Italian Literature You Should Read Pt 2

Books

Last week I left the list half-way through because I was already way past 1000 words with the suggestions between the Middle Ages and the start of the 20th century. If you missed it, you can find it here.

Primo Novecento 
In terms of themes, the big watershed moment for Italian literature is the Second World War rather than the 1st, which has had an impact on the country but not to the same extent that it had on bigger players in the conflict. The usual array of -isms from the rest of Europe is present, even though not always welcomed by critics for obvious reasons.

  • Pirandello, “Uno, nessuno e centomila” (One, No One, and One Hundred). He started off as a devout Catholic, until he became disillusioned with the hierarchy and went off a bizarre path of philosophical and psychological quest for truth. This bitter and ironic novel is one of his most famous, and deals with ideas around the understanding of the self. 
  • Svevo, “La Coscienza di Zeno” (Zeno’s Conscience). This one will be especially enjoyed by anyone who appreciates Samuel Beckett because it deals with the simultaneous tragedy and comedy of life. Dealing, like Pirandello, with the idea of how we construct ourselves, but more openly influenced by the discussion going on with Freud and his school, this fictional memoir shows us the desperation of the human condition in the society of the time, and how hope as a theological virtue is the only alternative we really, although that goes beyond the scope of the novel and he’d probably hate to face this fact. 
  • The war poetry of Saba (Il Canzoniere, The Songbook, translated by George Hochfield) and Ungaretti (L’allegria, Merriment translated by Charles Tomlinson). I’m going to write a whole post on the subject for Remembrance Day (English date) so I’ll just leave it here and then come back and edit with the link for posterity. 
  • Montale, “Ossi di Seppia” (Cuttlefish Bones). The poetic diary of a summer in the Cinque Terre in which the land becomes an expression of the human condition after the war. Yes, I like sad stuff. I did say last week this is a very biased list. 

Dopoguerra or Secondo Novecento

  • Calvino, “Il Visconte Dimezzato” (The Cloven Viscount). This book is effectively an allegory of the contemporary artist but I also find it funny even if you take it at face value as an ironic story about some guy in the 18th century. Calvino was raised in a non-religious household and was active on the political Left (including being friends with Che Guevara), but I think its discussion of good and evil is very relevant to the Catholic imagination. He also curated a collection of Italian folktales (that’s also the title) which are worth reading because Fantaghir√≥ is included (maybe I need to dedicate a whole post to that story), but I didn’t use it as his book because he isn’t the author. 
  • Moravia, “Gli Indifferenti” (The Time of Indifference). This book is about moral apathy. It’s probably sort of a recurrent theme, and I think it’s not entirely a coincidence that every intellectual of the time was a communist given the barren land they faced. Someone needed something to believe in, some had faith (this book was published 5 years after Blessed Piergiorgio Frassati died), some had Marx. Both worldviews would shake hands over the state of a middle class that had more interest in appearances than actually being good people. 
  • Morante, “La Storia” (History: A Novel). At one time Moravia’s wife (Italian women keep their surnames, please stop calling me Mrs Harris). This is her most famous and most controversial novel, which tells the story of the suffering of Rome during the Second World War, especially among the Jewish population, with a good amount of the partisan history that has my family start the 3rd one at the breakfast table. The Italian title has an ambiguity that the translation doesn’t have, since Storia means both History and story, which I think is fitting with the theme of disillusionment. 
  • Pavese, “La Luna e i Fal√≥” (The Moon and the Bonfires). If you know anything about me and my family, you might be seeing a thread here, that pretty much every writer of this time sounds like my late grandfather if he had been a writer (instead of just pontificating at political meetings and the dinner table). You would be correct. I do like Pavese though because, like me, he rebelled against the study of Greek in high school. I think this novel merits the spot here because it’s a reflection on the passing of time and I can kind of relate to a lot of its themes as a person living abroad myself. 
  • Tomasi di Lampedusa, “Il Gattopardo” (The Leopard). This is a favourite with my mother, and I think anyone who loves Gone with the Wind (did my late maternal grandmother watch the film every single year since it came out? You bet). It takes place in Sicily at the time of the unification of Italy. It starts with a noble family praying the rosary. And yet, this novel is about change, and not really about the historical period in which it is set.

1980s and contemporaries 
I guess I wanted to separate the many war and post-war novels in this list from what comes next. Some of these authors are still alive, some died in the past 5 years. 

  • Vassalli, “La Chimera” (The Chimera). This is a favourite of mine, a historical novel based in Northern Italy during the 17th century. It discusses a lot of religious themes through the story of an accusation of witchcraft. I guess it’s hard for Catholics to want to face the ugly side of our history, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.
  • Eco, “Il nome della Rosa” (The name of the Rose). Ok, this one is famous and probably the only one anyone reading this post has read, but just because it reinforces the point above, I thought I should drop it. No list would be complete without. If anyone has lived under a rock and never heard of it, it’s a mystery historical romance set in a monastery in the Middle Ages. He wrote other stuff I like, and in fact that he thought were better than this one, so feel free to check those out too. One of the ways to interpret this novel is as a philosophical exploration of the meaning of truth and the quest for it, but some critics have suggested it as an allegory for the situation of the time in which it was written. 
  • Merini, “Tu sei Pietro” (You are Peter). A small-c catholic poet, who had her issues with the institutional Church but would readily talk about how she met God in the psychiatric ward both in interviews and in her poetry. She suffered with bipolar disorder all her life. This collection of poetry is notable for the tension between the biblical themes which she superimpose on a real life event, and her fatalism. Pope St John Paul II sent her a blessed rosary as a token of appreciation for her Magnificat, and although they never met in person it’s such a cute story of unlikely kindred spirits. 
  • Maraini, “Chiara di Assisi. Elogio della disobbedienza“. I can’t find a translation of this one, but it’s a strange novel about St Clare of Assisi even if it’s not a historical novel and St Clare isn’t really even there. 
  • Baricco, “Oceano Mare” (Ocean Sea). If someone wrote the sea into words, this would be it. The style of writing has been criticised a lot for its rhythm but to me it sounds like the waves. The book is basically a book about being, and how life is more than what rationalism tells us it is. He also wrote some other stuff that I like if you can find any of them in translation. In one of his other novels, he deals with the common problem (which I have experienced myself) of growing up Catholic in name only, with no real foundation of living faith. Honestly, he is also a favourite with me so pick up whatever you find in your local bookstore. 

I hope you enjoyed this little excursion in the Italian literary imagination and its difficult relationship with the Catholic faith. Let me know if you’re reading something and how you find it! 

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