One evening in Rome, in the kitchen of the Italian writer Caterina Bonvicini, I expressed a desire to assemble a collection of Italian short stories translated into English. It was March of 2016, during a brief trip back to Italy. Six months before, my family and I had returned to the United States after living for three years in Rome.
My life as a reader had, by that time, taken an unexpected turn; since 2012, shortly before moving to Rome, I had chosen to read only Italian literature, mostly from the twentieth century, and to read those works exclusively in Italian, a language I had diligently studied for many years but had yet to master. I was forty-five years old, and I believed, even before this new phase began, that I was already fully formed as a reader and writer. And yet I surrendered to an inexplicable urge to distance myself, to immerse myself, and to acquire a second literary formation.
It was one thing to read only Italian when living in Italy, where the winds were favorable, where my state of voluntary literary exile made sense. I read with an adolescent’s zeal, transported to another dimension, standing before a new group of gods. I had an Italian teacher who came to my home twice a week and, at the start, brought me chapters and excerpts equipped with footnotes for elementary readers. I befriended Italians who mentioned authors I had never heard of before. I began frequenting bookstores, especially those that sold secondhand volumes, combing the shelves for their works. I purchased them and read them, and copied down sentences by hand, taping them over my desk for inspiration. I realized that, for the first time in decades, I was reading to satisfy only myself. I was no longer influenced by the expectations and broader cultural consensus that dictate what one should be reading—such frames of reference had fallen away. The more people remarked on my new inclination—But don’t you miss English?—the more I clung to my newfound freedom, not wanting it to end.
But it did end; while in Italy, I was offered a job at Princeton University to teach creative writing, and so my family and I returned to the United States. Crossing the Atlantic, I read Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), a first book that recounts the eleven months that Levi, a young chemist from Turin who became one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, spent imprisoned in a German concentration camp before it was liberated in 1945. It was my first time reading that work in Italian, and the pure truth and beauty of those pages that transform one man’s experience of hell into a masterpiece of literature transformed not only the hours on the plane but also me personally, instilling in me an abiding awe—there is no other word for it—that even today governs my own newfound liberty as both a reader and a writer.
Teaching at Princeton, I wanted to transmit this awe, to share my admiration for Levi and the other Italian authors who had spoken to me deeply, who had taught me so much and who were now a part of me. And given that my classes were held in English, the only way to do so was to teach them in translated form. And so I searched for English versions of the works I wanted to talk about. I was struck by how many translations were either out of print or outdated, difficult to track down, and I was even more struck by the many great Italian authors who had scarcely been translated at all.
After dinner that evening at Caterina’s, she and I wandered from the kitchen into her study and began pulling books off her shelves. I already had a dozen authors in mind, and Caterina suggested a dozen others. I took out my diary and wrote all the names down, twenty-four in total. Of that group, twenty-three are represented in the current volume. The authors jotted down that evening comprised a wish list. Back in Princeton, I made do with photocopies of translations that I hoped my students would enjoy. Then, not long after my second semester had come to an end, Penguin Classics asked me to assemble an anthology, The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories.
I was impressed by the passion with which my Italian friends and acquaintances reacted to the project. This passion was by no means exclusive to writers. I was struck by the degree to which Italians from different walks of life knew and cared about specific short stories. People would email me the names of authors and titles of works they felt were worthy of anthologizing, or thrust books from their personal libraries into my hands. My list began to grow, as did my reading, and back in Princeton that fall, I had accumulated well over fifty names.
At a certain point, I realized I had to set down some basic parameters. The first was to eliminate all living authors from my list. The second was to arrive at a number. Fifty felt celebratory and auspicious, but I worried that it would amount to an unwieldy physical object, and so, with some anguish, I whittled the list down to forty. The fruit of my research was the discovery of a potent, robust tradition of the short form in Italy, a harvest far more vast and varied than I’d anticipated.
What were my criteria? To gather together as many of the authors who have inspired and nourished my love for Italian literature, and for the Italian short story in particular. I wanted a volume I and others would be excited to teach from, and that students, ideally, would be eager to read. I wanted to include a wealth of styles, and a range of voices. The resulting collection, by no means comprehensive, reflects my judgment and sensibility, and also encapsulates a specific moment of my reading trajectory. I cast a wide net and, as is inevitably the case, a somewhat arbitrary one. Some authors—including several particularly dear to me—were consciously excluded due to one rationale or the other; others simply escaped unseen.
Once the list was final, it struck me that these forty Italian authors would not necessarily be familiar to any one Italian reader. Many of them have fallen out of favor, or have been sporadically published, and are therefore hard to come across in Italian bookstores. Ironically, I could only get my hands on them thanks to Firestone Library in Princeton or, if I was lucky, at the Porta Portese flea market, which brings hundreds of secondhand books, every Sunday, to Rome. Even after I had made my choices, people kept mentioning other writers I ought to have included, and suggestions will surely only proliferate now that the book exists.
I have focused predominantly on the twentieth century, though a few of the authors were born and began writing in the nineteenth, and others remained active into the twenty-first. It was my priority to feature women authors, lesser-known and neglected authors, and authors who practiced the short form with particular vehemence and virtuosity. My aim is to present a portrait of Italy that reflects its reality. I prefer to work against a reassuring but ridiculous perception encapsulated by an American who once said to me, “Nothing bad can possibly happen in Italy.” Of course, it is one thing to experience Italy as a tourist, another thing to live there. Then again, one has only to read the literature of any given place to recognize that bad things happen to everyone, everywhere.
Several members of this group knew one another during their lifetimes. They sustained, influenced, promoted, edited, reviewed, and were at odds with one another. They formed part of a community, a network, bound together by vital personal and professional friendships and, in one case, even by marriage. And as I stood back to absorb the details of their lives and the nature of their creativity, I realized that they were all, by and large, hybrid individuals, with multiple proclivities, identities, signatures, and shadows. They were writers of fiction and at the same time they were almost always other things: poets, journalists, visual artists, musicians. Many had demanding editorial responsibilities, were critics, were schoolteachers. Some were professional scientists and politicians. They served in the military, held bureaucratic positions, had diplomatic careers. And the vast majority were translators, living, reading, and writing astride two languages or more.
The act of translation, central to their artistic formation, was a linguistic representation of their innate hybridity. The majority of these writers shuttled between dialect and standard Italian; though they all wrote in Italian, it was not necessarily the language they grew up speaking, or the first they learned to read and write in or were originally published in. Four were born outside of present-day Italy, and most of them spent significant amounts of time either studying, traveling, or residing abroad. A few turned to other languages, writing novels in French or Portuguese, experimenting with German and English, teaching themselves different dialects, complicating their texts and their identities further still. Whether linguistic or stylistic, their creative paths were marked by experimentation, by willful mutation. They were artists who questioned and redefined themselves over time, some defiantly distancing themselves from earlier phases of their work.
A central underpinning of their hybridity is manifested in the striking number of invented or altered names. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym that has taken the literary world by storm, but long before her, Italian writers created alter egos for political or personal reasons, either to protect themselves from the law or to disassociate themselves from their origins. Eight of the authors on this list were born with different names, and others published specific works under pseudonyms. To rename oneself is to edit one’s destiny, to insist upon an autonomous identity, and for a writer it is a means, quite literally, of rewriting the self. Not surprisingly, many of these stories address the theme of identity, of fluctuating selfhood, and accentuate the issue of naming in particular. Characters have complicated relationships to their names, and a few lack names altogether—perhaps a nod to one of the most intriguing characters in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), who is called l’innominato, literally, “the unnamed.”
Always pertinent to the discussion of identity is the question of women in Italy: how they were defined, how they were seen. Many of these stories are portraits of women, some confronting and challenging patriarchal ideology, others revealing attitudes in which women are objectified, belittled, maligned. One option, on my part, would have been to exclude such stories in order to protest against these objectionable depictions. But this would misrepresent a society and its history as reflected in its literature. As a woman, and a woman writer, these stories help me to better understand the cultural context of Italian feminism, and to admire the great strides that Italian women have made. The fact of the matter is that many of the most moving depictions of women in this collection were written by men. Marriage is a recurrent theme—to be precise, how a woman’s identity can be altered, compromised, and negated by a man, and also by maternity. But the whole of the twentieth century, which witnessed the collapse of a series of powerful social institutions, including marriage, was a laboratory in which individual identities were being lost and found, regained and shed.
Hybridity is also manifested in the number of animal characters that abound in these pages, a recurrent metaphor that calls into question the porous barrier between the animal and human worlds. In this sense, some of these works can trace their lineage to the fables of Aesop, to the Metamorphoses of Ovid and to folkloric tradition, in which the animal kingdom has always played a delightful and prominent role. The significance of animals in literary satire was appreciated by the poet Giacomo Leopardi, whose Paralipomeni della Batracomiomachia (translated into English as The War of the Mice and the Crabs) is a mock epic, inspired by an ancient Greek poem, adapted by Leopardi to criticize imperial politics and false patriotism in Italy. A great number of these stories feature animals that talk, behave, think, and feel just as people do. They substitute as friends, lovers, philosophical interlocutors, a spouse. They serve as mirrors and filters that reflect and reveal myriad emotional and psychological states. The reader will note various characters who feel more animal than human, or are themselves both animal and human. The paradoxical valence of animals merits close attention in that they represent both a state of freedom as well as subservience, both innocence and savagery. As these stories make clear, they are creatures both cherished and consumed, both worshipped and sacrificed, beings that both define and question what human even means.
In the course of pondering the diverse and intriguing encounters between man and beast in this anthology, I was struck by the following words by Benito Mussolini: “Fascism denies the validity of the equation, well-being-happiness, which would reduce men to the level of animals, caring for one thing only—to be fat and well-fed—and would thus degrade humanity to a purely physical existence.” This observation, antithetical to the in-between, transversal, protean essence of so many of these writers and their work, also allows us to make room for another, more troubling organizing principle: the reality of Fascism. Giovanni Verga was the first of the authors gathered in these pages to die, in 1922, the year Mussolini marched to power in Rome. All the rest lived under Fascism at some point or another, and were affected directly by its legacy. The ugliest manifestation of Fascism was to dehumanize, to treat people as animals, or worse. The irony of course was that in order to achieve their aims, it was those in power who behaved like beasts.
Fascism, in Italy, was declined linguistically, to the extent of enforcing a “pure Italian” free from foreign words and expressions. Under Fascism a croissant became a cornetto, a bar became a quisibeve (“here one drinks”), and football, invented by the English, became calcio. Even the pronoun lei (as opposed to voi) was prohibited as a second-person pronoun because it was claimed to be a Spanish grammatical import, and also because it sounded “feminine.” In any overview of Italian literature in the twentieth century, the history of the language must come into consideration. The regime sought to standardize and flatten the language, to weed out dialect and other anomalies, above all, to turn it inward. And it was in that very moment that Italy’s writers, at least a considerable number of them, turned defiantly outward. The entire twentieth century can be read as a battle of wills between the wall Fascism sought to erect around Italy and Italian culture, and those—many of the writers represented here very much among them—determined, despite running grave risks, to break it down.
The forty authors on my list hailed from all parts of Italy, though I acknowledge that my base in Rome and my love for southern Italy contributes a slant. They came from rich families and poor ones. They had all sorts of political leanings and varying degrees of political commitment. Stylistically, they covered the spectrum: realist, neorealist, avant-garde, fantastic, Modernist, postmodernist. Some cultivated literary fame; others actively shunned it. Many were celebrated, powerful, influential figures. A few never saw their work published in their lifetime.
If there is a dominant point of reference, it is World War II. The writer Cristina Campo called it “the abyss that had split apart the century”; indeed, this cataclysmic caesura is what links the vast majority of these authors. Two were in Nazi concentration camps, and another escaped en route to one. At least a dozen were forced to live, for a time, in hiding, either because they were members of the anti-Fascist Resistance, or because they were Jews. World War II and its aftermath drastically and irrevocably altered Italian society, penetrating the collective consciousness, traumatizing it, but eventually reinvigorating it culturally and economically. The proliferation of literary magazines after the war, the redoubled and innovative publishing initiatives and the spirit of community and collaboration among writers, means that this time is now regarded as something of a golden age in Italian literary culture.
Having said this, and in spite of the myriad personal connections among many of these authors, the anthology contains powerful meditations on alienation, estrangement, states of solitude. The only true common ground for each of these authors is the Italian language, an invention in and of itself, described by Leopardi as “piuttosto un complesso di lingue che una sola” (“a complex of languages as opposed to a single one”). It was imposed upon a linguistically and culturally diverse population, late in the nineteenth century, when the separate regions of Italy were unified in the name of national identity.
The roots of the modern Italian short story are themselves hybrid: at once deep and shallow, at once foreign and domestic. In assembling this anthology, one indispensable font of information was the anthology dedicated to the Italian short story in the twentieth century edited by Enzo Siciliano, for Mondadori’s I Meridiani series. Siciliano was a writer, critic, and journalist from Rome, and he became the editor of the influential literary journal Nuovi Argomenti after the death of its founder, Alberto Moravia. There are in fact two versions of Siciliano’s anthology: a single volume running to nearly fifteen hundred pages without notes (featuring seventy-one authors, published in 1983) and then across three volumes (with a revised introduction and a grand total of 298 authors, including himself, published in 2001).
In his introduction, Siciliano traces the Italian short story back to the Middle Ages, to the anonymously written, thirteenth-century Novellino, containing episodes and characters drawn from the Bible and classical and medieval mythology, to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (likely composed between 1349 and 1351) and to Matteo Bandello, whose sixteenth-century novelle (he wrote more than two hundred of them) may have inspired the plots of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Much Ado about Nothing via French translation. Between Bandello and Boccaccio one must also acknowledge Masuccio Salernitano, whose own Novellino, a collection of fifty posthumously published tales, included one noted for being among the sources for Romeo and Juliet.
What, the reader may ask, is a novellino? It is a book that gathers together various novelle (the plural of novella), which, in Italian, is not a slim novel, but rather, a word used to describe a short story or a tale. Though Boccaccio titled his great work The Decameron, he explicitly refers to the tales themselves as novelle. Siciliano investigates the difference between the terms novella and racconto in Italian, seemingly interchangeable terms, both to be differentiated from romanzo, the word for novel. The word racconto, with its Latin root, is etymologically connected to the English “recount”: a telling again. A racconto aims to communicate a story, personally and purposefully, to a listener. Thus raconteur, a French word that has also become English, refers specifically to a human figure, a storyteller, especially a captivating one. The spirit of the racconto implies a dynamic relation, with at least two people involved; though distinct from dialogue, it indicates a form, immediate and typically brief, of exchange. In modern Italian, the verb raccontare is commonly used, in conversation, when people want to narrate something casually but colorfully, imbuing this literary term with ongoing quotidian currency. That Siciliano’s anthology promotes the word racconti in the title (Racconti Italiani del Novecento) is in and of itself making a statement, positing the form along a decidedly modern axis where Guy de Maupassant, Gustave Flaubert, and Anton Chekhov serve as coordinates, thereby distinguishing the racconto from the more classically rooted novella.
Fleeting by nature, short stories, in spite of their concision and concentration, are infinitely elastic, expansive, probing, elusive—suggesting that the genre itself is essentially unstable, hybrid, even subversive in nature. In discussing Moravia’s Roman Tales, called Racconti romani, and a cornerstone of the twentieth-century Italian short-story tradition, Siciliano cites Moravia’s illuminating observation that a racconto is something born from intuizione, intuition. I agree. In some sense it is the novel, in Italy, that is the interloper, the imported genre. Alessandro Manzoni and Giovanni Verga looked to France and to England for models, Grazia Deledda to the Russians, Italo Svevo to the central European tradition. The novel, according to Moravia, derives from reason, and is imbued with structure, elements that short stories routinely undermine and resist. Indigenous to Italy, racconti have thrived for centuries, and they constitute a continuum, cross-pollinating with the world’s literature in ways that the longer Italian form has not.
Siciliano’s volumes were indispensable to me, traveling back and forth across the Atlantic, those navy-blue bricks with their sewn-in ribbons to mark one’s place lined up on my desk, and I recommend them to those who read Italian and wish to broaden their perception of the short form in Italy. Even for those who don’t read Italian, the index alone, listing all the authors’ names, is the first place I would direct those in search of suggested further reading. To leaf through them is to glimpse the thrilling sweep of the ocean from above, as opposed to navigating the more manageable but partially uncharted bay I have demarcated.
Every language is a walled entity. English is a particularly fortified one. To step outside the anglophone world is to grow aware of the near-total domination of the English language when it comes to what is being read and celebrated as literature today. It is a domination that few, at least on the English-speaking side of the border, stop to question. I am aware that my orientation at the moment—to look outside English, and to put forth for consideration what is now overlooked even in Italy—separates me from the literary mainstream both in the Italian- and the English-language context. In Italy, I note the overwhelming number of English-language authors prominently displayed in bookshops, and reviewed, each week, in newspapers and magazines; the number of prizes and residencies and festivals designed to host and honor English-language authors in Italy. I myself have been the grateful recipient of such invitations, prizes, and residencies. And yet the discrepancy is clear. The fact remains that Italian writers, for good and for ill, for well over a century now, have looked outside their own literature for inspiration, and the tradition of translation out of English, at least on behalf of Italian publishers, is critical, not peripheral, to the literary landscape.
Of these forty stories, sixteen have not been translated into English until now, and nine have been retranslated intentionally for this anthology. The vast majority, I imagine, will be fresh discoveries for English readers. And of these forty authors, a great many have been ignored and thus practically forgotten in Italy as well. Most of the magazines in which they originally appeared no longer exist. There was a period, particularly after World War II, when small literary journals, many of them founded by the authors in this anthology, flourished in Italy. Some were short-lived but editorially clamorous. Each represented a hope, a different direction, a new cultural climate or point of view. They put short stories at the forefront. Their presence corresponded to a period of extraordinary literary ferment, and their editors prided themselves on promoting new, innovative, heterodox voices. They were proof of how individually published short stories, free from the economic machinery of book publishing, are by definition autonomous texts: a source of resistance, a means for creative risk and experimentation. Fortunately, there are still talented young writers in Italy who embrace the short form, and once in a while, in Italy as in other places, a short-story collection creeps on to the short list for a major literary prize. Another promising sign is Racconti Edizioni, a Roman publishing house founded in 2016, dedicated exclusively to publishing short-story collections.
Until recently, schools of creative writing were unheard of in Italy. They are beginning to grow in numbers, though they remain independent from academic institutions. The term scrittura creativa (creative writing) and the borrowed term “storytelling” have entered the vocabulary, but their meanings are still largely shrouded in mystery, regarded, rightly, as foreign phenomena. What has happened in the United States and, to a lesser degree, also in Great Britain—the reign of the Master of Fine Arts and the calculated marriage between art and academy—has not yet been sanctioned in Italy, and as a result, most Italian writers still have, by and large, a different center of gravity, either as journalists or scholars or editors, or, in some cases, all of the above. The separation between writers and publishers is less rigid in Italy, and the editorial milieu, more intimate, less corporate than its American counterpart, is an engrossing story in and of itself. Tracing its evolution and dynamics is fundamental to understanding how and why so many short stories were written in Italy in the course of the previous century, and in such a rich array of styles.
As I was nearing the completion of this project, Italy was in the process of electing a new government, with xenophobic parties gaining electoral sway. Neo-Fascist violence toward immigrants has been on the rise, and the government still denies birthright citizenship to Italians with foreign-born parents. In spite of this distressing reality, Italy has become a second home to me, and Italians have, on the whole, welcomed my efforts to explore their literature and experiment with their language with an outsider’s sensibility. In spite of those who aim to control borders, deny passage and to restrict Italy to “Italians first” (“Prima gli italiani”), Italy’s identity—including the very definition of “Italian” as it applies to the current population—is radically changing, and its literature, always an open system, further enriched by these changes, continues to diversify.
Language is the substance of literature, but language also locks it up again, confining it to silence and obscurity. Translation, in the end, is the key. This volume, which honors so many writer-translators, is as much a tribute to the Italian short story as it is validation of the need—aesthetic, political, ethical—for translation itself. I am enormously grateful to the team that has worked to bring the works of these writers into English for the first time, or to retranslate stories with greater accuracy and intuition. In the process of editing their contributions I have deepened my own awareness and respect for what it means to transport literature from one language to another, and I have redoubled my commitment to doing so. Only works in translation can broaden the literary horizon, open doors, break down the wall.
I have ordered these stories in reverse alphabetical order, by author’s last name. It is an arbitrary sequence, but it is also serendipitous that Elio Vittorini appears first. In 1942, Vittorini published Americana, an anthology of thirty-three largely unknown American authors—among them, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and Willa Cather. But this was no mere gathering of authors; it was a massive, collective translation enterprise, featuring contributions by some of the most important Italian writers of the time, including Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, and the Nobel laureate poet Eugenio Montale. The objective of Americana was to introduce iconic American voices to Italian readers. For America, too, was a fabulous projection in the minds of many Italians of that generation: a legendary place that stood for youth, rebellion, freedom, and the future. But this projection, at least Vittorini’s version of it, was no escapist disconnect from reality, but rather, a form of both creative and political dissidence, a heroic, courageous connection, by means of literature, to a new world.
The first edition of Americana, to be published by Bompiani, was banned by Mussolini’s regime. It passed the censors only after Vittorini removed his critical commentaries on the individual authors, and Emilio Cecchi, a critic in good graces with the Fascist government, wrote an introduction. To leaf through the book today—it runs to over a thousand pages long—is to traverse a bridge that feels nothing short of revolutionary. Vittorini was my guiding light as I assembled this book. I followed his example in writing the brief author biographies—intended as partial sketches and not definitive renderings—that preface each story, and it is in homage to him and to that landmark work—to the spirit of saluting distant literary comrades, of looking beyond borders and of transforming the unknown into the familiar—that I offer the present contribution.
Jhumpa Lahiri received the Pulitzer Prize for her debut story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, which this year is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. She is also the author of The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland, a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. Lahiri has written three books in Italian. Her translation of Domenico Starnone’s novel Trick was a National Book Award finalist, and her translation of his novel Ties was a New York Times Notable Book. She lives in Rome, Italy, as well as in Princeton, New Jersey, where she is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
From The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpa Lahiri, published on September 10, 2019, by Penguin Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Jhumpa Lahiri.