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Five Great Italian Writers

Italy has a strong claim to be considered the home of European literature. The greatest Roman poets—Horace, Ovid, Virgil—have inspired everyone from Shakespeare to Seamus Heaney, and Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the foundation stones of modern storytelling.

The country has had a tumultuous twentieth century, but Italy’s novelists continue to produce exciting and original literature. The ideological ferment of the Fascist period, and of the civil war which ended it, gave rise to intensely political writing of all kinds, as well as writing that is disgusted with politics, like Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin and the novels of Alberto Moravia. The modern giants of Italian literature—Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino—emerged from this ferment. Their lucidly intellectual novels combine the most complex theory with the simplest storytelling.

In the last few years Elena Ferrante has introduced a new international audience to Italian writing with her epic Neapolitan Novels, which explore female friendship and rivalry against a background of Mezzogiorno poverty, organized crime and continued political upheaval. Meanwhile the Premio Campiello Opera Prima—an Italian award for debut novelists—has created several international stars, including Alessandro Piperno, Paolo Giordano and Viola di Grado.

If you’ve yet to encounter the riches of modern Italian literature, these five novels are your starting point.

Boredom

During the Fascist period, Alberto Moravia’s work was censored or banned, and the experience took its toll on his writing. When Mussolini fell, Moravia was able to return to Rome, and from 1947 he published four books in five years. This long post war burst of creativity culminated in 1960’s La noia, translated by Angus Davidson as Boredom.

Its narrator is Dino, the spoilt middle-aged scion of a wealthy Roman family. He has set himself up as a painter, but he no longer paints—in fact, if it weren’t for his dislike of his mother he would move back into his childhood bedroom. With nothing to do all day, Dino experiences ‘boredom,’ which he regards as rather a profound feeling.

Until one day he meets Cecilia, an ordinary lower-middle-class Roman girl. Cecilia thinks of the liberated sexual mores of the postwar period as simply natural, and when she and Dino begin a relationship, Cecilia’s failure to see Dino as her master or possessor frustrates him. When he discovers that she is seeing someone else, Dino starts to lose his grip.

Boredom is an unsparing satire of the entitlement spawned by masculinity and wealth, and of the pretensions of would-be artists. Beneath the satire yawns the gulf of Moravia’s existentialist thinking.

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If On A Winter's Night A Traveller

Italo Calvino is one of the twentieth century’s most inventive writers. His prolific output includes a novel structured around a grid of Tarot cards—The Castle of Crossed Destinies—and a collection of prose poems, Invisible Cities, addressed by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan.

If on a winter’s night a traveller is for those readers who especially love the feeling of diving into a new book: the unfamiliar world, the hinted possibilities, the hook that drags you into the plot. If on a winter’s night is composed entirely of novel openings. Each opening is in a different style, has a different plot—and each of them is cut off just as it gets going.

Calvino’s achievement is to prevent this becoming frustrating. The seductive novel openings are underpinned by an involving and mysterious plot, about a reader, ‘you,’ trying to finish a novel. As ‘your’ adventures twist and turn, you begin to realise that the novel openings you’ve encountered are not entirely unconnected. Calvino is such a mesmerising stylist that for all its mind-bending formal tricks, If on a winter’s night a traveller is also a gripping and a cosy read.

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The Name Of The Rose

Umberto Eco is a giant of postmodern literature. His gargantuan novels blend historical research, conspiracy theory, semiotics, dense allusion and thriller-paced storytelling. The Name of the Rose, his debut, is a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery.

Adso of Melk, a young novice, accompanies a Franciscan friar called William of Baskerville to a remote monastery in Italy. They have come to attend a controversial debate about certain potentially heretical ideas—the shadow of the Inquisition hangs over them—but before the disputation can begin a local monk commits suicide under mysterious circumstances. William investigates (his surname is a clue to his methods) and he and Adso begin to unearth a dangerous conspiracy.

The Name of the Rose is a gripping detective story, but what’s more amazing is that the theological disputes and ecclesiastical history are just as gripping. Few writers have so plausibly rendered the texture of medieval life as Eco does here. By the time you put this book down, modern reality will feel a little thin by comparison.

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The Lost Daughter

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have been one of the literary sensations of the last decade. Although they are often compared to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s equally sprawling My Struggle, Ferrante’s novels are far more epic in scope, comprising a portrait not only of a developing artistic consciousness but of a society, a city and a social class.

Their success has prompted the translation into English of her earlier works. These include The Lost Daughter, a small and perfectly-formed novel. It is narrated by Leda, an academic in her forties, who takes an apartment in a seaside town in order to work on her latest book. Spending her afternoons on the beach, she becomes intrigued by a young mother who is always to be found sunbathing nearby, and her daughter, who plays obsessively with a doll. And then one day, for no reason she can think of, Leda steals the girl’s doll.

The novel’s themes of maternal guilt and class-consciousness will be familiar to readers of the Neapolitan sequence. But where those novels are epic in scope, The Lost Daughter has a claustrophobic tightness that makes it a breathtakingly intense experience.

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70% Acrylic 30% Wool

Viola di Grado was just 23 when she wrote 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool. It went on to win Italy’s prestigious Premio Campiello Opera Prima.

Camelia lives with her mother, Livia. Although they are Italian, they are stuck in Leeds, England, and to Camelia it feels as if winter has been going on forever. Limited in their ability to communicate with others, Camelia and Livia do not even speak amongst themselves: instead they exchange notes in a wordless language of their own devising. It is not until Camelia meets Wen, a local shop owner, and begins learning to write Chinese ideograms, that she starts to feel true communication might be possible.

70% Acrylic, 30% Wool is an excitingly contemporary debut, adjacent to the feminist fabulism of writers like Karen Russell and Camilla Grudova, but possessed of a moodiness all its own.

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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