Primitivism and modernity: The Mother by Grazia Deledda
The last 50 years have been witness to numerous changes all over the world, particularly in the Western hemisphere. A number of developments have occurred in social-economic, cultural and health conditions; citizens have gained a more important role in the democratic life of their countries, and knowledge, transmitted through all kinds of media, has broadened its horizons in a world which has become increasingly smaller and interrelated, thanks to the speed of modern communication. A process of interconnection has been set in motion which, among another things, has led to a reduction of the differences between areas that are geographically poles apart, and brought out a standardization of languages, lifestyles and worldviews.
Yet in 1965, Giuseppe Dessì (1909-1977), Italian writer and keen exponent of his native Isle, wrote an essay titled Scoperta della Sardegna [Discovering Sardinia], almost as if he were talking about a terra incognita to be considered in a diachronic analysis. The whole matter which has been underway from prehistoric times right to the present day is summed up as follows: “la scoperta della Sardegna – scriveva – è sempre in atto e sempre lo sarà fino a quando sussisteranno nei suoi confronti prevenzioni e incomprensioni [the discovery of Sardinia – he writes – is still in progress, and will continue to be so until it ceases to be the subject of prejudice and misunderstandings]”.1
These misunderstandings have their roots in the foreignness of the Sardinian people as compared to the rest of the Italian population, (to whom, by the way, Sardinia was united in 1861), and also their characteristic immobility which is questioned by Dessì: “L’immobilità che si attribuisce al sardo, la sua refrattarietà lapidea altro non è che questo rifiuto di una cultura che gli rimane estranea [This immobility that we attribute to the Sardinians, this stonelike reluctance, is nothing more than a rejection of any culture that is alien to them].” To substantiate his claim, he calls on the English writer D. H. Lawrence: “Non è pigrizia, è intima, irriducibile ribellione. D. H. Lawrence lo ha detto in modo esemplare nelle pagine belle e veloci del suo Mare e Sardegna (p. 26). [It is not laziness, it is an intimate, irreducible rebellion. D. H. Lawrence said it in an exemplary and all too clear manner in the wonderful and fast-moving pages of his Sea and Sardinia.]”
Lawrence, ever critical of European civilization, arrived in Sardinia in 1921 in search of a mythical primitivity, which would be cut off from history and completely untouched. And indeed, he seems to have found this positive ideal on the Island, going on to describe it and its inhabitants in his novel Sea and Sardinia as “residuo originale di una coscienza naturale originaria che, secondo Lawrence, accomuna Sardi, Indiani del New Mexico e aborigeni australiani. [an original residue of a natural original conscience which – in his opinion – is shared by Sardinians, Indians from New Mexico, and Australian aborigines.]” 2
A few years later, the global success of Sea and Sardinia was one of the reasons he was asked to write the introduction to the English edition of The Mother by Grazia Deledda.
But – before we get to Deledda and this selfsame novel, translated into Chinese and thus the main focus of our discussion- it is well worth noting that although Giuseppe Dessì appreciated Lawrence’s work, he was not in total agreement with this interpretative viewpoint which saw Sardinia as being completely detached from history. Or, rather, Dessì had developed his own original vision, stating that Sardinia may perhaps “scivolare fuori dal tempo storico [slip out of historical time]”, or “sfuggire al tempo storico europeo [elude European historical time]”, or that Sardinians may be seen “come specie che dura immutata nei millenni [as a species that has remained unchanged for thousands of years].” However – he continues- at the same time, “attraverso la materia di cui le cose son fatte, il legno, la pietra [through the materials from which things are made, through wood and stone]” it is possible to find the link to historical eras that are crossed by that antique wooden table, which was once an olive tree “durante il dominio di Bisanzio o forse durante il giudicato di Mariano IV d’Arborea [during Byzantine rule, or perhaps at the time of Mariano IV of Arborea’s Giudicato.]”3
This is what Dessì calls “Memoria della continuità [Memory of continuity]” and he warns: “Chi vuole capire diffidi di tutto ciò che tende a rappresentare la Sardegna come una riserva folcloristica (p. 29)[Whosoever wishes to understand should beware of anything and everything that represents Sardinia as a folklore reserve.]”
This gives us an idea of the approach to be used when we are dealing with Grazia Deledda (1871-1936), who is sometimes presented as an instinctive writer who depicts, and practically provides us with a copy of reality. We shall go on to see what Lawrence has to say. But, in the meantime, I should like to start from the only piece of global evidence that exists, that is to say, from the reason why she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1926, “for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general.”4
These words tell us much about the excellence of our writer from Nuoro, but they also give us an idea of what appealed to the Members of the Stockholm Academy. In 1909, the prize had been awarded to the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, whose pages, just like Deledda’s, also offered descriptions of rustic environments and references to legends and traditional values. Furthermore, and more especially, she also shared the knowledge of how the primordial worlds of Värmland and Barbagia can become the subject of tales that go beyond the regional area and capture the attention of a far wider audience of readers.
Henrik Schück’s award ceremony speech contains many other elements of no small interest. First and foremost, the constant references to primitivity and the “biblical simplicity” which are features not only of the Deleddan literary universe, but of Sardinia tout court, to such an extent that he states: “Grazia Deledda had made a great discovery: she had discovered Sardinia.” (p. 18).
Anyone who has followed the thread of our argument will have already realized that the same discovery was made around forty years later by Giuseppe Dessì; it is therefore quite fitting to wonder just how many times in its multi-millennial history, Sardinia has been discovered by the locals and the travellers who set foot here. Each and every one of these discoveries gave rise to travel reports, stories, and novels that actually reveal far more about the person writing the description than about the place itself. It is only with a certain dose of charming ingenuity that the official speaker at the Nobel ceremony could say that “A Nuoro si viveva isolati dal resto del mondo. I pochi visitatori arrivavano in città a cavallo, le donne sedute in groppa dietro agli uomini (p. 15). [Nuoro was isolated from the rest of the world. The few visitors to the town usually arrived on horseback, with the women mounted behind the men.]” A fascinating description which comes straight out of Deledda’s pages, but not from Sardinian history, or even from Cosima, the Nuorese writer’s autobiographical novel in which the protagonist leaves her hometown at the end of the nineteenth century, on a “trenino che sembrava un giocattolo [train that seemed like a toy]”, and who certainly did not cling on romantically to her knight as they rode on horseback, but instead travelled “affacciata al famigliare ballatoio del treno [looking out from the familiar vestibule of the train]”.5
All this to say that it is not easy to talk about a writer born on a Mediterranean island, whose history is marked by events of such density, complexity and weight that they are better simplified or even ignored. In actual fact, it is these selfsame events that have moulded the Weltanschauung of the inhabitants, their manner, their costumes, their language and their peculiar identity: subjectmatter whose narrative potential was recognised by Deledda, and also by Lagerlöf as she walked the streets of Stockholm, but with the understanding that this subject matter is not enough on its own, unless one learns how to deal with it.
To appreciate just how Grazie Deledda had learnt how to deal with the narration of what lay before her eyes in the village where she was born- whose ethnological profile she had studied as a young girl- one only needs to read the enlightening incipit of her novel Reeds in the Wind (1913). It is hard to determine whether the protagonist of the opening scene is a human being, in other words, the servant Efix, who thinks as he works, or whether it is Nature made so splendid with its wealth of colours and natural aromas. True to say that the reader is presented with a landscape brimming with environmental features and signs engraved by man, which have been stratified in a sequence that stretches from prehistoric times to the present day.
“Tutto il giorno Efix, il servo delle dame Pintor, aveva lavorato a rinforzare l’argine primitivo [Efix, the Pintor sisters’ servant, had worked all day to shore up the primitive river embankment]”6 are the opening lines of the novel. Alongside the character and his social status, the adjective “primitive” immediately springs to the eye, which in a Deleddan lexicon should not be read as something negative, that is to say, as if this embankment were something roughly made outside the dictates of civilization, but rather, it is primitive because it is seen as belonging to the very origins of civilisation. Furthermore, this distant origin is preserved and remains unaltered in memory, becoming part of a chronological sequence, whose signs are carved into the landscape, and which encompass Efix while he is working on the farm or walking towards his mistresses’ house: the prehistoric village, the little church with its fence of huts, the ancient castle of all those ancient barons from long ago, the now ruined Pisan Basilica, the ancient cemetery gate, or that of the Pintor sisters with its coat of arms, the medieval kitchen, the “pozzo che pareva un nuraghe (p. 185)[well that looked like a nuraghe]”, the sombre Basilica surrounded by brambles.
The writer outlines this historical map with such precision that the reader can grasp both the idea of an eternal time and a sense of decadence, of a primal force that generated the megalithic civilisation with its embankments and nuraghi, and of its decline as time moved on, under Pisan, Hispanic, and ultimately Italian influences.
However, it is also true to say that the novel evokes another world, almost as if to counterbalance the reality of the life and work of a man who is confronted with the rationality of history. The novel evokes a magical and mystical world which comes into being when “la giornata dell’uomo lavoratore era finita [the working man’s day was done]” and “la vita fantastica dei folletti, delle fate, degli spiriti erranti (p. 173) [the fantastic life of elves, fairies, wandering spirits]” is about to start. This was the world of “i fantasmi degli antichi Baroni [che] scendevano dalle rovine del castello [the ghosts of the ancient Barons who came down from the Castle ruins]” and the fairytale characters whose names are so distinctive in the Sardinian language: the panas, the ammattadore, the dwarves “e le janas, piccole fate che durante la giornata stanno nelle loro case di roccia a tessere stoffe d’oro in telai d’oro [and the janas, the little fairies who spent all day in their little rock houses weaving gold cloth on their golden looms]”, the giants and “gli enormi cavalli verdi che essi soltanto sanno montare, spiando se laggiù fra le distese d’euforbia malefica si nascondeva qualche drago o se il leggendario serpente cananèa, vivente fin dai tempi di Cristo, strisciava sulle sabbie intorno alla palude (ibid.)[ the enormous green horses that only they could mount, squinting to see if some dragon was lurking down there within the expanse of evil euphorbia, or whether the legendary cananèa, the snake existing from the time of Christ, was slithering around on the sandy marshland].”
Therefore, in this blend of reality and fantasy, Deledda attributes the adjective primitive a semantic value all of its own. This meaning is quite unlike Lawrence’s, who does however assign the word a positive value, despite his different starting point and subsequent elaboration of other ideas. In 1928, Lawrence was asked to write the introduction to the English edition of The Mother (1920). This allowed the novel to arrive in many countries of the world accompanied by a premise that, while beginning from an appraisal, does not really offer further insight into the novel, but rather moulds it to fit the prefacer’s vision of the world: “But we can still read Grazia Deledda, with genuine interest. The reason is that, though she is not a firstclass genius, she belongs to more than just her own day. She does more than reproduce the temporary psychological condition of her period. She has a background, and she deals with something more fundamental than sophisticated feeling. 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”7.
These concepts have been the subject of lengthy debates in literary criticism, and the Sardinian people themselves have had much to say particularly about this definition of a primitive populace.
This is not the time or place to discuss issues that could be ideological and, to a certain extent, unreal, so I shall just quote Anna Dolfi in this regard when she writes: “Traspare, nel giudizio di Lawrence, la motivazione di quell’accoglimento entusiasta che la Deledda riscosse all’estero; […] un’ammirazione per una primitività istintiva, emergente dalle passioni di un’isola Barbara [ What clearly emerges, in Lawrence’s opinion, is the reason why Deledda was so greatly appreciated abroad, […] an admiration for an instinctive primitivity, arising from the passions of a Barbarian island]. ”8
As to the rest, it is up to the attentive reader (be they Chinese, Italian, English or whatsoever nationality) to try and grasp the fundamental elements that make up The Mother: those related to the structural layout of the story or to its linguistic features, or to the deliberate use of that suggestive, somewhat mysterious and disturbing specificity which is part of the novel and/or which it has been assigned by a public who are ill-versed in the historical and social events of this Mediterranean Island.
Many readers will be fascinated, and even a little unsettled, by the description of an archaic world that seems to exist, almost out of time, in its brutal social expression, in such a ferocity of living, in the strangeness of the women’s garments (with their faces covered like Arabs) and the men (with their pointed caps), or in the biblical atmosphere that seems to be explicitly exalted by the repeated quotations from the Holy Scriptures.
But our reader should also take note of the greatness of a writer who is able to give pathos to her story bycondensing the action to a limited arc of time ( the night between Friday and Saturday, all day Saturday, Sunday Mass) and offering atmosphere and stylistic features that are not so different from what Paul, the main character, had seen in the Bible which “lo aveva plasmato col suo romanticismo e il suo verismo d’altri tempi [had transformed him with its verisimilitudes and realism from other times]”9 Or again, of how an inkling of the other language of this place is blended into the Italian tongue, and then how the obsessed man constantly and repeatedly asks Christ “Che c’è fra me e te?[ What have I to do with thee?].” And this query is of course a fundamental question that not only has to do with the central vicissitude of the novel’s plot, but also with man’s fate and his place in the world.
For indeed this is what The Mother is about, over and beyond all the different sorts of primitivity scattered knowingly throughout the tale to captivate readers. We learn of the modern and forward-thinking plan of a poor, ignorant servant who worked so hard to allow her son to grow culturally and socially. Her menial toil paid for him to study at the Seminary, she followed him to the parish of Aar, and she guides him, directing his every move when he is caught up in such an awkward situation.
Superficially speaking, we could even talk of a matriarchy within a static and culturally backward society. Probing a little deeper into the matter, we might even start to wonder whether this traditional image could, for example, accommodate both the mother’s harrowing and much pondered question (“Ma perché i preti non possono sposarsi? (p. 435) [But why are priests forbidden to marry?]”) and a reflection on the past and on a rather more sophisticated contemporaneity than might have been expected in such a barbaric context: “Ma negli antichi tempi, come anche adesso i preti protestanti, i sacerdoti avevano moglie e famiglia. (p. 437)[But in olden times, just as the protestant clergy today, priests had wives and families].”
This is an important indication, flanked by a number of only apparently less significant examples, such as those mentioning reading the newspaper to learn about “le notizie del mondo lontano (p. 441)[the news from a distant world] ”, or using the coffee cups with a “paesaggio giapponese (p. 442)[Japanese scene]” that allow us to understand that this world that Deledda represents with all its archaic specificity actually belongs to the network of relations, knowledge, and exchanges of lifestyles of contemporary society, and to the corresponding cultural level.
Finally, I should briefly like to draw attention to the second female lead, who is overshadowed by the main character of the mother and by the structural framework that inevitably brings the stereotypical relationship between a priest and woman to the forefront. The fact that the problem in this case is solved by the mother’s steady hand and by her ultimate sacrifice inevitably causes the other woman to fade into the background.
However, especially in the scene when the priest unexpectedly turns up again at her house, she is far more than a mere background player, if anything, she is a character with a small part, the cameo appearance of a great actress. The priest has come here wanting to end their relationship and now, when they face each other, they are simply a man and a woman, or better, a man, who is impeded from continuing a relationship that was started all too casually, and a woman, who has no intention of being cut off like a dry branch, admittedly with a great deal of uncertainty and second thoughts: “Sono forse venuta io, nella tua casa? Sei venuto tu, nella mia, e mi hai preso come una bambina al gioco. E adesso, come devo fare? Dillo tu, come devo fare. Io non posso dimenticarti, non posso cambiarmi come ti cambi tu (p. 489)[Was I the one to come to you, to your house? You came to mine and you played with me as if I were a child’s toy. And now, what am I to do? Tell me what I must do. I can’t forget you, I can’t change as you have changed]”.
A situation which is as old as the earth itself, but which Deledda presents with the sensitive touch of a woman, putting a heartfelt repetition of the word truth in her character’s mouth, making this barely hinted at figure, a potential modern heroine.
In conclusion, this is how I believe we should consider the novel The Mother, which is so difficult to ascribe to a primitivism that means being excluded from civilisation. This modern work can be read as a forerunner of several features of the contemporary world.
Translated by Sally Davies
Giuseppe Marci is Full Professor of Italian Philology and Sardinian Literature at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Cagliari. He previously taught at the University of Sassari.
He is Director of the Centro di Studi Filologici Sardi (Centre for Sardinian Philological Studies) and editor of the series. “Sardinian authors”.
He is active in the field of literary journalism. He was the founder and editor-in-chief of the journal “Nae. Trimestrale di cultura” (2002-2008). His main area of research is the development of Italian literature in the different regions, especially focussing on Sardinia and Sicily.
He has written on eighteenth-century autobiographies (Giacomo Casanova) and on twentieth-century novels (Beppe Fenoglio, Sergio Atzeni).
He has published editions of eighteenth-century didactic authors (Domenico Simon, Giuseppe Cossu, Antonio Purqueddu, Andrea Manca dell’Arca, Pietro Leo); nineteenth-century autobiographers (Vincenzo Sulis); twentieth-century writers (Salvatore Satta), scholars (Egidio Pilia) and autobiographers (Umberto Cardia).
He has also published the book ‘In presenza di tutte le lingue del mondo. Letteratura sarda’, in which he reconstructs the development of Sardinian literature, in order to investigate the theme of the literary canon and the relation between “main” literary traditions and the literary products of marginal and peripheral areas.