Fontamara is about a group of villagers in an impoverished hill town who are put through a series of abuses in the early days of Fascism: their electricity is turned off, their only source of water is appropriated, their complaints are answered by meaningless “compromises.” The women of the town are brutally attacked. In the midst of this, one of the villagers, Berardo Viola, rises up and fights back, only to die in a jail in Rome; in the wake of his death, the peasants are organized into publishing an anti-Fascist newspaper – called What Are We To Do?, the echo of Lenin in the question noted by many a commentator on the book – and, because of their attempts at resistance, the town is crushed. Three Fontamaresi escape, and the conceit of the narrative is that they have traveled to Switzerland to tell their story to Silone, himself an anti-Fascist exile.
When I first read Fontamara, I remember feeling annoyed with the broadly drawn characters in the book, these mountain-dwelling galoots constantly suckered into accepting worse and worse conditions by the local aristocracy and fast-talking city people who come to oppress them. The Fontamarese peasants are lambs led to slaughter. They are cafoni, as Silone calls them, glossing the word as “suffering flesh” (cafone has, of course, been corrupted into the highly unflattering Italian-American word gavone, meaning something more like “slob”). These cafoni will never get a fair deal, and I found the monotony of this – and the authorial insistence on it – monotonous. This initial reading of mine dates to the pre-mass-internet days of about 1992, and I had picked up the book because I was looking for information, information about the region where my mother’s family came from: Abruzzo – or, as most Italian-Americans still call it, Abruzzi.*
*(The reason for which plural is a confusing ball of wax, but harkens back to when the region was controlled by the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and seems to reflect the lack of solidarity among the small feudal provinces that made up the area; the plural usage seems to have officially ended in 1963, when the recently joined region of Abruzzi e Molise was separated again, now into Abruzzo and Molise. Since so many Italians emigrated long before this, and continued to call their province “Abruzzi,” this usage is preserved in amber for their children and grandchildren – which makes us seem like a precious lot of dolts to Italians from the motherland, but more on that later.)
In my mad search for information on Abruzzo in those days, I found guidebooks about Italy pretty much useless – the region, with its mountainous terrain and harsh winters, was clearly not much of an international tourist destination. All the representations of Abruzzo that I could find, in fact, tended to be pretty miserable, dwelling on the remoteness of the region and the poverty and perceived backwoods mentality of its people. For example, there’s Natalia Ginzburg’s somber essay Winter in the Abruzzi, written about her family’s years of exile in an impoverished village in L’Aquila, showing the locals to be superstitious and hidebound. Then there are the stories of a different sort of exile, Mussolini, jailed in a ski resort in Campo Imperatore, with the idea that the Germans could never rescue him from such an inaccessible place. And finally there’s the scene in the wonderful 1994 film L’America, where the two characters are wandering through a wretched Albania, and they see “ENVER HOXHA” – the name of Albania’s Communist chief of state – blasted into the mountainside…the older of the two, a WWII deserter from Sicily who’s been trapped in Albania all these years, says to the young entrepreneur/conman in a mixture of dialect and Italian:
What’s written on that mountain? Can’t you read either? What’s written is “Duce, Mussolini.” We must be somewhere in Abruzz’…
I actually groaned aloud at these words when I saw L’America at the New York Film Festival back in 1995. Especially because Mussolini was the reason my mother’s family had to pack up and leave Abruzzo, but that’s another story.
Fontamara was beloved of leftist intellectuals when it came out in 1934. Stille writes in his introduction: “Its publication was a central event in Alfred Kazin’s memoir, Starting Out in the Thirties, and had an equally strong impact on other major critics such as Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, and Irving Howe.” After my recent re-reading of Fontamara, I found myself wondering, what book were all these guys reading? (They were actually reading an “inferior” translation by Michael Wharf, but that’s not my point.) The bulk of Fontamara has a satirical, cartoonish texture, and the flavor of a black comedy. In the last fifth or so the tone of the book mysteriously changes – Berardo Viola, the unpredictable, luckless cafone hero of the book, has his transformation in jail, and claims to be the Mystery Man the police are seeking in order to allow the real Mystery Man (a shadowy sort of good-guy, perhaps Communist, agent) to escape to carry on the cause. Berardo will of course die in jail, after making a brave speech that sounds very little like his character in most of the first hundred and fifty or so pages of this short book:
…If I turn traitor, everything will be lost. If I betray, Fontamara will be damned forever. If I betray, centuries will pass before another opportunity arises. And if I die? It will be the first time that a cafone dies, not for himself, but for others.
However, because the tone has been set, it’s hard not to look for the punch line that Berardo’s sacrifice will result in. When that doesn’t come – and one realizes satire has been swapped out for something like realism – there’s an unsatisfying, bait-and-switch feeling. It’s a different kind of book, one realizes, it’s more like other proletarian fiction of the period, such as Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money, with its brave, Brechtian battle-cry at the end. But most of Fontamara exists in another world, in a hopeless, absurdist, Celine-like repetition of abuse and neglect.
Maybe Silone’s status as a dropout from the Communist Party does something to explain the inconsistent tone of the book. As Stille writes in the forward: “Disillusioned by the brutal mendacity of communism, which began to appear more and more like ‘red fascism,’ Silone began to withdraw from active party politics, claiming severe illness. Indeed, in a state of severe depression, he began psychoanalysis at the Swiss clinic of Carl Jung. It was during this period, in the spring of 1930, that Silone found the way out of his crisis, by beginning the novel Fontamara.” I often wondered about the narration of the novel. It is in Silone’s forward, a mixture of fact and fiction – a blurring of boundaries that would be called post-modern thirty or so years later – that Silone tells the reader about the three Fontamaresi who have come to him to tell their story: “The old man spoke first. Then his wife took up the tale, then the man again and then his wife…” And indeed, the narration of the chapters pretty much syncopates between the man and the woman – context mostly providing the clue as to who’s talking (the husband is in scenes with groups of men, the wife with groups of women) – with at least one chapter narrated by their son. The effect of this odd structure is pretty clunky. Perhaps the idea was that Silone was “reporting” on something, using the words of peasants themselves, and this would give the book its veracity.
In the J M Dent British edition of the book (which, despite a powerful cover illustration, looks like the kind of grimly boring young adult novel – sex or coolness but a distant dream – that they would wave in our faces in grammar school), Michael Foot writes in his introduction that the historian Gaetano Salvemini, “a fellow exile from Mussolini’s Italy,” was critical of the book. In a letter to Silone’s publishers in New York, Salvemini wrote: “…Fontamara contained too much ‘propaganda.’ Its peasants were at times too stupid or insufficiently human. Silone was looking at them from above, as befits a Communist by whom the peasantry needs to be rescued from its degradation by Marxist industrial workers, the chosen people of the new era.” Mark Van Doren’s review, published in The Nation on October 3rd, 1934, suggests he had similar problems with the book, based on this excerpt:
That such a novel as this should have become a best seller in fourteen countries of Europe is powerfully suggestive of the high degree to which Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini and his government must be hated beyond the borders of the country which they bless. It is a poor novel by any test, even by that of propaganda. It is sketchy and coarse, and sounds like an exaggeration. It may not be that, but so it sounds, and nobody not rabidly anti-fascist can be conceived either as believing it or as liking it.
So for some it wasn’t even useful as a piece of agit-prop: it would make no converts.
I’d recently picked up a copy of Alfred Kazin’s Starting Out in the Thirties from my favorite bookstore in Connecticut, the Niantic Book Barn (books, cats, goats: what could be better?). The book is a delight to read, with Kazin’s prose that crackles off the page, his delicious, joyously drawn portraits of friends like James Farrell and William Saroyan, his evocation of a New York City where people breathed books and radical politics…all of which, unfortunately, makes today’s New York City – where people appear to be concerned not so much with the life of the mind as with scoring a reservation at Momofuku – yeah, baby! – all the more stupid and sad.
Anyway! It’s apparent in reading Kazin’s book that key to Fontamara’s positive critical reception (Mark Van Doren’s review notwithstanding) was the beautiful ferment of those times. To get a quick sense of this, one need only see the breathtaking footage of masses of suited, smart young men shoving and soap-boxing and passionately debating in the “perfervid, overly heated, overly excited” atmosphere, as Irving Howe puts it, of City College in the 1930s in the documentary Arguing the World – which is a wonderful film, despite Irving Kristol. In that milieu everything was politicized, everyone chose a side – socialist, Communist – Marxist, Stalinist, Trotskyite – anarchist, etc., and Kazin loved Fontamara because it was part of a greater battle cry. Crucial to his passionate reaction to it was his quasi-mentor Malcolm Cowley’s review of the book in The New Republic. As Kazin wrote: “….Cowley reviewed [Fontamara and Man’s Fate] so vividly that I could not wait to get to the key scenes of revolutionary suffering and heroism when I read these books for myself.”
I went back and found Cowley’s review – god love the NYPL – and it basically runs down the plot of the book, framing it more like it’s reportage than fiction. Cowley seems to imply that three Fontamarese peasants (Pescina was actually the name of the town Fontamara was more or less based on) really did show up at Silone’s door in Davos, rather than visiting his imagination. He ends his review:
The book is so simple and quickly moving and full of hill-country humor that it seems shorter than it really is; you read to the end without laying it down and are surprised to find that it is long past midnight. Afterwards you reflect that although the story begins as broad farce and ends as tragedy, the underlying tone of it is neither one nor the other. Beneath the events of the story is a lyrical sadness, the longing for home of a man who loves his own country and can’t go back to it until the present government is overthrown. Perhaps Silone won’t have to wait until his hair turns white.
So in essence Cowley, and Kazin, and so many others leftist intellectuals of that era, were responding in real time as comrades to the man, the writer, the exile. Silone was their hero, he had escaped by the skin of his teeth – perhaps he was even the Mystery Man of his “novel”? The political was the personal – and, in those perfervid times, that trumped all other criticisms.
The tone shift that I find so jarring in Fontamara is nothing compared with the tone shift between Fontamara itself and Silone’s next, and most famous, book, Bread and Wine. In Silone’s 1958 “Note on the Revision of Fontamara,” he writes, “Though some critics take a different view, there is no break or rupture between that first book of mine and its successors.” But the two novels are like night and day.