A very popular writer in Italy in her time, Grazia Deledda (1871–1936) was a practitioner of Italian verismo or "realist" fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The setting for Deledda's novels and stories was her native Sardinia, and she is credited with singlehandedly creating a Sardinian literature out of the island's myths and stories.
Absorbed Family Stories and Island
Grazia Maria Cosima Damiana Deledda was born on September 27, 1871 (some sources cite 1875), in Nuoro, a village on the island of Sardinia, the daughter of Giovanni and Francesca Cambosu Deledda. By Sardinian standards Giovanni Deledda, a landowner and miller, was well to do. Also a poet and a bibliophile, he briefly published his own newspaper. Yet it was Deledda's maternal uncle, a clergyman named Sebastiano Cambosu, who taught her to read and write before she was of school age; her first spoken language was Logudorese Sardo, an island dialect. Deledda's formal education ended in 1882 and thereafter she was largely self-taught through reading. The stories told by family and friends became Deledda's inspiration, and the myths, superstitions, and religious and civil rituals she grew up with later shaped her writing. However, the greatest influences on her writing were her close family and her understanding of the cycles of nature: its cycles of life and death, beauty and decay. Unlike many writers of her generation Deledda was not influenced by writer Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863–1938). If anything, her work harkens back to even older writers, such as Sicilians Luigi Capuana (1813–1915) and Giovanni Verga (1840–1922). The naturalism of Deledda's fiction was a direct descendant of their work. In fact Deledda admired Verga so much that, toward the end of her career, when she was awarded the Nobel Prize, she felt the Nobel committee had slighted him, and that he, not she, deserved the award. Among Deledda's other literary influences must be included Nestor Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873), the first great Italian novelist; the decadent writer Ogo Tarchetti (1839–1869), and Antonio Fogazarro (1942–1911), in whose work psychology and metaphysics played an important role.
Deledda began writing at an early age. In about 1886 she submitted a short story, "Sangue Sardo" ("Sardinian Blood") to the Rome fashion magazine Ultima Moda, which published the piece. The story is about a love triangle involving a teenage girl, and when word got out that Deledda had written such a tale neighbors in her conservative village scorned her and even attacked her mother. Consequently, from this point, if Deledda's work appeared in Sardinian literary and political journals it was published under the pseudonyms G. Razia and Ilia di Sant' Ismael.
Deledda continued to submit work to Ultima Moda and published her first short-story collection, Nell'azzurro, in 1890. By then her first novel, 1888's Memorie di Fernanda ("Recollections of Fernanda"), was being read and reviewed. In quick succession followed the novels Stella d'oriente ("Star of the East"), 1890; Amore regale ("Regal Love") 1891; Amori fatali ("Fatal Loves"), 1892; and Fior di Sardegna ("The Flower of Sardinia"), 1892. Fior di Sardegna made Deledda famous, though her work—perhaps because it hit too close to home—was still shunned in her native Sardinia.
Moved to Rome
It has been said that Deledda's fatalism sprang from the experiences of her family. Her older sister, having become pregnant out of wedlock, hemorrhaged to death during a miscarriage, and one brother became a thief and a wastrel and the other, disappointed by his failures as an inventor, an alcoholic. The last blow was too much for Deledda's mother who sank into depression. Consequently, Deledda took charge of the family business. This lasted until January of 1900 when she married Palmiro Madesani. Deledda had met Madesani the previous fall on her first trip away from home, to Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia. Madesani was a civil servant and after their marriage he and Deledda lived in Rome.
In 1895 Deledda did research for, and contributed to, the scholarly publication Tradizioni popolari di Nuoro ("Popular Traditions of Nuoro"), a collection of the folklore of her native area. The year before she had published the novel Anime oneste ("Honest Souls"), a tale of two brothers, one of whom left Sardinia to study law and returned with a sense of unfulfilled entitlement, while the other stayed behind and made sacrifices for his brother's benefit. In 1896 Deledda published La via del male ("The Way of Evil"), which novelist Capuana read and praised highly. Her final works written in Sardinia were La giustizia ("Justice") and Le tentazoni, both published in 1899.
Moving to Rome, Deledda led something of a dual life. A shy and retiring woman by nature—the opposite of her tempestuous siblings—she was both a homemaker dedicated to raising a family and a successful writer. Yet sometimes these two roles clashed in the view of those who felt Deledda had never shed her provincialism. This was made clear when fellow Sicilian Luigi Pirandello penned the scandalous 1911 novel Suo marito ("Her Husband"), which satirized Deledda and Madesani. However, even Pirandello regretted his "joke," and was working on a revision 25 years later, near the end of his life.
Two Prolific Decades
In 1900 Deledda published Il vecchio della montagna ("The Old Man of the Mountain"). This was followed in 1902 by Dopo il divozio (After the Divorce), reissued in 1920 as Naufraghi in porto. The novel Deledda considered to be her breakthrough work was Elias Portolú, published in 1903. The popular book, translated into numerous European languages, brought Deledda a measure of fame outside her own country. Elias Portolú revolves around the Portolú family and the eponymous protagonist who has returned to Sardinia from two years in prison for cattle rustling only to fall in love with his brother's fiancée. The conflicts within Elias and the men he seeks out for advice are metaphors for the conflicts and divisions of Sardinia at the turn of the twentieth century. The novel, as Deledda's contemporary Joseph Spencer Kennard wrote in his 1906 study Italian Romance Writers "is an interesting study of religious sentiment in the primitive minds of the Sardinians, and a careful analysis of the relation between the mode of interpreting the Christian dogma and the patriarchal compactness of the household."
Deledda produced her best work between the years 1903 and 1920. It was also her most prolific period, and the body of work she produced places her more fully in the verismo tradition. She followed up Elias Portolú with the 1904 publication of Cenere ("Ashes"). This too was widely translated, affording Deledda a large readership outside of Italy. In 1916 Cenere was made into a film by Febo Mari, starring noted Italian stage actress Eleonora Duse (1858–1924). Cenere was Deledda's only novel that was made into a film and, coincidentally, the film adaptation of it was the only motion picture in which Duse appeared; she came out of retirement to act in the film, which was shot on location in Sardinia.
The novel Nostalgie ("Nostalgia") was published in 1905, the same year its author published her fifth collection of short stories, I giuochi della vita ("The Gambles of Life"). In 1907 Deledda published L'ombra del passato ("Shadow of the Past") and the following year L'edera ("The Ivy"). In 1912 she collaborated with Camillo Antona-Traversi to produce a dramatic version of L'edera. This was Deledda's only foray into playwriting, although in 1904 she had authored the dramatic sketch Odio Vince ("Hate Wins") and in 1924 wrote another titled A sinistra ("To the Left").
In 1913 Deledda published Canne al vento ("Reeds in the Wind"), considered among her greatest novels. It tells the story of the three Pintor sisters, impoverished noble-women who are looked after and whose small farm is tended by their devoted servant, Efix. For his own part, Efix has a sin to atone: the murder of the Pintor sisters' father. Into this climate of stasis comes the sisters' ne'er-do-well nephew Giacinto, the son of a fourth sister who fled from her stifling family culture years before. Giacinto brings chaos, destruction, and change from the outer world, penetrating the calm of the insulated family and their acquaintances while Efix, as protector, watches, powerless to help. Canne al vento shows clearly how Deledda combined strands of realism and naturalism, in doing so portraying not only the people of her time but their religious beliefs and practices as well as their mythic—if not pagan—superstitions.
During the years of World War I (1914–1918) the once prolific Deledda published only three novels—Le cope altrui ("The Faults of Others"), 1914; Marianna Sirca, 1915; and L'incendio nell'oliveto ("The Fire in the Olive Grove"), 1918—and a collection of short stories released in 1915 as Il fanciullo nascosto ("The Hidden Boy"). In 1920 she released La madre (The Mother; also translated as The Woman and the Priest). In his foreword to the English-language translation of La Madre, D. H. Lawrence wrote that "the interest in the book lies, not in plot or characterization, but in the presentation of sheer instinctive life." Deledda's story involves three individuals: a priest and the young woman who falls in love with him, and the priest's mother. It is the mother, from a different generation, who must undergo the greatest change in the book and in the end make the greatest sacrifice.
Honored by Nobel Prize
Deledda's novels of the 1920s include Il segreto dell'uomo solitario ("The Secret of the Solitary Man"), 1921; Il dio dei viventi ("The God of the Living"), 1922; La danza della collana ("The Dance of the Necklace"), 1924; La fuga in Egitto ("The Flight into Egypt"), 1925; and Annalena Bilsini, 1927.
Deledda was honored with the 1926 Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the second Italian to win the prize, after poet Giosuè Carducci (1835–1907), and the second woman to win it following Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940). Among her compatriots who were also nominated that year were D'Annunzio and historian Guglielmo Ferrero. Pirandello would win the award eight years later. Years later it was hinted that Deledda's winning the Prize had to do with the fact that her work was admired by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, but in fact she had been nominated many times previously, as early as 1913. In keeping with her retiring nature Deledda delivered one of the briefest acceptance speeches in Nobel Prize history.
Deledda's publications during the 1930s included Il paese del vento ("Land of the Wind"), 1931; L'argine ("The Barrier"), 1934; Cosima, 1937; and the 1939 short-story collection Il cedro di Libano ("The Cedar of Lebanon"), the last two published posthumously. These works reflect the autobiographical turn Deledda's fiction had taken, none more so than Cosima, whose protagonist suffers from breast cancer as did Deledda herself. Cosima was originally published in 1937 under the title La chiesa della solitudine, which means "The Church of Solitude."
Deledda wrote poetry in her youth, and throughout her adult career she wrote short fiction, publishhed 18 collections of stories in all. Among her other novels are Sino al confine ("Up to the Limit"), 1910; Nel deserto ("In the Desert"), 1911; and Colombi e sparvieri ("Doves and Falcons"), 1912. She died in Rome on April 15, 1936, and was buried in Sardinia at the foot of Monte Ortobene. A memorial church, la Chiesa della Solitudine, which shares the name of her last novel, was later built at the burial site in Deledda's honor.
Deledda, Grazia, Reeds in the Wind, translated by Martha King, Italica Press, 1999.
—, The Woman and the Priest, translated by M. G. Steegman, foreword by D. H. Lawrence, Dedalus/Hippocrene, 1987.
Kennard, Joseph Spencer, Italian Romance Writers, Brentano's, 1906.
"Grazia Deledda-Autobiography," Nobel e-Museum, http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1926/deleddaautobio.html (December 3, 2003).
Hallgren, Anders, "Grazia Deledda: Voice of Sardinia," Nobel e-Museum, http://www.nobel.se/literature/articles/deledda/index.html (December 3, 2003).