A Chorus of Cruelty, on Giovanni Verga

‘Cruelty,’ wrote Emil Cioran, ‘is a sign of election, at least in literature. The more talented a writer is, the more ingeni¬ously he puts his characters in situations from which there is no escape; he persecutes them, he tyrannizes them, he traps them in dead ends, he forces them to run the whole gamut of their agony.’
Of no writer could this provocative intuition be more true than the great Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga. Yet eighty years after his death the author of the Cavalleria rusticana continues to be presented to the public as first and foremost a humanist worthily celebrating the passions of the ordinary man and drawing attention to his difficult lot through well-documented description of changing social conditions. G. H. McWilliam concludes the introduction to his new translation of Verga’s Sicilian novellas thus:

‘Verga’s great merit lies in his ability to arouse compassion whilst avoiding completely all traces of sentimentality, and this is because he presents life as it is, free from the distortions of idealistic perspec¬tives. His narratives are an unfailing source of interest, not only to those who care about good literature, but also to the historian, for whom his novels and short stories provide an invaluable record of social conditions at a critical stage of modern Italian history.’

Reading such reassuring words one is bound to ask whether there mightn’t be some taboo that prevents us from saying what it really is that draws us so powerfully to this man’s violent and irretrievably pessimistic stories.
Yet if much of the literature on Verga is at best uneasily half true, the author himself is always the first to set us on the wrong track. Rarely has a great writer’s work been so unwittingly uneven, his long and earnest reflections on his various endeavours so mysteriously distant from their impact on the reader. Sensing, at some deep level, perhaps, that the impulses driving his writing were such that they would require considerable disguise before they could be allowed to circulate in polite society, Verga’s critical efforts seem to have been largely if unconsciously devoted to developing that disguise, not only for the world, but for himself too.
That he never managed to settle on any particular cover, ducking in the space of a long creative life from the elegant society novel, through various forms of worthy social realism, and finally to a formulation that anticipates absurdism, suggests that the real inspiration lay he knew not where. He poured his genius into many bottles, haphazardly it sometimes seems. Only in the one he initially most despised, the short and shamelessly regional novella, did it yield its full and explosive flavour. Only there, albeit with all the insipid decanting of trans¬lation, can it still produce its decidedly intoxicating effect outside the Italian language.
Born in 1840 into a family of impoverished gentry in the Sicilian city of Catania, Verga learned early about the importance of maintaining a certain reputation, the difficulty of doing so when resources are scarce. Wealthy Uncle Salvatore had inherited all the family estates on condition that he remain unmarried and use the income to assist his younger brothers and sisters. Life, Giovanni would have realised, is a tangled web and contracts are often notoriously different in letter and in spirit. Few people are naturally generous. Money was not forthcoming. His two spinster aunts, miserly beyond belief, became known as ‘the mummies’.
Still, things can sometimes work out in the most unexpected ways. By the time Giovanni’s elder brother Mario married Uncle Salvatore’s illegitimate daughter Lidda, differences had been resolved. And this was just as well, since money doesn’t serve only to keep up appearances. In 1854 a cholera epidemic forced Giovanni’s parents to flee Catania to the safety of the family’s country estates. Others of course were not so lucky. Years later Verga’s writing would be full of figures fighting tooth and nail for the good opinion of others – their very identity depends on it – only to be defeated by illness, drought, or, worse still, some irresis¬tible passion that destroys them from within. Beneath it all runs a ferocious sense of outrage. But about what exactly?
In 1860 Garibaldi arrived in Catania. The Bourbon regime was collapsing, the state of Italy was born. Verga, who had already written a novel with the heady title Amore e patria joined the new Guardia Nazionale and started a political weekly under the slogan, ‘Roma degli Italiani’. But far from a glorious struggle for national unity, the young novelist found himself involved in the repression of popular revolt. The harrowing story ‘Libertà’ tells how the people in a small village on the slopes of Etna, misunder¬stand¬ing the meaning of the ‘liberty’ the Piedmontese state was bringing them, butchered the local nobles and began to fight over who should get what land. A few days later Garibaldi’s troops arrived to restore order and butchered the villagers. In a fascinating article written in 1970, Leonardo Sciascia reveals how even Verga, the least squeamish of novelists, played down the cruelty of the soldiers of unification.
In any event, by 1865 and availing himself of another of money’s advantages, Verga had bought himself out of the National Guard and sailed to Florence, then capital of Italy. D. H. Lawrence, who first discovered Verga for the English-speaking world and gave us the earliest translations, speaks of him leaving Sicily ‘to work at litera¬ture’. Like everything else in Lawrence’s brief introduction to Little Novels of Sicily, the words are wonderfully apt. Verga was a worker. Avid, anxious, for money and fame, he laboured at his litera¬ture, as so many of his characters would labour doggedly in field or quarry or fishing boat. All the same, it would be many years before he found the yoke that could most successfully channel his remarkable energies.
Verga later disparagingly described his early novels as tales of ‘elegance and adultery’. ‘Real Italian novels,’ Lawrence generously calls them, ‘a little tiresome, but with their own depth.’ Casting about for something more satisfactory, Verga even had a shot at the gothic. But in the middle of the Castello di Trezza, a hopelessly complex story of betrayal, multiple murder and ghosts who may not be ghosts, the second wife of the cruel baron, on hearing of the tragic death of her predecessor, finally addresses these prophetic remarks to her terrified maid: ‘Even if you took away the ghosts, the clock striking midnight, the storm that slams open doors and windows, the creaking weathercocks, this would still be a terrifying story.’ Whether or not the illumination came to Verga when he wrote that snippet of dialogue, his project from now on would be to strip the ‘terrifying story’ that was ever inside him of its melodramatic mechanics and give it to us straight.
Published in a fashion magazine in 1870, Storia di una capinera (Story of a Blackcap) was half way there. We have the underlying play of forces, but not the milieu. Briefly: the young Maria is taken out of her convent school to escape a cholera epidemic and goes to join her family in the country. Her mother died young. Her weak father re-married a rich woman who will be interested only in the fate of her own daughter. There is no money for Maria’s dowry. She must take the veil. But during this brief stay in the country she falls in love with rich neighbour Nino and he with her. Needless to say Nino is intended for the sister with the dowry.
Presented as a one-way epistolary novel, Maria writes to a convent friend of her awakening to love, then her brutal segregation after the romance is discovered. Heart-breaking chapters have her shut in her room listening to merry-making down the passageway. In one brief, breathless appearance at Maria’s window, the handsome Nino lets us know that he understands the cruel injustice of it all. But he does nothing to break the social ties so efficiently woven around him. Maria herself sees her love as an indulgence and a sin against her fate. Later, when she has taken the veil, she will be granted a view through the cloister grating of Nino and her half sister who have come to announce their engagement. A final letter from an older nun tells of Maria’s sickness, insanity and death.
Flawed as it is, the novel is fascinating for the contradiction at its core. Maria yearns with all her heart for society, company, love. Her essential experience is that of isolation. But the society she longs for is supremely cruel and only united in its exclusion of the individual it has no time for. Maria is poignantly attractive in her need for others, but it is this that destroys her. The reader can only conclude that she needs to get tougher. Always ready to have his work travel with forged papers, Verga allowed the first volume edition to be published with a preface by the proto-feminist Caterina Percoto who presented it as a protest against the exploitation of women. It was a big success.
But is Verga straightforwardly on the side of the victim? A few years later the short story ‘Spring’ would tell the simpler tale of a love affair between an ambitious but indigent young musician and a shop assistant. When the man finally gets a valuable contract, he drops the girl who is heartbroken. The cruelty is now presented as an inevitable part of life; the man’s interest in career, artistic fame and money are entirely natural. This is his destiny. One can no more quarrel with it than with a mother’s desire to marry off her own child rather than her step daughter. Is there a sniff of justification in the air here? Or rage at life itself?
One of the few salient events in Verga’s hardworking life would be his affair with a woman married to a wealthy man in Sicily. In embarrassingly naked first person, the story Beyond the Sea tells of just such an affair and of the woman’s return, despite all the love that has been sworn, to Sicily, and to her husband. The lover is appalled, betrayed, but, like Nino in the earlier novel, does nothing to keep her, and so he also betrays love. Verga wrote the story before his mistress, Giselda Fojanesi, in fact went back to her husband. He knew this would happen. He had a career to think of. He must ‘work at his literature.’ How fascinating all this must have been to Lawrence whose presence in Sicily in 1919 and consequent discovery of Verga was largely due to his having made the opposite gesture: he had run off with the married Frieda and abandoned society altogether.
In any event it seems only appropriate that when Verga at last found his voice, money was the stimulus, together with the felt need to maintain a social façade. It was 1874. His publisher had just turned down not one but two novels. Verga considered giving up, then fought back. A literary magazine invited him to contribute a story, something he was not in the habit of doing. But ‘in order to resolve economic problems resulting from his desire to cut a fine figure in Milanese society,’ writes critic Carla Riccardi, he accepted. In three days he wrote Nedda. ‘The merest trifle’ Verga remarked, and made a point of insisting he had only written it for money.
To come to Nedda after reading the earlier works is to savour the surprise of seeing the competent craftsman transformed into the great artist. Something has happened. But what? The story is simple. Nedda is a young Sicilian peasant girl travelling the countryside for work to support a dying mother. Verga, it seems, has gone back, not so much to his own childhood, but to the poverty-stricken world that surrounded it, that threatened it, a world at the furthest remove from fashionable Milanese society, and somehow a rebuke to it too, as the poor left behind to die of cholera while the rich flee the city might well present themselves to a child as a silent rebuke, and a warning.
Verga now proceeds to torture his character, and does so all the more ingeniously for the complete lack of that elaborate plotting and melodramatic language that had characterised the earlier books. In the end it takes very little to torture a Sicilian peasant girl of the mid nineteenth century. The cards are stacked against her.
The mother dies. Nedda has exhausted her resources paying for medicines. She is criticised by the villagers for going to work immediately after the mother’s death. Clumsily courted by the poor but honest Janu, she becomes pregnant. He works hard to get the money to marry her. But the most fertile fields below Etna are also those damp areas where malaria is rife. Janu falls ill. Fruit picking with a fever he falls from a tree, dies. The girl goes through with her pregnancy, winning the scorn of the village. Refusing to give her baby to the nuns she nurses it in the most abject poverty. As the story closes, she has a corpse in her arms: ‘Oh blessed you who are dead,’ she cried, ‘Oh blessed the Holy Virgin who has taken away this creature so as not to have her suffer like me!’
So many elements recall Storia di una capinera. The lonely individual dreams of access to society. Society is ugly and cruel. Religion is a sop and a whip. Love is sweet but always imprudent and quite unequal to economic forces and illness. Even the landscape is an enemy. Yet the story never becomes forced or formulaic. Overnight, it seems, Verga has learned the secret of narrative dispatch, of naturalness, and above all of a swift and terrible irony:
‘The next day being Sunday there was the doctor’s visit, since he conceded to the poor the day he couldn’t devote to his farms. And what a sad visit it was! for the good doctor wasn’t used to beating about the bush with his customers, and in Nedda’s poor cottage there was only the one room and no family friends to whom he could announce the real state of the invalid.’
The sudden shift of viewpoint within an apparently spoken narrative would be a staple in Verga’s armoury from now on. ‘And what a sad visit it was!’ We expect this to be followed by some compassionate remarks about the sick mother or Nedda’s grief, only to be invited to sympathise with the ‘good doctor’ and his distaste at having to deal with patients who have neither spare rooms nor friends. The reader’s reaction can only be one of protest. And so much is left unsaid. Has the doctor told Nedda the truth or not? And the mother? It doesn’t matter. Knowing he has got his effect, Verga moves directly to extreme unction, the next paragraph ending: ‘The priest left and the sexton waited in vain by the door for the usual offering for the poor.’
The success of the story, and of those that would follow, clearly has to do with its fusion of setting and voice. It is not that Verga is writing in Sicilian dialect, for that would be incomprehensible to his readers. But he has put together a weave of dialect inflections and colloquial mannerisms that at least suggest the speech of the poor and above all, through the narrator, the voice of a peasant community. A comparison of Lawrence’s recently republished translation and McWilliam’s new one will suggest how central the effect is to delivering Verga’s vision and how difficult it is to reproduce.
Usefully, McWilliam’s introduction quotes Lawrence as observing that a translation of Verga would ‘need somebody who could absolutely handle English in the dialect’. ‘Probably I shall never do it,’ Lawrence says, ‘Though if I don’t, I doubt if anyone else will – adequately at least.’ Remarking on the acuteness of observation, McWilliam then lists four or five howlers Lawrence made as evidence that his ‘immodesty’ was misplaced and his version not ‘adequate’. But there are few translators, McWilliam included, who do not make occasional mistakes, and in any event, what matters here is that the voice be consistently and convincingly integrated with the characters; in short, the handling of ‘English in the dialect.’ The wonderful story Black Bread opens thus in Lawrence’s version
‘Neighbour Nanni had hardly taken his last breath, and the priest in his stole was still there, when the quarrel broke out between the children as to who should pay the costs of the burial, and they went at it till the priest with the aspersorium under his arm was driven away.’
McWilliam gives:
‘No sooner had Nanni closed his eyes for the last time, with the priest standing over him in his stole, than his children were at one another’s throats over who should foot the bill for the funeral. The priest was sent packing empty-handed, with the aspergillum under his arm.’ (RE12)
Lawrence stays with the original by trying to find some solution for the Sicilian Compare Nanni (compare is a southern Italian term of address and respect) and above all by keeping the paragraph down to one loosely articulated sentence. But he also makes various departures with ‘the last breath’ being introduced for ‘the closed eyes’ of the original and the priest being driven off more by the quarrel than by direct command.
McWilliam also makes changes. He has the priest standing over Nanni, and introduces both ‘for the last time’ and ‘empty-handed’ neither of which are in the original. But the main difference is in the handling of idiom, and here, perhaps surprisingly, we see McWilliam using idiomatic expressions more frequently than Lawrence. We have ‘at one another’s throats’, ‘foot the bill’ and ‘sent packing’ in just a couple of lines. At this point perhaps I can offer the nearest thing to a literal translation of the original.
‘No sooner did Compare Nanni close his eyes, and the priest still there in his stole, than war broke out between the children over who should pay the costs of the funeral, so that the priest was sent off with his aspersorium under his arm.’
It’s breathless stuff, colloquial, immediate, delivered by a narrator who is so much part of the scene that he explains nothing. Despite some reservations as to whether this is the kind of milieu where the implied context of ‘foot the bill’ is appropriate, one has to say that McWilliam’s idiomatic approach makes sense. The next sentence reveals all its dangers: ‘For Nanni had been sick a long time, with the sort of illness that costs you an arm and a leg and the family furniture too.’
Here the idiom ‘costs you an arm and a leg’ collides with the so far mysterious illness creating one of those alarmingly comic effects Beckett liked to produce to show just how ridiculous language can be: ‘I have no bone to pick with graveyards’ is the example that comes to mind. Needless to say it isn’t what Verga was after here. Lawrence hugs the original and gives us: ‘For Neighbour Nanni’s illness had been a long one, the sort that eats away the flesh off your bones and the things out of your house.’
The illness is malaria. Flesh, bones and eating are the subject of the story. Peasant fare. ‘Furniture’ sounds like an extravagance.
Nanni caught malaria because, like Janu in Nedda, he needed money and went to work on the most fertile ground where the mosquitoes are. His neighbours had warned him. McWilliam gives: ‘The neighbours told him over and over again ‘You’re bound to snuff it, Nanni, on that Lamia farm.’
Of course everyone has his idiolect, but for myself the expression ‘snuff it’ recalls the films or playground talk of the 1960s. Again Lawrence stays close to the original, doing no more than to substitute the standard idiomatic Italian ‘lasciare la pelle’ (‘leave your skin’) for ‘leave your bones’: ‘In vain the neighbours said to him, ‘Neighbour Nanni, you’ll leave your bones on that half-profits farm.’
Less than a page into the story, then, it’s evident that the problem is one of finding a credible voice. McWilliam does some excellent work, but his ear lets him down and we regularly find words and expressions that are out of place. A few lines further on, when the eldest son Santo goes to live in his dead father’s house, we hear that he ‘shifted in his movables’. Lawrence gives, ‘carried across his things’. Verga wrote ‘robe’ ‘stuff, belongings’.
Meanwhile, as far as the younger son is concerned, McWilliam tells us, ‘if he wanted to eat, he would have to go and find work for himself away from home.’ Lawrence, whose Italian was sometimes shaky, nevertheless knew well enough that Verga had written something rather different: ‘Carmenio, if he wanted to have bread to eat, would have to go away from home and find a master.’ One finds a ‘master’ in 19th century Sicily, not work. The implications are considerable.
But the most amusing moment comes two pages later. With great delicacy, the narrator is telling us how it came about that Santo made the terrible mistake of marrying a penniless woman, thus compounding his family’s woes. It was of course because she was beautiful, with red hair and full breasts. These features are mentioned more than once, above all at the crucial moment just before Santo declares himself, when, as McWilliam effectively puts it, the girl tucks ‘in her chin above those gently heaving breasts.’
At this point nature becomes complicitous with romance, the air is seductive with the scent of herbs, the mountain-side red in the sunset. McWilliam finishes the description: ‘She then turned to listen to the great-tits singing merrily in the sky.’
Now, it’s true that the dictionary gives ‘great-tit’ for ‘cinciallegra’, but chirping up as the creature does just seconds after the description of those ample breasts there’s a problem here. Great tits indeed! Is it a howler, then, on Lawrence’s part that he gives: ‘Then she stood listening to the night crickets rattling away.’? After all, Verga’s ‘le cinciallegre facevano gazzarra’ does not mean they were ‘singing merrily’, but that they were ‘making a racket.’ These stories are never pretty.

More than just a question of conviction, Verga’s choral narrative voice, as Italian critics came to call it, is central to the peculiar pathos behind his stories. He writes in an age now well aware of the atomising and alienating nature of a modern industrial society, an age already deep in its dream, at once nostalgic and futuristic, of the ‘good community’, the place where the individual would no longer feel alone, just another contender in a capitalistic free for all. What was the nation-building enthusiasm that had taken Garibaldi to Catania if not part of a growing desire to establish a community based on race where ties would be strong and a shared identity recovered?
By setting his stories in the Sicily of his youth and adopting this ‘choral voice’, Verga might appear to be making the double gesture of yearning for the past and at the same time helping to forge a united Italy in the present by bringing the Sicilian experience into the national consciousness. But ironically, it is precisely the voice of traditional community that turns out to be the most cruel, the most resigned to the fact that a doctor is a busy man with no time for people who can’t pay, that to marry a girl without a dowry is madness, that if having sex with your master will allow a servant girl to get the money she needs to marry her boyfriend and help her poor relatives, it’s not a bad idea. While in the earlier work, reader and victim at least have the narrative voice of modern compassionate consciousness on their side, here the voice itself excludes all hope. To use Cioran’s terms, Verga has found a new way of persecuting his characters.
This chorus of cruelty would ultimately be heard at its most consistently callous in the novel I Malavoglia: ‘You have to be friends with everyone and faithful to no one,’ remarks one of those who remain entirely unmoved by the catastrophe that overwhelms the Malavoglia family when their boat is shipwrecked: ‘that’s why each of us has his own soul and everyone must look after himself.’ Never perhaps has the word ‘soul’ been used in such an unchristian and uncharitable sense. Indeed one of the central ironies of Verga’s work is that a society so steeped in Biblical vocabulary and church tradition could have remained so impervious to Christ’s message of compassion. The usurer who lent the Malavoglias the money to buy the cargo they were carrying (which he knew to be rotten), and whose insistence on being repaid despite the family’s imminent ruin and despite the fact that he has no legal right, is generally known in the community as ‘Zio Crocefisso’ (Uncle Crucified). He constantly remarks ‘They’re doing to me what they did to Christ,’ even when it is evident to everyone that the real victims are the Malavoglias. Disquieting as ever is the absence of any serious opposition to this kind of inhumanity. Although knowing that they are not legally bound, the Malavoglias nevertheless feel that Zio Crocefisso is right to demand his money at once. They take pride in upholding a vision of honour so crude that it hardly bears inspection. And thus are ruined.
Like a child at a computer game who finally clicks on the secret door that leads to a higher level, Verga, in writing “Nedda”, had blundered into a new world, a place at once of reality and imagination, as Wessex for Hardy, or Yoknapa¬tawpha for Faulkner. Yet before he could explore it, he needed an alibi. For the implications of what was flowing from his pen now were scandalous indeed. It is at this point that verismo, or realism, comes to his aid.
Zola was in vogue. Literary circles were chattering about an objective, documentary narrative style, that might help bring about progress and social change. So in the wake of the French writer’s ‘Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire,’ Verga now announced that he was planning not one but five novels, each covering a different social class, in a ‘cycle’ to be called ‘I vinti’ The Defeated. This was a worthy and most ambitious project. Meantime, the short stories he was putting together for money in the wake of “Nedda”’s success, could be considered mere studies for the great epics to come. In fact they are his finest work. “Rosso Malpelo”, a story assigned to my adolescent children at school in Verona as an account of the unhappy conditions of working children in the 19th century, shows how acutely Verga understood the tragic contradictions that still tense our modern experience today.
A boy with red hair, and hence known as Malpelo (evil-haired), works in a sand mine on the slopes of Etna. He has no other name but a great reputation for violence and surliness. His father, a dogged labourer, known as ‘the donkey’ dies in a mining accident. The engineer in charge, a theatre enthusiast, is watching Hamlet when it happens and reluctant to leave his seat. The mother re-marries and has no time for her difficult son who will get his first decent clothes when his father’s body is unearthed some months after his death.
Somewhere between Browning’s Caliban and Beckett’s Molloy, Malpelo differs from Verga’s female victims in glorying in his alienation. Physically strong despite all deprivation, he takes beatings and gives them, to man and beast. His philosophy is as brutal as it is appropriate: when you hit, hit hard enough so that you won’t be hit back. In any event you will end up like the pit donkey whose corpse the boy likes to visit, dumped in a ravine, eaten up by dogs and rats, beyond suffering. The world after death holds no secrets, no terrors, ‘because nobody who has to live alone should ever be afraid of anything.’ His favourite expression in the face of any adversity is the proudly solipsistic, ‘I am Malpelo’. This, one feels, is how Maria or Nedda would have had to become if they were to survive. They lacked Malpelo’s brutal selfishness, which in the end is no more than a grotesque escalation of the gesture the young musician made when he abandoned his shop-assistant girlfriend.
But Malpelo does have one weakness: a residual sentiment of solidarity. A cripple is put to work beside him in the tunnels. Malpelo beats him brutally: ‘if you haven’t the spirit to defend yourself from someone who isn’t against you, you’ll let your face be stamped on by anyone.’ But he helps the boy when the work gets too much for him. And when the cripple is dying of consumption, Malpelo goes to visit him. The mother is weeping. Malpelo doesn’t understand and asks the boy why the woman is crying over someone who earns less than it costs to feed him.
Ultimately the pathos of Verga’s stories, is not the individual suffering and death of this or that person, but the collective failure – is it Verga’s failure too? – to imagine the world as anything other than a long and ruthless power struggle. The victims see nothing unnatural in the avarice and cruelty of those who destroy them. Compassion is reduced to the dubious aesthetic experience of the engineer who hurries back from mining disaster to theatre to be able to see his favourite scene in Hamlet: Ophelia’s burial.

‘Once we have established that he distrusts ideals and ideologies, considered as vehicles of hidden interests… one may wonder whether there was anything he really cared about, anything he believed in unshakeably. To which one answers that there was at least one thing he believed in: the struggle of everybody against everybody else.’
These words were written by the French anthropologist Louis Dumont. The man described is Hitler. But had Malpelo had an education he might well have written Mein Kampf. Certainly he would have made a good squadrista in Fascist Italy. Verga’s deep sense of outrage has to do with the fact that the fine sentiments of life, love and compassion, intersect with reality only when art turns them into money. ‘The cheers of the triumphant drown the cries of the trampled. But seen close up, isn’t the grotesque gasping of those faces inevitably artistic to the observer?’ These frightening words were written as part of the preface to the novel I Malavoglia, then cut. They would hardly encourage sales.
For Verga needed the money. He liked to cut a figure. In his mid forties he was still borrowing from whoever would give him credit. So the terms of a loan would always be important to him. He never married, either a poor wife or a rich. But he was determined not to join ‘the Defeated’, not to be the object of a mining engineer’s aesthetic appreciation. Denied the royalties for the opera Cavalleria rusticana, based on a script Verga himself adapted from his own short story, he fought a long court case and won. At last he had fame and cash together. But now the writing was going badly. He couldn’t get past the second novel of the projected five-work cycle, and though those first two, I Malavoglia and Mastro Don Gesualdo, were to become classics of Italian literature, and are indeed rich and remarkable narratives, still the extraordinary impact of the short stories, novellas so called, is dispersed in their huge accumulation of detail.
Then, in his fifties, it occurred to Verga that the principles of verismo were false. It was impossible to represent reality. The whole thing was a farcical charade in which words were always manipulative. All a writer could do was to explode life’s fictions and be a fool to no man. So his last collection of published stories, Don Candeloro & Co., give us a grotesque re-reading of the earlier work where love-triangles, betrayals, and the rest are now seen as the merest and most cynical manoeuvrings. But Verga had been most effective when the yearning that the world not be absurd was still intact; it had reached its greatest intensity in stories like Rosso Malpelo, where the boy’s humanity, expressed in his compassion for his crippled companion, is still just there, but only as something residual, anachronistic, quite mysterious in the modern world. In Don Candeloro compassion has finally been eliminated. It may be a relief, but the narrative loses its force. If, as Cioran maintained, cruelty is a sign of election in a writer, we now discover that it is so only when held in tension by its opposite.

‘Poor old Verga went and died exactly as I was going to see him in Catania,’ wrote Lawrence. The Sicilian was 82. He had spent the last twenty years sensibly looking after the family estates in grumpy isolation, writing very little, perhaps because he could no longer find any cover for his distressing vision. Made a senator in 1920, he succumbed to a stroke in January 1922. Just nine months later the terrifying combination he had ever described, a ruthless will to power dressed in grotesque rhetoric, stepped out onto the world stage in the stalwart form of Benito Mussolini.
But young Malpelo perished thus: ordered to explore a labyrinth of abandoned mineshafts under the slopes of Etna, he boldly took up his father’s pick and lantern. ‘I am Malpelo, if I don’t come back, no one will look for me.’ And no one did. Defiantly alone, he disappeared forever, as though swallowed up at last in the dark logic of pure individualism and commercial exploitation. Needless to say, his ghost haunts.