Like a Mullet in Love

James Wood

  • Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories by Giovanni Verga, translated by G.H. McWilliam
    Penguin, 272 pp, £8.99, June 1999, ISBN 0 14 044741 5

A Sicilian peasant is dying of malaria, and trembling on his bed ‘like leaves in November’. His neighbours visit him, and while they stand around in his house ‘warming their hands at the fire’, they conclude that there’s no hope, because ‘it’s the kind of malaria that kills you quicker than a shot from a gun.’ The peasant says to his son, Jeli: ‘When I’m dead, go to the man who owns the cows at Ragoleti, and get him to hand over the three onze and twelve sacks of grain owing to me from May up to the present.’ But Jeli corrects him: ‘No, it’s only two and a quarter, because you left the cows over a month ago, and you mustn’t steal from the hand that feeds you.’ ‘That’s true!’ his father agrees, and promptly dies.

This is a scene from ‘Jeli the Shepherd’, a story by the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), who is not read much in English, and often only dutifully in Italy, where he has the cloudy venerability of the canonical. In English, he is known, perhaps, for ‘Cavalleria rusticana’, a tale which became a play and then an opera, about a young soldier who fights a duel with the man who stole the girl he had chosen, and is killed. But it is not one of his greatest stories and can give the impression that Verga was merely a Daudet-like painter of authentic ‘scenes from Sicilian life’.

This neglect of Verga is strange. D.H. Lawrence, who lived for a while in Sicily, discovered Verga’s work with great excitement and translated him in the 1920s. He rightly called ‘Jeli the Shepherd’ and another story, ‘Rosso Malpelo’, two of the greatest ever written. At his best, as G.H. McWilliam’s distinguished new translations of the stories allow us to see, Verga is quite the equal of Chekhov, in the fiercely unsentimental depiction of ordinary rural life, in the coaxing of opaque inner lives, and most of all in his self-smothering ability to see life not as a writer might see it, but entirely from within the minds of his mostly uneducated characters. More than Chekhov indeed, who was always an intellectual, if an uncannily bashful one, Verga writes from within a community – that of Sicilian peasant villages during the 1860s and 1870s. In English, his only obvious counterparts are Hardy and Lawrence, except that Verga is not interested in intellectuals or outsiders; his priests, for instance, are essentially indistinguishable from his peasants – they are as lean in spirit as everyone else in town, even if they aren’t so poor.

In Italian, by contrast, Verga’s influence has been immense. His fellow Sicilian, Pirandello, learned from him how to write stories that seem to emanate from his characters; Visconti based his film La terra trema, in which the parts are played not by actors but by Sicilian villagers, on Verga’s novel The House by the Medlar Tree (I Malavoglia); Pavese’s beautiful novel, The Moon and the Bonfire, has a Verga-like commitment to the patient comprehension of ordinary rural life; even Pasolini’s film, The Gospel According to St Matthew, which also uses non-actors, incorporates Verga’s verismo to give the effect of Jesus ministering in a peasant region.

All this makes Verga sound respectable, a necessary origin. He is much more exciting than that: I recall first reading ‘Jeli the Shepherd’, led there by Lawrence’s enthusiasm, and sitting stiff in my chair with concentrated delight. Here was something new to me, writing that was very direct and simple yet highly refined. One element of that refinement is that Verga is all detail. But because he sets down his details without comment, they become enigmas for the reader, soft puzzles. The passage quoted above, about Jeli’s father, is breezily written, in Verga’s usual rapid style, but it’s dense. The dying man’s friends seem to visit in order to console him, yet it is characteristic of Verga to show them only as fatalistic, while greedily ‘warming their hands at the fire’: in Verga’s world of rural poverty, survival is the first and often the only motive; generosity is a toy. His humans are no different from animals in this respect, and indeed, Verga has already described how Jeli’s horses would cluster around the bonfire in winter and warm their tails.

Survival is what drives the morbid comedy of the final exchange between father and son. The father, thinking of the son, reminds him to collect a debt once he has died, and Jeli, frustrating our expectations of life or conventional fiction (we expect something like: ‘Shush father, all that will be taken care of’), sternly reminds him that the debt is smaller than he thought, ‘because you left the cows over a month ago, and you mustn’t steal from the hand that feeds you’. It is shocking that Jeli should rebuke his father at this moment, and comically absurd that a dying man would need advice about not stealing from the hand that feeds him, when in a moment he will not need to be fed by anyone anyway. Yet Jeli is thinking of himself. He will need to be fed by one hand or another after his father has died – he is only a poor shepherd boy. And so his father, who surely knows this, meekly agrees, says ‘That’s true!’ – incidentally, a beautiful placing of the exclamation mark, suggesting a final fervency before death, a fervency all the more affecting because it is about an apparent banality – and dies. These are the elements that make a scene which lasts only fifty words so moving. What seems to be a fleeting triviality is actually very important – which is both Verga’s subject and his mode of writing. His banalities, like those of his characters, are never unimportant.

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