Why Grazia Deledda?
Talk given in Hong Kong on 2 April 2014, with the occasion of the screening of the silent movie Cenere (1916), event that counted with the participation of Angelo Paratico, Ciriaco Offeddu and Betty Wei.
Grazia Deledda was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1926. A year before, in 1925, it went to George Bernard Shaw, a polymath and a giant of English letters. A year later, in 1927, it was awarded to the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Today, at least outside Italy, a cultivated person would know Bernard Shaw and Bergson, but not Grazia Deledda.
Is that true? It is sadly true concerning our ignorance of Deledda. But the general fame of Shaw and Bergson would have been true 50 or even 20 years ago but questionable today. It rather seems that knowledge of Bernard Shaw has been reduced to Pygmalion, which is a pity, while the influence of Henri Bergson has waned. It is likely that their former stature will no longer stand and their names will fade from the literary world shortly, superseded in our reading list by the latest best-seller.
This fleeting nature of writers’ fame should make as reconsider what we read and why, more so in a world where we are continuously lured to read this or that by marketing strategies. It is good we set our filters, we read literary reviews and we count on the advice of good friends.
What a contrast, Deledda’s fame in her own time to the indifference today. Deledda’s works were translated into several languages even in the same year of publication of the original Italian. I treasure a copy of Nostalgia, the first Spanish translation of Nostalgie, published in Barcelona in 1905, the same year the original Italian was published in Rome. The silent film Cenere (1916), based on Deledda’s novel of same title and interpreted by the great actress Eleonora Duse, is also another example of the reputation Grazia Deledda enjoyed in her own time.
But the vagaries of fame and recognition are not my topic today.
I came to know Grazia Deledda naturally, through the introduction of my friend Ciriaco Offeddu, a native of Nuoro, Sardinia, like the great Grazia Deledda. As friends who talk about life and literature over a cup of coffee or through email, I learned from Ciriaco all I needed to know, and no matter how much I have read about or by Grazia Deledda, this knowledge have not added much to the first impressions and advice I got from my friend, it has only confirmed it.
It is difficult to know Grazia Deledda and not to love Grazia Deledda. She made history by rebelling against well-entrenched traditions that held back women not just in Sardinia, but in the greater part of the European continent, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, from Russia to the Atlantic shores, except perhaps in Britain. Deledda received little education, learned the Italian language late and grew through the craft of writing by herself. And she remained a ‘conventional’ woman, a daughter, wife and mother of two children.
But Deledda’s singular life and role as a trailblazer in history will not bring us to read her works either.
We should ask what Deledda tells the reader of the 21st century, what are her intrinsic merits. What she writes about and what she speaks to us. This evening I can share with you what she speaks to me.
I have read Deledda in Spanish translation. Then I have re-read some fragments of her works in English translation and also in the original Italian, a language that I can barely read but not speak. Deledda has brought me closer to the Italian language too as I shall explain later.
I was fortunate the Spanish translations of Grazia Deledda are superb, as it is usually the case, for Spanish translators have a well deserved reputation. Besides, both languages Italian and Spanish are very close and mutually intelligible to such a large extent. I must thank the Spanish translators Jose Miguel Velloso for the translations of the complete works in the 1950s for the prestigious publisher Aguilar, and Maria Teresa Navarro Salazar for Cosima, for the equally prestigious publisher Espasa Calpe in 1983, my edition of 2007.
However, we cannot say the same of the English translations of Deledda. These were mainly done by Martha King, a North American from Texas. Although Martha King deserves credit for having held singlehandedly the Deledda flame within the English language, her translations are wrong, unnecessarily wrong some times. You only need to open a book translated by King to realize there is a problem. In Cosima, for instance, the birds Rondini, swallows, are translated as sparrows, and in a low sky, it really affects the image of a landscape that Deledda knew so well.
I am only a reader, not a scholar, and I can honestly talk about what I have read. I won’t elaborate a thesis. What I say may sound as a recommendation, yes, it is the recommendation of a friend to someone new to Deledda, necessarily subjective, and therefore you should make your own judgment.
Deledda wrote extensively and published a lot, what she thought deserved publication―she also tore apart many drafts.
I have read most of the masterpieces by Deledda, Elias Portolu, Canne al vento (Canes to the Wind), Cosima, La madre (The mother), Nostalgie (Nostalgia), Cenere (Ashes), and some short stories.
My favourite works of Deledda are:
- Cosima ― an autobiography, published posthumously.
- Elias Portolu ― a novel. Elias, returning from prison meets and falls in love with Maddalena, his brother’s fiancé. This is the story of a tragic love, doubts and indecision, the lost of a life’s opportunity for happiness.
- Canne al vento ― Canes to the Wind ― a novel on the decline of a well-to-do land-owning family, the Pintors, and the loyal servant Efix, who hides a mysterious past.
Not only because here Deledda is at her best, but also because those works would touch the sensibility of anyone anywhere, although, again, my preferences maybe dictated by very subjective considerations.
In simple words, Grazia Deledda’s books have the power to compel the reader to turn the page, and another page and another page, and to wish the book does not end, and to finish the book and close it with gratitude. This is a gift, somehow ineffable. How does she achieve that?
In a sentence, Deledda writes stories of passion and remorse with the background of Sardinian landscape and customs.
Deledda is a painter of characters, Elias, Maddalena, Efix, will stay forever with me. Deledda’s fine intelligence and sensibility, her warm humanity makes us closer to the story. She knows the human heart and is not indifferent.
She knows how to construct the story: Brisk dialogues, fluent narrative, dreams, desires, passions… She introduces us and makes us part of the story; sometime we almost feel we are holding hands with a protagonist. Colours, smells, the perfume of plants, shadows, different lights…, are all so vividly described.
Above the constructions of characters and the narrative, I am particularly fascinated with Deledda’s descriptions of the natural landscape of the Sardinian countryside. I think she is superior here, and where she reveals the sensibility and lyricism of a poet.
Sardinia is also a character, but Sardinia is not Arcadia. Stories about love –impossible love-, the meaning of the family, their breakdown, the relations masters-servants, the moral code, the law of hospitality, the folklore, the pilgrimages to the sanctuaries in the mountains, the festivals, the superstitions, the religious convictions, the legends, the popular songs and tales… all come alive in Grazia Deledda’s works.
This is the paradox or the irony, while being truly local Deledda achieves to be truly universal.
Turning to Deledda and the Italian language, emphasis in that Deledda had to learn the Italian language ―since her mother-tongue was Sardinian―is usually excessive or misleading. We are learning our own language and adopted languages and never stop growing with them, like a tree. Some people learn faster and deeper than others.
The great sinologist and humanist Simon Leys ―the author of Chinese Shadows ―writes: “A writer can draw his strength from the very resistance offered him by language: Anthony Burgess remarked that Conrad’s English went slack as it became more familiar to him―paradoxically, it was when Conrad knew English less well that he wrote it better.” Simon Leys also reminds us of Vladimir Nabokov writing in his adopted English language, reaching the pinnacle of this language.
Deledda is a master of the plain Italian language, as George Orwell was the master of plain English. And Orwell is second to none in the Parnassus of English language.
It is perhaps for this reason that Deledda is a good introduction to the Italian language. Amazed at the beauty of some paragraphs by Deledda, mainly describing the landscape, in particular the effect of sunlight and the colours, I have felt the need to read the original, how she wrote it, something I did not feel compelled to when I read Italo Calvino, Dino Buzzati or Carlo Levi, to mention some of my favourite Italian authors.
There is a final aspect I wish to highlight regarding Grazia Deledda, interesting for writers to be, like myself. Grazia Deledda is a master of writers, there is much we can learn from her. She had a compulsion to write, a determination to write. Writing is Deledda’s lifeblood, and this is compatible with being also a wife and a mother and a friend of her friends, for her epistolary activity was prolific.
She is a master of the narrative; she knows the secret: “what follows what” or “what follows next”.
There is also progression in her writing, and experimentation, without imitating any master or mentor or adhering to any school or fashion. Grazia Deledda was herself.
Drawing to a conclusion: Today we have succeeded in bringing books and writers into the conversation.
Deledda must be restored in the Western cannon together and at the same level with other great Italian writers.
Deledda is waiting for new, sympathetic and faithful translations in the English language, perhaps some of you can take up the challenge.