Elio Vittorini’s Conversations in Sicily has been on my reading list for a while and I was delighted to find the original English translation in the Amazon Kindle store compete with an introduction from Ernest Hemingway so I immediately snapped it up.
However, for some unknown reason, it was never delivered and after several emails, I never got any help or explanation why. Since my credit card was never debited for the purchase I simply dug out my Italian paperback version and I am eternally grateful I did.
Conversazione in Sicilia is such an enigmatic work, at times I loved it and lived the pleasure of this natural conversation between elderly mother and grown-up child, between Sicily and Sicilian, yet other times I got lost in the complicated connections, the shorthand, repetition and long-windedness of the dialogue confused me. These conversations, like many real ones, are fleeting, flippant, mundane and they slip beyond our grip and understanding.
Silvestro is a lost and disillusioned Sicilian living in Milan who gets a letter from his father saying he has left his mother and so he clumsily journeys back down to the island guided by a mixture of nostalgia and indignation for life.
The journey of a long lost Sicilian son who has moved away from his beloved island for many years retraces his steps back down to his Mediterranean home recalling the harsh desert landscape of the summers in his childhood near Syracuse. Silvestro finds his mother deep in winter hibernation entrenched in timeless Sicula habits, eating food gathered from the countryside, telling mundane personal and family stories, using the ancient dialect, she is a stoic ageing Sicilian woman filled with pride, yet with the defeats of life accumulating before her.
Listening in to the discussion is like hearing real Sicilians talking, few words are used, they are repeated often, at times there is latent anger or the energy of a forceful interrogation, yet the intonation and energy of the human spirit behind them gives them compelling meaning.
Reading Vittorini’s work in Italian turned out to be a blessing as I think this would be terribly difficult to translate, the cadences of the conversation could be easily lost and the historical context is also tantamount to the correct reading of Conversazione in Sicilia.
We are talking about Fascist Italy and Sicily, a period of great upheaval, Vittorini reflects the disillusionment of his generation, the intellectual wasteland created by the Fascist regime. Silvestro is a victim of ‘estranged furies,’ a sense of loss and slavery, life has lost its meaning, hence the return to his past in the hope of finding some peace of mind.
Elio Vittorini himself (1908-1966) was an influential voice in the Italian modernist school, Conversations is his best-known work and he was jailed when it was published in 1941 for its subversive nature. Vittorini was born in Syracuse and moved often around Sicily with his father who worked on the railway. He often ran away from home, leaving Sicily permanently in 1924, eventually settling in Florence. Vittorini’s work began to be published in journals from 1927 and many of his novels and short stories were not published until after the second world war due to Fascist censorship. He learnt English and in 1939 moved to Milan, translating many English language writers works into Italian, including D.H Lawrence, E.A Poe, Faulkner, Galsworthy, Steinbeck and Defoe (some of which also had a profound influence on his own work.)
Peeling away the layers of Silvestro’s train journey down to Sicily in Conversations there are motifs of poetry which take the reader into the memories of his personal past to witness the discrepancies between memory and real life. The protagonist’s Sicily lives very much in his own memory, a personal myth filled with romanticized memories from the Shakespearian quoting father to the music of the crickets in the summer and the Zampogna Sicilian bagpipes played during the festive season.
The ambiguous nature of Vittorini’s Conversazione has created scores of interpretations of this book, which adds a wonderful element of depth to this work. Some critics see Silvestro as a mythological hero going through a journey of self-discovery akin to Ulysses from Homer’s Odyssey, while others see it as a political work with anti-fascist undertones and references to the Spanish civil war, there is also a wave of critics who say the work echoes the works Vittorini was translating in the same period including Faulkner, Hemingway, Lawrence and Eliot.
What I experience was a wonderfully concise piece of literature which captures the voice and spirit of a mystifying Sicily while commenting on the contradictions in the Italian society of the fascist period in Italy, as the Italy of today it can be confusing, mind-boggling yet ultimately intriguing.
Vittorini has now become one of my Italian literature favourites together with Quasimodo, Pirandello, Verga and Tomasi di Lampedusa. I look forward to discovering evermore in this amazingly rich oeuvre…
There is also this fine essay about Vittorini by Eric Darton on Frigatezine.