Authors: GIOVANNI VERGA
AND OTHER STORIES
was born in Catania, Sicily, in 1840, into a prosperous bourgeois family.
He wrote many novels and short stories, and also a number of plays, mostly based on his own stories.
While still a teenager he drafted the first of three historical romances,
Amore e Patria (Love and Country),
which remained largely unpublished.
This was followed in 1859 by I
Carbonari della montagna (The Carbonari in the Mountains),
written while he was reading law at Catania University and published in 1861/2 using money intended for his studies.
The third of these early novels was
Sulle lagune (In the Lagoons),
published in 1863.
After serving in the Catania National Guard from 1860 to 1864, Verga made several visits to Florence, then the cultural and political capital, where he settled in 1869.
Meanwhile in 1866 he had published
Una peccatrice (A Sinner),
a tale of disastrous young love, and this was followed in 1871 by the technically different but thematically similar
Storia di una capinera (Story of a Blackcap),
which proved immensely popular and was widely read until well into this century.
Verga moved on to Milan in late 1872, Florence having been replaced the previous year by Rome as the Italian political capital.
In Milan he published three further novels,
Tigre Reale (Royal Tigress,
(1875), in a similar Romantic style to his previous works.
Influenced by the
theories of his friend and fellow-Sicilian, Luigi Capuana, around 1874 Verga adopted a new approach to the writing of fiction, developing a style characterized by dialogue, both naturalistic and dramatic, and with a focus on character.
Using this approach, he was to produce the most original and significant writing of his career.
This period began with the story
published in 1874, and the novella
The year 1880 saw the publication of a collection of short stories dealing largely with Sicilian rural life, entitled
Vita dei campi (Life in the Fields).
This included the famous tale
later adapted by Verga for the theatre, this adaptation then being used as the basis for the libretto of Mascagni’s opera.
Two more collections of Verga’s tales of Sicilian village life were published,
in 1883 and
Back in 1881, Verga had published
I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree)
intending it to be the first in a series of five novels to be collectively known as
I vinti (The Defeated Ones).
This was followed by the second (and actually the last) of the series,
(issued originally in instalments, 1888, but heavily revised and published 1889), the last major achievement of his literary career.
He produced little in the last thirty years of his life.
In late 1894 he returned for the last time to Catania, where he settled in the house he was born in.
He died after suffering a cerebral thrombosis in early 1922.
, a former Fellow of Trinity College Dublin, is Professor Emeritus of Italian at the University of Leicester.
His publications include studies of Dante, Boccaccio, Verga, Pirandello, Ugo Betti, Italian literature in Ireland, Shakespeare’s Italy, and the pronunciation of Italian in the sixteenth century.
He has translated plays by ítalo Svevo, Pirandello and Betti, and poems by Salvatore Quasimodo.
His Penguin Classics translation of Boccaccio’s
(1972) was reissued in 1995 with a new book-length introduction, along with detailed notes, maps and indexes.
He holds the Italian Government’s silver medal for services to Italian culture.
Translated and with an introduction by
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This translation published 1999
Copyright © G.
The moral right of the translator has been asserted
Maps by Nigel Andrews
Except in the United States of America, this book is
sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,
re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior
consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and
without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent
To my children Paul, Laura, Edwin,
Jonathan, Joanna and Rachel
The translator wishes to thank both his good friend Paolo Ruggero Jenna and his sister-in-law Marie-Louise Rossini for their prompt and knowledgeable replies to a handful of queries about Sicilian terminology on the one hand and Milanese locations on the other.
He acknowledges the expert advice on Verga’s Sicily generously placed at his disposal by his long-standing friend and fellow Italianist, Andrew Wilkin.
His grateful thanks are extended also to his text editor, Jennifer Munka, for her helpful suggested amendments to the original typescript.
Although the earliest English translations of Giovanni Verga’s narrative writings had already appeared in the last decade of the nineteenth century, it was not until after his death that his reputation as one of the foremost novelists and short-story writers of the modern era was given fresh impetus in the English-speaking world.
The writer who championed Verga’s cause was D.
Lawrence, whose own translation of Verga’s novel,
was first published in New York in 1923, and in London two years later.
Shortly afterwards, Lawrence also translated two volumes of Verga’s short stories, which were published in 1925 and 1928.
In an introductory note to the first of these, Lawrence described Verga as a man ‘of medium height, strong and straight, with thick white hair, and proud dark eyes, and a big reddish moustache: a striking man to look at’.
The description was presumably based on the portraits and photographs of Verga that Lawrence had come across during his stay in Taormina in the early 1920s, for the two writers never met.
When Lawrence came to Taormina, Verga was living in Catania, a few miles further down the eastern Sicilian coast, and in the autumn of 1921, when his writings first attracted Lawrence’s attention, he was an octogenarian with only a few months left to live.
Shortly after Verga’s death in January 1922, Lawrence wrote to a correspondent in New York that ‘Poor old Verga went and died exactly as I was going to see him in Catania.
But he was 82 years old.’
Lawrence’s letters of the period reveal his delight and fascination in having discovered a writer of outstanding narrative power and versatility.
Never before had he encountered a prose style that was so original and dynamic, a language so rich and colourful.
His own brief experience
of living in Sicily made him keenly aware of the uncanny accuracy with which Verga had depicted the manners and temperament of that proud island race, attached as if inevitably to its traditional, primitive way of life.
Writing to Catherine Carswell in October 1921, Lawrence apologizes for his failure to acknowledge receipt of the plays of Lady Gregory, but claims that he has no time for such trifles (‘too much of the insipid old stew’), adding that the only author he has been reading of late is Giovanni Verga:
He exercises quite a fascination on me, and makes me feel quite sick at the end.
But perhaps that is only if one knows Sicily.
Do you know if he is translated into English?… It would be fun to do him – his
is so fascinating.
Though well aware of the problems involved in reproducing the characteristically Sicilian flavour of Verga’s literary style, Lawrence began to toy seriously with the idea of translating him into English.
It was the very difficulty of the task that most appealed to Lawrence, who with characteristic immodesty wrote to Edward Garnett from Taormina informing him that Verga ‘would be most awfully difficult to translate.
That is what tempts me: though it is rather a waste of time, and probably I shall never do it.
Though if I dont
I doubt if anyone else will – adequately, at least.’
It should perhaps be noted in passing that Lawrence’s versions of Verga can hardly be regarded as adequate.
They were written in considerable haste, and his knowledge of Italian fell some way short of perfection.
Hence we find phrases like ‘a picnic in the country’ being translated as ‘the ringing of the bells’ (a rudimentary error resulting from confusion of the words
whilst a fiancée is translated as a wife, and a mother becomes a midwife.
In that same letter to Edward Garnett, Lawrence describes Verga as
good – peasant – quite modern – Homeric’, adding that ‘it would need somebody who could absolutely handle English in the dialect, to translate him.’ Here, attention is drawn to three of Verga’s outstanding qualities as a narrative writer: his familiarity with popular, colloquial speech; the modernity of his prose style which placed him at the forefront of literary innovation in the latter part of the nineteenth
century; and, finally, the epic structure of his two major novels, I
Shortly after Verga’s death, Lawrence wrote to his London agent, Curtis Brown, informing him that he was halfway through his translation of
and promising to send on as much of the manuscript as he had finished before leaving Italy for Ceylon.
‘Afraid I shan’t have it done,’ he wrote.
‘Such a good novel.
Verga is the man who wrote
Even today, despite Lawrence’s efforts to ensure that he was more widely read in the English-speaking world, Verga remains ‘the man who wrote
That description is not entirely accurate, as the libretto for Mascagni’s celebrated one-act opera was written, not by Verga, but by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci, who based their text closely on Verga’s one-act play (1884), in turn a dramatized version ofhis own original short story.
The first performance of the opera on 17 May 1890 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome was a phenomenal success, and shortly afterwards it became a permanent fixture alongside Leoncavallo’s I
(1892) in the operatic repertoire.
Mascagni had written to Verga on
March 1890, only a few weeks before the work was due to be performed, to ask his permission to stage the opera, to which Verga, unable to foresee the extraordinary favour it was to enjoy with operatic audiences throughout the world, consented on 27 March.
Before its first performance, Giacomo Puccini had shown the opera libretto to the Milanese music publisher, Giulio Ricordi, who had been unimpressed, saying he could not believe in it
(‘non ci credo
The libretto was eventually published by Eduardo Sonzogno, and for almost the rest of his life, Verga was engaged in fierce litigation with Mascagni and Sonzogno for breach of copyright, pursuing his claim right through the Italian legal system and finally to the
Corte di Cassazione,
the highest Italian court of appeal.
But although he received substantial compensation at an earlier hearing in 1893, he never secured a settlement that he would consider adequate.
Giovanni Verga was born at 8 Via Sant’Anna, Catania, on 2 September 1840.
His mother, Donna Caterina di Mauro, was the daughter of prosperous bourgeois parents in the city.
His father, Giovanni Battista Verga Catalano, came from a patrician family that owned an estate at Vizzini, in the hills some thirty-five miles south-west of Catania.
Verga’s childhood and youth coincided with a period of major historical change, one aspect of which – the transfer of power from the Bourbon to the Savoy monarchy – is amusingly illustrated in the final paragraph of the story ‘Getting to know the King’.
The invasion and annexation of Sicily in 1860 by Garibaldi and his thousand-strong army was followed in 1861 by its incorporation into the new Kingdom of Italy under Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy.
When Garibaldi’s forces arrived in Catania in the summer of 1860, Verga, now twenty years old, enrolled in the Catania National Guard, which over the next few years was engaged in suppressing both counter-revolutionary movements and popular uprisings against the bourgeoisie.
The mob violence and summary executions witnessed by Verga at this period are graphically recalled some years later in one of his short stories, ‘Freedom’.
His distaste for military discipline, and for his own involvement in a campaign of repression against the underprivileged, were the probable reasons for Verga buying himself out of the National Guard four years after his enrolment.
During his schooldays, Verga had been encouraged to make a close study of the contemporary historical novel, and while still a teenager he wrote the first of three historical novels of his own, tailored to the prevailing Risorgimento taste for history, adventure and heroism in literature.
The first of these,
Amore e patria
(1856–7), remained unpublished until very recently except for one or two excerpts.
In 1859, while reading for a degree in law at Catania University, he began to write a novel with equally strong patriotic overtones.
I Carbonari della montagna (The Carbonari in the Mountains),
was published in four instalments in 1861–2 with funds intended for the completion of Verga’s law studies, now abandoned with his father’s consent.
It is the tale of a rebellion in Calabria against the French during the final years of Napoleonic rule under Murat.
Sulle lagune (In the Lagoons,
1863), the third of these novels, is set in Venice, where Austria was still the ruling power, but
the main emphasis is now switched from political struggle to the chronicle of a love affair between a young Venetian woman and a Hungarian officer in the Austrian army.
Carbonari della montagna
had been favourably received by influential mainland critics, while
was actually published on the mainland, as an appendix to the Florentine political and literary journal,
A visit to Florence in May 1865 convinced Verga that his future as a writer was dependent on his breaking away from the somewhat restricted and provincial journalistic milieu of his native Catania, and establishing his credentials with the mainstream literary establishment of the north.
Florence had become the political and cultural capital of the new Kingdom of Italy, and it was to Florence that Verga returned several times before taking up residence there in 1869.
He had meanwhile published the novel
(1866, A Sinner), recounting the story of a young law student’s disastrous infatuation with a wealthy young woman of the aristocracy.
The novel is set mainly in Catania and Naples, but the modish, cosmopolitan, salon society against which the story unfolds, together with Verga’s portrayal of its ambitious young hero, lends to the narrative a distinctly autobiographical flavour.
There followed a novel possessing a similar theme – youthful love and its attendant pitfalls – but wholly different in both form and context.
Storia di una capinera (Story of a Blackcap,
1871) is an epistolary novel consisting of a series of letters written to her confidante by a young woman who has fallen deeply in love while staying in the countryside during a cholera outbreak.
Her passionately romantic idyll is shattered when her family compel her to return to the convent where she has been brought up, and to take the veil.
The over-exclamatory style of the first edition was toned down in later versions, and the novel attracted a wide readership until well into the twentieth century, being generally thought of as Verga’s most important work.
Its popularity may be judged by the fact that, by 1907, it had been reprinted twenty-two times, whilst the novel later to be acknowledged as Verga’s masterpiece,
(1881), had gone through only five reprints.
In 1871, Rome became the new capital of the Kingdom of Italy after being seized from the Papacy in the previous year.
The transfer of
government from Florence to Rome led also to a decline in the importance of Florence as the foremost Italian literary and artistic centre.
Around this same time, Verga’s loss of two influential literary friends, one moving to Naples and the other into a mental institution, made his own move from Florence inevitable.
Milan had now replaced Florence as the focal point of Italian cultural activity, and it was there that Verga settled towards the end of 1872.
The theme common to both
Storia di una capinera
was described by one of Verga’s commentators as ‘the myth of love, as it presents itself to youthful minds, on coming into contact with reality.’
After his move to Milan, Verga published three further novels,
Tigre reale (Royal Tigress,
(1875), that once again examined the conflict between human love and the inexorable, destructive forces of life itself.
The theme is one that he develops with much greater conviction in his realistic narratives, for instance in ‘Nedda’, ‘Jeli the Shepherd’ and ‘Black Bread’.
Verga’s early, Romantic novels are on the whole undistinguished, being sentimental and melodramatic, even perhaps to excess.
for instance, is the story of a love affair between a painter and a ballerina.
The painter is a passionate, impetuous southerner, who regards his love for this woman as symbolizing the eternal forces of nature, and sees the woman herself as a kind of demon-goddess who presides over a universe in which evil has triumphed over good.
The ballerina, however, is a sensible, earthbound girl, who shatters her lover’s complex fantasies.
The story ends with the death of the hero, stripped of his grand illusions, and worn away by consumption in a small provincial town.
In tone and content,
and the other romantic narratives of Verga’s early literary career resemble many other novels and plays of the period that seem to be aimed at emulating the fabulous success of that notorious best-seller of the mid-nineteenth century,
The Lady of the Camellias
(1848) by Dumas
His stage adaptation of it,
(1852), was no less admired and imitated, and supplied Giuseppe Verdi with the plot of