Sardinian History & Grazia Deledda
We can discuss about the aim, the goal of literature, whether it is ‘the truth’ or ‘beauty’. And we can compare Verismo with Decadentismo. And then we can try to put Grazia Deledda into one of these categories, or in between the two, as many literary critics have done. But every attempt results in a limited comprehension, often in a wonted imperfection. The traditional schemes of Italian literary academic critics, in fact, followed a general framework in explaining Grazia Deledda’s work, as if it concerned a ‘biblical-Homeric-patriarchal’ world. According to this model, Grazia Deledda confined herself to tell that world of immobility and fatalism, doing so accurately, faithfully. She did not use the standard rules of Verismo, be careful, but somehow went beyond it, sliding over to the borders of Decadentismo, where aesthetics makes sense.
This is an ideology more than literary criticism.
The model of Verismo didn’t fit with the triumphalism and the myth of the unity of Italy, in fact, because it brought to light and showed all the unresolved questions of this process, starting from the questione meridionale, the southern question. Verismo was dangerous, sensitive, and had to be addressed and limited. By definition, or rather by the official Italian definition, it was about the poor conditions of the people still untouched by the greatness of Italian politics, still waiting for an Italian rinascita, renaissance (by the way, always dreamt of and never reached). It had not to deal with the effects of colonialism, the guerra fratricida, the fratricidal war in our own country, the spoliation of entire regions, first of all Sardinia, and the wound of the abnormal emigration.
Only now, one hundred and fifty years after the unification, it is possible to read in-depth but still shy analyses about that process—which is definitely different from the ad hoc-created legend—and about the fratricidal war that was never a fight against briganti, brigands or bandits.
Garibaldi too, the poor and deceived dreamer, one of Italy’s ‘fathers of fatherland’, the hero of the two worlds so brilliantly betrayed by the Savoy, soon became aware of what was happening in the annexed regions. In the newborn Italian Parliament, he strongly opposed the fratricidal war that the Piedmontese promoted against the southern populations. For the record he was immediately silenced by Cavour and driven out of the hall.
Whatever. According to the institutional critics, Grazia Deledda’s work is Verista on one condition: that it concerns a ‘biblical-Homeric-patriarchal’ world, as I said. An immobile world, granitic like a nuraghe, coming from a very distant past, merely biblical. Oh, surely, the modern critics avoid speaking about a primitive or a delinquent populace—Alfredo Niceforo’s theories are not politically correct any longer—but the profound sense of their speeches is the same: Sardinians were and are a strange people, not of the times, who stubbornly retain some features of their ancestors. That’s all.
As I said in the Introduction, if Sardinian history doesn’t exist, colonialism doesn’t exist either, and we can jump easily from the remote past to the second half of the nineteenth century and the unification of Italy in 1861, forgetting any relevant centuries that are the humus of our present identity.
So, this smart intellectual operation tends to erase two hundred years of colonialism, and its fatal effects. And Grazia Deledda isn’t considered but as a notary of the situation, a diligent scribe, and a good clerk. When her pages show something more, well, it is time to speak of Decadentismo, her own Decadentismo, of course.
On the contrary, Grazia Deledda, this incredible woman who came from the middle of nowhere and was awarded a Nobel Prize, not by chance, is a modern author who stands the test of time just because she was a real writer, a great artist and not a scribe. As such, she owned the spark, the benediction of art and so the sensibility necessary to understand and reach into every corner of people’s private lives as well of the social life of a country.
She was the first artist who spoke of identity, the identity of a forgotten populace. She preserved the relics of a millenarian culture and described the results of the Sardinian culture slaughtered by colonialism.
What is Grazia Deledda’s work about? The answer is simple: Grazia Deledda’s work is about Sardinia’s remnant identity, both the best and the worst of what Sardinians could save after two hundred years of strict, greedy and merciless colonialism by the Piedmontese. So, it isn’t strange that only a distant committee, a Scandinavian board, could understood her message and the complex painting Grazia Deledda was able to draw, digging and reassembling small but important elements. In the same way it isn’t strange that it was Professor Max Leopold Wagner, born in Monaco of Bevier in 1880, who was the most eminent authority on the Sardinian language. Wagner came to Sardinia for the first time in 1905, in order to carry out his studies in direct contact with the island’s reality. His trips lasted for fifty years. Thanks to Leopold Wagner, the Sardinian language, Sa limba, was recognised as a distinct language, different from Italian and other Romance languages. His legacy encompasses hundreds of books, most of them dedicated to Sardinia, its culture and language—phonetics, morphology, word formation and a lexicon. His masterpiece is the Etymological Sardinian Dictionary, for which he received honorary citizenships of Cagliari, Sassari and Nuoro.
Sardinian culture and language didn’t exist for the Piedmontese, and Grazia Deledda’s work was only an ethnic abnormality. Using this key, it is easy to understand her widespread critics who wanted to convey convergent messages underlining particular aspects: she was an autodidact (= she was not able to understand history and politics); she wrote her best novels in Rome (= she dissociated herself from Sardinia and Nuoro); she is in between Verismo and Decadentismo (= she was a good clerk who could not attain the peaks of either of these two schools, staying in a kind of literary limbo); she described a ‘biblical-Homeric-patriarchal’ world (= Sardinians are not capable of improving, and Grazia Deledda too suffers this limitation); just as Manzoni invented the Italian novel, she followed that model to write a ‘regional’ novel (= she is as politically correct as Manzoni is, even though not as innovative); etc.
Poor Grazia Deledda! She was the first victim of the twentieth century Italian way of considering literature and, more generally, art, of which the aim, the end wasn’t either ‘the truth’ or ‘beauty’, but the ‘politically correct’ and ‘the embedded’.
And it is not by chance that only now, once the ideologies have fallen, can we re-evaluate Grazia Deledda’s work and greatness.
Let’s give it some more time and then we can speak about colonialism, fratricidal wars, etc. and from the debris of the past mistakes we will recreate a new Italy, the one we need and dream of, one that is just and fair, honest, true.