Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 11, 2017

Italian Literature, a Very Short Introduction (2012), by Peter Hainsworth & David Robey

italian-literature-vsiAlong with Dagny a.k.a Madame Vauquer from the Vauquer Boarding House and Jonathan from  Intermittencies of the Mind  I am reading The Leopard (1958) by Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, so I thought I’d take a look at another VSI.  But it’s not really surprising that Italian Literature, a Very Short Introduction doesn’t mention Lampedusa because he was so very much out of step with postwar developments in Italy.  In the wake of fascism, Italian literature was generally brutally realist, while Lampedusa’s book is a nostalgic novel set in pre-unification Italy.  It doesn’t fit into the characteristics of Italian literature in this period at all.

This VSI is not like the mostly chronological structure of the French VSI which I read a little while ago.  After a useful four-page introduction, the book is framed as general discussions of problematic trends and issues:

  • History
  • Tradition
  • Theory
  • Politics
  • Secularism
  • Women

(Women get a chapter all of their own because (Ferrante Fever aside) they have been almost invisible in Italian literature.)

As you might expect from the country that brought us Dante and Petrarch, there is a lot about poetry in this VSI, and interesting as it was, (and will be again when I get round to reading The Divine Comedy) it was less useful for my purposes than the French VSI.  This is because there isn’t really much in the way of an Italian 19th century novel, which is where my interest in literature began as a teenager.  Nothing like an Austen, or a Dickens, or a Zola.  The great 19th century Italian novel is The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) (1840) by Alessandro Manzoni and it’s notable as a milestone in the development of the modern, unified Italian language, but it sounds rather dull and didactic to me.

The main reason for this failure to engage with the 19th century novel (and for the dearth of women’s writing) was illiteracy.  There wasn’t a mass market of readers impatiently waiting for the next serialised chapter, and what persisted was an elite intellectual tradition that was more interested in theory than in writing a story.  This intellectualism persisted into the 20th century too.  I was rather startled to see that Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is as much about his pet theory of semiotics than the labyrinthine detective story I enjoyed when I read it years ago. 

One of the central tenets of Eco’s semiotic theory is that the meaning of signs, including language, can be understood only by reference to other signs, never to things in the ‘real’ world. The rose of the novel’s title refers to a Latin verse, quoted at the end, which says precisely this: names are all that we possess of reality.  Our knowledge of reality is also fundamentally disordered: the world of signs is a labyrinth through which there is no single path, in which there is an infinite variety of possible connections. This central tenet of Eco’s semiotics contrasts with the stable ordered world of the monastery in which the story of serial murder and detection is set.  (p.58)

Yes, alas, all that passed me by… As the authors point out, the tendency of Italian authors to withdraw into the world of literature and abstract ideas, and the tendency to engage in the world of concrete reality can co-exist in the same author and the theory that underlies Eco’s novel is integrally bound up with his thinking about political issues and the writer’s social responsibilities. (p.59)

[But the humble reader may miss it entirely].

Politics impacts on the Italian novel in a big way.  (Even in The Leopard, or so it seems to me).

How to bring politics and literature into alignment, and how to reconcile the political and the ethical, have been recurrent questions in Italian literature, always against a backdrop of classical reference and thought. (p.64)

From what I know of 20th century Australian literature there is a similar preoccupation, but rather than a backdrop of classical traditions, there is a preoccupation with trying to differentiate a distinctive Australian identity instead.  And while there was censorship in Australia (see my review of The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore) it was focussed on obscenity and religious offence; homosexuality and race-relations; and birth control, abortion and childbirth without pain.  Concern about sedition was comparatively minor.  Italy under Fascism was a different thing altogether…

Fascism was well-established in Italy where Mussolini was elected in 1922 and maintained widespread popular support until it became obvious that the social revolution he promised was never going to happen.  (A bit like trickle-down economics today, eh?) Authors had to be careful, (much like Chinese authors in our time) and a novel like Conversazione in Sicilia (Conversation in Sicily) by Elio Vittorini could be published in 1938 without repercussions because any anti-Fascism is concealed or coded.  Postwar, and in line with the moral values of the Resistance authors steered away from ideological propaganda.  The Resistance was a moment of political awakening for Italo Calvino and I am tempted to find a copy of his first novel Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, 1947) which is about a boy’s life as a partisan among the Communists.  But I should read his The Baron in the Trees first, because it has been on my TBR for 10 years or more), and then if I like that I might read the other two in his Our Ancestors series.

the-complete-review-guide-to-contemporary-world-fictionUnlike the French VSI, however, I haven’t ended up from this Italian Literature VSI with a long list of books to add to my wishlist, and I think that is perhaps because of the preoccupation with poetry, the emphasis on intellectualism and the minimal attention to the 21st century.  Well, you can’t have everything in a VSI of only 128 pages!  But I am more interested in contemporary Italian writing and I’d like to widen my knowledge beyond Diego Marani, Umberto Eco, Niccolo Ammanati and Elena Ferrante. For that I think I’ll find Michael Orthofer’s The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction more useful.

Author: Peter Hainsworth & David Robey
Title: Italian Literature, a very short introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9780199231799

Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: Italian Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)



  1. Interesting! I liked The Leopard very much, so I hope you and Jonathan do too! As for Eco, it’s a long time since I read The Name of the Rose, but I do recall thinking there was too much in the way of abstractions and that detracted from the story.


    • I’m really enjoying it… and I like Eco too. The Name of the Rose sparked a little flurry of books like An Instance of the Fingerpost too, which I liked as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, I am surprised that ‘The Leopard’ didn’t even get a mention. I thought it was quite well received when it came out.

    Given the reasons mentioned it is still amazing that there weren’t many 19C writers. I can’t recall coming across any that appeal to me.


    • I know what you mean… I picked up the VSI wondering why (apart from poets) there weren’t any C19th Italian authors that I knew of, even only as ones I meant to get round to reading. And I’m still not much the wiser.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I know you don’t read much in the way of crime, but it’s a great way to snake your way into books from another country. You might like To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia


    • LOL I’ve read heaps of Donna Leon! Actually the VSI makes a rather oblique reference to crime, it’s as if they can’t bring themselves to mention it!


  4. The Betrothed is wonderful. A description that makes it seem dull has erred. It is exciting.

    There is also definitely something like a Zola, namely the great Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, best in his unique short stories, but the novels are outstanding, too.

    My Italian year was 2015, in the unlikely event that you want to poke around in the Wuthering Expectations archives.

    I suppose Matilde Serao is covered in the “Women” chapter? I strongly recommend her to all Ferrante readers.


    • HI, Tom.. you know, I’ve poked around in your blog lots of times and never knew you had an Italian archive. How do I find it?


      • I guess my website does not work so well as an archive. It is all about the great chain of books, and the Italian year was even more so than usual. Everything leads through Italo Calvino.

        But searching for individual writers is not a bad way to go, at my site or at a href=>seraillon, who has gone nuts for Italians.

        The advice Romy Paris is giving is wonderful! Maria Messina was deeply interesting, especially her short stories. Sicilian literature is on its own deeply interesting. Maybe I should have don two years of Italian reading.


        • Ah, look what I have done to the tags – sorry!


          • I’ve found 7 labels for Italy, is that what you mean? (I used to have a Blogger blog, but I gave up on it in frustration). I have a busy day today but I will go exploring later on tonight:)


          • No, I mean the html tags, goofing up the link and italics in your otherwise pristine comments.

            But you’re right, my “Italy” tag does not work for this purpose, although if you start with this post you can begin my own, five post, 3,500 word very short introduction to Italian literature.


            • Ok, I have bookmarked it.


  5. Also, the Sicilian writer De Roberto is in a league with Zola. For women, Maria Messina, another Sicilian.
    From what you posted in your review, I think there are much better sources on Italian Literature available to you. On Amazon for Kindle you can find two from Stephen O. Murray that are written for the general reader not the academic. As the book you reviewed pointed out, there is an intellectual, academic Italian stream of literature that almost no one reads but is frequently mentioned in tomes such as the above. And then there’s the really good stuff.
    I taught Italian literature for years and can vouch for it’s being much richer than that indicated in your reviewed book.


    • Hello Romy, thank you so much for this, I really appreciate the input:) It is indeed the really good stuff that I’m after! I’ll see what I can find…


  6. Love the discussion. I read The Leopard when very young and other Italian writers mainly Alberto Moravia who does write about women. As does Cesare Pavese.
    The Italian tendency to explore language is quite demanding of course. I am reading Sciascia at present and he is also the constant linguist and is demanding to read. But then I enjoy the Latins in all their many guises.

    There was a woman Nobel Prize Winner in Literature from Sardinia but don’t recall her name. Enjoy The Leopard. My copy is lent out so must retrieve it.


  7. Hi Fay, I have some Moravia: when I do my annual TBR stocktake (which I can start now that I’ve finally got the Xmas decorations out of the way) I think I’ll make a special pile of my “old” Italians and see what I’ve got. I’m especially interested in whether there’s a regional flavour in Italian Lit, by way of reference to whether there is in OzLit…


  8. The female Nobel winner is Grazia Deledda. Sicily has a rich regional tradition but many recent works have not been translated. Writers not so recently translated are Sciascia, Brancati, Pirandello, Vittorini (although he left Sicily for Milan) Messina, Bufalino,, Consolo. Of the current, only Camilleri appears in translation, in primarily the Montalbano series which forms only a very small part of his work. The wit of a Sicilian modern , Roberto Alajmo, can be found in his travel guide to Palermo. Unfortunately it’s the only work of his that has been translated into English.


    • If only I had kept up with my Italian… but then, I’m struggling quite enough with my French as it is, so I’ll have to rely on translations, which is a shame…


    • I’ve made myself a little wishlist using Goodreads, but I can’t find an English edition of Brancati. Of particular interest is Smile of the Unknown Mariner by Consolo because it seems to be about the Risorgimento from the ordinary person’s POV, which would make an interesting contrast with The Leopard. Goodreads, of course, is a fairly blunt instrument when you don’t know much about an author and need to choose from a list, but a couple of trusted friends there have reviewed some of them so I’m following their lead. ..


  9. I’ve heard from various sources that many Italian books that are of regional interest are not translated because they don’t deal with universal problems. Like those you’ve mentioned above, Marani, Ammaniti, (except for his I’m Not scared) and Ferrante’s novels could have taken place anywhere like Dubuque Iowa. Since many read “foreign” novels for their regionality,
    this view to me seems counter productive. However, there is good news. Many current Italians in the “Good Stuff” category are translated into French, German and Spanish.


  10. Strange how some countries are really strong on promoting their lit through translation and others just leave it to the market…


  11. […] Tomasi di Lampedusa, translated by Archibald Colquhoun and I read it after reading the VSI on Italian literature. by Peter Hainsworth and David […]


  12. […] Italian Literature, a Very Short Introduction, by Peter Hainsworth & David Robey […]


  13. I am surprised that The Leopard is not there (but then again it is modern “enough”), and I hope that you have added The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) to your to-read list, if you have not read it already, because the book is very interesting and engaging, beyond being your apparently boring “milestone in the development of the modern, unified Italian language”.


    • Hello Diana, I bought a copy of it just a little while ago, so it’s definitely on the TBR now:)

      Liked by 1 person

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