I read this book again because I enjoyed it so much the first time I nominated it over at 19th Century Literature. I have no favorite story – they are all wonderful and contribute to the whole.
Little Novels of Sicily:
by Giovanni Verga
translated by D.H. Lawrence
1883 / 156 pages
rating 10 / classic short stories
First off – Giovanni Verga is a very popular classic author in Italy and Italian – many of his works are available on Audible and Amazon but they’re almost always in Italian – a few in English print and ebook.
Giovanni Verga was born in 1840 into a fairly prosperous Sicilian family of Catania (east coast) and lived in Sicily until he was about 29. During that time he was educated, including some law school, and got a few of his works published (the first of which was with funds from his father for law school). He then joined the National Guard during the unification of Italy (1860 – sometimes called the revolution). In about 1869 he moved to Florence and then Milan where he could study literature more seriously. He quickly earned an excellent critical reputation and published quite a sizable oeuvre including Little Novels of Italy (1883) which is not his most famous work but …
He returned to Catania, Sicily in 1894 – age 54 – to live in his old family home and he remained there until he died in 1922.
Politically he was somewhere between Dickens and a socialist – focusing on the poverty of the people as well as love and religion. He’s been called a “socialist -realist” author although to my mind there’s more humor and love in Verga than oh, say, Maxim Gorky.
The “Novels” in “Little Novels of Sicily” are really more like short stories but they’re even more like fictional “sketches,” as D.H. Lawrence – the translator – calls them in his Introduction. Whatever, these are the people and the times and situations in rural eastern Sicily from the late 1840s through the 1880s, during the Italian wars for unification (and independence from France). This is the place and the times of Verga’s own life.
The stories have a tendency to be very grim dealing with poverty and greed and disease, but there is a huge dose of love and humor as well as wonderfully descriptive writing all strewn through them.
And the atmosphere is more Dickensian (late 1830s – 1860s) than outright socialist although I certainly see the “socialist realism” because the stories do deal with social-political-religious type of issues. A book like this also kind of reminds me of The Dubliners(James Joyce – 1914) in that the stories are almost interwoven and form a kind of collage of the city/area and character connection. Also Verga seems to have a deep distrust of the Church, government and the rich.
The stories – themselves:
His Reverence: (the power of the Church)
The story of an unnamed local Capuccine priest who rose from dankest poverty to priesthood but was driven by very secular motives. Father Giammaria is the holy one but he’s very very poor and old who says that Pope Sixtus (15th century) was a scoundrel who made it up from poverty. The priest of our story is just as bad and shows every vice – pride, greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, lust, But that was okay because he could give himself absolution.
He had to take a “fat oath” (whatever that is) at the alter during mass” and he was accused of spreading cholera. He persuades the congregation to let him have a week to get rid of it but his aunt died while he supposedly had the counter-poison but refused to give it to anyone.
That’s how he was – friends with the king and all those beneath him in order of rank. The people said “let the dogs fight.” But the unnamed “Reverend” took what the poor had, too – and they wanted their sons to be priests because then all would be well.
He loaned the peasants food but got his return and more in times of harvest when he paid no mind to praying. He owned a lot of land and had become rich and although he had to hide during the Revolution (1860), he returned to his powers and land. Then he took even the last of what some of the poorest peasants had and blamed them for borrowing to feed so many children. And the peasants did their confessions with him and
…he absolved them, because he was obliged to; but nevertheless in the heads of those rough people there still remained some confusion between the priest who raised his hand to bless in the name of God, and the master who falsified the accounts, and sent them away from the farm with their sack empty and their sickle under their arm. – Giovanni Verga. Little Novels of Sicily (Kindle Locations 171-174). Kindle Edition.
And they would take him to court but he knew the law and it always went his way. But he was finally defrocked – he didn’t really care because he still had his possessions and “was at home with the baroness.” And then came the effects of the revolution and the unnamed Reverence lost more power and he was upset because, “They don’t want to do the will of God any more, that’s where it is!”
So Much for the King – (life or death is a fearsome thing for a king to have power over)
A litter-driver, Neighbor Cosimo, who is chosen to drive the King (Francis of Naples) and his “Little Queen” (Maria Sophia Amalie of Bavaria) through the crowds lining the streets of Caltagirone. The event is to be the next day. This is prior to the arrival of Garibaldi who was leading a revolution against the Bourbons and for King Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia
Neighbor Cosimo is scared out of his wits and spends the night worrying and feeding his mules and worried about the guards in the stables. Besides, it’s very wet outside. His whole day is ruined.
He’s on time and waits for the royal couple – the Queen gets in the litter and the King tells Cosimo to be careful and a young woman begs pardon for her father – a rebel. The father is spared the sword.
This really scares Cosimo because it tells him that with one word, the King can have him beheaded – like if a mule stumbled and the Queen fell out of the litter. So he is scared to death that his mules will get too cheerful, just wagging their butts along almost at a trot.
The Queen is chatting happily in the carriage, the mules are almost dancing and jumping and poor Cosimo is beside himself with fright that someone will do something and he’ll get his head chopped off. He prays the whole way. (This part is beautifully written – Cosima’s fear is almost visceral, tangible.
He made it, was paid nicely and then got sick and had to pay the doctor half his pay.
Years later they came to take his mules for nonpayment of debts and those mules had saved the life of the Queen who had come with the King to build new roads which never got built. Now he can’t even make enough money to pay his bills. His son is taken to be an artillery man because there was a new king. And Cosimo really doesn’t understand about the Revolution.
DON LICCIU PAPA: (a collection of short fictional cases about the law in the village)
Case 1: An old woman will be taxed for allowing her pig to be in the road and caught by the town pig-snatcher. That starts the story of how law works in the village with pigs in its streets until they’re not. And the Reverend from story one has a little piece, too.
The streets are full of pigs and fowl and it’s the pig-snatcher’s job to catch them after which the owner will also be fined and possibly sent to jail. The beloved pig of one of the Goodwives, Aunt Santa, is taken this way, but the Aunt gets off on the charges because the baron says the pig-snatcher did not have his official cap on. That said, the baron also announced that the streets had to be cleared of pigs.
So the Goodwives keep the chickens inside and the pigs tied to bedposts. That wasn’t good either.
Case 2: The baron’s servant throws his dustpan bits into the street and Farmer Vito would have his mule sweep it but he hasn’t got his mule because it was taken to pay his debts to another farmer. Vito can’t say anything in court because he doesn’t have a lawyer because he doesn’t have any money – the grasshoppers probably ate his crops. And he yells at the other farmer and says “Law is made for them who’ve got money to spend.”
Case 3: Arcangelo, a shepherd is losing in court to his Reverence (story 1) about the Reverence’s harassment by throwing stuff down on Arcangelo’s roof – The Reverence wants to buy Arcangelo’s house to expand his own. Don Licciu Papa, the law, tries to catch him but there’s never any evidence. The baron also needs to enlarge his home and wants part of Arcangelo’s house – Arcangelo’s sheep are dying.
So Arcangelo and his daughter go to move to the countryside but daughter won’t go because the young Master is flirting with her. Arcangelo is furious and the next time he sees the young Master conks him on the head like a nut. Don Lucciu Papa shows up and arrests him but Arcangelo has a lawyer who proves it was not premeditated murder so Arcangelo only gets 5 years in jail – his daughter stayed with the young Master and the baron and the Reverence split his house to build their own additions.
THE MYSTERY PLAY (superstitions and I had to read this three times to get it):
Uncle Giovanni tells the tale of when the village put on their annual dramatic production of the Biblical story, The Flight into Egypt.
Everyone in the village worked toward the play which curate Don Angelino produced. Uncle Memmu, Neighbour Calogero and his wife, This was his way of getting the rent/offering/tithe which the peasants owed. Don Angelino simply took whatever he wanted from anyone for props and background and costumes.
The peasants themselves played the parts with Neighbour Nanni, a male, playing the part of the Holy Mary carrying a real infant, and the local ne’er do-wells played the parts of baby-robbers en route. The audience got so excited they threw stones and screamed at the actors who were trying to steal the Baby Jesus for Herod- Don Angelino had to cue the actors about their lines. Neighbour Nanni acted like a meek Mary instead of his violent self.
Goodwife Fillipa was reminded of how her husband was in jail for murder at the time and she flips out remembering that, also remembering the arrest of Jesus in the garden. But they took her husband out to sea to drown him.
The audience is overwrought but Don Angelino tries to quiet them because he’ll do anything for the money for the rent and the tithe/mass. He’s a really bad guy – puts people out of their homes and buries them without mass if they don’t have the money to pay. He always claims it’s for the church.
Exactly one year later Nanni, the actor who played the Virgin Mary, is visiting the widowed town gossip with whom he is romantically attached and finds her desiring Cola, who played one of the robbers. She denies it and accuses Cola of stalking her.
Cola is shot when he approaches the gossip’s house and his mother is the only one who comes. She prays and pleads with God. Others come including Don Angelino – for a price – The doctor recommends relics and Don Angelino recommends faith.
The thing is that after being shot Cola deliberately ran and landed in the place where he was murdered in the play a year prior.
The gossip has to leave town as no one will buy her bread and Ninno has to go into hiding after which he is found and sent to sea. The moral has to do with the fact he should never have worn the widow’s blue petticoat to play the part of theVirgin Mary.
Malaria – (malaria was often at epidemic levels in Sicily until WWI – also, this story takes place after the war of 1860 (independence from France and unification under King Victor because railroads are being built)
very touching story of a town which is stricken with malaria and people die – lots of people. Only a few don’t. The first related is the death of a fairly rich man named Farmer Croce although he’d taken the medicine for years. No one is worried about his children because he’s gotten rich off his employer. The second man, Neighbour Carmine, has lost 5 sons – he weeps. Farmer Nanni (of prior stories) takes the remaining food to sell. There’s a fair amount about Carmine’s losses, sometimes generalized. And many, many people die.
But some live for no good explanation – like Cirino the simpleton – there is a description of him. And “the host” (inn keeper) “Killwife,” lost 4 wives to malaria but he lived on, needing another one because the inn did better when there was a wife. Without customers he had no money with which to pay his own rent and as workers came in from the outside world and left again with their paychecks, he was reduced to working for the railroad and watching the better off folks ride by.
The Orphans – (lots of dialogue for which Verga is noted – he really experimented and developed that element)
A young girl shows up at the home of one of the Goodwives who deduce that her step-mother is really dying and they’ve sent the child away. They plan to help the father, Master Meno although they suspect that after marrying two sisters who died he might be getting some inheritance from their father (Shepard Nino).
There is fresh cake and the newly orphaned girl wants to take it to her mother but her mother is dead. Her grief-stricken father comes and talks – he wasn’t able to buy medicine for his wife because she refused on account of the money.
The women suggest he find another wife but Meno is too grief-stricken But the women insist it’s for the sake of the daughter. Meno refuses because this last one was a martyr she was so good and now he’ll have to even give the dowry back. But if he marry’s Nunzio’s third daughter he’ll get the inheritance. Meno knows this but can’t think about it now and he bemoans his fate remembering how good his wife was. The girl and her father cry and complain and the Goodwives give comfort and point to Angela – who is without a husband and needing help with her donkey.
Meno goes to help Angela but it’s too late. The women join him and tell him that Nunzio will not give him the third daughter because of the deaths of the first two and he wants his dowry back. They present Cousin Alfia who has some property and has dressed up a bit for him. He’s willing to think about that , but things will never be good, he’ll never forget and neither will his daughter. Meno tells Angela she should get the donkey skinned for the money.
Property – Mazarro owns a LOT of land now, but it wasn’t always this way. Born into poverty, he worked very hard (he slaved), did some shrewd bargaining (dishonest), and lived a prudent life (miserly) without vices except greed. He focused entirely on getting more property and growing more crops and making more money – in gold pieces not paper. But even the rich get old – the moral being that you can’t take it with you. (Very short and beautifully descriptive sketch.)
Story of Saint Joseph’s Ass – the story of the life of a donkey from it’s first sale as a foal to it’s demise as it is owned by various peasants to do various things. After haggling and waiting Neighbour Neli, with the help of a brother and a friend, buys him at the fair and both buyer and seller think they got a deal in the 8.
The donkey works hard and the owner’s boy likes him, but at the end of a season of working in the fields and hauling he is sold for 5 and buy a mule. The donkey now works very hard as a plough animal to save the horse of Farmer Cirino, his new owner. But Cirino’s fields burn and they sell him to Farmer Luciano for 3.
Now the ass pulls a heavy cart on the steep rough roads – but it costs to feed him so he sells him to the lime man for a crust of bread. And the ass now carries small loads of lime with a crew of thin donkeys. But the donkey got old and the lime man sold it to an old washer woman who now sells wood which the donkey carries for her. Now he lives indoors.
But one day he falls and can’t get up. He’s dying. The carter offers 40 cents for the ass and the wood because the donkey is dead.
Blackbread – (long – almost a novel)
This is more of a story of love when times are so difficult for the really poor peasants – Neighbour Nanni dies and his grown children have no money and even their mother is destitute.
Santo is married and takes his mother while his brother Carmenio leaves to work for a new master. The sister Lucia refuses to go with Santo’s wife, Nena, a red-head who had attached herself to Santo – she had no dowry but he had been attracted and finally married her against his father’s wishes. His mother tries to marry him to a widow who is rich. But no – Nena persisted. Finally they’re caught by Nena’s father and the marriage takes place. Lucia, the sister is not happy because this is her new sister-in-law.
And now that the father is gone it’s Lucia who cooks and cleans for the redhead who is pregnant immediately. So there’s more work for Santo to provide the food. But the crop dies. So the couple fought but the baby is born and they’re proud.
Lucia can’t marry without a dowry and ends up caring for Nena’s child while the mother-in-law complains about it being all her own fault.
The poor little old frog-man, Pino the Tome, seems to court Lucia with his fish and songs and finally talks to her. But he goes away and there is only fighting between Lucia and Nena and Santo really doesn’t like the Tome so he beats both Lucia and Nena. – The Tome went with the rich widow although he thought of Lucia’s eyes when he married her for the food. And Santo is unhappy not having gone with the widow – and now, as Nena says, there are children, too, 5 of them – and she and Santo work hard for the children.
Santo’s brother Carmenio gets sick with ague and his master has no money for medicine. Herdsman Vito cares for him and wants to bring Neighbour Nanni’s orphan some food. And Uncle Cheli (the master?) beats Carmenio for sleeping although he’s very, very sick, and the sheep get away so he takes him to court. Carmenio is charged a fine and Vito gets sick.
Now Don Venerando hires Carmenio to watch the sheep at Santa Margherita in exchange for pay and medicine. Don Venerando likes the family including Lucia – and Carmenio can bring his mother. And Santo finally allows Lucia is to go –
“The trouble is we aren’t rich enough to be always fond of one another. When hens have got nothing else to peck at in the fowl-house, they peck at one another.”
Lucia is happy at Don Venerando’s house – she eats and gets paid and saves her money for a dowry. She works at lighter jobs because she’s from a respectable family and she likes Brasi – the kitchen-man and he likes her. The Master catches them and forbids it but goes in to touch her himself.
She refuses and he becomes irate and Brasi is disgusted because of the wealth and the Master’s old wife. She is determined to remain a good woman with a dowery to be a good wife – should the chance arise.
Don Venerando abuses her for mistakes in front of his wife and she sends the servants away for the racket they make. Lucia cries and Brasi consoles her. They feel sorry for themselves and each other. The truth was they were both poor and to should not be paired.
But Lucia is very fond of Brasi but he grumbles all the time and goes to the inn. But one day he kisses her in the cellar. Now she’s smitten but he’s standoffish – they’re too poor. He wants a dowry from her and she doesn’t have enough.
Lucia is no fool – she knows men – liars and traitors. She sees Don Venerando’s money and thinks about her poverty. Venerando offers her earrings and money. Brasi leaves her alone with Venerando – and later she has earrings and Brasi tries to be helpful and kind.
He tells her he’ll try to get some money together and set up a public house but Lucia is so ashamed – she may be pregnant. Brasi tries to make her feel better and says he still cares for her but he needs 10 pounds from her.
Don Venerando also likes Brasi and gives him gifts.
Santo finds out about Lucia and sends Nena to see her – Nena comes back glowing from seeing the treasures.
A big storm hits and everyone is panicked – the old mother, the animals. the Goodwives – even Carmenio who runs back and forth worrying. There are dead and dying and the owls come. The peasants head for the church and Carmenio’s mother is dying.
Next day the family gathers around the bed of their mother who died – Lucia is pregnant for sure – he is angry with Lucia and Lucia says she didn’t know because she had the money for medicine and the Redhead says Mother is at peace because Brasi will marry her in the fall.
The Gentry- Under a spitting volcano, Father Giuseppe, who rides a fine mule, goes to collect money from the peasants. Don Piddu, who was well off but has now fallen on hard times, resents that and says so in rather blunt (rude) terms and the Father says he will retaliate.
Fra Giuseppe gossips about Don Piddu and brings the mission preachers to a dance at the mayor’s house where Piddu’s daughter is wearing a low-cut gown and holding hands with a young man. Then Fra Giuseppe talks bad about the girl and her about-to-be-bankrupt father to her boyfriend. The boyfriend is concerned about respectability more than the money – Don Pinnu is no longer called “Don” – like Don Marcantonio.
But it’s different for the gentry to go into poverty because they aren’t used to it – they need so many more things and have to hide their shame and pretend.
So when the volcano erupts the poor just go watch and work. But the rich just watch their property get destroyed or work to save some of it. Don Marco really tried but finally had to abandon his property – a vineyard.
Don Piddu’s other daughter ran away with the stable boy and Piddu himself almost died of shame. He didn’t want to go to the 8-day evangelical mission because he can’t even pay his own way but he’s taken anyway. While there the men who can sneak out to see if their wives are having affairs or things are getting stolen and Piddu sneaks out. He finds out something terrible and the mission padre was waiting for the bunch of them at the front door.
Don Piddu had seen his daughter sneaking out with the stable boy after killing his wife, and maybe his other daughter. The magistrates and the police were there. He was told by the father confessor that he should have kept quiet like the other poor folks because they would be arrested. –
Liberty (2 3) When Garibaldi and the liberation arrived and there was chaos, but the consequences as usual after that. This story has footnotes about the hats and the historical nature of the tale. – 1860 – Garibaldi is “liberating” the country of Sicily and th usual chaos ensues with the Baron and other “hat-folks” who keep the people down and poor. It gets out of hand and the mob goes after the Baroness in her home and it gets pretty gory.
The next day there is no mass, there is no work and the peasants try to divide up the food and the land amongst themselves, but nobody dared be piggish or he’d be “done in like the gentry.”
The next day the General came to straighten things out and had 5 or 6 of his own boys shot. There are tears and gunshots – both.
The judges arrived and took those charged to jail in the city with the women trailing after them. The women were arrested and finally went home. Peace was made because the gentry couldn’t farm their own lands and the peasants had no other work. The prisoners were kept in jail in the city so now their wives found lovers. And after awhile they forgot about them. and then the trial where lawyers argued and judges snoozed and it was more gentry on the jury. They were all sent to the galleys.
Across the Sea – The rich can escape by ship and fall in love etc. The poverty the reader has witnessed is left behind by two travelers, a man and a woman dressed in furs who are spending their last night together on a cruise ship leaving Sicily. They talk about the malaria and the volcanic mountain, Etna, and the Liberty riots in the village – the stories of the book.
Then the woman’s husband arrives and the man she’s been with thinks of the people in the stories – (his stories!) She disappears toward shore.
But she writes to him and asks him to come to see her and when he arrives she rushes to his arms. She promises not to leave again. They travel together -visiting the places he told her about in his stories
But word comes her husband needs her and in spite of the promises, she leaves. But they remember each other and meet again at a carnival. They stay together that day but the next day she leaves by train. This time he has also received a telegram and so they leave each other. But as his train leaves he sees the names of two lovers written in large charcoal letters – she’s probably seen them too when she passed.
He remember those times for a long time – he remembers the written names – he imagines the couple. He’ sad. He wants to put her name on a stone.