Written in 1937, the novel derives from Vittorini’s own return to Sicily from Milan four years earlier. In this respect, as in several others, it is fundamentally autobiographical, even though a note prefacing the story states that the protagonist is not the author, and that the locale is Sicily merely because it has a more harmonious sound than Persia or Venezuela. Yet if the disclaimer is patently a dissimulation at one level, at another it is accurate, for the author has treated his materials in such a way as to render them as myth.
Vittorini can be usefully compared with Cesare Pavese, his only peer among Italian fiction writers of their generation. Both were translators and remarkably astute critics who made Italians aware of the giants of American literature; their own work clearly shows the influence of Herman Melville, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. Both were politically situated on the Left and were active opponents of Fascism; their humanistic sympathies, clothed in the politics of their period, are similarly evident in their works. Whereas Pavese amassed a relatively large body of excellent fiction, however, Vittorini’s output was inconsistent. His fiction in the early 1930’s suffers under the burden of bearing an unmediated political and social message; the postwar work lacks the moral urgency that had driven his better writing. Beyond a doubt, In Sicily is his masterpiece, and even though it is not a perfect novel (some of the later sections are either too clouded or too obvious in their straining for significance), it ranks among the finest achievements in European fiction of the twentieth century.