Ignazio Silone

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SILONE, Ignazio

Pseudonym: Pasquini. Nationality: Italian. Born: Secundo Tranquilli in Pescina, Italy, 1 May 1900. Education: Attended Jesuit and other Catholic schools in the Abruzzi and in Rome. Family: Married Darina Laracy in 1944. Career: Secretary of the Federation of Land Workers of the Abruzzi, 1917; member of the Italian Socialist Youth Movement, 1917-21; editor of Avanguardia, a leftist paper, Rome, 1921-22. Became a communist and helped establish the Italian Communist Party which sent him to Russia in 1921 and to Spain in 1923; twice imprisoned in Spain for political reasons. Returned to Rome and worked for underground papers, 1921-29; broke with the Communist Party. Political secretary and involved with the Resistence movements in Germany, Austria, France and the Balkans; broadcast an appeal for civil resistence in Italy and was imprisoned by the Swiss, 1942. After the Liberation returned to Rome; joined the Socialist Party, 1945. Editor, Avanti!, socialist daily paper, 1945. Retired from politics to become full-time writer, 1950. Awards: Marzotto prize, 1965; Campiello award, 1968; Jerusalem prize, 1969. Honorary degrees: Yale University, 1965; University of Toulouse, 1969. Member: National Institute of Arts and Letters, PEN, Italian Pen Club (president, 1945-59), Association for the Freedom of Italian Culture (chairman). Died: 23 August 1978.


Short Stories

Mr. Aristotle, translated by Samuel Putnam. 1935.


Fontamara. 1930.

Pane e vino. 1936; as Bread and Wine, 1937.

Il seme sotto la neve. 1941.

Una manciata di more. 1952; as A Handful of Blackberries, 1953.

Il segreto di Luca. 1956; as The Secret of Luca, 1958.

La volpe e le camelie. 1960; as The Fox and the Camelias, 1961.


Ed egli si nascose. 1945; as And He Did Hide Himself, 1946.

L'Avventura d'un povero cristiano. 1968; as The Story of the Humble Christian, 1971.


Der Fascismus: Seine Entstehung und seine Entwicklung. 1934.

Un viaggio a Parigi. 1934.

La scuola dei dittatori. 1938; as The School of Dictators, 1938.

Uscita di sicurezza. 1951.

Un dialogo difficile: Sono liberi gli scrittori russi? (with IvanAnissimov). 1950.

La scelta dei compagni. 1954.

Mi paso por el communismo. 1959.

Per una legge sull'obiezione di coscienza (with others). 1962.

Paese dell'anima. 1968.

Severina. 1982.

Editor, Mazzini. 1939.

Editor, A trent'anni dal Concordata. 1959.


Critical Studies:

Rehearsals of Discomposure: Alienation and Reconciliation in Modern Literature: Franz Kafka, Ignazio Silone, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot by Nathan A. Scott, 1952; A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature by Sergio Pacifici, 1962.

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In his works the Italian Ignazio Silone echoes phases of his own life: his country roots, Jesuit schooling, espousal of Socialism, revolutionary phase, exile in Switzerland, return to Italy, disillusionment with political systems, and reaffirmation of peasant values. Silone's distrust of political regimes contrasts with a return to a simple way of life uncorrupted by the city or governments that is found among the peasants in his native Abruzzi Apennines. The notion of a simple peasant world pitted against slick, oppressive political structures frequently occurs in his fiction, as do the dual themes of politics and religion.

Born Secundo Tranquilli, Silone adopted his pseudonym in 1923. He was a product of the peasantry, and he joined the workers' movement as well as assisted in the organizing of the Communist party in Italy. By 1929, however, when Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union, Silone had become disillusioned. He also opposed Fascism from the start. Because he had become a clandestine activist, he was denounced, and he fled to Switzerland in 1930 and in 1931 broke with communism. Silone wrote three political novels in exile: Fontamara (1930), which tells of peasants in Abruzzi who oppose the Fascists but who are decimated in the end as they try to save their way of life against the onslaught of the city people; Bread and Wine (Pane e vino; 1937), which focuses on the lot of peasants in Pietrasecca who are caught up in Mussolini's African war and are briefly led by the saintly hero Spina, alias Don Paolo Spada; and The Seed under the Snow (Il seme sotto la neve; 1941), which, unlike Bread and Wine, ends on a more optimistic note, with Spina's circle reforming to carry on his ideals.

All three novels deal with the problems faced by the peasants as they attempt to salvage their way of life in the face of oppressive politics. The cafoni, usually uneducated peasants, exhibit a lack of interest in Fascism and the government, but they are exploited nonetheless. They endure both natural and man-made disasters. Silone uses the colloquial language of the peasantry and depicts their lives with both irony and humor. Although his style is simple, he uses vivid imagery. Of the novels, Bread and Wine, which is one of his major works, incorporates autobiographical references to Silone's life. However, Pietro Spina, the protagonist, is not identical to Silone. While similar to the author in his upbringing and conversion to Socialism, disaffection with politics, and nostalgic return to the countryside and what it represents, Spina is a fictional character who masquerades as a priest and evolves into a Jesus figure. In 1955 the author revised the work as Vino e pane (Wine and Bread). Fontamara, which also was highly popular, earned wide critical acclaim.

In 1935 Silone published Mr. Aristotle, a collection of stories. In the title story, "Mr. Aristotle," the protagonist, a public letter writer who composes love letters for the illiterate, is an anachronism. While he was successful in former times in effecting marriage proposals based on his letters, his methods are now futile, for the modern age no longer uses traditional courting rituals. When the butcher Brucella uses Mr. Aristotle's services, his inamorata is unmoved by his serenade, and the butcher is repaid by being drenched in urine. The story is humorous and conversational in tone. Another story, "A Trip to Paris," highlights the poverty of the peasants in Fontamara, who suffer from hunger and malnutrition as they subsist on cornmeal mush. One young man, Benjamin, flees to Rome, where he tries to find work. Disillusioned because the police make him out to be a murderer, he tries to escape to Paris by hiding in a crate on a train. He lapses into an illusionary state and thinks that he has actually experienced adventures in Paris. Returning to Fontamara, he believes that he has seen the world, but, instead, he has a distorted view of reality. The moral is that life is no better anywhere else.

The story "The Trap" was the genesis of the novella "The Fox and the Camellias" ("Le volpe e le camilie"). The same main characters exist in both works. At the end of the story, Daniele, a farmer, kills a fox caught in his trap, perhaps in retaliation for the fact that his friend Agostino has been arrested and will be expelled from Switzerland, as most likely will be his own fate. With less character development, "The Trap" is only a skeletal version of the longer work. Further, while "The Fox and the Camillias" ends with reconciliation, "The Trap" concludes with revenge.

In 1938 Silone published the study School for Dictators (La scuola dei dittatori). He returned to Italy in 1944 after working with the Socialists and shunning the communists. During the 1940s Silone alternated between journalism and serving as a Socialist deputy in parliament and as a party member. He founded Avanti, a Socialist daily, in 1945-46 and Europa Socialista in the late 1940s. During this period Silone conceived of an international Socialism and the idea of a united Europe, which harkened back to the Holy Roman Empire. By the end of the decade, however, he had conceded defeat with the political system.

After his return to Italy, Silone wrote Handful of Blackberries (Una manciata di more; 1952) and the novella "The Fox and the Camellias" (1960). The latter work, set in Switzerland, takes up the themes of earlier novels by reformulating the Socialist-Fascist struggle. Daniele, the farmer hero, carries on a clandestine life of resistance to totalitarianism. The farmers face the problem of trying to capture the foxes that raid their chickens, and they also celebrate the annual Festival of the Camellias. Thus, the fox and the camellias symbolize the conflict between the Socialists and Fascists, while the festival represents a communal joining together. While ethical dilemmas arise in the story as a result of the political conflict, the protagonist acquits himself well and displays his decency. The humble seamstress Nunziatina, an Italian living in Switzerland, becomes the victim of Fascist bullying and governmental repression and represents the lot of the suffering peasantry. The novella focuses on the concept of the honest individual and on personal social responsibility. Compared to Fontemara or Bread and Wine, however, "The Fox and the Camellias" is less ambitious and comprehensive in scope.

In 1968 Silone published the play The Story of a Humble Christian (L'aventura d'un povero cristiano), in which the characters attempt to seek God or the good. The difficulty of their search is compounded by institutions that isolate people from one another. The play presents a more radical, anarchistic view of society than Silone's earlier work.

In all of his writing Silone promotes social responsibility and individual righteousness, while cautioning against oppressive regimes like Fascism. He is a moralist who believes in an intelligent force that oversees and determines the world and whose will must be followed by humanity, whether individuals are aware of it or not. This force is providence, destiny, or the Christian God. The suffering of the poor peasantry, the cafoni, is akin to the suffering of Christ, yet Silone abandons hope in the solving of the class struggle through humanistic ideals. Because the cafoni themselves are closest to the earth and to nature, their humility, love, and simplicity may be able to save humankind from the evils of power and corruption. As Silone remarked in 1942 in "The Things I Stand For" in The New Republic, "a society develops when the "classes that have been most overburdened with hardships are recognized and judged at their true worth."

In retrospect Silone's experience in exile positioned him as an international rather than just an Italian writer. He is a neorealist whose interpretation of society goes beyond photographic representation to depict life critically and compassionately. Even though his message is serious, his works resonate with flashes of humor. While he belongs to the costumbristi, those Italians such as Pratolini, Moravia, Levi, and Rea who write about manners and customs, his hope for a society of human brotherhood and his emphasis upon individual responsibility and social action place him in the forefront of twentieth-century authors. Like Albert Camus, the French author of The Plague, Silone believes in common decency, solidarity, and communal good.

—Shirley J. Paolini

See the essay on "The Fox and the Camellias."

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Ignazio Silone

The Italian novelist and essayist Ignazio Silone (1900-1978) was one of the founding members of the Italian Communist Party. He directed international attention to Italian political and social realities and at the same time presented an unconventional picture of the Italian South.

Ignazio Silone was born Secondino Tranquilli on May 1, 1900, at Pescina dei Marsi in the Abruzzi. His father was a small landowner. In 1915 Silone lost both parents and five brothers as a result of an earthquake. He received part of his education at the local seminary and continued his studies in Reggio Calabria but interrupted them at the end of World War I, when he became interested in politics. The circumstances forced him, as he once said, to endure firsthand three essential experiences: poverty, religion, and communism. Thus he took part in the founding of the Italian Communist party (PCI) in 1921 as a representative of the Socialist Youth movement. Subsequently, he became a member of the directorate of the PCI, which he represented at several international conferences. He also was editor of various Communist papers.

After the Fascist takeover Silone went into hiding and worked against the regime. After disagreements over the issue of following central party directives, however, he broke with the Communist party, left the country, and settled in 1930 in Switzerland. There he began to write his first book. After his return to Italy in the fall of 1944, he was for a time a member of the Socialist party and editor of Avanti!, its daily. After the split in the party, however, he retired from active politics.

Silone was one of the few contemporary Italian novelists who were actively involved in the political issues of their time, an involvement which for Silone became the very theme of his fiction. The particular subject of almost all his novels is the poor, ignorant peasant world of the South and the millenary injustice meted out to it by whatever oppressive superstructure has been in power. It was Silone who introduced the cafoni of his native countryside into literature in works of an extreme stylistic simplicity which are meant to accuse and yet at times read like a eulogy of a world constant, simple, and uncontaminated.

Fontamara (1933), written in a Swiss sanatorium and subsequently translated into over 2 dozen languages, was Silone's first book. The novel does not present theoretical and polemic arguments, as might be expected. It is the simple story of village peasants being condemned to wretchedness and unemployment by a ubiquitous big landowner who thwarts their attempts to use the water of a brook to irrigate their plots. The following two novels, Pane e vino (1937; Bread and Wine) and Il seme sotto la neve (1940; The Seed Beneath the Snow), deal with the problematic relationship between party ideology and the exigencies of the cafoni's life.

Una manciata di more (1952) takes up again the failure of political parties to right the wrongs of poverty and injustice in the social structure of society. And again, the discrepancies are seen not in terms of specific political parties but as an oppression of the poor by the rich, with whom any political party will come to terms. Thus, changes on the political scene mean next to nothing if the socially oppressive structure is not changed. In Il segreto di Luca (1956; The Secret of Luca) outward sociopolitical aspects seem to be less obtrusive, but even here, where the right to a personal life clashes with the demands of the state, political overtones are determinant after all. La volpe e le camelie (1960; The Fox and the Camellias) is the first novel of Silone's that is not placed in the Italian South, but it, too, takes up political aspects and their moral and social consequences under Fascist rule. L'avventura d'un povero cristiano (1968), which was awarded the Campiello Prize, depicts the historical clash between popes Celestine V and Boniface VIII and the conflict of individual spirituality with institutionalized religion.

Silone wrote little in the last decades of his life. At a symposium with Arthur Koestler in 1968, Silone called himself "a socialist without a party, a Christian without a church." His last novel, Severina, was finished and largely written by his wife. It was his only work to feature a female protagonist. He died in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1978.

Further Reading

Most analysis of Silone's literary works is in Italian. English profiles: Hanne, Michael, The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change, Berghahn Books, 1994; Rebels and Reactionaries: An Anthology of Great Political Stories, Dell, 1992; Woodcock, George, Writers and Politics, Black Rose, 1990; Origo, Iris, A Need to Testify: Portraits of Lauro de Bosis, Ruth Draper, Gaetano Salvemini, Ignazio Silone, and an Essay on Biography, John Murray, 1984. Also see "Socialism and Sensibility" in The New Republic October 26, 1987, and "The Last Hours of Ignazio Silone" in Partisan Review, 1984. A biographical sketch and discussion of Silone's work is in Donald W. Heiney, America in Modern Italian Literature (1965). His career is also analyzed in Nathan Alexander Scott, Rehearsals of Discomposure: Alienation and Reconciliation in Modern Literature (1952), and Richard W.B. Lewis, The Picaresque Saint: Representative Figures in Contemporary Fiction (1959). For general historical background see Sergio Pacifici, A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature: From Futurism to Neorealism (1962). □

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Ignazio Silone (ēnyä´tsyō sēlō´nā), 1900–1978, Italian novelist and journalist, whose original name was Secondo Tranquilli. A Socialist and for a time a Communist, he broke with Stalin and supported Trotsky in the late 1920s and thereafter, devoting his writings to attacking Fascism and promoting Socialism without sacrificing human and literary values to his thesis. He fled Italy in 1931, and, after living in Switzerland, he returned to his native country in 1944 to become editor of the newspaper Avanti. His novel Fontamara (1933, tr., 1934) was rewritten after World War II to reflect his matured political thought; an English translation of the second version appeared in 1960. Silone's other works include Pane e vino (1937, tr. Bread and Wine, 1962); La scuola dei dittatori (1938; tr. The School for Dictators, 1938); The Living Thoughts of Mazzini (tr. 1939); Il seme sotto la neve (1940; tr. The Seed beneath the Snow, 1942); Uscita di sicurezza (1951; tr. Emergency Exit, 1968); and L'avventura d'un povero cristiano (1968; tr. The Story of a Humble Christian, 1970). Silone contributed critical and political articles to various periodicals.

See biography by S. G. Pugliese 2009).