‘Oh, it is just such a classic!’. A phrase we commonly hear about books, songs and movies. It is hard to truly express what a ‘classic’ is: is it something that is taught in school? Is it based on how it sells? Should it be in a history book? How far back in time are we going? In this brief lesson of Italian Classics 101, I will delve into the realm of classics of the 20th century. Books that have shaped Italian literature, culture, and thought all at the same time, and during a time in which there was a huge amount of change worldwide. The 20th century made its mark in every country, and we can see reflected in the pages of these books the events that transformed Italy forever.
Luigi Pirandello, il fu Mattia Pascal (The Late Mattia Pascal), 1904
il fu Mattia Pascal displays all aspects of Italian society, good and bad. Pirandello’s book is filled with existential change, loss of certainty, not agreeing with the roles and rules imposed by society, the search for one’s own identity, one’s own happiness, and above all freedom. Between the lines of this novel we find a deep and meaningful message. And what is this? The author makes us understand that from a certain perspective it is impossible to escape the rules of society, because we risk losing that unappreciated freedom. We risk becoming nobody, a physical presence in this world, but nothing else.
Italo Svevo, La coscienza di zeno (Zeno’s Conscience), 1923
The shining quality of this book is the way it is told, as some sort of first-person psychoanalysis, through the memories and feelings of the main character who battles through life one daily challenge after the other. It is truly fascinating to see the way the author accurately describes the true emotions the character is feeling. His worries, his regrets and guilt. La Coscienza di Zeno, despite being set in the last century, has a fairly modern plot. He talks about feelings and the inability to grow up and mature. It is easy to relate to this, especially as university students, learning how to live in the real world.
Primo Levi, Se questo é un uomo (If this is a man), 1947
This moving account of the horrors of the Holocaust from the perspective of an Italian man depicts the extent of Nazi persecution. He tells the story matter-of-factly, without it being obstructed by feelings, giving the reader the sense that they can trust the narrator and can really confront the daily life of a prisoner in Auschwitz. It is an insightful look into how low humans can stoop and the consequences that this can have on the rest of the world, as well as being a chilling warning to prevent it from happening again.
Cesare Pavese, Il mestiere di vivere (The Business of Living), 1952
An undeniably intense book, about a man trying to comprehend life and not being adjusted to society’s impositions. It lets us as readers look into Pavese’s brilliant mind. The book is a collection of the writer’s thoughts collected between 1935 and 1950. Pavese’s thoughts are imbued with courage and humility, with an incessant love towards classical and modern culture; in fact, sometimes entire pages are reported in French and English. It was a life full of difficult choices and courage, due to his anti-fascist ideologies, and yet he never ceased to notice the beauty and happiness around him.
Elsa Morante, L’isola di Arturo (Arthur’s Island), 1957
This novel is highly descriptive, unlocking the reader’s imagination along with it, but also resulting in its slower and more introspective quality, which is not for everyone! The writer walks us sweetly through the main characters’ story, without ambushing us with too many plot twists or surprises, something we don’t often get in more modern books. Morante conveys the purity and troubles of the young main character like no other author, even if the writing style can be complicated and overwhelming at times. Each word has a heavy weight and finds its place in the reader’s heart.
Leonardo Sciascia, Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl), 1961
On the surface it may look merely like a detective story: a murder and a disappearance to be solved and a captain of the police force who, amidst various obstacles, tries to discover the truth and solve the case. However, Il Giorno della Civetta has a valuable meaning for Italy’s future. This was the first novel to truly address the issue of the Mafia in Italy, and a point of no return for the government, which had to open its eyes and face the ugly monster that sprouted from itself, and which preyed on the less fortunate. Telling the story of a few of the many murders the Mafia have committed, the author opens the door on a closed and secretive operation that completely controlled Sicily: Cosa Nostra.
Oriana Fallaci, Lettera a un bambino mai nato (Letter to a child never born), 1975
This novel is a tragic monologue of a woman expecting a child and looking at motherhood, not as a duty, but as a personal choice which holds a lot of responsibility. Her name, face, age, and address are unknown: the only clue we are given is that she is alone and a working woman. The mystery-ridden book is touching, and provides food for thought on the question of whether one is suited or not for motherhood, often a taboo discussion. There are some very delicate issues that are touched on in this book, many ahead of their time, pushing forward the author’s intention to show the insurmountable difficulty that many women have to face, yet which she carries out without any moral judgement on their decision.
Italo Calvino, Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a winter’s night a traveller), 1979
Known worldwide for his unique books, Calvino once again does not disappoint, writing a true masterpiece filled with suspense and peculiarity. How could one not read a classic from the author who wrote “why read the classics”! The plot weaves many different stories together and takes the reader on a wild, yet at times frustrating, ride. Start this book with a hot cup of coffee, a comfortable seat, and unwavering patience. The strangeness meets you from the very first page, where even the writing has a twist to it with a speaking voice in the ‘you’ person. It is a classic that does not confine itself merely to Italy, but travels worldwide, where the loose sense of time, numerous characters and alternating plots leave the reader itching to carry on and see what happens next. How could one not read a classic from the author who wrote “why read the classics”!
Umberto Eco, Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) ,1980
This is one of those books that must be read at least once in one’s life. Within its pages, shrouded in mystery, we find lessons on literature, history, theology and art, which push you through the story and make it impossible to tear your eyes from the page. The odd phrases in Latin and long descriptions make it difficult to follow at times, yet it is still valued as one of the masterpieces of Italian literature. Set in the distant time of the 1300s, it takes the reader to a faraway place and transports them to the scene of the crime.
Andrea Camilleri, La forma dell’acqua (The Shape of Water), 1994
The first of the series about Commissario Montalbano, a detective in Vigata, a pseudo-real town on the coast of Sicily, follows the adventures of a detective that finds himself tiptoeing around the prominent mafia families whilst doing his job. As well as these books being full of typical Sicilian sayings and police work, the comedic aspect of this book never fails, with peculiar characters each adding a spark to the story. Camilleri must be read avidly, Montalbano appreciated unconditionally, and the plots valued. The first Montalbano is simply unforgettable and is a wise investment of time!