I've just read the famous novel by Elio Vittorini, Conversations In Sicily.
The words of this novel echo in the heart after they are spoken. We feel the consciousness of the narrator, Silvestro, resonate in the events of the story. This is set up very simply in the opening pages by contrasting the mice of dissatisfaction eating away at the hero's soul within him with the actual cheese he is eating outside him. Silvestro begins to awaken spiritually to the world as he travels and we wake up with him on the train. How many times has a short holiday woken up the senses and soul again? The poetry of the opening is beautiful.
And after all, the events of the trip over to Sicily are very mild events, but frightful in their way. We experience indirectly the horrors of fascism and we understand the risks the author is taking, the courage in these simple repeated words of the travellers he is travelling with.
Because when he is on the train with the two government agents, With Whiskers and Without Whiskers, we feel the reign of terror that comes with fascism. Then we contrast it against the sufferings of the malaria victim and the big Lombard, the common people and the bourgeois folk. I can most readily identify with the big Lombard, with their casual protest against political repression and their sense of material comfort and ease. The poverty of the early twentieth century Italians is alien, but the politics are not.
Also alien to us is the sense of provicialism: these men act as if united Italy is the whole world unto itself, and the Italian man is the measure of the human: they characterize men of different cities as different human types, but the sense of the national Italian lack of unity is palpable. The center of it all, Rome, is almost never mentioned. We in the West have lived under federalism for so long that the apparatus of bureaucracy and big business, and the regular, unwelcome intrusions of government and business into everyday life are regarded as normal now. The chaos of the age immediately before us seems strange now compared to the long peace of Western 21st century life.
When Silvestro is visiting his mother, the tension and humor is exquisite. The psychodynamics of the mother, who conflates her husband with her father in her memories, and the contrast between Silvestro's memory of his childhood and his mother's memory, have an exquisite, universal, and painfully tender irony. There is no place for sentiment here, and the stories of his mother bearing children and having sex are recounted with straightfaced and respectful humor.
The sensibility and wit of these pages with Silvestro and his mother are delicate and bold: the color is broad and operatic. I cannot think of their equal outside Stendhal's "Charterhouse of Parma", or some few pages of Balzac.
Beside these pages, Benjamin Constant's "Adolphe" seems a juvenile imitation of a romance. Why does French literature borrow vigor from Italian literature? And why, in turn, does the more sophisticated and complex northern Italian literature seem to refer back again and again to the rude south of Italy for its vitality? Why refer back to Sicily?
The answer seems to be at least in part in the historical and geographical position of Sicily, which has been among the most hotly contested pieces of real estate throughout recorded history; consequently the Sicilian people carry inside themselves the Gordian knot of history with a kind of helpless resignation, unable to undo it nor to avoid adding to it, but yearning to cut through it in one blow and return to the life of the senses only. The epicurean ideal wars against the stoic necessity, perhaps. Perhaps, maybe, the historical vulnerability of Sicily to extreme criminality in its politics is part of the urge to cut through history and free human nature once and for all from ideas.
One reads in Thucydides the ill-fated expedition against Syracuse; in Plato's Seventh Letter, Plato's ill-fated mission to reform the kings of that city; in Plutarch, the ill-fated lives of Dion and Dionysis and the other heroes of Syracuse; in Tacitus and Polybius and Titus Livius the ill-fated riots and wars over Sicily.
Sicily seems ill-fated! And yet the conversations of Vittorini show something different, something hidden from the eye of history, about Sicily; at the end the closing three or four images of the book - Silvestro speaking to the soldier, Silvestro returning to his mother to find an unexpected guest, Silvestro hearing what the ensemble of characters must say gathered around the extraordinary statue of the Goddess in the village - resonate like a dream, their meanings fleeting, elusive, manifold. The closing images - I cannot give them away because you must read this novel yourself - keep on opening out in the imagination about Sicily. They have potency as guiding images. I am sure when I visit Sicily they will be the images that rise before my eyes.
The novel is short. It took me four hours to read. It was an utter pleasure. I recommend it.