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Italian Authors in Search of Identity, Part II

Valerie Waterhouse By Valerie Waterhouse Published on October 5, 2017
This article was updated on November 14, 2017

If a nation’s literature maps out its collective consciousness, what do books by these authors reveal about Italy? Part I  examined whether there is such a thing as ‘Italianness’ and the Italian aversion to change. Part II looks at how absence lies at the heart of Italian identity.  Part III asks how migration has affected the Italian sense of self.

‘Italianness’ is a Question of Identity

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Luigi Pirandello

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.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 (though he may have been influenced by operas of the 'Verismo' movement, such as Leoncavallo's 'Pagliacci'). 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 fascination with identity was inspired by 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, they 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.

The Vanishing Act

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Pirandello cast a long shadow over subsequent Italian literature. Italo Calvino’s trilogy of novellas, Our Ancestors (1951-57), was among the first to pick up Pirandello’s themes of role-playing and identity. In Calvino’s own words, The Cloven Viscount, The Baron in the Trees and The Non-Existent Knight are about ‘a man sliced in half, the two halves of whom continue living on their own; a boy who climbs up into the trees and refuses to come down, and ends by spending the rest of his life there; an empty suit of armour that persuades itself it is a man and carries on through its own will-power.’ Themes include incompleteness, isolation, ‘empty forms and the concrete nature of living, awareness of being in the world and building one’s own destiny, or lack of involvement altogether’. The empty suit of armour provides Italian literature’s strongest image of the void at the heart of identity.

The empty suit of armour provides Italian literature’s strongest image of the void at the heart of identity.

Recent authors have made Pirandello’s themes so central that the search for, or absence of, identity have become a defining characteristic of ‘Italian-ness’. Famously, Elena Ferrante has annulled her own authorial identity: ‘Ferrante’ is a cypher for an anonymous writer – possibly a translator, possibly married to novelist Domenico Starnone, possibly a stand-in for both halves of the couple – or perhaps we are all on the wrong track? The absence of a public presence frees Ferrante from ‘the rituals that writers are more or less obliged to perform in order to sustain their book,’ she explained to Vanity Fair.

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In an article for The Guardian, Ferrante wrote about Jane Austen, who also published her novels anonymously. ‘Who wrote Sense and Sensibility? Who invented Marianne and Elinor and their mother and the many female characters who appear, disappear, reappear?’ she asked. She might well have been commenting on her own best-selling novels: The Neapolitan Quartet. Their focus is the six-decade-long friendship between Elena/Lenuccia/Lenù and Raffaella/Lina/Lila, whose changing names and the similarities between their nomenclatures (Lenù/Lina) underline the impossibility of pinning down identity across time and space. My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, begins with Lina/Lila’s disappearance: ‘She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life she had left behind. Everything, including her computer, photos of herself, birth certificates, telephone bills, receipts, had gone.’ Characters stretch their boundaries so far across the course of the novels, that they are almost impossible to define. The most extreme example is the women’s friend, Alfonso, who undergoes a male to female transition so complete that he almost transforms into Lina. And yet, like Italian identity, each personality displays seemingly immutable defining traits. Elena is hard-working and studious and efficient; Lina’s razor-sharp intelligence never fades.

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The cover of Ties by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, depicts a pair of male brogues tied to each other by their laces, with their wearer about to trip. Concerning a marital breakdown, it alternates the wife’s, husband’s and daughter’s viewpoints, spanning 45 years. ‘For a long time you reasoned with pedantic calm about the roles we were imprisoned in by getting married – husband, wife, mother, father, children – and you described us – me, you, our children – as gears in a senseless machine, bound always to repeat the same foolish moves,’ says the wife to the husband at the novel’s beginning. Do our roles entrap us, the narrative asks? Do we become them, or is our ‘identity’ separate? Can we ever know those closest to us? Or do we spend years acting a part?

Control is another important factor: the wife’s desire to control ultimately results in chaos, and objects are used to define and delimit desires and identities. Mum and Dad never throw anything away, the daughter complains. ‘It’s their way of leaving some trace … of their lives,’ replies her brother. In this they resemble the Jewish, pre-Second World War family in the The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani, who use objects, uselessly as it turns out, to memorialise their lives. ‘In so many ways, the Finzi-Continis foreshadow the modern consumer’s obsession with control and space, with possessing the whole world in the safe domestic space, shutting out reality, living in a state of denial,’ write Tim Parks in A Literary Tour of Italy. It is as if the Italian obsession with bella figura, with fashion, design, style and surface appearance, stems from the need to play a role in order to hide a deep sense of emptiness and insecurity.

The winner of the 2017 Strega Prize, The Eight Mountains, by Paolo Cognetti is among the most memorable novels of the past decade. About a long-lasting friendship, its plot recalls Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – except that the two protagonists are male. Here, too, there is a friend who leaves and a friend who stays. Bruno is a village boy, born and bred in the Dolomites, perfectly at home amid the mountains and the snow, with no desire to go anywhere. Pietro is a city lad who comes to love the village – but whose restlessness impels him to travel, eventually moving to Tibet. Like Ferrante’s Lenù/Lina, Bruno/Pietro are two halves of one self, recalling Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount. Both pairs share lovers, who move between them like invisible binding threads. Both Lina and Bruno vanish without trace. Who were they? Did anyone ever know them? Did they exist? And if so, how?

For our final thoughts on Italian identity in literature Part III click here.


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 recently wrote the afterword for The ... Show More