Sunday, February 14, 2010

Book Three in the Abruzzo Trilogy: The Seed Beneath the Snow

It’s an old saw that the parent’s favorite child is often the weakest one – and that an author’s favorite book is her worst. I haven’t read all of Silone’s work but The Seed Beneath the Snow is on record as being his favorite among his novels, and sadly it’s kind of an ugly baby.

Well, not completely – but, coming on the heels of Bread and Wine, and continuing the saga of Pietro Spina, it squanders the momentum built by the earlier book so completely that any virtues it does have seem like pretty thin gruel. In The Seed Beneath the Snow, Pietro, still perilously ill but no longer disguised as a priest, spends his time hiding out in various barns, inns, and houses in the Abruzzi, not far from where he’d been in Bread and Wine. Why is the fellow still sticking around? Confusingly – and rather like a bad TV series in which characters’ back-stories are wiped clean, allowing them to start fresh with new hairdos and love interests – there is little musing on those earlier adventures.

The action is stalled right from the start, as we wait for Pietro to show for what feels like hundreds of pages (only forty, in reality). First we meet Donna Maria Vincenza Spina, Pietro’s aged grandmother, being driven in an old-style carriage by her helper Venanzio. There is explication, scene-setting, thick description; characters say sentences like: “Unfortunate woman that I am, I meant to say a few beads of the rosary on the way and now it will be lucky if my prayers don’t turn into blasphemy.” It all feels very nineteenth century in texture, with none of the “muscle” or knowingness of Fontamara, and none of the dash and comparative light hand of Bread and Wine.

We learn that Donna Maria is traveling to the house of her son, Pietro’s uncle Bastiano, to prevail upon him for help in rescuing Pietro – presumed dead by many, he is instead alive and in hiding. But Bastiano is a coward, frightened of the increasingly powerful Fascist government, and full of self-loathing. When his mother asks about his friends, he laughs bitterly:

“Friends? …There’s been no such thing as friendship in our part of the world for a long time, Mother; haven’t you noticed? What we have now is ‘connections.’ Yes, that’s the word: ‘connections.’”

So he has decided to toe the line and, in the middle of his mother’s visit, party bigwigs and their families arrive to watch the blessing of the animals, that quaint local custom, from his balcony. And what follows, unfortunately, is what takes up much of this talky, talky book: a room full of interchangeable bourgeois Fascist-leaning characters, some right from Central Casting – one can readily picture the handlebar moustaches and Margaret Dumont-like bosoms – who deal in platitudes and false flattery, and speechify like crazy. This is the ascendant world that Pietro has rejected, where true feelings and beliefs have no place.

The other milieu we visit again and again in the course of this book is that of the cafoni, who persist in their benighted, chowder-headed ways. As a group they’re less likely to toe the line – they have so little room for hope that one government is nearly interchangeable with another. The reader who has read the first two books in the Abruzzo Trilogy is pretty well tired of the cafoni by now. (As in the earlier two books, reading these scenes I thought, How infuriating these cafoni – my forebears – are. How was this book received in Abruzzi? Did the people hate the way they were portrayed? Or could Silone count on none of these people having access to something as exotic as a book?)

My lighthearted forebears, albeit on the Marchegiano side.

Infuriating as the cafoni are, the seeds of change are contained in them, and it is with them that Pietro will throw in his lot. We finally meet him at his grandmother’s house in the small town of Colle, after she has paid a ransom to a man in Pietrasecca, in whose stable Pietro had been hiding. Pietro is listless, brooding, and appears to be caught in a Hamlet-like paralysis that, unfortunately for the reader, will last most of the book.

And so it is about by Chapter 3 that the plot mostly leaves off. The Seed Beneath the Snow is really more a mood than a novel. There are oddball characters who come in for no specific reason, like the old miser Aunt Eufemia, she of the masculine appearance, who had been sought for military service as a young woman, had to drop her mutande in a humiliating medical examination, and nurses this wound throughout her bitter life. There is the constant talking, endless amounts of it, the dialogue that goes on for whole breathless swathes of text, sometimes punctuated by nothing more than a “Donna Palmira:” or “Don Lazzaro:” as if Silone didn’t want anything to interrupt his/their streams of oratory. And then there are the similes.

The similes, which are really quite dreadful:

The Passionist Father was listening with the hermetic, close-lipped smile of an old woman whose false teeth are at the dentist’s for repairs.

…his Adam’s apple rose and fell like a mouthful of something hard to swallow.

The old man sat distracted….a continual movement of his head and hands was like the persistent, tireless, desperate gesticulation of a man who for years on end has said yes, yes, yes to an invisible interlocutor…

He was shivering all over like an old beggar who had just been hauled out of dirty ditch-water.

…his words slipped out like cherries, in pairs; his signs like onions, in strings.

He seemed like the trunk of a tree sprayed with copper sulphate, an old tree but still capable of bearing fruit, and well armed against seasonal blights. At the top of the tree his clear eyes stood out like two spring buds but his short, bushy hair and his week-old beard were like two unevenly burned fields of stubble, two narrow fields of the kind proper to the Abruzzi mountains –

Oh, shuddupayouface already!!!

So belabored and nearly comical in their length and inappropriateness – or in their cafone-like obtuseness in comparing a thing to something that it is already quite like – these similes do lots of work toward killing this already oddly motionless book. Had the success of his first two novels made Silone self-conscious? In Bitter Spring, the excellent 2009 biography of Silone, author Stanislao Pugliese writes that Silone “…confessed (or boasted) that books did not play an important role in his intellectual formation. No teacher left a lasting impression. When an adolescent, he often took a book with him while wandering the mountainside, but he rarely opened it; books were most often used to sit on the wet grass.” (Sitting on books – vergognati!) In 1954, when Silone was asked who his influences were, his reply was brief: none. But I think that sometime after Fontamara, Silone (perhaps bristling over the charge that he wrote “bad Italian”) must have picked up a copy of I Promessi Sposi – the novel that casts a long, chubby shadow over Italian prose – and, whether he wanted it to or not, Manzoni’s penchant for figurative language crept into Silone’s writing.

The difference here is that Manzoni’s similes are strange and inventive – slow in revealing themselves, unspooling as you read until you have a delighted moment of recognition, like that weird grunt that people give at poetry readings at the end of a particularly good poem. Here Manzoni writes about the cowardly priest, Don Abbondio, having a moment of transformation – weak as he is – after being upbraided by the righteous Cardinal of Milan, a historical figure whose cousin was St. Charles Borromeo:

[Don Abbondio] behaved like the damp and battered wick of an old candle, if we may be permitted the comparison, when it is offered to the flame of a great torch. At the beginning it smokes, drips, crackles, and will have nothing to do with it; but finally it catches fire and burns passably well.

(Such things, as well as Manzoni’s many short asides about life – to which the reader often gives an Ah, so true! – are some of what makes the forbidding-looking I Promessi Sposi, which has the joyless and inert title The Betrothed in English, such a delight to read. I wish I had understood this in high school, when our teacher, Father Mario Bugliosi (one cool cat, and said to be a cousin of that cool cat Vincent Bugliosi), made us translate long, boring chunks of the book until we were nearly bleeding from the eyes. We couldn’t understand why the betrothed pair, Renzo and Lucia, wouldn’t just find another damn priest and get married already. We had no context – or perhaps Father Mario, no slouch, had provided one for us, but I was too busy dreaming about the Gang of Four record I would be dancing around to, in my mutande, at home.

[Similarly, in college, when I was translating long, boring chunks of St. Augustine, I kept thinking my Latin was really disintegrating, because all kinds of strange inconsistencies would pop up: I didn’t understand St. Augustine’s silly fondness for puns. Again, our professor had probably provided a context for us, but my friend Kim and I were probably too busy passing notes about our Latin teacher’s thrilling resemblance to the actor who played Young Törless to properly listen to him.]

Kim and I, some years after officially dropping our Latin minor, and before quitting smoking. I think actually Kim still owns that belt.

If you haven’t read it, everyone should all run out and get a copy of The Betrothed, which has much deliciousness, not least of which is a certain thread of sweetness that runs through the book – Manzoni’s humanism – as well as a thrilling texture rather like The Charterhouse of Parma (though not as quicksilver), and many stirring character studies, among them an amazing set-piece about Gertrude, the Nun of Monza, another historical figure whose lurid life would become fodder for many a Nunsploitation – who knew this was a genre? – film.)

I cannot vouch for this film.

I Promessi Sposi is actually called out by name early in The Seed Beneath the Snow. As a young woman, Pietro’s grandmother is given a copy of it by her future husband; when she reads on the jacket that the book is a novel, she throws it into the fire and writes her husband-to-be a curt note: “Dear Young Sir, you must have a very strange idea of me to have sent me a novel to read.” Besides harkening back to an age when novels were seen as potential corrupters of young ladies, this episode is on hand to show Donna Maria’s contempt for “abstract ideas and other such inventions of the devil” – as well accidentally showing, perhaps, Silone’s anxiety of influence.

Besides Pietro, the other characters rolled over from Bread and Wine for The Seed Beneath the Snow are among the least promising: the deaf-mute man, here called Infante, and Sciatàp, one of the more annoying cafoni – his name being the Italianization of “shut up,” the single phrase learned from a long sojourn in America – who in this book blossoms into a full-blown scoundrel. After lots of dithering Pietro leaves his grandmother’s house – she has actually obtained an official pardon for him, a hard thing to get, but he turns his back on it – and, just when actual action threatens to happen, we meet Pietro again in another stable. Oh, gravy! But it is here that Pietro teaches Infante to speak in some fashion – these are tender scenes, in the way that the Wordsworth poem “The Idiot Boy,” say, is tender – and, along with another character, good-hearted peasant Simone the Polecat, the three create a kind of little family. In a way this is the heart of the book: the three misfits finding a bond of brotherhood, from which might spring seeds of change. But this can’t last long. Sciatàp, who had “sold” Pietro to his grandmother at the start of the book, shows up again, trying to extort more money. Sciatàp and Simone will come to blows, the group will flee, and in time we will meet Pietro again elsewhere in Abruzzo, inexplicably working in a vineyard with Infante in broad daylight. Other things happen to other characters, lots of them, but instead of adding richness, these many small gestures only serve to make the book even more incoherent. Add to this the equally small revelations about secondary characters that happen towards the end of the book – revelations that register as similarly meaningless – and you have an oddly shapeless and inert novel.

In the book’s last episode, Infante’s long-lost father Guistino has come back, after twenty years in Philadelphia. This is a load off Pietro’s mind because he knows he must continue to run and cannot take Infante with him – plus, Pietro has met a young woman, Faustina. But instead of a happy reunion, it’s immediately clear that the father, having lost his arm, has really only come back to reclaim his adult son so that he can live off him, as he would any old pack mule. And so, in the last few pages, unforgivably, the whole thing ends in tragedy – lousy tragedy that has the effect of cheapening the tragedy at the end of Bread and Wine. Pietro arrives at Infante’s house just after the deaf-mute has violently stabbed his abusive father. Pietro hustles Infante out of the room and closes the door on him; the man seems to still be alive, and Pietro calls for help:

But when he went back to the body on the floor, Guistino was dead. The carabinieri found Pietro sitting on a mattress, his head between his hands.

“I killed him,” he said.

Pietro is marched off to jail by the carabinieri; he passes pretty Faustina waiting for him at the train station, from which they were to finally escape – she, who had been so hopeful, must hold onto the bars of the train station window to keep from fainting. And for the similarly abused reader, it’s hard not to think of something like the ha-ha-joke-on-you ending of Le Salaire de la peur: Yves Montand, abruptly dead in a ditch, a Métro ticket clutched in his hand.

There is a disheartening timidity about this book. Silone was writing it while WWII was still raging: so perhaps he was thinking, what if the Axis actually wins? No strong gestures here. (It is, of course, easy for me to write this blithe condemnation by my window in the East Village in 2010.) The feeling of stalled action, the repetition, the boredom of hiding, never lets up; Spina is always caged, always waiting – which must have been pretty much how Silone felt, in exile in Switzerland for nearly ten years by that point. Also, strangely, instead of seeming merely neurotic and prickly, now Pietro is almost unappealingly misanthropic. Despite the title and the little gestures The Seed Beneath the Snow wants to make, there is a real hopelessness in the book. The belief in a different future that Pietro holds out seems (for the first time) sentimental, impossible, like a happy story you tell yourself to get through a long night.

The other thing sadly brought to the fore in this book is Silone’s sexism, and his dealing in the persistent, and persistently boring, virgin/whore dichotomy. If a woman is young, she is described and appraised, as if her body and face are common property to be commented on (“sexless” old women, like the grandmother, are among the few women to be seen as individuals). Faustina is thought to be having an affair with an older relative of Pietro’s; only when she is proved to be a victim of slander, and a kind-hearted person simply caring for an old man, can she have real appeal for Pietro – just as the virginal Cristina, not the “naughty” Bianchina, despite her complete devotion to him, was Pietro’s potential soul mate in Bread and Wine.

All of this only gets more depressing after reading in Bitter Spring about how Silone treated his own wife, Darina Laracy Silone. Which, along with the caso Silone, is something for my next post.