The morning Grazia Deledda won the 1926 Nobel Prize in Literature was like any other. Or rather, she attempted to make that day in Rome indistinguishable from the last. She simply exclaimed Già! (Already!), and fled to her office. She was protective of her daily writing routine, already threatened by sharing a crowded house with her husband, adult sons, and niece. Deledda maintained the same schedule seven days a week: a late breakfast, a couple of hours of reading, lunch followed by la pausa (a nap), and, finally, a few hours of writing in the afternoon. By dinner, she had four handwritten pages.
But there were expectations of the first Italian women to receive the prize, and she understood what was at stake. It had been a year since Benito Mussolini dropped the charade of constitutional rule in favor of Fascism. Deledda had never been to northern Europe, but Il Duce made it known that, upon her return from Stockholm, he expected her to attend an official state ceremony in her honor. Mussolini, who had imprisoned several of her friends and many countrymen, wished to give her a portrait of himself, signed “with profound admiration.”
And so the writer allowed throngs of journalists and photographers and notable well-wishers into her home the next day. By all accounts, the diminutive writer was calm and graciouss, or at least tolerant of the fuss, which is more than can be said for Checcha. Her beloved pet crow was visibly irritated by the commotion, and thrashed wildly above the crowd, searching for an empty room. After an open window sufficed, Deledda hurried everyone out, insisting, “If Checcha has had enough, so have I.”
She was a fatalist, to be sure, but by the time Deledda received the prize, at fifty-six years old, she understood attention made people vulnerable, and had the potential to devastate. People who dealt in extremes, whether by volition or chance, made it into her stories, and from the very beginning, her stories had a way of getting her in trouble.
Deledda (1871–1936) grew up in Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean, although she would be a teenager before she rode a horse all the way up to Monte Bardia, a peak from which she could finally glimpse the sea. Her birth coincided with the first anniversary of the unification of Italy, but she was very much of Nuoro, what she called “a bronze-age village.” Her first language was sardo logudorese, the spoken idiom of Sardinia; Italian, the language she would write in, was a foreign one.
Amidst the antics of her more troublesome siblings, Deledda was considered well behaved, a distinction that came with certain freedoms. She shadowed her babbo (father), a modest landowner, self-published poet, and, for a short time, mayor. He was a well-liked man who built their house on an imposing, verdant mountain overlooking a seemingly boundless valley. It offered a vantage point from which to observe an area appropriately named Barbagia, where bandits ran in notoriously savage communities hidden away in caves and thickly wooded areas. They emerged when necessity or malice struck, ready to attack farms and villages with impunity. They were feared, but given Italy’s political history, also passively regarded, and most certainly romanticized.
The family home served as a refuge for weary travelers and bedraggled friends, and from a young age, Deledda listened to men speak of misfortune and tragedy. After completing the four years of formal schooling deemed appropriate for girls, Deledda had a tutor, but he soon disappeared. She became an autodidact who read the classic texts, but would later describe these gusts of storytelling, which often began with an affair and ended with the proclamation of fate, as an integral part of her education. She collected their differing versions of Sardinian legend and folklore, committing native customs to memory as more of an observer than participant.
Despite the vibrant family life in an idyllic, pastoral setting, tragedy plagued the Deleddas. Winters in Nuoro were particularly harsh, with frequent accounts of starvation. Their home was often barricaded in snow, and the damp, frigid air permeated every crevice in the foundation and crack in the wall. After an unrelenting bout of bitter cold, her little sister, Giovanna, was found dead underneath a pile of covers, in a bed the girls likely shared. Shortly after, the family was forced to eat Deledda’s pet buffoon, the one Christmas gift her grandfather had managed to recover after bandits attacked.
At the age of seventeen, Deledda submitted “Sangue Sardo” (Sardinian Blood) to the fashion magazine Ultima Moda. The story of Ela, a young woman who pushes her sister’s lover over a cliff, was published in 1887, a momentous event that earned the ire of the entire village. The magazine was publicly burned and her family slandered. She went on to adopt pseudonyms, but the village would quickly recognize familiar environs and traduce her obsession with the local population. The closest bookstore, the same one she frequented her entire life, refused to stock her Fior di Sardegna, a national bestseller published in 1892, the same year her father died.
The villagers were right. Deledda based her characters on the real-life passion and torment of those around her, relying on their moral conflicts to inform her meditations on modern Italian life. What the denizens of Nuoro failed to realize, however, was that her writing was not some kind of blithe slander, but rather a performance of empathy.
The depths of her compassion, and her preoccupation with concepts of will and fate, were mined early and intimately. After Giovanna died, the Deleddas endured a series of unfortunate familial events easily translated to fiction. Another sister, Enza, was impregnated by her lover. A wedding was arranged in the wake of disgrace, but she would not live to attend it. Deledda found yet another lifeless sister in bed, but this time the sheets were soaked in Enza’s blood, and that of her miscarried child. She spent the rest of the day alone with her sister, rinsing the red stains off her cold, stiff body before shrouding her in white.
Brother Andrea stole money from the family and committed thefts throughout Sardinia in order to frequent the prostitutes in San Pietro, an island off the southwestern coast. Somewhere along the grottos and beaches, the groves of oak and pine, Andrea impregnated a local girl out of wedlock, and she bore his child. He was imprisoned shortly after, but freed long enough to squander the small amount of money their father had left behind.
Santus seemed to be the good son, too distracted by scientific experiments to be tempted by debauchery. He successfully launched a hot-air balloon made of silk, which goat herders believed to be the Holy Spirit descending over a mountaintop. Soon after they dropped to their knees in prayer, Santus turned to fireworks. An accident left his skin charred and blistered, a painful state lessened by drinking. His temperance was quickly enervated by incessant indulgence, and his life simply devolved. Their mother believed him to be possessed by evil spirits, and fell into her own abject state.
Deledda cared for what was left of her family while running their small businesses, the local olive-oil press, and a bit of bookkeeping. It seemed as if she might get swallowed up in this life, never living on her own outside of the family or the village where she was loathed, when she lit out for the Sardinian capital in 1899, and married Palmiro Madesani, a government employee, a year later. They moved to Rome, and she became a mother of two sons, Sardus and Franz.
Despite her new, urbane setting and own family drama, Deledda was nostalgic in the capital, and the novels and short stories that followed her departure from Nuoro played out on the island she left behind. Ill Vecchio della Montagna made the story of a goat herd in Monte Ortobene, a granite peak capped by a statue of Redentore (Christ the Redeemer), famous, as did Elias Portolu, a novel as influenced by a local shepherd as Les Miserables. In 1916, she wrote Cenere (Ashes), the tale of a fallen woman who abandons her illegitimate child so that he may have a better life, was adapted to the screen and filmed in Sardinia. While she was not associated with the Italian feminist movement, the actions of her female characters suggest she considered marginalization to be heartbreaking, but not without certain liberties.
When the announcement was made, the Nobel Prize Committee called her forty-odd works “idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general.”
Deledda arrived at the Stockholm Central Station during a lunar eclipse on December 8, 1927. She had traveled by land and sea for three days, emerging to find the poet (and future Nobel laureate) Erik Axel Karlfeldt waiting on the dark, cold platform, surrounded by flowers bearing the national colors of Italy and Sweden. Her letters home indicate she was overwhelmed by the attention, but fascinated by what she saw and the many dignitaries, ministers of state, ambassadors, and royalty she met. Feed Checcha, she reminded her sons before giving one of the shortest acceptance speeches in the history of the prize. Years later, she would offer a brief biography over the radio, translated by Anders Hallengren and Medeo Cottino.
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.
Ten years after Deledda exclaimed Già!, she died of cancer. She was buried in the very same maroon velvet dress she wore to the Grand Hôtel the night she accepted the prize. In Sardinia, Chiesa della Solitudine, a church named after one of her novels, was erected as a memorial in her honor.
After her death, a handwritten manuscript of was found in a drawer. She had carefully stored Cosima, which bore her middle name, with the intention that it be published posthumously. It was an autobiography thinly veiled as a novel, but not a complete one. The book fittingly concludes upon her departure from Nuoro.
Alexis Coe is a columnist at The Awl, The Toast, and SF Weekly. Her first book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, will be published next year. She lives in San Francisco.