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Learning a new language, past the age of ten at least, is something like doing a major, complicated leggo construction, strange words popping out of the background noise, seeming to fit with some, but not other, words; groups of words begin to be attached to actions and wishes, but clumsily: say these three words and a drink appears in the hand, those seven and a hand extends to point the way.  It takes a child something like three years to do the magic tricks with language. As adults, when we enter a different language space than our own and try to listen, try to speak, we begin to feel despair: it will never come! We’ve been at this for three weeks! We are running out of time!

We know there are wonderful things in the air — stories told, songs composed,  histories and philosophies written. Some have entered into our own culture, at least by reputation.  Now we are here, in the language of their origin, and feeling baffled. How do we get deeper? Dante is more than a street name, Boccaccio more than a bar.

How to get even a shadow of  a national sensibility before we have (if ever we have) the language tools to do it?  How to move beyond treating a country as a large window-shopping opportunity and enter deeper, not only into “their” culture but into our own as well?  We depend on others: translators and scholars, those who have worked hard and often long, to understand, and to pass on what they have understood to others.

italian-short-introFor a month-long trip to Italy I picked up a slender volume from the fine Oxford Press series “Very Short Introductions,” In this case, ” Italian Literature: A Very Short Introduction.  Besides Dante, who?  Petrarch, Boccaccio, yes.  Who more?

Peter Hainsworth, of Oxford University, and David Robey of Reading University, co-authors of the Oxford Companion to Italian Literature, have given us a place to start.  Although 128 pages isn’t much for 800 years we get a sense of the span of thought and time. Names we have heard, titles we may have read begin to come together, related by language, proximity, shared problems, shared inheritance.

Rather than starting at the beginning — Dante for everyone– and walking us through the years, the book is organized into themes, History, Politics, Secularism and others. Some authors and books appear in one, others in several; some authors are mentioned in passing, others receive a generous page or two.  It’s an interesting approach, though likely more appealing to those accustomed to active and analytical reading than the general reading-for-pleasure tourist. (For them there are other approaches. See below.) Moving from the poet Ungaretti during WWI, to Dante 600 years earlier, in the space of a line takes readerly concentration and ease with thematic exposition.

The benefit of the approach is that we see not just sequence but connections through time: writers as recent as Italo Calvino and Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg pick up structures and themes we’ve seen in Dante and Petrarch, continued through Alessandro Manzoni to Giacomo Leopardi, Luigi Pirandello and on.

The opening chapter sets out a history in which, unlike many cultures, literature can be seen as the foundation of the language rather than the other way around.  Until Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, the “three crowns,” all living near the Florentine center of the country and spanning each others lives in the early flowering of the Renaissance, there were many regional italians spoken, but not written.  Latin was the writerly way. Each had evolved from the once dominant Latin of the Roman Empire along with local Etruscan, Greek, Arabic, French, Spanish, Catalan.  Different cultures and different scholarly traditions assembled around different centers of power, some ruled by foreign kingdoms some  governed as independent city-states. Even as the “three crowns” began shaping a common, written language out of the spoken Florentine of the time, it took the centuries for a history of nearly constant warfare to fall away and common interests to be found. The Risorgimento of the 1860s was both political, leading at last to unification, and language-literary, calling for a true national language and recognition of a common people and shared culture.  Even so, it took two world wars and the spread of radio and television before a truly nation-wide Italian came to be taught everywhere, spoken and understood.  Dialects are still as recognizable as the food of different regions, sometimes as a matter of humor, sometimes of pride.

Even for those with some knowledge of Italian writers, perhaps those from WW II and forward, such as Ignazio Silone and Alberto Moravia, there will be a few surprises.  Michelangelo (the very one) was not only an inventor, painter and sculptor but a poet — of some renown.   Zola’s naturalism had a counterpart in Italy, well represented by Giovanni Verga.  I was glad to see several pages devoted to the ebulliently pessimistic Italo Svevo whose wonderful Conscienza di Zeno would have gone unknown without a hand up from his friend James Joyce. Carlo Emilio Gadda might have gotten more than the few words allotted in my opinion.  I didn’t know that Pirandello was a Fascist, nor what I’d missed by not reading earlier the Carlo Levi’s wonderful “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” A closing chapter brings together women writers who, even more than in the English speaking literary world, have gone un-noticed and under appreciated.

Because it is a very short introduction, some authors and books one wishes were mentioned are not. Giuseppe Leopardi’s rather famous Gattopardo / The Leopard does not appear. Curzio Malaparte’s fierce war time novels [reviewed here] deserved a mention, as does Dino Buzzati whose The Tartar Steppe [reviewed here] is said to have inspired Coetzee’s  Waiting for The Barbarians.  Neither are recent writers such as the much speculated about Napolitana, Elena Ferrara, whose “Neapolitan Novels” have found wide readership both in Italian and many translations.

 Hainsworth and Robey tell us that in the decade of the 1990s the thematic picture they have painted becomes more complex.  The literary binding of different regions and writers, with steady reference to past models and concerns, through wars of independence and two world wars, begins to fray.  Italy becomes more European.  Italian writers begin a wider range of experimentation under wider influences. Thus, though with a publication date of 2012, the introduction comes to a close some twenty years ago, not the book to pick up for those looking for the latest in Italian fiction and poetry.  Just the book for a short, informed accounting of the foundation stones, and even  more recent additions to a still growing house of literature.

There are other ways to begin as well.  The WikiPedia entry for Italian Literature is generous and in chronological order.  Lists abound of current books in translation, here and here for example. The very wonderful “Traveler’s Literary Companion” by Whereabouts Press has an Italian volume for those who want to get right into the stories being told up through recent years.  Divided into North, Center and South, there are offerings from Moravia and Ginsburg, mentioned in the Short Introduction,  as well as Buzzati, Antonio Tabucchi, Massimo Bontempelli and others.