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.

Sicily, at the end of the 19th century, was one of the poorest places in Europe. Verga’s shepherds and fishermen are largely illiterate – in The House by the Medlar Tree, a mother gets a letter from her son, who is away with the Navy, and the writing looks to her ‘like a mess of fishhooks’. These people are without much mercy for each other. And because they are narrated as if by a member of the community, the stories at first glance seem not to have much mercy for their characters. Sometimes the author treats them in much the same way as they treat their animals, with only a rough sympathy and a tender cruelty. In The House by the Medlar Tree, ’Ntoni, a young man, leaves his small village to earn his fortune in the city. He fails, and returns empty-handed, and is so ashamed that he cannot go out for eight days. When he does, how do the villagers respond? ‘As soon as they saw him,’ Verga writes, ‘they all laughed in his face.’ This is presented without comment, not merely as a fact of life, but almost as if it were good and right.

The end of ‘Jeli the Shepherd’ is even more bitter. Jeli is told by a boy who looks after the sheep with him what the reader already knows: that Jeli’s wife is having an affair with a gentleman, Don Alfonso. (Jeli and Don Alfonso, despite their difference in rank, were childhood friends.) But the boy does not break the news gently; in fact, it seems that he has been envious of Jeli, thinks he has been putting on airs, and suddenly, during an argument over ‘certain bits of cheese that were missing’, he blurts out: ‘Now that Don Alfonso has taken your wife, you treat him like a brother-in-law, and you walk around with your nose in the air like a crowned prince, with those horns on your head.’ In his envy, the boy turns the usual symbol for the cuckold – the horns – into a crown. But Jeli cannot believe the news. Not because he thinks his wife above suspicion, but because he doesn’t really know what a cuckold is, and as Verga beautifully and simply remarks: ‘It was difficult for him to grasp anything that was unusual.’

But readers crave sympathetic identification with characters, and Verga knows this. Indeed, he knows that the more brutally he deprives us of sympathy, the more we long to feel it, and he deliberately uses the cruelty of his Sicilian world to elicit sympathy from the reader. Verga planned a series of five novels, of which The House by the Medlar Tree was the first, with the general title I vinti, or ‘the defeated’. We are supposed to feel sorry for poor Jeli when the boy tells him about his wife, or for poor ’Ntoni when the villagers laugh at his misfortune, and Verga surreptitiously prompts us to feel this way, by inserting into his narration his usual epithets, ‘poor wretch’ or ‘poor fellow’. Thus, when the neighbours come to visit Jeli’s father on his sickbed, Verga writes: ‘all the poor wretch could do by way of reply was to yelp like a puppy taking suck from its mother.’ This, too, carries a sense of rough, hasty sympathy, as if the community were pausing for a moment to confer feeling, before closing the book on the case.

Verga’s use of this narration-as-if-by-the-community is extraordinarily subtle, because readers, faced with such pitiless judgment, tend to work against the narration, against the community, in order to extract the pathos we require. Verga’s fiction is peculiar because his characters are not free – they are all i vinti, and the narrator knows it – but his readers are free to resist such determinism, and are slyly encouraged to do so by Verga’s narration. This is the inverse of what usually happens when a novelist appears to write with the weight of the community behind him. Barthes called this style of omniscient narration ‘the reference code’, alluding to those moments when a writer appeals to something consensual that everyone knows. Tolstoy uses it with great simplicity and force. In The Death of Ivan Ilich, he describes a group of men who are discussing the recent news of Ivan’s death. Tolstoy remarks that ‘as is usual in such cases’, each man was thinking that he was glad that it was Ivan Ilich who was dead and not him. In such an instance, we are encouraged to agree with Tolstoy about this universal fact of life.

But Verga uses the ‘reference code’ to effect almost the opposite, almost disagreement. To begin with, unlike Tolstoy, he never abandons the voice of his community, so that every judgment about the characters, and every truism, comes not from the writer Giovanni Verga (as, say, there are moments when it’s clear that the writer Leo Tolstoy is addressing us) but from a little village thirty miles from Catania: a limited community, limited in intelligence, and often limited in kindness. And secondly, the truths and universal facts we are asked to agree with are so cruel, and so brutally stated, that we are forced to rise up against them. In The House by the Medlar Tree, for example, a fisherman, Bastianazzo, dies at sea. Verga writes of Bastianazzo’s family that ‘all the others began crying again, and the children, seeing the grown-ups cry, began to cry too, although their papa had been dead for three days.’ Though this novel does not formally have a narrator – it is third-person omniscient – we have to imagine the book as if narrated by a rather cruel fishwife; and it is clear, when we examine that strange sentence, that the fishwife is implying that Bastianazzo’s children are being a bit soft for crying. The reader, who naturally thinks three days is not very long for grief, resists Verga’s cruelty of implication and sympathises with the children, against, as it were, the writer.

This way of storytelling is marvellously conducive to comedy, because it allows a whole community unwittingly to reveal its foolishness and superstition. In the same novel, Verga describes the local sexton, who is not a popular figure, because ‘he was always ringing the Angelus bell when he had nothing else to do, and for the Mass he bought the kind of wine the crucified Christ drank on the cross, which was a real sacrilege.’ Again, we are made to feel that it is not Verga who is writing this novel, but an old gossip from the village. And a foolish one, too, censorious and witless at the same time. (José Saramago is the contemporary novelist most fond of this technique.)

Giovanni Verga was a patrician, and he did not always write like this. He was born in Catania, in 1840, into a landowning family. At school, a patriotic teacher inspired him to write fiery and romantic works, and his early novels, so-called romanzi giovanili, were popular and sentimental, influenced by the most vivid storytellers of the day: Dumas, Hugo, Scott, Sue, Feuillet. One scholar, Giovanni Cecchetti, has said of Unapeccatrice (1866), that it is ‘repetitious and overextended, and it seems to have been written in a state of sexual delirium’. These were stories of ambitious young gentlemen who fall in love with glamorous ladies; there are duels, suicides, ecstatic letters, and many feverish deaths. By the late 1860s, Verga was well established in Florence, and famous. McWilliam points out in his excellent introduction that Verga’s earlier work continued to be popular well into the 20th century, and more popular than his later fiction about Sicilian peasants: by 1907, McWilliam says, Verga’s romantic novel Storia di una capinera (1871) – about a doomed affair between a young novice and a gentleman – had been reprinted 22 times, while The House by the Medlar Tree had only gone into five impressions.

But despite his fashionability, Verga began to return frequently to Sicily during the 1870s. His sister died in 1878 and he spent two years in his native town. Out of this time came his stories of rural life, Vita dei campi (Life in the Fields, 1880) – which contained ‘Jeli the Shepherd’ and ‘Rosso Malpelo’ – and a year later The House by the Medlar Tree, known as I Malavoglia because it traces the terrible downfall of one family, the Malavoglia, through three generations. It is hard to recognise the Verga of the early novels as the author of the later work; they are like different seasons of existence. It is correspondingly difficult to know why and how Verga developed into the writer who has lasted: it is as if Flaubert had first written like Dumas before going on to produce A Simple Heart. Scholars mention the influence of his fellow Sicilian, Luigi Capuana, who was excitedly exploring folk stories and the oral tradition. Verga may well have read Flaubert; he certainly read Zola (whom he later met), and began to fashion his own kind of naturalism, which was known as verismo.

Verga did not think that fiction had to be ‘scientific’ or present sociological case studies, but he did come to believe that it was the duty of fiction to currycomb life with the greatest attention, and that the writer should abscond from his fiction in the interests of ‘objectivity’. In one of the stories in Vita dei campi, ‘Gramigna’s Mistress’, he writes a kind of manifesto: ‘At the present day we are renewing the artistic process ... using a different method, more precise and more intimate. We gladly sacrifice the narrative’s climax and its psychological effect.’ Verga hoped that ‘the hand of the artist will remain completely invisible,’ and that when this happens, ‘the work of art will seem to have created itself, to have grown spontaneously and come to fruition as though it were a part of nature.’

The subject of this new kind of fiction was rural life in Sicily; the mode of narration was as if the story were told by a peasant. This meant that everything had to be seen as if through the eyes of one of the protagonists. There is very little of that 19th-century standby, nature description, in Verga’s work. The landscape is taken for granted, or written about in homely similes. At almost the same time, Chekhov was becoming a master of the same technique: in one story, a bittern crying sounds as if a cow has been locked up in a shed all night, and is lowing; an accordion heard in a poor village is brilliantly described as ‘expensive-sounding’. Like Chekhov’s, Verga’s similes are plausibly unliterary while never being flat or ordinary. In a scene from The House by the Medlar Tree, ‘the boat leaped over the waves like a mullet in love ... When the weather was bad or the nor’wester blew, all day long the corks danced on the water as though somebody were playing the violin for them.’ Verga also studs his fiction with proverbs and sayings, whether spoken by his characters or woven invisibly into the narration, as part of the ‘reference code’: ‘Some people carry their conscience on their backs, so they can’t see it’; ‘Saint Joseph shaved himself first and then the others’ (this might be taken as an epitaph for the whole ideology of survival in Verga’s world); ‘Uncle Crocifisso was in just the right mood to discuss that business, which never seemed to end, because, as they say, “long things turn into snakes” ’; ‘Marriages and bishops are made in heaven.’

Heeding every illogicality and non sequitur of his characters with such sensitivity and care produces a world of great vitality and sad comedy, whose limits are always apparent. Often, the effects are breathtaking. There is a moment when Jeli, who is of course illiterate, gets a friend to write the name of his sweetheart on a piece of paper, which he carries around like an amulet. Jeli reflects on this great mystery of writing: ‘Anyone who knows how to write is like a person who stores his words in a steel safe, and who could carry them around in his pocket, and even send them wherever he wants.’ There are very few writers in the whole of literature (Shakespeare is obviously one: Bottom comes to mind) who can write as humanely as that. Elsewhere, one encounters a man ‘so happy that he could scarcely fit into his shirt’. Or in a marvellous scene in The House by the Medlar Tree, a crowd discusses the news of Italy’s defeat by the Austrians at the battle of Lissa:

      ‘It’s all a lot of talk, just to sell newspapers.’
      ‘But everybody says we’ve lost!’
      ‘Lost what?’ said Uncle Crocifisso, cupping his hand behind his ear.
      ‘A battle.’
      ‘Who lost it?’
      ‘I, you, in short, everybody, Italy,’ the pharmacist said.
      ‘I haven’t lost a thing!’ Uncle Crocifisso answered, shrugging.

But the Malavoglia family has lost something: Luca, a son and grandson, who was on one of the defeated ships; and in a typical modulation, Verga follows this scene of piazza comedy with a melancholy report of how the family waits for news, hears nothing for weeks, and finally, fearing the worst, travels to Catania to make further enquiries. At the port, a navy official runs through a book of the dead, finds Luca’s name, and simply says: ‘It’s been more than forty days ... It happened at Lissa. Didn’t you know yet?’

Writing from within the community also meant finding a new, loose kind of Italian, that can seem scrappy and unfinished precisely because it is not literary. But Verga does not use Sicilian dialect; instead, he rearranges standard Italian, shuffles the syntax, imports proverbs and similes, to create an idiom that might plausibly have been used by his characters, were they speaking standard Italian. Visconti’s film, La terra trema, vandalises Verga’s subtle technique by employing a voice-over which tells us, in standard Italian, that Sicilians use dialect and then proceeds to lecture us about the radical dimensions of the material, turning the pessimistic, rather unideological Verga into a Marxist. We are told that the wholesalers cheat and exploit the fishermen. ‘The old men,’ the voice goes, ‘accept the situation: “The poor always pay.” But the young men have their eyes wide open.’ Verga’s subtle avoidance of just this kind of omniscient authority is destroyed at a stroke.

McWilliam, who is an emeritus professor of Italian at Leicester, calls Verga ‘the greatest Italian short-story writer since Boccaccio’, but adds that he is ‘grossly underrated’ outside Italy, largely because of the difficulty of translating him. He convincingly suggests that Lawrence’s versions (which read well in English: he was the ideal match, had he only been ideal) are inadequate and often wrong. Without the competence properly to study the Italian, it is hard to judge McWilliam’s labours with any authority. In English, they read superbly well. They are cleansing; a lot of wordy grime has been removed (I am thinking of the translations that were made in the 1930s and 1950s). There is a vernacular ease of address, and yet hardly a moment at which the English version seems too local – i.e. English. The effect is oddly as if they had been translated twice, once into English, and then into a regional English which does not exist. The work retains its universality, and one suspects that these translations will last a long time.

Nowhere is Verga’s narrative power (or McWilliam’s subtle tracings of that power) better evidenced than in the heartbreaking tale, ‘Rosso Malpelo’. It is one of those stories which, once encountered, you want to read aloud to someone. It concerns the short, miserable life of Rosso Malpelo, a troubled boy, a red-haired little monster who works in a Sicilian sand mine. The boy’s name, which means ‘evil-haired’, derives from the popular idea that red hair is a sign of the devil, and spells trouble. The story is told as if by one of Malpelo’s co-workers, all of whom fear and despise him. That is to say, it is told without apparent sympathy. In fact, it overflows with surreptitious sympathy; it represents Verga’s greatest achievement in the generation of pathos out of cruelty.

‘He was called Malpelo,’ the story begins, ‘because he had red hair, and he had red hair because he was a mischievous rascal who promised to turn out a real knave.’ In a sense the entire story turns on this non sequitur, since it is premised, in some extraordinary way, on not knowing Malpelo, or on anyone’s even attempting to understand him. To know Malpelo is to blame him, and that is the end of it: Verga writes that the miners beat Malpelo ‘even when he was not to blame, on the grounds that if Malpelo was not responsible, he was quite capable of having done it’. And Malpelo accepts this. When he is beaten for a crime he did not commit, he never denies it, but shrugs and says: ‘What’s the use? I’m malpelo.’

Malpelo is nasty. He is an abused abuser. His father died in the mine, smothered by sand, and his mother shrinks from her son. The narrator adds that ‘his own mother had never known him to embrace her, so that she had never done the same to him either,’ a terrifying line, given out with all of Verga’s brusque simplicity. But this is the very principle of the story’s narration, for it is as if the narrator were saying: ‘since Malpelo has never embraced us, we won’t embrace him. He’s not knowable or lovable. He’s just bad, and that’s the story we’ll tell.’ The only thing Malpelo understands is force.

He beats the poor mule who works underground, muttering as he does so: ‘That’ll kill you off more quickly.’ In some way, he wants to be dead, and wants everyone else to be dead, too. When a new boy arrives at the mine, Malpelo takes him under his wing and begins to tutor him in the ways of cruelty. He tells him: ‘The mule gets beaten because it can’t fight back, and if it could, it would trample us under its feet and steal the food out of our mouths.’ When the mule eventually dies (‘from exhaustion and old age’; Verga is always kind to animals), Malpelo comments: ‘It would have been better for him if he’d never been born at all.’

The new boy at the mine has difficulty walking, having once fallen off some scaffolding and dislocated his leg: ‘When he was carrying his basket of sand on his back, the poor wretch would hop along as if he was dancing the tarantella, and all the mine-workers laughed at him and called him the Frog.’ As elsewhere in his work, Verga here flourishes a cruelty, told entirely from within the terms and values of the mine community, but prompts us to defy the cruel laughter of the men – and therefore the laughter of Verga’s own narration – with that epithet, ‘poor wretch’. And Verga means us to do likewise with Malpelo. Malpelo is a poor wretch, too, even if no one will acknowledge it. In the story’s most awful series of scenes, the Frog, whose health is poor, is taken ill. Malpelo thinks the Frog a sissy and boasts of his own strength. He tries to force some health into the Frog by hitting him, but he hits him so hard that the Frog begins to cough blood. Malpelo is alarmed: ‘He swore that he could not have done him any great harm by hitting him as he did, and just to prove it he beat himself severely about the chest and the back with a large stone.’

But the Frog is seriously ill, and is taken to his bed, where he wheezes for breath, and begins to wither away. Malpelo visits the boy, and sits staring at him, ‘with those huge eyes of his bulging out of his forehead, as though he was going to paint his portrait’. Malpelo is bewildered by the boy’s failing health, and thinks he is being self-indulgent. He can’t understand why the Frog’s mother is weeping so much and asks the Frog why she is making such a fuss, ‘when for two months he had been earning less than it cost to feed him’. After all, Malpelo’s mother has never once embraced him. ‘But the Frog paid no attention to him, and simply seemed intent on lying there in his bed.’

I remember first reading that sentence, and then slowly, almost frightenedly returning to it and reading it once again: ‘But the Frog paid no attention to him, and simply seemed intent on lying there in his bed.’ The sentence is presented as third-person narration by Verga, but must represent the thought of Malpelo, to whom the bedriddenness of the Frog seems a perplexing luxury. And indeed in this horribly bleak story, death is a kind of luxury, since it is a relief from work, from life. The Frog dies, and a little later, Malpelo gets lost in one of the labyrinthine mineshafts that stretch under the volcano, and he is ‘never heard of again’.

It would have been better for him if he’d never been born at all.