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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A great work of social realism: Bread and Wine

Ok I admit that especially toward the end (of Ignazio Silone's 1937 novel, Bread and Wine) the dialogue begins to read like speeches and the character are more involved in exposition (to the reader) than in communication (with one another), but there's so much in this largely forgotten novel that event the flaws are somehow endearing. This was the height of the age of social realism in fiction, an era stretching roughly from Zola (maybe even Balzac) forward to Steinbeck - but Silone's is among the strongest, not only for his sincere leftist sympathies (Steinbeck's great Grapes of Wrath, important as it was, was pretty much saying government should have a role in helping the oppressed farm workers, all of which is true, but didn't have a lot to say about organizing, let alone socialism or revolution) and for the danger in which Silone lived (he was writing under the shadow of Mussolini, a far more dangerous and precarious position that his American contemporaries), but also for the complexity of the ideas and of the depth of the characters, who are throughout wrestling w/ their ideas and ideals. His main character, the radical exile returned to Italy, Pietro Spina, sometimes disguised as the priest Don Paolo, reminded me a little of Graham Greene's priest in The Power and the Glory - but they are counterpoints: one a real priest trying to commit himself to social activism, the other a real activist disguised as a priest and consequently considering issues of faith an and spirituality. The novel is completely sincere, wears its heart on its sleeve so to speak, and nobody writes this way anymore, not in our age of irony and post-irony, metafiction, cynicism, narcissism, and high literary style; admittedly, some great fiction is written today, especially in the short story form, but a novel like this would probably never find a home: too transparent, too engaged, to polemical - too bad because - despite the challenging plot that moves back and forth among 3 Italian locals (city, town, village), a little hard for a U.S. reader to keep track of - there are some great scenes, not the least of which is the somewhat ambiguous conclusion as Spina cuts through a snow-clogged mountain pass seeking elusive sanctuary.

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