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Verga, Giovanni

VERGA, Giovanni

Nationality: Italian. Born: Catania, Sicily, 2 September 1840. Education: Home and privately, 1851-60; studied law at University of Catania, 1860-65. Career: Lived in Florence, 1865-70, and Milan, 1870-85; then returned to Catania; made a senator, 1920. Died: 27 January 1922.

Publications

Collections

Tutte le novelle (stories). 2 vols., 1942.

Le Opere, edited by Lina and Vito Perroni. 2 vols., 1945.

Opere, edited by Luigi Russo. 1955.

Edizione nazionale delle opere di Verga. 1987—.

Short Stories

Nedda. 1874; translated as Nedda, 1888.

Primavera ed altri racconti. 1876.

Vita dei campi. 1880; as Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Tales of Sicilian Life, 1893; as Under the Shadow of Etna, 1896.

Novelle rusticane. 1882; as Little Novels of Sicily, 1925; as Short Sicilian Novels, edited by Eric Lane, 1984; as The Defeated: Six Sicilian Novellas, 1996.

Per le vie. 1883.

Drammi intimi. 1884.

Vagabondaggio. 1887.

I ricordi del Capitano d'Arce. 1891.

Don Candeloro e C.i. 1894.

The She-Wolf and Other Stories. 1958.

Novels

I carbonari della montagna. 4 vols., 1861-62.

Una peccatrice. 1867; as A Mortal Sin, 1995.

Storia di una capinera. 1873; as Sparrow, 1997.

Eva. 1874.

Tigre reale. 1875.

Eros. 1875.

I vinti:

I Malavoglia. 1881; as The House by the Medlar Tree, 1890.

Mastro-don Gesualdo. 1889; edited by Carla Riccardi, 1979; asMaster Don Gesualdo, 1893.

Il marito di Elena. 1882.

Plays

Cavalleria rusticana, from his own story (produced 1884). 1884.

La lupa; In portineria, from his own stories. 1896.

La caccia al lupo; La caccia alla volpe. 1902.

Dal tuo al mio. 1906. Teatro (includes Cavalleria rusticana, La lupa, In portineria, La caccia al lupo, La caccia alla volpe). 1912. The Wolf Hunt, in Plays of the Italian Theatre, edited by Isaac Goldberg. 1921. Rose caduche, in Maschere 1. 1929.

Other

Lettere a suo traduttore (correspondence with Édouard Rod), edited by Fredi Chiappelli. 1954.

Lettere a Dina (correspondence with Dina Castellazzi di Sordevolo), edited by Gino Raya. 1962.

Lettere a Luigi Capuana, edited by Gino Raya. 1975.

Lettere sparse, edited by Giovanna Finocchiaro Chimirri. 1980.

*

Critical Studies:

Verga by Thomas G. Bergin, 1931; Verga's Milanese Tales by Olga Ragusa, 1964; Verga: A Great Writer and His World by Alfred Alexander, 1972; Language in Verga's Early Novels by Nicholas Patruno, 1977; The Narrative of Realism and Myth: Verga, Lawrence, Faulkner, Pavese by Gregory L. Lucente, 1981; "The Political Heroine in Verga's Early Novels" by Susan Amatangelo, in Romance Languages Annual, 1995, pp. 185-89.

* * *

Giovanni Verga's short stories were introduced to English readers in the 1920s by D. H. Lawrence, who translated two of his collections, Vita del Campi (Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Tales of Sicilian Life) and Novelle Rusticane (Little Novels of Sicily). These two collections belong to the period of approximately ten years, starting in 1880, in which the Sicilian writer produced all his mature work. His two great novels—I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree) and Mastro-don Gesualdo—and the best of his short stories also appeared during these years. Leaving behind the romantic stylistic mode of his previous sentimental novels and stories (all set in the bourgeois and aristocratic milieu of Italian northern cities), Verga decided to focus his attention on the life of poor Sicilian people and thus discovered his most authentic poetics.

A native of Sicily and a son of a local landowner, Verga spent his first 25 years there before moving first to Florence (1865-71) and then to Milan (1872-93) where he came in touch with literary circles and participated in the contemporary cultural debate surrounding French naturalism and the novels of Émile Zola. The Italian version of naturalism was called verismo, from the Italian word for "true" ("vero"). Giovanni Verga and his friend Giovanni Capuana were among the most influential promoters of this new artistic theory. Both trends called for an impersonal and detached narration. While French naturalism was more interested in depicting the urban proletariat and explaining its moral decadence in pseudo-scientific terms, Italian verismo returned to regional and peasant reality, evoking primitive modes of life bluntly and without sentimentality. In Verga's case, experiments with verismo and impersonal narration brought him to elaborate an autonomous style—a skillful mixing of written language and oral dialect—best fit to describe "the naked and unadulterated fact … without having to look for it through the lens of the writer" (from "Gramigna's Mistress"; translated by Giovanni Cecchetti). Verga achieved his effect of "the invisible author" through stylistic devices such as choral narration—where events are reported through the comments of the village—or free indirect discourse and interior monologue—where the characters' thoughts are related as events and there is a constant shift between direct and indirect representation.

The Sicily that becomes the permanent setting for Verga's mature prose is described at length with topographical precision. Its scorching sun, the roughness and aridity of its landscape, its merciless weather conditions are all such imposing presences in Verga's stories that they acquire symbolic value in spite of their naturalistic connotations. Verga's Sicily is a country as implacable and cruel as the destiny of suffering and poverty under which the author's "vanquished" are condemned to live and die. At times the landscape becomes one with the character who inhabits it (the red-sand quarry and the red-haired protagonist of "Rosso Malpelo"), owns it (Mazzarò and his land in "Property"), or hides in it (the prickly pear cactuses and the bandit Gramigna in "Gramigna's Mistress").

The lifelong challenge for the peasants' society is to transform their miserly soil into fertile land. To this purpose the land is constantly watched, nurtured, blessed, or cursed as a whimsical goddess who is able to bestow prosperity or, more often than not, misery. A wheat field waving in the wind excites the same sexual desire as the breasts of the beloved ("Black Bread"). In "War Between Saints," in a mixture of Christian and pagan beliefs, people fight over the abilities of Saint Rocco and Saint Paschal to effect a miracle and send rain to their sun-scorched wheat field.

Throughout all Verga's stories a constant presence in Sicilian landscape is malaria, the fever that strikes everyone and kills randomly. Human medicine is powerless against it: quinine is only as good as any other exorcism, and it often serves merely to add to the characters' debts. Malaria even becomes the main character in one homonymous story: "Malaria gets into your bones with the bread you eat, and when you open your mouth to speak, as you walk on the roads that suffocate you with dust and sun, and you feel your knees give away, or you sink down on the saddle as your mule ambles along with its head low." Nonetheless, where the danger of getting the disease is highest, the land is more fertile than anywhere else. Malaria thus becomes the ultimate symbol of Verga's Sicily, a malevolent and cynical destiny against which human beings are condemned to lose in one way or another.

Within such an inhospitable environment Verga's characters are constantly engaged in a struggle for the most elementary means of survival. Humanity at its simplest seems to be ruled by economic interests that often cause tragedy. Money is mentioned obsessively and counted not only by landowners and day workers, by husbands and wives, by young women and their suitors, but even by priests and small children. Property is the only good capable of demeaning the value of money; in "Property," for instance, Mazzarò keeps accumulating land and farms "because he didn't want filthy paper for his things." Yet even when he becomes the richest man in the region, he retains the psychological insecurity of the poor, and this leads him to insanity.

It follows that human feelings in the society of these stories are interpreted as contracts: weddings are planned with the same care one opens a bank account, marriage is viewed as division of labor ("like two oxen under the same yoke"), care for a father as insurance for one's own old age, charity as making providence your debtor. Although a few young characters neglect these emotive economics and Verga does describe a few poetic moments of love (The Redhead and Santo at the beginning of "Black Bread," Ieli and his Mara in "Ieli") and friendship (Ieli and Don Alfonso, Rosso Malpelo and Frog), each is later severely punished for such naiveté.

Verga's anthropological vision is that of a pessimist, with no allowance for change or hope. In "Freedom" the masses of the poor revolt against the rich with the cry: "Down with the Hats! Hail to freedom. " They will have to pay dearly for the consequences of believing that a new political order would bring land and wealth to everyone.

—Anna Botta

See the essays on "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "The She-Wolf."

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