Introduction to an Italian Personal Anthology

This is one of a special series of Personal Anthology letters celebrating the short-form literature of the 27 countries of the European Union alongside the UK, which as of the time of writing is still a member

We decided to approach this personal anthology as a group exercise to see what kind of “literary constellation” we would be able to draw together. Together we organise the Festival of Italian Literature, which will take place this weekend at the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill, but the many tasks of this activity means that we talk a lot about organisation issues and about contemporary authors that we’d like to invite to the festival, and not always as much as we’d like about the modern classics that we love. 
 
For this reason, we welcomed the idea of putting together our personal anthology of Italian short stories. We focused mainly on Italian literature from the twentieth century, and after a quick brainstorming we were glad to see there were a few common themes in our choices: one is the never-ending tension, in Italian literature, between realism and non-realism. Traditionally, the best-known Italian literature (as much as Italian cinema) in the last century or so has always been quite political in its inspiration and strictly realistic, favouring a portrait of society, social class, historical facts, family and generations, and so on.  But on the fringes of the main canon you can find amazing visionary stories, some of which are very political in their own way. Another common theme in our choices is the “gaze”, the theme of seeing and being seen, the literal or metaphorical difference between being blind or able to see and to acknowledge the (real) world around you…

Marco Mancassola, Marco Magini and Giorgia Tolfo

‘Un paio di occhiali’ (‘A Pair of Eyeglasses’) by Anna Maria Ortese, translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee

Though she’s one of the greatest Italian writers of the twentieth century, the rediscovery of Ortese’s work is quite recent. Il mare non bagna Napoli is a collection of five stories where the author recounts the wretched conditions of Naples after WW2. The book was highly criticised by the Neapolitan intellectuals who were depicted in one of the stories, and due to the criticism Ortese decided to leave Naples, the city she loved the most.
 
‘A Pair of Eyeglasses’ is the first story of the collection and is about a girl from a poor neighbourhood of Naples – due to her poor sight, she is given a pair of specs by her aunt, who sacrifices more than “ten days of bread” to buy them. When she tries the specs in the shop, the girl – Nunziata – is very excited as she can finally see a world previously unknown to her, shining and opulent, but when she tries them on later in her poor neighbourhood she realises she’s surrounded by misery and filth, not by the world she had imagined so far. Blindness, we discover with Nunziata, had protected her from acknowledging her real social status.
 
Ortese depicts Nunziata’s slump of hopes with an unparalleled intensity and suggests, with heartbreaking force, that dreams and happiness are tied and proportional to one’s social class.

First published in Il mare non bagna Napoli, Einaudi, 1953 / Latest English version in Evening Descends Upon the Hills, Pushkin Press, 2018

‘Nel museo di Reims’ (‘In the Museum of Reims’) by Daniele Del Giudice

Daniele Del Giudice’s short stories are little gems, masterpieces where the precision of the writing encounters the mystery of perceptions, and it is no surprise that his writing has a cult following in Italy and France. ‘In the Museum of Reims’ is a short novella and possibly his most famous story, one that moves us greatly for its simplicity and perfection, as well as its poetical depth. 

Barnaba is losing his sight and before darkness envelopes him, he wants to see the paintings he loves the most and consign them to his memory. The story opens at the museum in Reims where he wants to see The Death of Marat, a painting that he knows well, not only because of its countless versions, but because Marat himself used to be a doctor who healed people affected by blindness. While wandering in the rooms of the museum, he’s joined by Anne, a stranger, who starts describing him the paintings he’s struggling to see. But is Anne describing the paintings as they appear? Is she projecting her desires on them? Or Barnaba’s? Is she lying? How can colours be described? How can human beings bond over a common desire to see and share their visions?

First published by Mondadori, 1988

‘La Luna e Gnac’ (‘Moon and Gnac’) by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

Marcovaldo is a popular character who shaped our childhood and imagination. Created by the genius of Italo Calvino during the Italian economic boom, Marcovaldo’s stories tell about the character’s life and family, whose mediocre everyday existence is punctuated by sudden discoveries and epiphanies. Despite living in a cold grey city, Marcovaldo is always able to spot a touch of poetry, the hidden beauty of daily life; yet in the background we can see the dawn of consumerist society with all its ambiguities. In these stories, Calvino’s style combines melancholy and fun, farce and fantasy.
 
In ‘Moon and Gnac’, the view of the night sky from Marcovaldo’s family home is thwarted by the commercial sign of Spaak Cognac, a neon sign that turns itself on and off every twenty seconds. After his son Michelino destroys the sign with his sling, one of the competitors of Spaak, Cognac Tomawak, offers to hire Marcovaldo’s family in order to make Spaak go bankrupt. But once they succeed, the original neon sign is replaced by a similar, even more annoying one from Tomawak. Calvino captures a moment of transformation in 1960s Italian life, when Italian society is irremediably losing its innocence.

First published in Marcovaldo, Einaudi, 1963. Published in English in Marcovaldo: or The Seasons in the City, Vintage, 2001

‘Un marziano a Roma’ (‘A Martian in Rome’) by Ennio Flaiano, translated by Philip Balma and Fabio Benincasa

Ennio Flaiano was a journalist, writer, and screenwriter who chronicled like no one else the restlessness of Italian society in the 20th century. As a screenwriter he is famous for being among the authors of La dolce vita by Federico Fellini; Fellini considered directing a film adaptation of ‘A Martian in Rome’ too, but the project fell through. Meanwhile, Flaiano’s short story became a popular stage play, and later a TV adaptation filmed in the 1980s by another director.
 
The story centres on Kunt, an alien from Mars, who lands with his spaceship in Rome near Villa Borghese. Initially, his arrival creates a sensation among citizens and the media: everyone wants to see him, greet him, talk to him, interview him. The event is so significant that Kunt is even received by the Pope. However, after some time the Romans get used to seeing the alien around, and begin to ignore him. No one cares about Kurt anymore, the novelty of his arrival is soon forgotten, and the Martian wanders sad and alone through the streets of the city. By the end of the story, people are openly mocking him, to the point that he decides to leave.

First published in Diario notturno, Rizzoli, 1956. Collected in The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpa Lahiri, 2019

‘Trattamento di quiescenza’ (‘Retirement Fund’) by Primo Levi, translated by Jenny McPhee

This year is the 100th anniversary of Primo Levi’s birth, and we never tire of reading and re-reading his work. Everyone rightly knows him as an immensely important writer of the Holocaust, but Levi had a wide range of interests and was also a superb science fiction writer. His collection Natural Histories, published in the 1960s,is a book full of pioneering sci-fi stories, where Levi’s scientific background meets a vivid and prophetic imagination. The last story of the book, ‘Retirement Fund’, centres around a character presenting to a potential buyer the Torec, a helmet that works as a virtual reality recorder by connecting directly to the brain: back in the 1960s, Primo Levi was imagining an early version of the devices later popularised by films like Strange Daysor by several episodes of Black Mirror.

First published in Storie naturali, Einaudi, 1966. Collected in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein, introduced by Toni Morrison, Liveright 2015

‘Eleganza’ (‘Elegance’) by Goffredo Parise, translated by James Marcus

In the early 1970s, Goffredo Parise wrote a series of brief stories/vignettes for Il Corriere della Sera, later collected in two books titled ‘Sillabari’. Each of the stories depicts a human feeling and has a one-word title; the stories are in alphabetical order: ‘Affetto’ (‘Affection’), ‘Amore’ (‘Love’), and so on. The atmosphere is highly enigmatic. The dialogues are reduced to a minimum, the characters tend to aphasia, while their gaze takes on a central importance. Parise’s prose reads as if it came from another world, and this otherworldly, meditative touch is  even more surprising considering that he was a war correspondent. 
 
‘Eleganza’ (‘Elegance’) is a masterpiece of subtle intimate perceptions. The main character meets an old friend for dinner in an elegant palace. The two have grown apart over the years, they don’t share much anymore, and their conversation is stiff. But the old friend is with his new girlfriend; the main character is fascinated with the elegance of the couple, and with the sophisticated atmosphere of the place where they are. This seems just enough for him to ignore the feeling of awkwardness for the situation. But then two other strangers enter the room, breaking the fragile atmosphere, and “elegance flew away in the Roman sky.”

First published in Sillabario No.1, Einaudi, 1972 / Abecedary, Northwestern University Press, 1999