World Literature

Elio Vittorini

 

BORN: 1908, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy

DIED: 1966, Milan, Italy

NATIONALITY: Italian

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Petty Bourgeoisie (1931)

Conversation in Sicily (1941)

The Red Carnation (1948)

The Dark and the Light: Erica and La Garibaldina (1956)

Women of Messina (1949-1964)

 

 

Elio Vittorini. Vittorini, Elio, photograph. AP images.

 

Overview

Elio Vittorini is among Italy's most distinguished writers of the mid-twentieth century. Vittorini was both an artist and a cultural entrepreneur. He wrote six novels—of which one is unfinished and another is a long fragment— and some fifty short stories, while his many articles on literature, fine arts, politics, culture, and book and movie reviews appeared in approximately forty newspapers, journals, and magazines. In addition, he translated works of English and American literature, founded two cultural reviews, and edited three anthologies.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Growing Up in Sicilian Train Stations. Vittorini was born in Sicily and spent much of his childhood with his father, a railroad worker, at various train stations. After only eight years of schooling, Vittorini began working in construction. By his late teens, however, he was also producing short stories. He eventually became a regular contributor of stories to the cooperatively managed periodical Solaria, and in 1931 he published these tales in the volume Piccola Borghesia. By this time Vittorini was working as a proofreader for the newspaper La Nazione. There he developed a command of the English language (in part, so it is rumored, by reading and rereading Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe); by the mid-1930s—after a severe bout of lead poisoning caused him to leave La Nazione—he was supporting himself with translations of American and British writers.

International Fame, Trouble at Home. In the late 1930s Vittorini began publishing his first major work, the novel Conversation in Sicily (also translated as Conversations in Sicily), in serialization. This serial novel—produced as a book in 1941—concerns a young man whose father calls him home after fifteen years to visit his mother, whom his father had earlier deserted. Once home, the main character meets various political figures, including both fascists and antifascists. This reflected Vittorini’s own firsthand experiences with the growing importance—and criticism—of the Fascist Party in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s. On a more personal level, however, the main character also reunites with his mother and even converses with the ghost of his brother, who had perished in the Abyssinian War (fought between Ethiopia and Italy in 1885-1886, and ending in a decisive defeat for the Italians, making Ethiopia the only nation in Africa to successfully resist European colonialism with military strength). The novel ends with the return home of the father, who is forgiven by both his wife and his son.

With Conversation in Sicily, though, Vittorini ran afoul of Italy’s Fascist leaders, who accused him of publishing subversive literature. A few years elapsed, but eventually the Fascists finally arrested him. Then, after less than a year of incarceration, he was freed as his country prepared for German occupation. Because Italy under Mussolini had been Nazi Germany’s ally in World War II (1939-1945), Mussolini invited the Germans to occupy the country to protect it against the Allied forces (many Italian troops being occupied fighting in North Africa). After Mussolini was deposed by his own Grand Council of Fascism in 1943, Hitler set him up as a puppet ruler and continued using Italy as a military staging-point until Allied forces liberated the country in 1945. Living among the Italian underground (a group resisting the Germans), Vittorini wrote another novel, Men and Not Men. This work, which appeared in English translation in 1986, nearly forty years after its initial publication, details the often violent conflict between Italy’s underground forces and the occupying Germans. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Eric Siggs notes the novel’s ‘‘vivid, blow-by-blow account’’ of the ‘‘ugly, bitter contest.’’

Postwar Work. After World War II ended, Vittorini resumed his multifaceted literary career and in the ensuing ten years produced many of his most important works. Perhaps foremost among his publications from this period is The Twilight of the Elephant, about an idle patriarch whose seemingly insatiable appetite threatens the remainder of his household with starvation. The Red Carnation, another of Vittorini’s key works from this period, would have appeared several years earlier—in the mid-1930s—were it not for the then-ruling Fascists, who had prevented its publication. The novel tells of an adolescent boy who falls in love with a prostitute as he is simultaneously drawn to Fascism.

The novellas Erica and La Garibaldina, which were collected in English translation as The Dark and the Light, are probably the most important of Vittorini’s remaining publications. Like The Red Carnation, Erica was actually written in the mid-1930s. Its heroine, an adolescent forced to fend for her younger siblings in an Italian slum, becomes an unlikely prostitute. The broader, more comical La Garibaldina concerns a young soldier’s encounters with hostile migrant workers and an aging camp follower.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Vittorini presided over the later period of Italian neorealism, editing and publishing new writers such as Italo Calvino, Leonardo Sciascia, and Beppe Fenoglio. He wrote little himself during his last ten years and died in Milan in 1966.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Vittorini's famous contemporaries include:

Cesare Pavese (1908-1950): An Italian novelist, poet, and critic, Pavese was lionized after his death as one of Italy's great authors.

Agatha Christie (1890-1976): The pen name of Agatha Mary Clarissa, Lady Mallowan, this British author wrote romances, plays, and, most memorably, over eighty crime novels.

Eudora Welty (1909-2001): Starting out as a photographer during the Great Depression, Welty soon switched to literature, making a name for herself as a short-fiction writer with such works as ''Why I Live at the P.O.'' and ''A Worn Path.''

Orson Welles (1915-1985): An iconoclastic American motion picture director, actor, and screenwriter who created Citizen Kane, often cited as the best film ever made.

Robert Frost (1874-1963): Perhaps the best-known American poet of the twentieth century, Frost's gentle, rural themes belied his deep philosophical explorations.

 

Works in Literary Context

It was while Vittorini worked as a proofreader that he ‘‘discovered’’ Cesare Pavese’s early poetry. Vittorini used this as inspiration to incorporate ‘‘poetry’’ (in the sense of creative writing) into the essay material that had attached itself to the genre of the novel during the last century, and this technique is displayed in The Red Carnation and Conversation in Sicily.

Lyrical Rhythm, Allegory, and the Universe in the Past. Having learned English by reading Robinson Crusoe, Vittorini had gone on to translate Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and William Saroyan into Italian. He read Ernest Hemingway and became friendly with him. From Saroyan and Hemingway he picked up and perfected a style based on rhythm and repetition, which went a long way to achieving his ambitions for the novel. Conversation in Sicily describes a journey back to his childhood roots by an autobiographical, near Dante-esque figure who is trying to make positive sense of his past and his present. Contemporary reality is superimposed on the past in symbolical and even allegorical terms. For instance, much importance is given to food: the bitter oranges of returning fruit pickers, his mother’s herring, and the childhood memories of melons—a basic reality and yet symbolic of poverty, oppression, and resilience. The language used to re-create this experience is lyrical but sometimes unorthodox, and through the rhythmic repetition of certain key phrases such as ‘‘twice real’’ and ‘‘the extra now’’ the theme is raised to the level of the universal. Speaking of poetry in his postwar magazine Il politecnico in 1945, Vittorini said, ‘‘Poetry is poetry because it does not stay bound to its origins and if it is born of sorrow it can be linked to all sorrow.’’

The style and content of Conversation in Sicily gave the work a mythical quality and indeed, in his introduction to the novel, the author refers to its allegorical quality.

The New Italian Novel. Conversation in Sicily— published in 1938-1939 during Mussolini’s Fascist regime—was banned by government censors in 1943, although today it is unanimously regarded as one of the major achievements of Italian literature in the twentieth century. Indeed, Italo Calvino declared the novel to be the manifesto of modern Italian fiction on account of its stylistic innovations and the bold political agenda inherent in the work. Conversation in Sicily is one of the first examples of neorealist fiction.

Italian neorealism in the postwar period attempted to give an almost journalistic account of the stark, harsh realities of the working class. The south was a favorite subject for neorealists because of the bleak situation in the rural areas of Italy. Vittorini’s prose is simple and linear with brief sentences, balanced clauses, and extensive use of dialogue and repetition. The range of vocabulary is limited to the most everyday phrases and expressions, making the style the opposite of the heavy, ornate, and empty political rhetoric of Fascism.

 

Works in Critical Context

Vittorini’s reception by readers and critics was hampered by the censorship his works were subjected to during Mussolini’s rule. Often years passed between Vittorini’s completion of a work and its publication in book form. Even so, the author was even then well regarded both in his native Italy and in other parts of the world where translations of his work were available. In the ensuing years, he has attained the status of a great figure in world literature, with references to his literature and critical works abounding in contemporary discourse.

Conversation in Sicily. Conversation in Sicily became immensely popular upon translation into English in 1949. R. P. Warren, writing in the Nation, describes the novel as ‘‘remarkable, quite beautiful,’’ and Bruce Taylor, in his Chicago Sun appraisal, notes its ‘‘positive freshness of purpose, of idea, of style.’’ Similarly, Robert Pick hails Conversation in Sicily as ‘‘great’’ in the Saturday Review of Literature and adds, ‘‘To call [Vittorini] a master may be premature.... But you feel the master’s hand at every page.’’

Women of Messina. Also notable among Vittorini’s writings is Women of Messina, his novel of a Sicilian commune that slowly regains prosperity after World War II— only to consequently degenerate. In his New Republic review, Anthony Covatta deems Women of Messina Vittorini’s ‘‘most extended and successful social statement.’’ Similarly, Webster Schott, writing in London, describes Women of Messina as Vittorini’s most ambitious work. ‘‘What we ... have in Women of Messina is a novel of grand scale and ultimate ambition,’’ Schott writes. ‘‘Vittorini wanted to tell us all he knew about how and why human beings behave as they do.’’ Noting that Vittorini continually revised Women of Messina between its initial publication in 1949 and its reappearance in 1964, Schott called it ‘‘the kind of novel a man writes once in a lifetime, never finishes to his satisfaction, and surrenders rather than completes.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Allegory, or the representation of abstract concepts through concrete forms, was often employed by Vittorini, who was participating in a long and rich literary tradition. Here are some other works that employ allegory to achieve their emotional and conceptual effects:

The Divine Comedy (1308-1321), an epic poem by Dante Alighieri. Perhaps the best-known allegory in literary history, this epic three-part poem follows the author's journey from Hell to Purgatory and on to Heaven, neatly summarizing the entirety of the medieval worldview and critiquing contemporary political and religious leaders along the way.

The Trojan Women (415 BCE), a play by Euripides. In this early example of political allegory, Euripides sets his tragedy in the mythical Trojan War, but was using the play to comment directly upon Athenian policy during the then-ongoing Peloponnesian War.

Animal Farm (1945), a novella by George Orwell. By using barnyard animals in place of humans, Orwell weaves a harrowing tale of a populist rebellion that turns into tyranny, an allegorical condemnation of Stalinist communism in the Soviet Union.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), a novel by C. S. Lewis. Lewis consciously injected his fantasy tales of Narnia, of which this novel is the first, with vivid Christian allegories—Aslan the Lion is a Christlike figure, for example.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Vittorini wrote often of his childhood and of a longing for the land he grew up in. Find examples in his work of how he viewed his native region of Sicily. Why do you think Vittorini left Sicily as a young man and never returned? How does that both fit and not fit with these portrayals?

2. Ernest Hemingway was an admirer of Vittorini, going so far as to write an admiring introduction to the American edition of Conversation in Sicily. Compare the two authors’ writing styles. What similarities did they share? How were they different? Why do you think Hemingway admired Vittorini?

3. Discuss Vittorini’s influence on postwar Italian writers like Italo Calvino. What elements of Vittorini’s style did these writers integrate into their own work? Why do you think Vittorini has been so influential?

4. Read Women of Messina and comment on its implicit social theory. What idea of humanity, if any, is Vittorini espousing? Does this novel suggest a concept of human existence as a thing that may be improved, or is it guided by a darker vision? Structure your response as a thesis-driven essay, with detailed analysis of several specific passages from the novel.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bonsaver, Guido. Censorship and Literature in Fascist Italy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile. The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Budel, Oscar. ‘‘Vittorini, Elio (1908-1966).’’ In Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Ed. Suzanne M. Bourgoin. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Drake, Francis. Apostles and Agitators: Italy’s Marxist Revolutionary Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Guiat, Cyrille. The French and Italian Communist Parties: Comrades and Culture. London: Frank Cass, 2003.

Heiney, Donald. Three Italian Novelists: Moravia, Pavese, Vittorini. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968.