Italian Literature’s Identity Crisis

Italy is one of those countries you just have to love. It has some of the best countryside and most interesting towns and cities in the world; it’s the country of the Renaissance, of glorious art and architecture. Its wine, fashion and food are widely considered to be second to none. Besides, how can you not love a country shaped like a boot? Yes, there’s no doubt about it: Italy gets rave reviews all round.

What of Italian literature, though? Ah, this is where things begin to go quiet – at least outside Italy.

Italian literature has something of an identity crisis in the English-speaking world. Italy, at a fleeting glance, just doesn’t appear to have a literary tradition to rival those of France, Germany, Russia, Britain, or the United States. Mention “Russian Literature”, and vast numbers of writers will spring to mind: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Pushkin, Turgenev, Bulgakov. If someone mentions “Italian literature”, what or who do you think of?

Dante, painted by Sandro Botticelli. Public domain image | Wikimedia Commons

Well, there’s Dante, obviously. La Divina Commedia and La Vita Nuova are classics not just of Italian, but of world, literature, and most modern English-speakers will have heard of Dante’s unrequited love for Beatrice – who, after all, can resist a good love story? Yet it’s questionable how many of those English-speakers have ever sat down and read Dante’s works, which is understandable in a way; in these secular times, a long poetic journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven may hold little obvious appeal to the average reader. Ah, well – it matters not. Themes and subject matter, like writers, go in and out of fashion, but Dante is assured a place at the head of the Italian literary table.

Apart from Dante? Well, there’s Petrarch and his sonnets. There’s Boccaccio and his Decameron, hauntingly reminiscent in style and structure of our own Canterbury Tales. Machiavelli’s treatises on the brutal realities of Realpolitik are as relevant today as they ever were, as a cursory glance at Italian politics will confirm.

And then? Surprisingly little, actually, until you arrive at the nineteenth century; in fact, Italian literature only really begins to come into its own in the latter half of the twentieth century, with the emergence of writers such as Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, and Italo Calvino. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a masterpiece of Italian literature, was published posthumously in 1958 (it was rejected by publishers during Tomasi’s lifetime; one considered it “unpublishable”, which should give hope to struggling writers everywhere). In the present day, Italian gialli (crime and detective novels) are popular with English readers; indeed, Inspector Montalbano is probably every bit as popular in Surrey as in his native Sicily.

Public domain image | Wikimedia Commons

Still, there’s something of a shortfall in the English-speaking world’s appreciation of Italian literature. Why?

It’s unsurprising, in a way. The Italian language, like modern Italy, has existed for just over 150 years. Until the advent of national TV and radio broadcasts, it was not widely spoken; even today, many Italians are in effect bilingual, preferring to speak local dialect in day-to-day life, and switching to standard Italian only when confronted with outsiders. Linguistic confusions, along with so many other contradictions and inconsistencies, help to make Italy such a glorious, interesting muddle of a country. Dante, Boccaccio and Machiavelli all wrote in literary Tuscan, which lies at the root of modern Italian. “Lingua Tusca magis apta est ad literam sive literature,” (“The Tuscan language is better suited to the letter or literature”) declared Antonio da Tempo of Padua. But, of course, most Italians did not speak Tuscan, and so, perforce, could not read or write in it either.

In fact, it was not until 1827 that a novel that was both in Italian and in the realist, European vein was published: Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). I Promessi Sposi is marvellous, but in terms of its potential readership it had one major drawback – at the time, it was written in a language that hardly anyone, some educated Tuscans aside, actually spoke or understood. Only today is Manzoni’s work both widely read and recognised as the major contribution to Italian literature that it truly is.

All of which leads to some rather more general thoughts. Those of us who both live in the modern era and speak and write in English are perhaps phenomenally lucky. We just happen to speak the language that is, at the current time, the lingua franca (for how much longer is another question altogether). Linguistic divides are, perhaps, less broad for us than for those who write in other languages. Yet I sometimes wonder whether foreign-language writing gets the attention it deserves in the English-speaking world. In Britain, at least, one might blame a lingering nervousness about foreignness, together with the common suspicion that, in cultural terms at least, the Channel is wider than the Atlantic. And then, of course, there is the simple language barrier. Much tends to get lost in translation, however competent the translator.

Which is a shame, because one of the great things about fiction is that it allows you to glimpse other places, other times, other points of view. Reading English-language works might be like coming back home again; but we shouldn’t be afraid to venture out of our comfort zones every so often, and try something new. Viva la differenza!

This post was re-blogged from Authors Electric.

8 thoughts on “Italian Literature’s Identity Crisis

  1. As ever, you bring together concisely thoughts that have been wandering vaguely in my mind. Off the top of my head I have read far less translations of foreign literature than I should. ‘The Iliead’; Pushkin, of course, and I read Vulpius’ ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ *(ABOUT an italian, if written in German, ha ha); Schiller’s ‘The Robbers’; translations of Balzac and Zola (I’m a geeky expert on the Rougon/Marquet saga), and gloomy Flaubert, and I ploughed through War and Peace, and I read Turgenev’s ‘Father’s and Sons’ and Kafka, of course, and the writer of a few decades back, Hans Koning, and Bohl’s ‘The Lost Honour of Katarina Blume’ and diverse other writers – do you notice they are all male? Simone de Beauvoir’s writings are the only exception I can think of. I can’t think of any Italian fiction in translation I have read at all.

    1. An interesting point, that, Lucinda – I haven’t read many works by female foreign language writers, either. I can remember a German murder mystery that I flicked through some time ago – written by a woman whose name is now hopelessly lost in the echoing corridors of my brain – but nothing else springs to mind. Perhaps it’s because most of the authors we think of as ‘great’ are men. It’s easy to pick up a translation of Proust or Flaubert, but less easy to get hold of translations of modern works. Perhaps I ought to put more effort into it. (BTW, if anyone can recommend any female foreign language authors, I’d be happy to address this deficiency in my reading habits!)

  2. I have been fortunate to travel to many places around the globe for business – Japan, Korea, Singapore – and it wasn’t until I traveled to those countries that I realized just how ubiquitous the English language is, and more importantly, how much I take it for granted.

    I have always held an innate desire to learn a new language, especially Italian, and now you have given me yet another reason to take the leap, it being an avenue into literature that may open yet another door to stories from another time and place.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Dave! I agree that it’s very easy to take English for granted; you can be sure that, wherever you go in the world, sooner or later you’ll probably find someone who speaks at least some English. I think this can lead us English-speakers (unconsciously, most of the time) to be rather dismissive of other languages – and, therefore, of other bodies of literature, which is a shame.

      Good luck with the Italian! It’s a beautiful language.

  3. A fascinating survey, Mari.

    From time to time on my blog, I’ve written about the literatures of certain countries, as I’ve been reading examples of them. Not Italy to date, though… By default, I tend to look beyond the shores of the middlebrow and smug literary culture of my own insular little island. What comes to mind when I think of Italian literature. Calvino springs up first since he’s in my top five authors. Levi comes up next – The Periodic Table, in particular. Eco and Lampedusa are both quite widely read over here, I think. Alberto Moravia never really interested me nor Italo Svevo. Recently, I read Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar and really enjoyed it and you have to read Petrarch, of course. So… I’d have to agree – a rich and diverse tradition.

    I’ll have to check out some of those others – thanks for the tips!

    1. Hello Paul, and thanks for commenting. I love Calvino too, and I have to say, I find it hard to imagine a modern British writer – or at least an established one – writing anything like Invisible Cities. I find much modern British literature pretty unremarkable too, but I suppose that’s what happens when profit takes priority over everything. All pretty sad, really…

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