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Book Review

Evocative Sketches of a Lost Landscape

LITTLE NOVELS OF SICILY, by Giovanni Verga, Steerforth Italia $12, 150 pages paper

March 17, 2000|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thanks to the publishing savvy (and generosity) of the Steerforth Press, a neglected jewel of Italian literature is back among us once again. Long out of print, Giovanni Verga's "Little Novels of Sicily" is a beautiful introduction to the work of the Sicilian author, who was born in Catania in 1840 and also died there in January 1922, and is perhaps best known for his "Vita dei Campi," which inspired Pietro Mascangi's opera "Cavalleria Rusticana."

Verga's "little novels" are essentially sketches, but together they amount to a powerfully vivid evocation of a lost time, the world of Verga's youth, where King Francis of Naples ruled Sicily until 1860, the year Garibaldi and the Thousand changed the complexion of the island. As the book's translator, D.H. Lawrence, points out, most of the sketches are set in the village where Verga lived "and anyone who has once known this land can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it, nor can he fail to fall under the spell of Verga's wonderful creation . . . "

"Spell" is just the word to characterize Verga's fictional universe. He is not--in this volume at least--a particularly deft constructor of narrative; the sketches are loose and ribbon-like in the way they curl and twist through the lives, landscapes, habits and traditions of a closed land and people. "So Much for the King" follows the state of mind of Neighbor Cosimo, who is asked by his king to drive his litter to Catania; he is immune to the sunlight, "the clusters of olives hanging along the hedges"--his one worry is that he deliver his precious cargo safely, since with one word the king could "have anybody's head he liked cut off, even Neighbor Cosimo's."

In "Malaria," the extraordinary beauty of the countryside is contrasted with the scourge of the disease that cuts through the town like a scythe. The story is shot through with sadness and grief but also a kind of truculent endurance. "The lake gives, and the lake takes away," a man remarks upon seeing Neighbor Carmine weeping. "What's the good, brother?"

This solidity, this courage. It goes deep in this place and these people. "Property" portrays a man who lives for money and his land but is haunted by the fact that he must leave his riches behind when he dies; like all Verga's characters, he is only human in the end.

Money, property, gossip, work, the tangle of relationships: The interconnectedness of Verga's world is paramount. As the frog seller tells a woman he's courting in "Black Bread": "We are all like the fingers on one hand; or like the tiles on the roof of the house, one sending war to the other. If there's no crop of corn or of olives, there'll be no money coming into the village, and nobody will buy my frogs. You follow what I mean?"

We do. Verga's stories, like the fingers on a hand, are a whole: organic, in motion, alive. A treasure.

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