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

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Friday, February 6, 2015

The Steinbeck of Italy?: Ignazio Silone

Does anyone read Ignazio Silone? Found a copy of Break and Wine in the Providence Public Library so old it looks like a rare book, published (in English) in 37, probably hasn't been taken off the shelf in 25 years - and it's a shame because, at least from the start, it appears to be a really good and straightforward novel about the issues of great importance in its day, and still in ours, though written about less. Story about social class and political resistance in Italy in the 1930s, the era of the rise of fascism and of incredible oppression of anyone of leftist views - yet how could any thinking person in that day not be a leftist? Silone's style is the 30s realism that American readers probably best know through books like The Grapes of Wrath - though too bad that Steinbeck veered every rightward through the rest of his career. Bread and Wine opens in a remote and impoverished village at what I think appears to be the spine of Italy just north of Rome; Silone makes much of the contrast between the city where life is fast-paced and "modern" and the remote countryside where life hasn't changed much since the middle ages. We see a priest, on his 75th birthday, ancient in that age and locale, waiting for some of his former students to arrive from the city to celebrate; two of them come, and bear news about their many classmates, all of whom have suffered bad fate. Life in this era and this area is almost hopeless, with the oppressive monarchy and the wealth controlled tightly by a corrupt and dying aristocracy (Lampedusa wrote about this from the aristocratic point of view in his incredible novel The Leopard, one of the great works of the century.) In next chapters we meet one of their classmates, returned to Italy from a time abroad and a wanted man for his political actions and affiliations. He disguises as a country priest in ill health and heads of to an extreme remote mountain village to hide, at least for a time - but you can imagine the complications that develop for someone posing as a priest (he's asked to administer last rites, for example). Silone wears his heart on his sleeve, so to speak, but even so it's great to see a novel with strong views and sympathies, a realistic approach to narrative, a sense of locale and place, and belief in the importance and integrity of characters - engaged, but not cynical, bitter, or ironic, the great vices to too much 20th-century literature.

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