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A young Sicilian woman called Nedda declares, at the end of a short story by Giovanni Verga, that it is better to be dead than alive and thanks the Holy Virgin for putting an end to her new-born baby’s miserable existence. Nedda is as tragic a story as you are likely to read. Its author belongs with Chekhov and Maupassant as one of the greatest of European short story writers.
Verga is best known, in English-speaking countries, for a short story of his that was made into an opera. Cavalleria Rusticana first appeared in a collection of short stories called Vita dei Campi. Verga made it into a one-act play and its success in that form led (though without Verga’s permission) to its reappearance in the operatic form which is now all that most people know of it. The other stories in Vita dei Campi and the collection which followed it, Novelle Rusticana, are hardly known in this country.
The first Englishman to recognise their quality was D.H.Lawrence. ‘He exercises quite a fascination on me,’ he wrote to a friend in 1921, when he came across his books on a visit to Sicily, ‘and makes me feel quite sick at the end. But perhaps that is only if one knows Sicily. Do you know if he is translated into English? It would be fun to do him – his language is so fascinating.’
Lawrence sums up pretty well what makes Verga’s stories so powerful: they make you feel sick at the end and they are written in the language of ordinary Sicilian people. Finding they had not been translated into English, Lawrence set about doing it himself, even though he knew, as he admitted in a letter to another friend, that they ‘would be most awfully difficult to translate’. His translations are full of mistakes. The notes in the Penguin edition of his Little Novels of Sicily remind you of a teacher’s corrections on a pupil’s homework:
Brasi was deaf in that ear
Brasi turned a deaf ear
took her by the chin
pinched her cheek affectionately
I could hardly tell you
I was longing to tell you
and so on.
Lawrence’s translations are rough and ready but, perhaps because of that, they capture something of the spirit, if not the letter, of the original.
Nedda escaped Lawrence’s attentions because it was written before the other stories and not included in any of the collections. It is available now in a translation by G.H.McWilliam, whose Italian was much better than Lawrence’s, in Penguin’s Cavalleria Rusticana and other stories.
The story begins with the narrator sitting in front of a log fire in a comfortable sitting room, dozing and dreaming.
I fling my body onto the armchair beside the fire as though I were casting off a suit of clothes, allowing the flames to make the blood flow more warmly through my veins and cause my heart to quicken its beat… There is something charming and indefinable in the spectacle of your thoughts taking leave of you and flying off at random into the distance.
The style of this brief prologue and the sentimental world it evokes are soon abandoned.
It was during one of these nomad excursions of the soul that the flame flickered a little too closely perhaps, and brought back the vision of another gigantic flame I had once seen burning in the enormous fireplace at Piano, on the slopes of Etna.
From this point on, everything changes. There are no unnecessary adjectives, no extravagant metaphors, just plain description of the real world inhabited by Sicilian peasants at the beginning of the twentieth century.
It was raining, the wind was howling angrily, and the twenty or thirty women employed to gather the olives on the farm were drying out their clothes, sodden by the rain, in front of the fire.
It is possible to be sentimental about misery, to make too much of it, but Verga does not fall into that trap. The reality he describes is of poor people making the best of things, enjoying themselves however and whenever they can.
As for the jobs women normally undertake in farming areas, harvesting the grapes and the corn and gathering the olives, they were like holidays to her, a time for merrymaking, a genuine pastime rather than hard work, though on the other hand they brought in less than half the amount she could earn – thirteen soldi! – as a builder’s labourer for a good day’s work in the summer.
Verga punctuates his narrative with dialogue, which is where life gets difficult for the translator. The peasants speak in their own dialect, and nothing is harder to translate than dialect. Literal translations of everyday expressions don’t work and there is no exact equivalent in another language. On the whole, McWilliams makes a better job of it than Lawrence, if only because his Italian is better, but the dialogue inevitably lacks the immediacy which it must have in the original and which you can’t hep feeling you’re getting only at second hand when you read it in English.
The other girls ask Nedda to sing, but she won’t.
‘No, I don’t want to sing.’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘She’s got her mother dying,’ said one of her companions, as though she were saying she’d got toothache.
The idiomatic expression, with or without the narrator’s comment, sounds odd in translation. But the narrative is engaging in spite of that and, from her first appearance, Nedda acquires an interest for the reader both through her personal circumstances and her personal qualities.
Crouching there with her chin over her knees, the girl raised her big, black eyes, shining but tearless and seemingly impassive, towards the young woman who had spoken, then lowered them again to stare down towards her bare feet, without uttering a word.
Nedda’s impassivity is quickly established as one of her defining qualities. She is roused briefly to defend herself when one of the girls asks why she has left her dying mother alone.
‘Oh, it’s easy for you to talk,’ Nedda added, shaking her head and allowing for the first time a more sorrowful tone to creep into her coarse, almost savage voice, ‘but as you stand in the doorway and watch the sun go down, knowing there’s no bread in the cupboard, no oil in the lamp and no job to go to next day, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth when you have a poor old woman lying ill in bed!’
She fell silent, but continued to shake her head without looking at anyone, her eyes dry and expressionless except for a hint of benumbed sorrow such as eyes more accustomed to tears would be incapable of betraying.
Verga presents his readers with the idea that the expression of feeling, sometimes even feeling itself, is a luxury poor people can’t afford. Impassive, expressionless, benumbed. These are words that run through the whole of Nedda’s story, from its bleak beginning, through a brief period of happiness with her young man, Janu, to its bleak ending. The tears still won’t come to her eyes even then.
…and when she realised it was really dead, she laid it on the bed where her mother had slept, and knelt beside it, her eyes quite dry…
One of Verga’s novels, I Malavoglia, was made into a film by Luigi Visconti in 1948. He began to make La Terra Trema in the usual way with a professional cast, but he became dissatisfied and replaced them with ordinary people from the Sicilian fishing village where the story is set. This made it hard even for Italians to understand the dialogue, but it made it truer to Verga’s novel than Mascagni’s famous opera was to his short story. Verga’s influence as a writer of short stories, novels and plays makes him a key figure in Italian literature. His influence on English literature, in spite of the best efforts of D.H.Lawrence, has been negligible.