Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fontamara, Book One in Ignazio Silone’s Abruzzo Trilogy, with Many Digressions

So, I recently re-read Fontamara and Bread and Wine, and finally got to the seemingly universally neglected Seed Beneath the Snow, three books by Ignazio Silone bundled together as the Abruzzo Trilogy. They’re published in this country in the Steerforth Italia series (with their beautiful covers by Louise Fili – who, despite her going over to the dark side of packaging design, is still my favorite living book jacket designer), in a translation by Eric Mosbacher revised by Darina Silone, and a forward by Alexander Stille. I fear that few read this big volume, which strains your wrists if you, conscientious reader, should try and hold it up in front of you while lying abed.

is about a group of villagers in an impoverished hill town who are put through a series of abuses in the early days of Fascism: their electricity is turned off, their only source of water is appropriated, their complaints are answered by meaningless “compromises.” The women of the town are brutally attacked. In the midst of this, one of the villag
ers, Berardo Viola, rises up and fights back, only to die in a jail in Rome; in the wake of his death, the peasants are organized into publishing an anti-Fascist newspaper – called What Are We To Do?, the echo of Lenin in the question noted by many a commentator on the book – and, because of their attempts at resistance, the town is crushed. Three Fontamaresi escape, and the conceit of the narrative is that they have traveled to Switzerland to tell their story to Silone, himself an anti-Fascist exile.

When I first read Fontamara, I remember feeling annoyed with the broadly drawn characters in the book, these mountain-dwelling galoots constantly suckered into accepting worse and worse conditions by the local aristocracy and fast-talking city people who come to oppress them. The Fontamarese peasants are lambs led to slaughter. They are cafoni, as Silone calls them, glossing the word as “suffering flesh” (cafone has, of course, been corrupted into the highly unflattering Italian-American word gavone, meaning something more like “slob”). These cafoni will never get a fair deal, and I found the monotony of this – and the authorial insistence on it – monotonous. This initial reading of mine dates to the pre-mass-internet days of about 1992, and I had picked up the book because I was looking for information, information about the region where my mother’s family came from: Abruzzo – or, as most Italian-Americans still call it, Abruzzi.*

*(The reason for which plural is a confusing ball of wax, but harkens back to when the region was controlled by the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and seems to reflect the lack of solidarity among the small feudal provinces that made up the area; the plural usage seems to have officially ended in 1963, when the recently joined region of Abruzzi e Molise was separated again, now into Abruzzo and Molise. Since so many Italians emigrated long before this, and continued to call their province “Abruzzi,” this usage is preserved in amber for their children and grandchildren – which makes us seem like a precious lot of dolts to Italians from the motherland, but more on that later.)

In my mad search for information on Abruzzo in those days, I found guidebooks about Italy pretty much useless – the region, with its mountainous terrain and harsh winters, was clearly not much of an international tourist destination. All the representations of Abruzzo that I could find, in fact, tended to be pretty miserable, dwelling on the remoteness of the region and the poverty and perceived backwoods mentality of its people. For example, there’s Natalia Ginzburg’s somber essay Winter in the Abruzzi, written about her family’s years of exile in an impoverished village in L’Aquila, showing the locals to be superstitious and hidebound. Then there are the stories of a different sort of exile, Mussolini, jailed in a ski resort in Campo Imperatore, with the idea that the Germans could never rescue him from such an inaccessible place. And finally there’s the scene in the wonderful 1994 film L’America, where the two characters are wandering through a wretched Albania, and they see “ENVER HOXHA” – the name of Albania’s Communist chief of state – blasted into the mountainside…the older of the two, a WWII deserter from Sicily who’s been trapped in Albania all these years, says to the young entrepreneur/conman in a mixture of dialect and Italian:

What’s written on that mountain? Can’t you read either? What’s written is “Duce, Mussolini.” We must be somewhere in Abruzz’…

I actually groaned aloud at these words when I saw L’America at the New York Film Festival back in 1995. Especially because Mussolini was the reason my mother’s family had to pack up and leave Abruzzo, but that’s another story.

Fontamara was beloved of leftist intellectuals when it came out in 1934. Stille writes in his introduction: “Its publication was a central event in Alfred Kazin’s memoir, Starting Out in the Thirties, and had an equally strong impact on other major critics such as Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, and Irving Howe.” After my recent re-reading of Fontamara, I found myself wondering, what book were all these guys reading? (They were actually reading an “inferior” translation by Michael Wharf, but that’s not my point.) The bulk of Fontamara has a satirical, cartoonish texture, and the flavor of a black comedy. In the last fifth or so the tone of the book mysteriously changes – Berardo Viola, the unpredictable, luckless cafone hero of the book, has his transformation in jail, and claims to be the Mystery Man the police are seeking in order to allow the real Mystery Man (a shadowy sort of good-guy, perhaps Communist, agent) to escape to carry on the cause. Berardo will of course die in jail, after making a brave speech that sounds very little like his character in most of the first hundred and fifty or so pages of this short book:

…If I turn traitor, everything will be lost. If I betray, Fontamara will be damned forever. If I betray, centuries will pass before another opportunity arises. And if I die? It will be the first time that a cafone dies, not for himself, but for others.

However, because the tone has been set, it’s hard not to look for the punch line that Berardo’s sacrifice will result in. When that doesn’t come – and one realizes satire has been swapped out for something like realism – there’s an unsatisfying, bait-and-switch feeling. It’s a different kind of book, one realizes, it’s more like other proletarian fiction of the period, such as Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money, with its brave, Brechtian battle-cry at the end. But most of Fontamara exists in another world, in a hopeless, absurdist, Celine-like repetition of abuse and neglect.

Maybe Silone’s status as a dropout from the Communist Party does something to explain the inconsistent tone of the book. As Stille writes in the forward: “Disillusioned by the brutal mendacity of communism, which began to appear more and more like ‘red fascism,’ Silone began to withdraw from active party politics, claiming severe illness. Indeed, in a state of severe depression, he began psychoanalysis at the Swiss clinic of Carl Jung. It was during this period, in the spring of 1930, that Silone found the way out of his crisis, by beginning the novel Fontamara.” I often wondered about the narration of the novel. It is in Silone’s forward, a mixture of fact and fiction – a blurring of boundaries that would be called post-modern thirty or so years later – that Silone tells the reader about the three Fontamaresi who have come to him to tell their story: “The old man spoke first. Then his wife took up the tale, then the man again and then his wife…” And indeed, the narration of the chapters pretty much syncopates between the man and the woman – context mostly providing the clue as to who’s talking (the husband is in scenes with groups of men, the wife with groups of women) – with at least one chapter narrated by their son. The effect of this odd structure is pretty clunky. Perhaps the idea was that Silone was “reporting” on something, using the words of peasants themselves, and this would give the book its veracity.

In the J M Dent British edition of the book (which, despite a powerful cover illustration, looks like the kind of grimly boring young adult novel – sex or coolness but a distant dream – that they would wave in our faces in grammar school), Michael Foot writes in his introduction that the historian Gaetano Salvemini, “a fellow exile from Mussolini’s Italy,” was critical of the book. In a letter to Silone’s publishers in New York, Salvemini wrote: “…Fontamara contained too much ‘propaganda.’ Its peasants were at times too stupid or insufficiently human. Silone was looking at them from above, as befits a Communist by whom the peasantry needs to be rescued from its degradation by Marxist industrial workers, the chosen people of the new era.” Mark Van Doren’s review, published in The Nation on October 3rd, 1934, suggests he had similar problems with the book, based on this excerpt:

That such a novel as this should have become a best seller in fourteen countries of Europe is powerfully suggestive of the high degree to which Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini and his government must be hated beyond the borders of the country which they bless. It is a poor novel by any test, even by that of propaganda. It is sketchy and coarse, and sounds like an exaggeration. It may not be that, but so it sounds, and nobody not rabidly anti-fascist can be conceived either as believing it or as liking it.

So for some it wasn’t even useful as a piece of agit-prop: it would make no converts.

I’d recently picked up a copy of Alfred Kazin’s Starting Out in the Thirties from my favorite bookstore in Connecticut, the Niantic Book Barn (books, cats, goats: what could be better?). The book is a delight to read, with Kazin’s prose that crackles off the page, his delicious, joyously drawn portraits of friends like James Farrell and William Saroyan, his evocation of a New York City where people breathed books and radical politics…all of which, unfortunately, makes today’s New York City – where people appear to be concerned not so much with the life of the mind as with scoring a reservation at Momofuku – yeah, baby! – all the more stupid and sad.

Anyway! It’s apparent in reading Kazin’s book that key to Fontamara’s positive critical reception (Mark Van Doren’s review notwithstanding) was the beautiful ferment of those times. To get a quick sense of this, one need only see the breathtaking footage of masses of suited, smart young men shoving and soap-boxing and passionately debating in the “perfervid, overly heated, overly excited” atmosphere, as Irving Howe puts it, of City College in the 1930s in the documentary Arguing the World – which is a wonderful film, despite Irving Kristol. In that milieu everything was politicized, everyone chose a side – socialist, Communist – Marxist, Stalinist, Trotskyite – anarchist, etc., and Kazin loved Fontamara because it was part of a greater battle cry. Crucial to his passionate reaction to it was his quasi-mentor Malcolm Cowley’s review of the book in The New Republic. As Kazin wrote: “….Cowley reviewed [Fontamara and Man’s Fate] so vividly that I could not wait to get to the key scenes of revolutionary suffering and heroism when I read these books for myself.”

I went back and found Cowley’s review god love the NYPL and it basically runs down the plot of the book, framing it more like it’s reportage than fiction. Cowley seems to imply that three Fontamarese peasants (Pescina was actually the name of the town Fontamara was more or less based on) really did show up at Silone’s door in Davos, rather than visiting his imagination. He ends his review:

The book is so simple and quickly moving and full of hill-country humor that it seems shorter than it really is; you read to the end without laying it down and are surprised to find that it is long past midnight. Afterwards you reflect that although the story begins as broad farce and ends as tragedy, the underlying tone of it is neither one nor the other. Beneath the events of the story is a lyrical sadness, the longing for home of a man who loves his own country and can’t go back to it until the present government is overthrown. Perhaps Silone won’t have to wait until his hair turns white.

So in essence Cowley, and Kazin, and so many others leftist intellectuals of that era, were responding in real time as comrades to the man, the writer, the exile. Silone was their hero, he had escaped by the skin of his teeth – perhaps he was even the Mystery Man of his “novel”? The political was the personal – and, in those perfervid times, that trumped all other criticisms.

The tone shift that I find so jarring in Fontamara is nothing compared with the tone shift between Fontamara itself and Silone’s next, and most famous, book, Bread and Wine. In Silone’s 1958 “Note on the Revision of Fontamara,” he writes, “Though some critics take a different view, there is no break or rupture between that first book of mine and its successors.” But the two novels are like night and day.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

My mother, Colette

Probably because my family is so fractured – and because the popular stereotypes of Italian-Americans are so relentlessly idiotic or one-dimensional (Bada-bing! Shudduppayouface!) – I find myself always looking for representations of “my people” that reflect the reality of the smart, funny, absurdity-loving Italian-Americans I know. Also I think I’m looking to understand my history; and to explain myself to myself. I was at a lecture a few months ago about Italian-American women in the South Village (as in Greenwich Village in NYC) in the early 20th century and, during the Q&A, an older lady in the audience got up and told a story. She’d grown up in the neighborhood and, when she was a little girl, her mother took her over to the Little Red Schoolhouse to enroll her in class. The LRS was founded in 1921 by Elizabeth Irwin, a radical educator and “declared lesbian” (a phrase that makes me think customs forms must somehow be involved), and the school has remained progressive over the years, even as it was privatized and its tuition has skyrocketed to something zany like $29,000 for kindergarteners. Anyway, at the lecture, the woman – a small-boned, well-dressed, elegant sort of person – said that when her mother took her over to the school, Elizabeth Irwin herself received them. She said Irwin looked at her, and at her mother, and then told her mother that she should put the girl in a school “with your own kind.” Italians were not welcome at the Little Red Schoolhouse. As the lady told this story – which would have happened something like seventy years ago, say around the time of the Social Security Act – she got so upset that she began to shake. The shame and anger around this memory was still so powerful. It was hard to watch. And I remember I was looking at this woman and thinking, Why does it have to be so horrible? Why have you had to carry this pain around with you for so long? What need in you, sweet grandma lady in your nice coat, was never met that you still have so much anger over this memory?

I see so many Italian-Americans like this –
women, mostly – usually one or two generations ahead of me, who carry around a burden of resentment over opportunities they were denied, work they did that went unrewarded, tragedies that marked them that no one knew how to call by their right name. No one bore witness for them; they saw themselves seconded nowhere. In a terrific essay I found online called “In Search of Italian American Writers,” writer Fred Gardaphé quotes Alice Walker, from her essay, “Saving the Life That is Your Own”: “The absence of models, in literature as in life . . . is an occupational hazard for the artist, simply because models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect – even if rejected – enrich and enlarge one’s view of existence.” So it is an intention of mine in this blog, among other things, to try and be the bearer of that witness.

From here I think of my own mother, who was a complex, contradictory person – an artist, with an elastic, somewhat kooky turn of mind – stuck for the last forty-some years of her life among pissed-off, conformist neighbors in a working-class enclave in Wilmington, Delaware. Things had started out well for her. She was an adored child; a model student; lovely to look at; a 1951 graduate of University of Pennsylvania; a “career girl.” Then she married my dad and – porca miseria! –
it all went downhill from there. I don’t imagine she ever thought she’d be raising four freaked-out, puling children in a grim little row house. She funneled all of her disappointment and resentment into her faith and eventually became a deeply Catholic person with, sad to say, all the intolerance those words can imply. She was forever saying “Offer it up” (as in, Offer up your suffering for the souls in purgatory); and, as a kind of auxiliary to this, I really do think she believed that the greater your suffering here on earth, the greater your reward in the sweet by-and-by. It was probably easier for her to “pass” as a simple church lady and tamp down all her singularity than keep displaying her oddness among small-minded creeps and be shunned for it. I know it may be pseudo-science to link Alzheimer’s with personality, but when the disease took over my mother it was hard for me not to see it as a choice – as the ultimate retreat into unreality. Because reality had become so joyless for her. My mother endured a lot of suffering on earth, so I would like to believe for her sake that she was right about the suffering/reward ratio, and that now she’s in the heaven of her imagining.

I dedicate this blog to her.