The First Italian Woman to Receive the Nobel Prize in Literature
by Anders Hallengren*
A Wintry Nordic Night in 1927
At 6:45 p.m., during the lunar eclipse of an exceptionally dark and frosty winter evening on December 8, 1927*, a small Italian woman arrived at Stockholm Central Station after a three-day trip by train and ferry. This was her first trip to northern Europe. From her passport, issued in Rome just two weeks before her arrival in Stockholm, we get a generic picture of the shy woman who would soon be the center of attention: Height: 1,55 m; Age: 56; Eyes: Chestnut; Hair: White; Complexion: Rosy; Date of Birth: September 27, 1871. Place of Birth: Nuoro, Sardinia.
Grazia Maria Cosima Damiana Deledda, married Madesani, was jubilantly received at the station by a committee headed by the poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Deledda was greeted with bouquets in the national colors of Sweden and Italy.
As sometimes happens, the Nobel announcement of the prize for literature surprised some people, but this amazingly popular Italian author had been among the nominees for a number of years. Her first nomination recorded by the Academy dates from 1913, when she was put forward by Italian academics. Indeed, her name had been mentioned continuously for almost two decades. Deledda had devoted readers in the Swedish Academy and among literary critics, many of whom knew Italian. She was suggested as a candidate by one of her Swedish translators, Karl August Hagberg, and repeatedly by the Swedish minister in Rome, Carl Bildt. In the early twentieth century, Deledda’s international reputation as a writer had been solidly established by novels such as Elias Portolu and Cenere (Ashes), both published in 1903.
The Private and the Public
At the time of the announcement, Deledda lived a quiet life in Rome, caring for her adult sons, the eldest named Sardus after the legendary founder of Sardinia, and her niece Grazia. When informed that she had won the Nobel Prize, the unassuming woman said simply, “Già!” (Already!) and proceeded to her office to continue her regular writing schedule. She had just finished a new novel, Annalena Bilsini (1927), which she was adapting for the theater, and was already well into her next, Il vecchio e i fanciulli (The Old and the Young), which was to be published in 1928.
At home, Deledda had a pet crow called Checcha (onomatopoetic, to be sure, but also suggestive of checché, “whatever”, and reminding of the evasive Cheshire cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). When journalists and photographers crowded the house the following day, they were astonished to find Checcha fluttering through the rooms. When the crow finally escaped the hullabaloo and flew away, Deledda asked the visitors to leave also, so that the bird would return. “If Checcha has had enough, so have I,” she reportedly said as she showed her guests to the door.
In Stockholm, the scene was not so tranquil. She was fascinated by Sweden, as is evident from her letters home and the report of her Stockholm trip that she published in Corriere della Sera. But she was also amazed at being surrounded by dignitaries, royalty, ambassadors, and ministers of state and felt almost dwarfed by everyone she met. It all seemed to her to be a scenario out of an old fairy tale, however, so she did not lose her head amid all the pomp and celebration. At the Nobel ceremony, when the literary historian Henrik Schück solemnly praised her in a long, incomprehensible speech delivered in her honor, and she breathlessly heard her name announced and knew she was supposed to rise and approach the king to receive the prize—at that moment she thought she heard Checcha cawing. Writing to her young son Franz a day after, she reminded him to feed the bird and take good care of it.
Deledda left Stockholm on December 15. Back in Italy, publicity and public attention were harder to face, as the fairy tale turned into hard reality. Benito Mussolini, who had recently come to power, wanted to profit from Deledda’s fame. The writer felt compelled to participate in an embarrassing ceremony where the mark of honor awarded to her was a portrait of Mussolini with a dedication that Il Duce proudly read aloud to the audience: “For Grazia Deledda with profound admiration from Benito Mussolini.”
In private, Grazia Deledda referred to these Fascist festivities as a farce, alien to her nature; but they appeared to her to be inescapable, the price of fame. Once, Mussolini asked her if he could do anything for her; she immediately requested the release of her friend and fellow-countryman Elia Sanna Mannironi, imprisoned for anti-Fascist activities. She also seemed to have shared sympathies with another jailed Sardinian, Antonio Gramsci, known for his Prison Notebooks. But the worst embarrassment to her—and to the Swedish Academy as well—was the rumors abroad that suggested that her prize was an act of political ingratiation, arranged by Italian diplomats. This, despite the fact that her name had been in nomination even before the Fascist Party was founded in 1915, as has been noted.
A Life in Books
Grazia Deledda was to live for another ten years after receiving the Nobel Prize, years marked by a painful and slowly spreading breast cancer—the incurable malady of her protagonist Maria Concezione in the fine novel La chiesa della solitudine (The Church of Solitude). The novel was her last, published in the year of her death. Deledda died on August 15, 1936.
Despite her disease, Deledda kept to her schedule, beginning the day with a late breakfast, hours of reading, rest after lunch, and then writing for two or three hours in the afternoon, seven days a week, year after year. She produced four handwritten pages each day. Her writing was her life. She was a quiet and reserved woman, who did not speak much. She enjoyed friendly, intimate talk and traditional feasts and celebrations, but not political debates, serious discussions, parties, or society. Yet, in her quiet way, she was gathering the material for her books, listening and observing intently, just as she had done since her childhood. The outcome was over thirty novels and some four hundred short stories, most of them collected in nineteen books. She also wrote many articles, some plays, an opera libretto, and poems.
Even after her death, she seemed to continue to produce books. In a drawer there was found the carefully stored manuscript of the novel Cosima, written in ink on light-blue paper. The book was published posthumously. Its eponymous heroine was named after the author herself, whose middle name was Cosima, and the autobiographical tale tells of Deledda’s life until her first trip by train, to the capital Cagliari in southern Sardinia on October 21, 1899. That journey resulted in her marriage in January 1900 to Palmiro Madesani, a state official, and a new life in Rome. Cosima recalls the first half of Deledda’s life, the Sardinian world that is the soul of her writings. It also explains how she became an author.
Sardinia, a Land Apart
Sardinian villages have been isolated from one another through the centuries. This is particularly true of the town of Nuoro, standing on high ground at the foot of Monte Ortobene, and the surrounding Barbargia area in the mountainous and once thickly wooded center of the island, with a rich and peculiar fauna. Sardinia has a language of its own, Sardo, with many dialects. And, within the Sardinian dialects, the Nuoro dialect is special.
Photo: Anders Hallengren
Thus, Grazia Deledda’s mother tongue was not standard Italian but logudorese sardo, an Italian dialect that can be regarded as another Roman language. Deledda grew up with Sardinian legends and folklore and native customs that preserved cultural traits and themes from ancient times. For cultural even more than historical reasons, Deledda called her dear Nuoro “a bronze-age village.” Its geographic location also explains another peculiar fact: the island girl Grazia Deledda never saw the sea during her childhood years.
Deledda was born on the first anniversary of the unification of Italy, and going to school and learning to read and write thus meant learning a “foreign” language, the language of a distant Italy, a language much different from the spoken idiom of her native Sardinia. Yet, despite her limited schooling in this tongue, it was to be the language in which she produced all of her written works. She became, as it were, a writer in a foreign language, una paràula furistera, as it is said in Logudorese—or, in Italian, parola straniera.
Deledda’s achievement is even more remarkable because her official education lasted only four years and was on the level of primary school. This education was considered appropriate for girls at that time. The odds against such a writer’s becoming a Nobel laureate are high. But, again, the posthumous autobiographical novel Cosima provides another explanation: the writer’s very nature. For Cosima, Deledda observed, poems and short stories were written come constretavi da una forza sotteranea (as if forced by an unearthly power).
Indeed, Deledda’s (and Cosima’s) childhood circumstances were fortunate and favorable for the development of her genius. Her family home in Nuoro, facing the majestic mountain and overlooking a vast valley, was located along the pathway of many travelers, who often stayed over at the house. Her home, dominated by a large kitchen with a smoking focolare in the middle, was a center of storytelling and various encounters with fate, crime, tragedy, and romance. A well-behaved and quiet girl among more troublesome brothers and sisters, Grazia was often ignored by her busy mother Francesca, and was left to her own devices. The young girl kept close to her father and took pleasure in listening to and observing his many guests. Her dear, blue-eyed babbo (father), the landowner and miller Giovanni Antonio Deledda, was himself a book lover and a poet, who once founded a printing office to publish a small newspaper and his own poems.
||The Deledda home in Nuoro where Grazia lived until her 29th year. Under various disguises, the house figures in many of Deledda’s novels and short stories.
Photo: Anders Hallengren
Her maternal uncle, the canon Sebastiano Cambosu, was a learned clergyman who could converse in Latin with foreigners. Cambosu observed the bright child’s fascination with the magic of words and tutored her, teaching her to read and write a little before she began first grade.
When her formal schooling began, Deledda’s favorite place on the way to the old convent school was Signor Carlino’s libreria at Bia Maiore (today Corso Garibaldi), with its cose magiche (magic things)—notebooks, pens, and ink—which could tradurre in segni la parola (translate the word into signs); and even more than an individual word, these magic instruments could set down whole thoughts, ideas, and stories. At school, where she was permitted to skip first grade and was still at the top of her class, Deledda was bewitched by the blackboard with its white signs, which appeared to her as a window opening out onto the image of a starlit night.
Deledda’s family nurtured a love of nature as well as a love of literature and storytelling. Her maternal grandfather Andrea Cambosu lived in his late years like a hermit, conversing with nature and surrounded by his faithful animals. His children—her own mother and her teacher Don Sebastiano—were distracted dreamers, as Deledda observed in retrospect; and when they spoke, they used words “with the cutting edge of truth.” There was a sort of Franciscan piety in the environment, present in naming customs as well as in the church. After a dream about her grandfather, Grazia noted that his life was full of Franciscan virtue, a warm affection that was reciprocated by the animals.
Deledda thought that the best Christmas gift she ever got was a moufflon, the shorthaired grayish-brown or russet wild sheep native to Sardinia and Corsica. It was brought to her by her compare (godfather) Francesco Satta from Olzai. At her birth, Satta was said to have cast her horoscope before the parents, promising an artistic or literary career. A peculiar future for a girl, and somewhat unexpected among farmers, herdsmen, and hunters in the Barbagian wilderness. This might be an important piece of information, whether exactly true or not. Daydreams of that kind may have been common among these rural people, since the family names of the three persons present at that moment in the fall of 1871—Deledda (father), Cambosu (mother), Satta (godfather)—were all to become prominent names in the history of Sardinian literature (Paola Pittalis, Storia della Letteratura en Sardegna, Cagliari: Edizioni della Torre, 1998). Her descendants—like the famous authors Sebastiano Satta (1867-1914) and Salvatore Cambosu (1895-1962), as well as the Nobel Laureate herself – realized their dreams. That may be the fulfilment of prophecy.
Early Joys, Early Sorrows
But like the lives of most peasants, Grazia’s life also had its hardships. In her childhood, bandits flourished in the Barbagia region, homeless outlaws and vagabonds. The stories of their adventures, crimes, and misfortunes filled the minds of the children with excitement and inspired courage. Cosima “felt the instinct of Amazons,” Grazia wrote of her alter ego. But there was also terror.
She was nine when she received the moufflon. It was the hardest winter in living memory. Francesco Satta appeared with the moufflon in his arms. He had been robbed by bandits, who had taken his horse and his winter clothes, the mastruca, his sheepskin coat. But he was elated. He was frostbitten, but he lived. And he had got back the wild moufflon, which had run away when he was attacked.
That winter the snow buried mountains and towns. In one night, it rose more than a meter around the Deledda house. Many people in the neighborhood starved or froze to death in the terrible spell of cold, and the spell of human suffering Grazia took to her heart that winter never left her. Families flocked together by the fireplaces in the kitchen; death took its toll in the Deledda home, too. Her little sister Giovanna, three years younger than herself, was found dead one day in her bed. Grazia always remembered her as the most beautiful of her sisters. That winter the church bells often chimed in the winds. There is no reason to doubt that Grazia’s dear Christmas gift was consumed out of necessity. That winter changed everything.
Grazia also observed the complex rituals of marriage in the bright season, the days of paralimpos processions carrying gifts to the new home, including the mattress that would witness the birth of the couple’s children and their own deaths, and the embroidered inghirialetto, the sacred bedspread of fertility and happiness. And she observed the food offerings placed at the doorways of many houses at Christmas, sacrifices signaling the loss of dear ones. Love and death were intertwined in the human fabric.
Her paternal grandfather, Santus Deledda was called su santain, “the saint-maker,” because he was famous for his wooden statues of saints, displayed at the religious festivals in Nuoro. In this Catholic context, the ancient gods of Sardinia were still present. Among them was Molk, who demanded burnt offerings and who came to people’s minds when forest fires raged at Monte Ortobene. Death and sacrifice thus in a complex way became symbolized by ashes, cenere.
The mountain was enchanted. The most exciting moments of Grazia’s childhood days were the horseback rides through the tancas (enclosures) of valleys and ridges with her older brother Andrea (born in 1866). He brought her uphill to Domus de janas, the Tomb of the Giant, the strange rock coffin covered with moss, solemn in the vast solitude of a place alive with ancient legends. She identified with the fairies, the little women of the mountain caves, who for thousands of years had been weaving nets on their golden looms to imprison hawks, winds, clouds, and dreams. And she heard the trees speak in the wind, murmuring “Why?” Wind songs in the distance transported her vague sadness on the wings of their choir.
Photo: Anders Hallengren
The heights were also the site of joyous occasions, like the novena (nine days prayers) at the little cliff church called Madonna del Monte, where her uncle Ignazio served as the parish priest. Festivals like the Feast of the Redeemer went on for several days, with the congregation spending nights in small houses around the church. It was a meeting place for the young. Since the middle ages, churches have served as social centers and have been the starting point of romances: the place where young men and women from the villages saw each other and where erotic attractions were born. To the teenager, nature turned into an enchanted poem of love and adventure.
The summit and turning point of her teens was her climbing Monte Bardia on a long ride eastward from Oliena to Dorgali. The mountains and the stories of its shepherds had delighted her from her earliest days. Finally, one day on her own she climbed the peak and saw the Mediterranean for the first time. She felt humble but experienced an awakening. The sea came to her as a singular revelation and opened up new vistas to her life. From a boulder overlooking the sea, the Mediterranean looked like a shining sword that had sliced her island from the continent in a distant past. A dream of Rome and of becoming a writer rose in her mind from the depths of her soul. In her own words, she then plunged headlong “into a sea of visions.”
Teenage Love Stories
In 1887, the young writer completed her first short story, “Sangue sardo” (Sardinian Blood) and secretly mailed it to a fashion magazine in Rome, the Ultima Moda, which published short pieces of fiction. “Sangue sardo” was a story about a girl like Grazia, involved in a love triangle and its jealousies. Set by the sea, the story ends in murder when the protagonist Ela pushes her sister’s lover from the cliffs. Being a published writer of love stories at seventeen, Deledda found more infamy than fame in her village. Suspicion and rumors followed her. Her mother was attacked for being an irresponsible parent; village women burned a magazine and shouted their reproaches. To deflect the shock and anger engendered by her fiction, Deledda began publishing under pseudonyms such as G. Razia or even the biblical Ilia di Sant’Ismael when she was published in the local magazines. But the stories now followed with an irresistible force: “Remigia Helder” (1888), the collection Nell’azzurro (1890), and her first novels: Memorie di Fernanda (1888), Stella d’oriente (1890), Amore regale (1891), Amori fatali (1892), Fior di Sardegna (1892).
|Grazia Deledda (ca. 1890). Photo taken by a local photographer in Nouro at the beginning of her career as a novelist. Epaminonda Provaglio, her publisher in Rome, ordered this portrait.|
With Fior di Sardegna (The Flower of Sardinia), Deledda became famous; but in Nuoro, not even Signor Carlino’s bookstore, the magic place of her childhood, accepted her volumes. She identified with her protagonists who were created from real life, from people she either knew or had heard of. Local people, however, continued to identify these secret lovers on nightly errands — like the yearning Lara in Fior di Sardegna — with the author. And there was some truth to this. As she later revealed as the secret of her writings, all the agonies of her characters were her own suffering, her own pain, and her own tears. And these streaks of blackness were constantly widening.
As became more and more evident, Deledda’s aim in her art was to picture the life, the sentiments, and the thoughts of her culture on a broader scale, and to set in writing the stories of her island. In the following years, when she was in her early twenties, she collected folklore as a scholar, partly in collaboration with Angelo de Gubernatis and the Rivista delle Tradizioni popolari Italiane in a research project that resulted in publications such as Tradizioni popolari di Nuoro (1895). Fictional outcomes of this period of studies were the anecdotal and ironic Anime oneste, “Honest Souls” (1894), and the serious and socially penetrating La via del male “The way of Evil” (1896).
From this point on, all Deledda was to write developed into an inquiry into moral conflicts, human suffering, and the problem of will and destiny. Identification turned out to be an act of empathy.
Indeed, Deledda did not have to look far for her models of love and tragedy; her own family provided ample material for her themes of human suffering. Her sister Enza (Vincenza, b. 1868) had a secret love, a disgrace to the family until a wedding was finally arranged. But one day, Enza was found dead in her bed, lying in a pool of blood. She had died during a miscarriage. Grazia took care of her sister’s body, closing her eyes, cleaning the bed, and washing her limbs, shrouding her carefully as a bride in white. She perfumed Enza and arranged her beautiful chestnut hair on the wedding bed. After that day spent in solitude with her sister’s body, sorrow followed Deledda like an inescapable terror.
Her brother Andrea, once a promising student, proved to be the family black sheep. He stole money from his father to visit prostitutes in San Pietro, the poorest part of the little town. He fathered an illegitimate child with a neighbor girl, and he committed new thefts. He swore to hang himself in prison if he was arrested one more time, but he was imprisoned again and did not keep his word. When their father died in 1892, Andrea wasted the family money. So, even into their own house “came deceitful, poisonous and perhaps unavoidable evil,” as happens also in Cosima.
Another brother, Santus (b. 1864), was the opposite of Andrea, but he too, would come to a bad end. Santus did not drink or chase girls, but was studious and inventive. One of his triumphs was a hot-air balloon of silk paper with a load of burning charcoal. It rose from the garden and flew above the town, drawing much attention before it disappeared among the mountains. Several days later, the family learned that it had come down on a mountain ledge; terrified goat herders fell down on their knees in prayers, believing it was the Holy Ghost descending.
Santus’ experiments with fireworks were partly successful too, until the inventor was severely burned in an accident. Suffering from the pain of his extended injuries and disheartened by his various failures, Santus started drinking. Grazia remembered him as fine and vulnerable, but “he cracked like a crystal cup or as a porcelain vase cracks by a blow.” Finally, one night, after his last attempts to continue his studies in Cagliari, he knocked at the door of the family home in Nuoro “like a dead man going down the street knocking on doors to warn the living that hell is near.”
Santus’ delirium led his mother to believe that he was possessed by an evil spirit. Soon she herself sank deeper and deeper into melancholy and depression. Grazia took over the responsibility of the Deledda business, the local olive oil press and the bookkeeping.
Life is a River
Faced by the problems of her brothers and the unhappiness of her whole family, Deledda became fatalistic. She more and more saw life as a river, changing character as it passed on its way, from the upper reaches to the lower. La vita segue il suo corso fluviale, “Life follows the course of its flow”: calm periods alternate with turbid ones. In vain we try to raise dams or even to lay ourselves across the current to stop its flow. We are powerless against outward and inward forces, sometimes making things even worse by fighting against them. These forces of evil and misery, haunting human existence, are incomprehensible, whether we look at them as chance, fate, or divine providence. This is the tragic mystery of being. Forze occulte, fatali, spingono l’uomo al bene o al male; la natura stessa, che sembra perfetta, è sconvolta dalle violenze di una sorte ineluttabile; “occult and fatal forces drive us to good or evil; even nature herself, which appears to us perfect, is violently turned upside-down by an inevitable destiny.”
Despite this fatalism, a main theme of Deledda’s novels is moral conflicts, transgressions, and private revolts, the battle of free will against fate. This is the case with the love theme of Amori fatali (1892), the unforgettable novel La via del male, and the precarious dilemmas of La giustizia (1899) and Le tentazioni (1899). The mysterious driving forces of our souls compel us to act, so that transgression becomes an almost involuntary act. Our will may be free, but we cannot command our will; we cannot even decide what we want. Thus we are not masters of our lives but are as canne al vento, “reeds in the wind.” Even the natural gifts of the artist are not matters of personal pride, since they are bestowed by grace and a sometimes cruel taskmaster, a lifelong mission propelled “by an unearthly power.” The dilemma—and tragedy—is that, despite this buffeting of incomprehensible fate, we remain responsible for our acts.
The Lot of Elias
As if happy to escape, Deledda married an istranzu (stranger) and left her island for Rome. Yet the island belief kie venit dae su mare, that all strange things “come from across the sea,” never left her. Her best novels on Sardinian life were written after her departure. During this intense period of new love and conflict on leaving her family home, Deledda wrote the nostalgic and mythic story of the goatherd of Monte Ortobene, Il vecchio della montagna. She also began writing Elias Portolu, a novel partly named after another shepherd in their neighborhood, Elias Porcu. On a superficial level, the theme of Elias Portolu is reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, a novel twice referred to in the autobiographical Cosima and obviously one of Deledda’s favorites. But the models for the character were drawn from life, not from literature, as was the whole milieu of the plot — shepherds, local rites and customs, the old wise man of the mountain whose advice should have been followed, the church at the rock, animals used as metaphors of human traits, and the stern presence of Catholicism. She told the story of her brother Andrea, returning from jail, the father of an illegitimate child. She had many other relatives in mind when she wrote this masterpiece of tragic love, among them her skeptical uncle Don Ignazio, known to be a clergyman, weak in faith and fond of worldly things. These complex characters are actors in a drama of strong moral force, fighting against their yearnings and their fates.
The convict Elias Portolu returns to Nuoro determined to reform his life but destined to fail. He cannot destroy his secret love for his brother’s wife Maddalena, which ends in adultery and the birth of a child, which is believed to be his brother’s son. Elias decides to become a priest to atone for his sin and to live a better life. He remains tormented by his love for Maddalena and their son, who are badly treated by his drunken and violent brother. But when the brother dies, Elias’s conscience prevents him from joining his true family. At last, at the early death of his son, Elias receives salvation.
The novel was finished in the summer of 1900, when Grazia Deledda Madesani had settled down in Rome after the honeymoon and was pregnant. She experienced immense happiness after giving birth to her son Sardus, and then to Franz (b. 1904); yet, in the midst of this wonderful period, she wrote Dopo il divorzio, “After the Divorce,” (1902) and began to produce the long progression of serious novels that form the summit of her life as a writer. These works seethe with pity and compassion for her protagonists, drawn from life: Cenere (1903), Nostalgie (1905), L’ombra del passato (1907), L’edera (1908), Sino al confine (1910), Nel deserto (1911), Colombi e sparvieri (1912), Canne al vento (1913), Le colpe altrui (1914), Marianna Sirca (1915), L’incendio nell’oliveto (1918), La madre (1920) Il segreto dell’uomo solitario (1921).
The themes of all these works are related, and the stories, seen as a whole, intertwine and focus on moral dilemmas, passions, and human weakness. The uncontrollable forces of life and the human condition check freedom of the will, and in this tangle, the author investigates the anatomy of human tragedy. As in Elias Portolu, good intentions often result in bad decisions, and conscience proves to be a disastrous inhibitor. It seems that the only action worse than submitting to fate is opposing fate, when things get even worse. A war rages between nature and culture, and individuals are victims.
“To Be Reduced to Ashes”
Cenere (Ashes), her most disturbing study of human tragedy, tells of a poor “fallen” woman, who, making a grievous moral sacrifice, leaves her illegitimate child with foster parents to give him a better chance in life. Wishing him all happiness in the world, far from her own misery and sinfulness, she gives her little child a sacred rezetta amulet and leaves. However, her son searches and longs for his mother all his life. The amulet, serving as a unifying symbol of the plot, identifies the son when he finally finds his old and ailing mother, abandoning his prospects and ending his engagement to a young woman, only to drive his mother to suicide with his reproaches. This novel, certainly Deledda’s strongest, captivated readers throughout Europe and was adapted for the screen. Cenere (1916) was directed by Febo Mari and filmed on location in Sardinia. The movie has a special significance, due to Eleonora Duse’s (1858-1924) strangely empathetic interpretation of the mother. Duse came out of retirement to make her one and only appearance in a film. In this unique classic in the history of the silent movie, Duse creates the role of the mother who left her son in order to shield him, a sacrifice the actress had in fact once made herself.
The Ambrosio Film Co., Turin, 1916
Deledda’s recurrent image of corruptibility is also found in “While the East Wind Blows,” the short story published on this web site, in which the peasants harbor the futile dream of not being reduced to ashes, non essere ridotti in cenere. Taking place on Christmas Eve, the story depicts the eternal triangle of love, birth, and death.
“We Are Like Reeds in the Wind”
Although the futility of human striving was a constant theme in Deledda‘s work, there are also images of something deeply rooted that survives through the ages. The fascinating novel Canne al vento (Reeds in the Wind), is framed by the mythic and elemental beings of Sardinian fairyland and set on the eastern coast of Sardinia. The novel depicts this deeply seated constancy from the beginning to the end. With its biblical reference—”But what went ye out in the wilderness to see?” Jesus asked the multitudes assembled. “A reed shaken with the wind?” (Matthew 11:7)—Deledda answers Jesus’ question in the negative.
In Canne al vento, the Pintor sisters live out their isolated lives decade after decade in the house in Galte (Galtelli), where old secrets torment the characters until death. They enact an archetypal drama. The wise old Efie, repenting for ancient sins, is an image of humanity and represents continuity. The undercurrent of Deledda’s novels is a deep faith in humanity and in the truth of the human heart. This book, as with most of her novels, implicitly criticizes moral norms and social values, but does not criticize the people who are caught up in their web.
|The house of the isolated Pintor sisters in the novel Reeds in the Wind. From the balcony, they viewed the world passing by. The novel was written here when the author stayed as a guest.
Photo: Anders Hallengren
Once more addressing the theme of suffering mothers in her popular novel La madre (1920), tragedy and sorrow are the natural outcomes of love. The moral ambiguity of the theme in La madre is indicated by the name of the strong and well-meaning hero, Maria Maddalena. In a remarkable study, Maria Giovanna Piano showed the mother’s variety of conflicting aspects (Onora la madre: Autorità femminile nella narrativa di Grazia Deledda, Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier, 1998). This is not a homage to motherhood but first and foremost an appeal to mercy, forgiveness, and understanding. The mother is a flawed human being who cannot handle the secret fact that her son is both a catholic priest and a sensual lover. Bigotry and social norms are attacked, but not the transgressors, who suffer from their instincts. Having attained her goal to immortalize the society she came from, Grazia Deledda ended up as one of its severest critics.
Influences and Rebuffs
Italian writers of Deledda’s generation wrote in the vast shadow of the impressive Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), a critical giant, admired by the public and adored by the intelligentsia. D’Annunzio was idolized by Grazia’s brother Andrea and his fellow-students. However, despite D’Annunzio’s reputation, he was not an important influence on Deledda. Grazia obviously read him and may have been attracted by his mythical interpretation of reality and personal identity, but she never admired him. Rather, she listened to folktales and folksongs, preferring the local stornelli ballads of troubled women to all the writings of D’Annunzio or classics like Dante.
A more profound literary impact blew on the winds of another island, Sicily. There she found a neighboring literature that was down-to-earth, represented by naturalists such as Luigi Capauna (1839-1915) and Giovanni Verga (1840-1922). These writers minutely observed local reality and carefully set their characters and their actions into a social context. Grazia wanted to be a Sardinian counterpart. Capuana aimed at producing fiction that was absolutely true to reality. Verga’s objective was to demonstrate human events in a somewhat scientific manner, describing common people. Verga’s protagonists were victims of their circumstances, objectively described. Capuana himself was to praise Grazia Deledda for the social realism of her novel La via del male.
When she received the Nobel Prize thirty years afterwards, Deledda mentioned Verga as a worthier winner than herself. She was to draw much from contemporary currents of verismo, which curbed the romantic and intimate traits of her early stories, forever keeping a deep sense of compassion and empathy, however, quite contrary to the programmatic objectivity of naturalists and realists. Nevertheless, these writers inspired her to create a genuine Sardinian literature on her own and become the Italian voice of her island.
Other significant influences on Deledda’s development were some of the giants of Italian literature: Nestor Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), who developed the novel into a modern epic art; Ogo Tarchetti (1839-1869) who opposed classic themes and ideals of beauty and focused on decay and horror in his environments; and Antonio Fogazarro (1842-1911) whose deep concern was psychology, dreams and mysteries, culminating in the passionate Il misterio del poeta (1888).
And then there is a Sicilian of an even more problematic identity-seeking nature: Luigi Pirandello, who—perhaps unintentionally—delivered a killing blow against his Italian compatriot Deledda. The author of the dramatic masterpiece Sei personaggi in cerca d’Autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author), had written a satirical novel entitled Suo marito, (Her Husband, 1911), which depicted the ridiculous private life of a famous woman author named Silvia Roncella and her easygoing husband-manager. It was a roman à clef, or at least written in such a way that the contemporary audience immediately identified the Roman couple as Palmiro Madesani and his wife Grazia Deledda. Indeed, she recognized herself and was shocked at intimate details, which indicated that a common acquaintance (even more insidiously, her husband) must have been a source of information. The serious and retiring woman author, depicted as indifferent and socially awkward, never quite recovered from having figured in such drollery and isolated herself in her home. This scandal haunted both Deledda and Pirandello for the rest of their lives, both dying in 1936. One of the last manuscripts Pirandello put his hand to was a thoroughly revised version of that satire, edited for posterity, giving it a more positive note and a new title: Giustino Roncella Nato Boggiòlo (1941).
“All Roads Lead to the Human Heart”
The shy and reclusive Deledda let her writing speak for herself. She rarely spoke in public or delivered a speech. At public appearances and receptions, the honored author was taciturn. Even at the Nobel Ceremony in Stockholm, her acceptance speech, delivered at the Grand Hôtel banquet, was one of the shortest ever. She began by excusing herself, saying that she did not know how to make a speech, and then uttered a few lines of saluté! and thanks.
In a short radio recording from her later years in Rome, the author reads a few sentences about herself — about her origins, her family, and about their literary interests. In these preserved seconds of sound, we hear her soft voice and the warmth of her humanity, the presence of the calm and humane narrator of her Sardinian stories.
“I was born in Sardinia. My family consisted of wise as well as violent people, and primitive artists. The family was respected and of good standing, and had a private library. But when I started writing at thirteen, they objected. As the philosopher says: If your son is writing poems, send him to the mountain paths; the next time you may punish him; but the third time, leave him alone, because then he is a poet.”
(Translation by Anders Hallengren of the radio recording from the Swedish Academy archives.)
Archbishop Nathan Söderblom‘s address at the Nobel banquet delighted the retiring author in a particular way, because he addressed her in Italian, and she could not forget his words: “In your literary work, all roads lead to the human heart…You have seen the road sign.” Spokeswoman and critic of her society, she had produced a lifework of sympathy and fellow-feeling, of compassion, from her heart saying the Lord’s Prayer with all her countrymen: Su Babbo Nostru…Nois damos perdonu, a sos nemigos nostros bois sos peccados nostros, perdonade … Forgive us our trespasses.
When Deledda died in 1936, she was shrouded in the maroon velvet dress she had worn during the Nobel festivities in Stockholm ten years earlier. In a quiet spot at the foot of Monte Ortobene, close to her home in Nuoro, a memorial church was built, named after her book La chiesa della solitudine. There, under the shadow of the trees she passed on her excursions uphill is the lonely Tomba Deleddiana. Her final resting place, as it were, is a novel.
Photo: Anders Hallengren
Anders Hallengren is an associate professor and a research fellow in the Dept. of History of Literature and the History of Ideas at Stockholm University. He served as consulting editor for literature at Nobelprize.org. He has been a visiting fellow in the Dept. of History, Harvard University, and a visiting professor in the Dept. of Philosophy, University of Hawaii at Manoa. Dr. Hallengren is the author of many books, including Campagna per la felicità: l’avventura caprese e napoletana di Anne Charlotte Leffler, duchessa di Caianello (2001), and Petrarca i Provence (2002).
First published 2 September 2002