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12 Italian Authors in Search of Identity, Part I

Valerie Waterhouse By Valerie Waterhouse Published on August 4, 2017
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Italo Calvino

If a nation’s literature maps out its collective consciousness, what do books by these twelve authors, chosen mostly because they tell a very good story, reveal about Italy? Which obsessions appear and reappear? Is there such a thing as ‘Italianness’? And what, if anything, can they tell us about Italian society and identity?

The first thing that strikes is that many of these works have a strong regional character, being set in Sicily, Sardinia, Naples, Rome, Milan, Turin, Ferrara or the Dolomites. Others are located abroad, on the ocean, or in oneiric ‘nowhere-lands’, but regional identity still intrudes. ‘Much of Italian literature has regional roots,’ wrote Italo Calvino. ‘My home was in San Remo, on the Riviera…it is natural when I tell imaginary stories set in an imaginary country that this country should be like the Riviera where I grew up.’

The second aspect, uniting several of the works, is the character who simply vanishes or is without a fixed identity. Calvino’s The Non-Existent Knight is an empty suit of armour with no one inside, while in Alessandro Baricco’s Novecento, ‘officially (the protagonist) was never born.’ Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, meanwhile, begins with the disappearance of Raffaella/Lina/Lila, ‘who wanted every one of her cells' to vanish into thin air.

It might seem that both the regionalism and abnegation of identity in Italian literature point to an identical theme: the lack of a discernible Italian character. Yet looked at more closely, ‘Italianness’  and an abnegation of identity co-exist, with each predominating at different moments in both personal and national histories.

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change
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Italy before unification

Freud, Jung, two world wars and mass migration have placed ‘identity’ among the abiding concerns of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But the Italian obsession with the subject has a flavour all of its own. Italy only united as a nation in 1861, after Giuseppe Garibaldi led an uprising, culminating in the crowning of Piedmontese Victor Emmanuel as the new country’s first king. Before that, it was a bundle of city-states, maritime republics, Papal States and kingdoms, each with its own regional dialect(s), monetary systems and laws. ‘Italian identity’ is therefore little over 150 years old, which may explain why so many Italians still cling to their regional identities.


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Begun in the rubble of World War II, The Leopard (1958), by Sicilian prince Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, harks back to the Unification of Italy and tells of changes affecting an aristocratic family. The book attempts to make sense of the moment when Italy became ‘Italy’, leading indirectly to the destructive nationalism of World War II.

The novel’s most famous line is: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’. It is spoken by Tancredi, the Prince of Salina’s favourite nephew, who is off to join the Garibaldini to ensure that the aristocracy have their say.

The trouble with Italy’s unification, as the novel shows, is that it was imposed upon the masses from the top down. ‘Italianness remained an ideal, legalist concept that failed to penetrate the popular culture and identity,’ writes academic Anna Triandafyllidou in a report for the EU. However, the essential conservatism expressed by Tancredi runs deep through the Italian psyche and literature and, for good or for bad, is often identified as one of the abiding traits of ‘Italianness’. In The Italians, journalist John Hooper defines it as ‘an aversion to change’, while novelist Tim Parks notes ‘a powerful tension between the imperatives of political action and the desire to be spared involvement of any kind’ in A Literary Tour of Italy. Tancredi may not be afraid of involvement but preservation of the status quo remains the driving imperative.

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Following numerous rejections, The Leopard was accepted by writer Giorgio Bassani, an editor for Feltrinelli publishing house. Bassani’s own great 1962 novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis resembles The Leopard in several ways. Both deal with wealthy families encased in their beautiful villas at a time of seismic change. Both families are reluctant to face that change.

The Finzi-Continis (‘Fake-Little Counts’) are a rich Jewish family whose elevated social status sets them apart from the rest of the Jewish community in the central Italian town of Ferrara. The story hinges on a romantic relationship between the unnamed narrator and the Finzi-Contini’s beautiful daughter, Micòl. Though anti-Fascist, when the discriminatory 1938 Racial Laws are passed, the family’s reaction is to invite other members of the community to play tennis within their vast walled grounds. Very early on we are told that most of them were killed in the Holocaust, tingeing the novel with sadness the colour of sepia from the get-go. At the beginning of the novel, the family is ‘remote, unreachable, as though all round them was a protective wall of glass.’ Yet, as the narrator says of his own aunts and uncles: ‘I was aware of how obtuse their minds were, how utterly unable to grasp the realities of the present moment, or to read anything of the future.’ In a few years time, they ‘would be swallowed up by German crematoria ovens, and no way would they have dreamt of ending up like that.’ But it is the ‘state of magical suspension, of glassy, luminous, soft immobility’ that lingers in the mind of the reader, rather than the family’s brutal, off-stage end.

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Written by Antonio Tabucchi, an Italian professor of Portuguese literature, Pereira Maintains is set in 1938 in Lisbon during the Salazar Fascist regime. But its protagonist, journalist Dr Pereira, displays many Italian characteristics, including an obsession with food. Despite a heart condition he spends his days eating omelettes and drinking copious amounts of sugary lemonade. More significantly, he shows the same reluctance to face change as the Salina and Finzi-Contini families. Avoiding direct confrontation, Pereira sticks to writing bland obituaries, but when a young revolutionary couple explodes into his life, he is forced to choose between fence-sitting, and deciding to act.  

Published in 1994, the year Silvio Berlusconi first came to power, the novel was seized upon by the political left as a call to action against the media mogul turned prime minister, soon to fire a number of prominent opposition journalists from Italian state TV. Times have changed since the 1990s, with the emergence of il rottamatore (demolition man), former prime minister Matteo Renzi, and the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stella (Five Star) party. However, for the moment, things at a political level have pretty much ‘stayed the same’.

‘Italianness’ is a Question of Identity 

Ironically, Lampedusa’s novel about change was initially rejected because of its formal conventionality. As Italy struggled to regain its feet after World War II, a wave of modernism swept through its post-war literature. Works by writers such as Italo Calvino, Dino Buzzati and Primo Levi frequently explored the vuoto (emptiness) at the heart of enforced ‘Italian’ identity. It is as if the lack of identification with ‘Italianness’ led to a questioning of the very existence of identity.

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Luigi Pirandello

The first modernist works in Italy, however, dated back to the end of World War I. The greatest literary influence on experimental 1940s and 50s writers was Luigi Pirandello, the Sicilian novelist and playwright who published his first novel in 1902. He quickly had a bestseller in 1904 with The Late Mattia Pascal, about a librarian who attempts to change his identity. Questions of role-playing and identity were further explored in his most famous work, the absurdist theatrical drama Six Characters in Search of an Identity (1920), which exploded onto the world’s stage like a literary bomb. The play is frequently performed around Europe and to be fully understood is best seen. But a quick read through the short, three-act manuscript gives some idea of its originality. 

Six Characters begins with a group of actors about to rehearse a Pirandello work. They are interrupted by six figures claiming to be ‘characters’ from a different, unfinished play. The characters are looking for an author to complete their stories and give them eternal life. Their drama centres on the father’s sexually ambiguous encounter with his stepdaughter in a brothel and the fall-out from that event. But it is mainly a philosophical and psychological exploration of identity. Who is more ‘real’, a fixed, stable character in a play, ‘marked with his especial characteristics; for which reason he is always ‘somebody’’? Or a living, breathing person, with a shifting, ever-changing identity, who ‘may very well be nobody?’

Pirandello’s main impetus for his fascination with identity was his wife, who suffered from severe mental illness, leading him to question the bases of character, illusion and reality. Most of his major works were written during the rise of Fascism, which he supported, for reasons of political convenience. Because of this, his works were usually set in non-identifiable, apolitical worlds, which could not give offence to the regime. Post-war modernist fragmentation was explored within personality, rather than society. In subsequent decades, authors such as Italo Calvino continued Pirandello’s explorations of role playing and identity at a time of fast and dramatic social change.


PART II of this article will touch on identity in works by eight more authors, including Elena Ferrante.


Top photo of Ferrara, where Giorgio Bassani's novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini is set, courtesy Giovy Malfiori

Valerie Waterhouse is a journalist and editor based in Italy, mostly writing about travel and books. She is the editor of the guidebook Time Out Milan and was the Italy correspondent for Travel + ... Show More

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