Grazia Deledda: An expression of modernity among historical and ideological adversities
The inspiration of this article on Grazia Deledda comes from the excellent lecture held by Ciriaco Offeddu at the office of ‘Comitato della Dante Alighieri’ on 28th of May 2015. Beyond Thirty-nine has already done a lot to showcase Deledda’s work. Therefore, I am not openly praising Ciriaco for his in-depth knowledge of the subject, but rather for the way in which the lecture has been presented. We travelled in time through history, culture, ideologies and the author’s life and works. The result was a true eye-opener for us all, and it projected a thorough image of an author who was, despite her ambitions and capabilities, often underrated during her lifetime and beyond.
Grazia Deledda started her literary career quite young. She firmly believed in her writing skills, and she was finding ways to promote them from the age of twenty. Starting from 1982, there had been a very intense correspondence between the young writer and a professor of Italian literature in Rome, Angelo De Gubernatis, also expert in Sanskrit and Indian culture, to whom Deledda started writing letters introducing herself and her works. De Gubernatis’ help was a very important springboard for Deledda, who started publishing articles on Sardinian traditional folklore, followed by poems and short stories on his magazines, that were circulating all over Italy. The exchange of letters between Deledda and De Gubernatis (of which ninety-nine unpublished letters appeared only in 2007), soon disclosed an involvement that transcended their common literary interests to include platonic romance. But it appeared that mutual respect, intellectual stimulations and a deep friendship were indeed the basis of the relationship between the two, even when Deledda moved to Rome to follow her husband.
To understand better Deledda’s work and its cultural context, it is necessary to go through an historical overview. Deledda was born in 1871 in Nuoro, which is located in Barbagia, the central-eastern part of Sardinia. This region is characterized by harsh mountains and an extreme landscape, which contributed – for centuries – to the isolation of this land and to its independence too. Barbagia was never conquered by the Romans, who distinguished two areas in Sardinia: the ‘Romania’ and the untamed ‘Barbaria’ (from where the name ‘Barbagia’ comes from). Even Byzantium was forced to fight against the Barbaricini (the population of Barbagia) and it sent some ‘duces’ to the area to defeat them. Between IX and XV century, Sardinia was split into ‘Giudicati’, autonomous statutory entities. Their administrative powers differed from the feudal ones and were based on the Roman-byzantine law system.
In 1297, Pope Boniface VIII – in order to solve the contrasts between Angioine and Aragonese rulers, fighting for the possession of Sicily – created the Kingdom of Sardinia and Corsica and donated it to the Aragoneses. This dynasty ruled until 1479, when the union of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel of Castile gave origin to the Spanish crown. The island went through a favourable era when Queen (in reality a ‘female judge’) Eleonora d’Arborea ruled the island from 1383, consolidating the four independent ‘Giudicati’. Eleonora d’Arborea went to war with the Crown of Aragon, which was claiming the island but lost much of its possessions to the queen. An alliance with Genoa sustained the independence of Arborea’s ‘Giudicato’(which included Barbagia) for another generation after the queen died. Eleonora was an enlightened ruler, who drafted the ‘Carta de Logu’, a body of laws that was considered well ahead of its times and which remained in force until the XIX century.
After the long Spanish domination, in 1713, Sardinia passed through the hands of the Austrian Augsburg crown. Soon afterwards, in exchange for the Kingdom of Sicily, the Austrians surrendered it to the House of Savoy. From this moment on, Sardinia’s decline was inexorable, marked by pillaging and deprivation of its natural resources and exploitation of its inhabitants. In 1861, the unification of Italy was of no help for the recovery of the island. It has been recorded that in 1914, fourteen millions of Italians (out of a population of 24 millions), migrated to foreign countries, trying to escape poverty and searching for better opportunities.
This quick historical overview on Sardinia, helps us locate Deledda’s work in the ideological setting of her time as well. Sardinia’s social, cultural decline and isolation were also accelerated by some very dangerous ideologies that ripened at the end of the XIX century. The theories on the population of South of Italy, drafted by the Italian anthropological school, found a very systematic application through the works of Alfredo Niceforo. He wrote three essays underlining the differences between North and South of Italy. In one of them, ‘Criminality in Sardinia’ (1897) he followed the theories of Paolo Orano ( 1875-1945). Orano had been eager to demonstrate that the population of Southern Italy was inferior to the one of Northern Italy. Therefore, it was a duty of the House of Savoy to try to ‘better’ the race and enlighten the second-rate Italians. Niceforo followed these theories, intending to use a more scientific approach to support his ideology. In his works, he stated that each territory of Sardinia had a specific form of criminality, and that the centre of the worst criminality on the island was precisely in the area around Nuoro. The reason for this could be retraced in race and history, whereas the causa causarum of the criminal behaviour was the race, as it could not be changed or improved. According to the crimes, one could distinguish different anthropological differences, the shape of the skull being a top marker. The result of this cranial studies (and cranial measurements) showed that the Sardinian people belonged to the inferior Mediterranean race, prone to primitive, brutal and savage criminal behaviour that was not found in other areas of Italy. For this reasons, Sardinia had to be decentralized and isolated from the rest of Italy. These theories came from the School of ‘Positivism’ of the early XIX century. Positivism glorified progress and scientific methodologies over introspective and intuitive knowledge: all authentic knowledge was scientific and allowed verification.
We were therefore quite aghast at Ciriaco’s revelation that Grazia Deledda dedicated the first edition of her novel ‘La via del Male’ to Niceforo and Orano. She was probably sharing with them the desire for social protest against the unified government and ‘the call for active participation of the Sardinian people’, as Margherita Heyer-Caput stated in ‘Dance of Modernity’ (I will get back to her analysis later). Another opinion indicated that Deledda had been probably fascinated by the unusual interest that these two men were displaying for her region. Later on, probably when the scope of Niceforo and Oriano’s work became clearer to Deledda, and when she started to be disillusioned by the theories of Positivism, the dedication was removed from the following editions of the novel.
‘La via del male’ is an important novel, as it represents the progressive development of Deledda’s maturity as a writer. It was written and rewritten three times, in 1896, 1906 and 1916 and reviewed by the writer Luigi Capuana (important member of the ‘Verism’ literary movement) . He praised the novel for its depiction of the characters and for Deledda’s capability to recreate a macrocosm in a microcosm, the universal in the particular. But, from the stylistic point of view, he remarked that the novel needed to be ‘cleaned up’. From the first to the last version, there has been a noticeable and significant eradication of utterances, redundancies and lofty words. The unification of Italy also meant for Deledda the acquisition of the capability to improve her linguistic abilities. This, in order to reach a standardized Italian without losing the peculiarity of her regional characters.
Deledda wrote 35 novels and many more letters and works, but despite all this, she never received a well-deserved recognition from the intelligentsia her time. On one hand, her novels were difficult to categorize. They did not belong to Italian ‘Verism’ or ‘Decadentism’, so they were defined at one point as being part of ‘Regionalism-Decadentism’. But ‘Regionalism’ could not be accepted in a recently unified Italy, and ‘Decadentism’ did not always find a defined expression in Italy. Furthermore, Deledda received some not always constructive criticism of her works from her contemporaries, including D.H Lawrence. In 1928, Lawrence wrote and introduction to the novel ‘La Madre’. In it, he said: ‘… She does not penetrate, as a great genius does, the very sources of human passion and motive. She stays far short of that. But what she does do is to create the passionate complex of a primitive populace’. Lawrence surely lacked a deeper knowledge of Sardinia, and his interpretation was therefore superficial. But, in a way, he followed the common belief of the time. A time in which Sardinia’s history and traditions had been (and had to be) shamefully concealed from the ‘outside world’, not only from Italy. Sardinia still appeared as a primitive land, inhabited by an inferior race.
This attitude ruled for quite a long time. Deledda expressed her great skills through a very prolific writing career and obtained in 1926 the highest recognition, the Nobel Prize. Despite that, she remained a ‘victim’ not only of her historical period, but also of its prevailing cultural ideology. Her works lingered in a literary limbo that was not at all defined, at least until around the year 2000. Finally, they were classified as belonging to ‘Existentialist Modernity’. Of particular relevance in this sense is one of the best books interpreting Deledda’s works (which by the way has been written in English), ‘Dance of Modernity’(2008). The author, Margherita Heyer-Caput, completed her education in Italy to get a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University. She taught at the University of Bern, Switzerland and at various universities of the American East Coast. In ‘Dance of Modernity’, she invites us to overturn all established categorization of Deledda’s writing, taking also into account the cultural history of Italy in the 20th century. Through Heyer- Caput’s analysis, Deledda acquired a style that befitted the literal context of ‘modernity’.
This seems to be even more evident in her last novels. Here, Sardinia make way for ‘life as it is’, in all its nudity and symbolism, and for the crisis and malaise of the ‘self’, in anticipation of the themes of post-war modern European literature.
In all this, lays Deledda’s greatness. Despite being a woman-writer born in the XIX century (and despite coming from the ‘relegated’ region of Sardinia) she was able to express, with rare depth and insight, the delicate and difficult themes related to the eternal quest that afflicts the human being. Sardinia appears in her works as a special and mythical place. It is a land that transcends time and space to become the stage where the daily struggles of the soul develop.