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From Dante to Umberto Eco: why read Italian literature?

Italian Literature: A Very Short Introduction

By Peter Hainsworth


First page of part The Divine Comedy, written by Dante Alighieri, via Wikimedia Commons

Most English-speakers who read literature have heard of Dante (c 1265–1321). Eliot, Pound, and a host of other modern poets, critics, and translators have made sure of that, though it’s a moot point whether many readers have followed Dante very far out of his dark wood. When it comes to other classic Italian writers, the darkness thickens. There’s Petrarch (1304-1374), famous for his sonnetsBoccaccio (1313-1375), known for risqué storiesMachiavelli (1469-1527), associated with realpolitik, and precious little else, until you get to Pirandello (1867-1936), the classic of the Modern Theatre. Then, from around the 1970s, Italy becomes part of a recognisable modern world and Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and the detective novelists are actually quite widely read. Scholars and poetry-enthusiasts of course probe further, and some students who are forced to dig into a classic for some European literature or culture course find themselves pleasantly surprised.

But why isn’t Italian literature read more widely? Is there a continuing English mistrust of ‘abroad’? Or should we be citing linguistic incompetence? Neither is to be underestimated. Or, are we to go on the attack and say that Italy’s not produced much that’s exciting or innovative in intellectual or literary terms for a few hundred years? This is about as convincing, when you look into it, as saying that Italians aren’t good soldiers.

One starting point is the fact that classic Italian literature (Dante included) isn’t much read by Italians either, unless they have to, though they are often grandly patriotic about their great authors in a way English literature enthusiasts rarely are. The reason for both the grandeur and the non-reading is that Italian literature is written in a language that most Italians have never spoken (literary Tuscan) and prefers to operate at higher points on the rhetorical scale than is normal in ordinary language. So abstraction and generalisation win out over concreteness and particularity, the present is defined by reference to what predecessors have done, and again and again the Latin classics are perceptible just below the surface. Petrarchan poetry — and with it the great mass of Italian poetry after Petrarch — just doesn’t do what modernism and modern English poetic practice expect poetry to do (as the translators who have struggled with canonical lines of Petrarch and Leopardi know all too well). Leopardi’s line, ‘Dolce e chiara è la notte e senza vento’, is always going to turn out something like ‘Sweet and clear is the night and with no wind’. Great poetry? Oh please! And yet it is.

What about the Italian novel, then? It was a miracle that a French-educated Milanese, Alessandro Manzoni, managed to produce an Italian realist novel of European stature in the gloomy decades before the Austrians were finally thrown out of Northern Italy. It cost him years of retooling literary Tuscan. The result was brilliant, but it was still a language nobody spoke except maybe some Florentines. No wonder Manzoni only wrote one novel and then decided after finishing it that mixing fact and fiction made the historical novel a non-starter altogether. That’s apart from the fact I Promessi sposi treats the betrothed lovers of its title with breath-taking asexuality. The moral knots and the linguistic ones were connected. The Italy in which Manzoni wrote was economically and socially retrograde. The readership for any kind of literature (including the crucial female readership) was exiguous and traditionalists were suspicious of the very idea of the new-fangled genre. It would take more than a century for the novel to become normalised, and even longer for women writers and readers, modern and not so modern, to be given due recognition.

No wonder classic Italian literature looks foreign and remote. But that is surely the point. If we go looking for literature which reads like English literature, only with exotic names and local colour, we are just hoping for a cut-price tour with everything made easy. The Italian literary past (Dante again included) is very much a foreign country where its inhabitants do things differently. As you get further into it, you begin to find just how rich a country it is. Poetry looks different after reading Petrarch and Ariosto, not least because you realise that great poets can say a great deal without calling every spade a spade. The famous musicality of the Italian language is not a given, but is constantly recreated in different ways and to different ends. You also realise that the idea of a line running through Italian literature back into the classical past and forwards into the present is more than a schoolbook cliché. It’s a frail line that keeps on breaking and being retied, but it is indeed one of the defining strands in European (including English) culture. Picking up that line at some of its highest points is fascinating, fun, and enlightening.

Peter Hainsworth lectured in Italian at Hull and Kent Universities before moving to Oxford in 1979. He remained there until he retired in 2003. He has published widely on medieval and modern Italian literature, including Petrarch the Poet (1986). He reviews regularly for the Times Literary Supplement. Peter Hainsworth and David Robey co-edited the Oxford Companion to Italian Literature (2002), and co-wrote Italian Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2012).

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