tragic irony.

These two shorter novellas are framed between two works which are in many ways more substantial and more representative of the distinctive and innovative features of Sciascia’s output. The title story, with which the collection opens, is set in Palermo in 1937. A certain amount of historical background, both European and Italian, is included in the translator’s introduction. Again, the story’s background is a murder. The particularly brutal triple slaying in question raises questions of law and order that were supposed to have been answered by the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, with its promise to the populace that it would now be able to sleep with open doors. This guarantee, of which the murder is an obviously flagrant violation, is itself based on other flagrant violations perpetrated earlier in the regime’s history, among which, Sciascia argues, was the reintroduction of the death penalty. The complex and subtle argument dealing with this point is central to the character of the story’s protagonist, the so-called “little judge,” who finds himself temperamentally incapable of accepting the death penalty yet involved in a case in which the death sentence is inevitable.

This story’s complex weave of conscience, duty, crime, and punishment, and their unavoidable political dimension, a dimension aggravated by a fascist regime, resembles one of Sciascia’s “investigative stories,” with its inclusion of historical material and its diagnostic inquiry into the relation between public and private man. The story “1912 + 1,” however, on which Open Doors and Three Novellas closes, is the col- lection’s only authentic example of the form. Beginning with a sophisticated ramble through Italian culture and politics in 1913, the narrative focuses on a celebrated murder case that, in the author’s view, illuminates how the public atmosphere of the day infected private behavior. The sensitivity to class, rank, office, and status, and to the various ways in which such categories can define and undermine those who exclusively identify themselves with them, is revealed in all of its elaborateness in this novella. In particular, the morally dubious and artistically vapid contribution to the national mind of the poetry of Gabriele D’Annunzio, with its hollow cult of manliness and its delusions of the grandeur of passion, is considered to be one of the most potent sources of the era’s destructive weaknesses. D’Annunzio’s superstition about using the number thirteen is the origin of the story’s title. As in the other works in Open Doors and Three Novellas, it is not merely the physical fact of crime that exercises the moral imagination of Leonardo Sciascia, but the various kinds of significance that can be attributed to crime’s disruptive incursion into the body politic as well as, in a brutally nonmetaphorical sense, into the private individual. To Sciascia, the process of attribution and evaluation—the process of investigation—is a model of the humanistic free thought necessary to counteract the essentially mindless subversion of the crime which, though known as murder, is more properly called death. It is Sciascia’s confrontation of those issues that earns him a distinctive place in postwar European writing.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. August 9, 1992, p. 37.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 1, 1992, p. 13.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, August 30, 1992, p. 10.

The Village Voice. September 22, 1992, p. 68.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, November 8, 1992, p. 7.

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