Frank Rosengarten (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: Rosengarten, Frank. “Vasco Pratolini's Una Storia Italiana and the Question of Literary Realism.” Italica 40 (1963): 62-72.
[In the following essay, Rosengarten places Pratolini in the mainstream of social and historical realism, noting Pratolini's insistence on historical context in realistic fiction.]
In the trilogy Una Storia Italiana, Vasco Pratolini has undertaken the task of describing various aspects and phases of Italian life from 1875 to 1945. The first two volumes, Metello1 and Lo Scialo,2 were published respectively in 1955 and 1960. The third volume, on which Pratolini is now at work, has been tentatively entitled I Fidanzati del Mugnone, and is scheduled to appear in 1964. Metello describes the origin and development of the working class movement in Italy, and covers the years 1875 to 1902. Lo Scialo depicts the rise and triumph of the Fascist movement, and covers the period 1910 to 1930. I Fidanzati del Mugnone will deal with the period 1930 to 1945.
THE CRISIS OF NEOREALISM AND THE GENESIS OF UNA STORIA ITALIANA
By 1950, the year in which Pratolini began the planning and writing of his novel cycle, many Italian writers and critics were already speaking in a disparaging or skeptically detached manner about the artistic merits of post-war Italian fiction, and in particular of the novels and stories rather generically denominated as “neorealistic.” At the very moment when foreign observers were enthusiastically applying the metaphor of rebirth to post-war Italian culture, the Italian literary world was subjecting the products of its own revival to a process of objective, analytical scrutiny. For example, a surprisingly large number of the writers who participated in Carlo Bo's Inchiesta sul neorealismo (Turin, 1951) referred to the neorealist movement as a “phenomenon” of recent Italian cultural history, a phenomenon rooted in a specific set of historical circumstances to be studied in objective terms. Equally indicative of this analytical trend of thought is the fact that, in the April 1950 issue of Ulisse, the critics Leone Piccioni, Arnaldo Bocelli, and Alberto Savinio spoke directly of the “crisis” of neorealism, the causes and character of which they undertook to examine.
In appraising “Italian letters at the mid-century point,” Piccioni, Bocelli, and Savinio came to the conclusion that although neorealism had reawakened energies and passions long dormant, the movement as a whole did not deserve unqualified approval. Piccioni commented ruefully on the prevailing neorealist notion of art as “social document.” He felt that in their “violent reaction” against the roseate descriptions of life during the Fascist epoch, many young writers of “the neorealist school” had forgotten the values of craftsmanship and discipline which skilled prose stylists of the preceding generation, such as Emilio Cecchi and Vincenzo Cardarelli, had stood for.3 Bocelli took note of the declining importance of the “central character” in the modern Italian novel, and described the neorealist tendency “to stress social backgrounds at the expense of well-delineated characters” as one of the most harmful effects of “collectivist” thinking in the realm of art.4 Savinio lamented the obtrusive presence of “chronicle” in many post-war prose narratives.5
The more strictly ideological aspects of neorealism received the attention of Carlo Falconi in an article entitled “Contemporary Italian literature inspired by Marxism,” which appeared in the May 1950 issue of Humanitas. Falconi began his examination of the influence of Marxist ideology on Pratolini, Vittorini, Pavese, Calvino, and other neorealist novelists by prophesying that “… in a future history of our literature the study of the influence of Marxist ideology at the mid point of the twentieth century will constitute a chapter of considerable interest.” But the main problem considered by Falconi was not the influence of Marxism per se, which he took for granted and did not bother to document, but rather the largely unsuccessful efforts of the neorealists to give their ideological convictions artistically meaningful form. He reached the conclusion that neorealist novelists of Marxist persuasion had not yet produced works of permanent literary value.6
Not long after the publication of these articles, the phrase “the crisis of neorealism” began to appear in the critical writings of even the neorealists themselves. By the mid 1950's the phrase had gained widespread acceptance. In July 1957, in response to a series of questions put to them by the critic Franco Mattacotta, Elio Vittorini, Alberto Moravia, Carlo Bernari, and Pratolini all revealed the tendency to raise doubts about the aesthetic value of literature based on mere chronicle and documentation, and, at the same time, a certain impatience with the whole notion of art as a vehicle for social and political protest. “In Italy realism has been understood in a corrupt sense,” Vittorini wrote, “it has never liberated itself from rhetoric, from patriotism, from demagoguery.”7 Bernari stated that
… as far as Italy is concerned, I don't think that we can be accused of collective aberrations specifically indicated with the name of Socialist realism, but rather of a corruption of realism in a neorealistic sense, that is, in the sense of a crude and anarchic compromise between the aspiration for truth and populistic velleities.8
Moravia, in his customarily cool and detached manner, said that in considering the specific problem of neorealism one must necessarily keep in mind the general psychological dilemma of all modern novelists, a dilemma he ascribed to the fragmentation of the modern world, the disappearance of absolute standards of morality, in short to the variegated, multi-faceted character of twentieth century life.9
The crisis of neorealism exerted a direct influence on Pratolini's thinking just before he began working on his novel cycle. Unlike Vittorini and Bernari, Pratolini did not make an all-out attack on neorealism. On the contrary, he was quick to defend its positive accomplishments. But he did recognize that after the liberation, Italian novelists had run the risk of replacing the preciosities of art prose with the possibly more deleterious rhetoric of protest and engagement. In an article published in the February 2, 1958 issue of La Fiera Letteraria, Pratolini pointed out that
… the content, the point of departure, the condition, the attitude of our writers [in the immediate post-war years] were miles away from “verism” and from the Verghian achievement of a prodigiously objectified lyricism. The experiments, the attempts, the results which characterized neorealism were on the contrary, strongly polemical, committed, subjective … Engagement, by its very nature, presupposed a literature of intervention. So many confessions, so many examinations of conscience.10
This statement leaves no room for doubt as to why Pratolini has often used the term “neoimpressionism” rather than neorealism to describe the Italian novel of the immediate post-war period. Notwithstanding their interest in objective problems, he felt that the neorealists' main concern had actually been themselves, their own personal impressions and experiences. The result had been a “literature of intervention,” a whole series of honestly motivated but inevitably subjective “confessions” and “examinations of conscience.”
But the gravest shortcoming of neorealist novels and films was, in Pratolini's opinion, their lack of historical perspective; and it was precisely his awareness of this shortcoming that helped him to reach a clear understanding of what his literary methods and aims would be in Una Storia Italiana. The effects of war and social disorder had been vividly documented by the neorealists, yet Pratolini saw that they had not concerned themselves directly with the causal nexus linking Italy's present to its past. In an interview published in the June 1960 issue of Epoca, Mino Guerrini asked Pratolini to comment on the genesis of Una Storia Italiana. Pratolini replied:
… the idea first came to me, more or less consciously, at the time of certain polemics about neorealism. The limits of neorealism, in literature and in films, consisted above all in registering certain effects, in describing certain situations, without seeking out their causes. A new problem was being posed: that of rediscovering the effects through the causes. To see, that is, how our fathers were in order to see how we are. These, at least, were the intentions of Metello and Lo Scialo. I am not talking about artistic results; it may be that my intentions have remained only stated and not realized. The motive behind the three volumes of Una Storia Italiana, at any rate, was to see the history of our country as, in my opinion, it ought to be taught in the schools.11
A month later, in a long interview with the critic Carlo Bo, Pratolini again made explicit reference to the fact that the crisis of neorealism coincided with the genesis of Una Storia Italiana:
The crisis of neorealism, which dates back to those years, like the suicide of Pavese and the industrious silence of Vittorini, coincides with my change of direction. Our works of that time endure because of the lyrical impetus and moral commitment with which they are infused … Their limitation is their strength which permits them to endure because they are immersed without reservation in the waters (and in the blood) of a very specific period of our history; because they are the mirror, the voice of our conscience, partisan testimony, a bitter and burning act of exaltation and revelation of the hope and the horror of that particular Italy of that particular era. And precisely of the disasters of war, of our long sickness and of our recovery of health, portrayed at any rate in its visible, tangible effects … But when the investigation of the effects was finished, and when we were overwhelmed by a reality that magnified these effects day by day, our works as writers ran the risk of becoming identified with our daily obligation to oppose and to protest. Now, for my part, I concluded that to go back to the causes, to explain both their character and their significance, represented the first immediate, active, and useful thing that could be done.12
This statement to Bo expresses Pratolini's conviction that the neorealists' exclusive involvement in the problems and issues of the war years had prevented them from undertaking the kind of serious reappraisal of Italy's national development which, in 1950, he saw as being “the most immediate, active, and useful thing that could be done.”
PRATOLINI'S CONCEPTION OF LITERARY...
(The entire section is 4630 words.)