“Small, but suitable for me, clean, free of expenses and purchased solely with my own money”
You will find this inscription on the Ferrara home of the Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto. Whether they are tiny or large, luxurious or abandoned, Italian literature is full of houses in which entire worlds meet and collide.
Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda was admired by D.H. Lawrence and he went on to become her translator. In Reeds in the Wind, Deledda takes us to rugged Sardinia – to the home of the three Pintor sisters. The decadent dwelling is their treasure, the only thing remaining from their declining nobility, along with the faithful servant Felix and a small farm. In their youth this once magnificent house was a prison, but, it ends up becoming the ultimate defence of the Pintor sisters from the outside world. The bible asks if we are reeds shaken with the wind. Deledda answers: “We are the reeds, and fate is the wind”.
THE HOUSE ON THE HILL – Cesare Pavese – 1949
It’s the summer of 1943. World War II is underway and in Italy, the Civil War has begun. Is it better to stay with the Fascists, or to take part in the partisan struggle? Pavese’s alter-ego Corrado, a science teacher, decides to flee to the hills to escape the bombing. He will be hosted by two women in their house on the hill, in a countryside that is both beautiful and tormented. This house is meant to be a safe place, a refuge from the fury of the war. However, Corrado soon understands that his attempt at isolation is futile because “war is everyone and no one can escape it.” There are no walls that can protect you from existential pain. Susan Sontag and Italo Calvino of the New York Review of Books have strongly recommended this book. Listen to them.
Imagine for a moment a very large and elegant house surrounded by a flourishing garden and protected by a high wall. This is the home of the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy and aristocratic Jewish family. We are in those years between First and Second World War when anti-Semitism is spreading. Our protagonist, Giorgio, sees the house as an uncontaminated paradise. One day the beautiful and intelligent Micol Finzi-Contini invites him to enter that impermeable world. The Finzi-Continis believed their island was safe but tragedy was on its way. In 1971 Vittorio De Sica won an Oscar for the film adaptation of the iconic novel.
THE TRUCE – Primo Levi – 1963
One morning in October 1945, nine months after his rescue from Auschwitz, the young chemist Primo Levi reached his home in northern Italy. This is the end of The Truce, the tale of a long, complicated, starvation-filled route home across Europe. “Now we have found home, our belly is full”. The starting sentence of the book connects the story to the Levi’s previous tome If This is a Man, a lucid, profound and dramatic testimony of his imprisonment in the concentration camp. Once home, Levi’s hopes to return to his former life quickly disappear. His mind will always be dominated by the ‘get up’ command in Auschwitz: “Wstawàc”. Even home doesn’t feel safe anymore. The Truce is “one of the greatest testaments of the human era”, according to Philip Roth. It’s an odyssey through one of the blackest pages of the twentieth century.
ME AND YOU - Niccolò Ammaniti – 2010
Have you ever planned a holiday in your cellar? The 14 year old Lorenzo locks himself in the family cellar with tins of sardines, PlayStation games, snacks and science-fiction books. He plans to spend a week in hiding to cover up a lie he told his family, who believe he is skiing in Cortina with a classmate. The anti-social Lorenzo looks forwards a week of solitude, away from his peers. But the cellar doesn’t protect him from the outside world: his drug addicted and stranded half-sister Olivia swoops in with no intention to leave. Eventually Lorenzo understands that he must leave his refuge, facing the fear of growing up. An unexpected ending by “the new Italian word for talent” (The Times).