Friday, September 5, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: Italian by Edmondo De Amicis, et al.

D’Annunzio stands out
Gabriele D’Annunzio
This collection of Italian writings translated into English is the ninth volume of the ten-volume Stories by Foreign Authors series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1898. It contains five short works by four Italian authors. I suspect that the vast majority of English-language readers probably have little knowledge of 19th-century Italian history. At least that’s true of myself, and I confess that this information deficit probably hampered my appreciation of some of these stories. The opening selection, “A Great Day” by Edmondo De Amicis, for example, takes place during the 1870 Italian invasion of Rome, which at that time was part of the Papal States. De Amicis delves deeply into the effect of this church/state conflict on the Italian national psyche, but outsiders unfamiliar with the event will have trouble figuring out which parts of the story are historical fact and which are the exercise of poetic license.

De Amicis has a second entry in the book, “College Friends,” which has more universal appeal. This piece is technically not a story at all, but rather a memoir or essay. De Amicis reflects fondly on his time spent in a military college and speculates as to the ultimate fate of his old friends and classmates. Even though he’s only 25 looking back at 19, he contemplates youth, old age, and death with a mixture of regret and optimism. More than just self-indulgent navel-gazing, this piece is quite moving and life-affirming.

In Antonio Fogazzaro’s “Pereat Rochus,” a simple parish priest finds himself embroiled in an ethical battle when he refuses to turn out a servant who is accused of having an affair with a local bandit. The tone is a bit too frivolous and the clergyman becomes the butt of a few too many jokes. “It Snows” by Enrico Castelnuovo is another story that ultimately leaves the reader underwhelmed. A widower has developed a window-to-window friendship with an attractive widow across the alley, but any thoughts of marriage are stifled by the loyalty he feels toward his dead wife and young daughter. It’s a pleasant enough tale, and sensitively rendered, but it’s too much of a garden-variety melodrama to deservedly represent a nation’s literature.

The real revelation in this book is Gabriele D’Annunzio’s “San Pantaleone.” When the sky inexplicably turns blood red, the inhabitants of a small town seek solace from their priest, their holy relics, and their superstitions. Their panic and fanaticism lead them to a violent confrontation with a rival village. This story has a very medieval feel, but for the brief mention of guns. The stark imagery and bleak atmosphere is reminiscent of the stories of Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, but with the over-the-top violence of a Robert E. Howard gorefest. It’s truly a stunning piece of writing.

Incidentally, three of the selections in this book were translated by Edith Wharton, author of Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence. As a whole, I did not enjoy this Italian collection as much as some of the other volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, but these books are nonetheless valuable for the introduction they provide to lesser-known authors. This time around D’Annunzio was a great discovery for me, and I look forward to tracking down more of his work.

Stories in this collection
A Great Day by Edmondo De Amicis 
Pereat Rochus by Antonio Fogazzaro 
San Panteleone by Gabriele D’Annunzio 
It Snows by Enrico Castelnuovo 
College Friends by Edmondo De Amicis 

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