Monday, January 31, 2005

'>Italian Tales:
An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Fiction

Massimo Riva, editor
Yale University Press. 272 pages, $30.

book review by William Severini Kowinski

My mother was born in Italy, although this fact was kept from her children for years, ostensibly to forestall any question of her citizenship (she arrived at the age of 4) but her reticence was probably due to her mother's residual caution. In the 1930s and 40s, Italians weren't universally popular in America. Then came Joe DiMaggio and Perry Como, and in the 50s Italian language songs were top forty hits.

More recently, I read somewhere about a common experience of Italian-Americans returning to the old country. Steeped on their grandparents' tales of escaping poverty and gratitude for generous American G.I.s, they visited Italian relatives who turned out to be more prosperous and urban than they, and not so impressed with America. Why should they be? Despite more obvious government corruption, they have better health care.

Italian literature has also changed with the times, as '>Massimo Riva tells us in a fascinating introduction to this anthology specifically meant for an American readership. Italian literature is as old as the classics of Rome, yet comparatively young in that Italy has existed as a united country for only about a century and a half, and at the time of unification in the 1860s, most people spoke regional dialects. Three quarters of the population did not speak or write Italian.

Even today, with Italian as the spoken standard and much greater literacy---but with the explosive growth and influence of mass media--- the readership for literature written in Italian within the country, Riva says, is still small. But Italian writers have been influential in world literature, especially since World War II. Ernest Hemingway, who wrote A Farewell to Arms based on his World War I experiences in Italy (and wrote about Venice in a later novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, which I read on my only visit to Venice), wrote a fulsome introduction to Elio Vittorini's novel, Conversations in Sicily. This was published in 1949, so it is impossible to say who influenced who, but quite a bit of the book reads like vintage Hemingway.

Two anthologies published by Penguin in the 1960s (Italian Short Stories, with parallel English and Italian text, and Italian Writing Today) contain work by authors who were then world famous, or who soon would be: Cesare Pavese, Alberto Moravia, Natalia Ginzburg, Ignazio Silone, Carlo Gadda, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Italo Calvino. (Silone's Bread and Wine was the only modernist Italian I was asked to read in college, although I recently read Fontomara, his novel about the Abruzzi region where my mother was born, with great pleasure.)

In the past several decades, it was Calvino and Umberto Eco who became the best known in America. Eco doesn't do much for me, but I consider Calvino one of the greatest of his time in the world. In imagination and style he ranks with Marquez, and his intellect and literary taste are unparalleled. I find his fiction wondrous and his nonfiction singularly stimulating.

According to Riva, Calvino cast a long shadow in Italy as well. While some of the writers in this anthology are actually Calvino's contemporaries, they and others represented here are also Calvino's literary children. I don't want to characterize Calvino's writing, because that is to unfairly limit a protean body of work. But in his thoughtful approach to literature, he does represent a certain consciousness about process and possibility. He also linked traditional stories (as in Italian Folktales, which he edited) to more fabulous forms (like his own brand of science fiction in Cosmicomics) and concerns with contemporary life. Another strand in Italian writing may be more clearly represented by Pasolini, who is best known for his neo-realist films.

So even though Calvino is deliberately left out of this anthology, his spirit pervades it, especially as the man of world letters who nevertheless was consciously Italian. In his work as a publisher in a literary community based in Turino, Calvino had what few Americans ever do, even in universities: a life centered on literature. That sense of literature seems present to these writers, though their circumstances differ. (Some have had teaching careers in America.)

These writers and their short stories, novel excerpts and nonfiction pieces, are of the 80s and 90s (there are notably more women writers than in those past anthologies.) Many are trying to reconcile contemporary Italy with its past and traditions, including its landscape, using various literary strategies. These writers seem to me to be writing about Italy for a world audience, perhaps even for that timeless audience of unknown and unborn readers that defines literature. That is, regardless of their relationship to the Italian readership of today, they are writing of Italy today.

So Giorgio Manganelli tells a story from the point of view of a labyrinth, Fabrizia Ramondino describes a neighborhood over time, while Erri De Luca presents a poor adolescent's journal in almost a neo-realist style. Time is a central concern for Pier Maria Pasinetti looking at history, and Pier Vittorio Tondelli, looking at his old room.

Editor Riva divides these pieces into sections with themes keyed to Italian life and concerns, such as the presence of ruins, the persistence of the piazza and the opera of life. He provides useful glosses on each piece and each writer. I hope to read more by several of them, including Gesualdo Bufalino (his story concerns a man who treats dead cars as Coliseum-like ruins), Daniele Dei Giudice (whose excerpt about a lost pilot is a cliffhanger) and Antonio Tabucchi, who seems to apply magic realism to film noir.

Riva, who is professor of Italian studies at Brown University, has collected tales that curious and casual readers can enjoy, while supplying helpful background and point of view for both interested readers and scholars of literature and culture. Bravo!

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