One of Italy's greatest writers comes from the southernmost region of Italy, Sicily. Giovanni Verga is best known for the style of writing he helped to create, known as verismo or literary realism. He looked at life as a scientist looks at an experiment, trying to find its absolute truth. Verga was a leader not only in his use of free indirect style but also in the way in which he portrayed the Sicilian people of the late 19th/early 20th century. Considered one of the outstanding writers of modern Europe, often compared to Flaubert and Zola, his writings have been translated into many languages and have even been dramatized. Mascagni immortalized Verga's Cavalleria Rusticana in music when he dramatized it for his opera of the same name. In our times, Luchino Visconti's black-and-white film The Earth Trembles (1948) is based on Verga's most popular novel, The House by the Medlar Tree.
Born in Vizzini, Catania, to a family of patriots and landowners, Verga learned to love literature at a young age. The Verga family owned land around Vizzini and it was there that Verga began to watch the peasants and fisherfolk as they went about their work and lives. Later he decided against studying law at the University of Catania, choosing instead to pursue a literary career. Taking along not much more than his name, Verga left home in 1869 for the mainland, a recently unified Italy. While living in Florence and Milan he began his writing career and produced unsuccessful novels dealing with high society.
In 1879 Verga returned to his home town, his family and the peasants and fisherfolk for whom his soul had been yearning. He took to writing about what he saw around him, the tragedy and beauty of the life of the lower classes. Thus began his recoil against high society and its sophistication. He presented this by the use of the free indirect style in his writings.
Verga lived through a remarkable period of Italian history. He saw the unification take place and the country become a political entity. At the same time he saw the abuse of the people by the new Kingdom of Italy, which excluded Sicily from Italy's growing industrialization and world sophistication. To Verga there was no "Italy," only one's regional affiliation. Verga was Sicilian, and more so he was from Catania. He expressed this sentiment in his writing by using local dialects, colloquialisms, and tone. Examples of this can be found in many of his characters' names, such as Gramigna in the short story Gramigna's Mistress. ("Gramigna" is the word for crab grass that is practicably impossible to remove once it has taken root.) Through this new usage of dialect and free form he began to pave the way for the 20th-century modernists. He also used the style of the epic to create his heroes and heroines. The use of the chorus is a crucial tool to express the sentiments of the town as well as a means to enlighten the reader about the events of the story. Verga used direct and indirect speech to keep the author's point of view from interfering with the development of each character as well as with each story's plot. By the use of ancient myth Verga makes heroes and heroines out of the common folk, those who work to survive yet are defeated by their own pride and ambition. Perhaps the most successful of these portraits are the She-Wolf in The Wolf Hunt and the title character of Mastro-Don Gesualdo. The latter book and The House By The Medlar Tree were both translated into English by D.H. Lawrence.
Verga's first affections were for his family, his land, and the customs and passions of the people around him. These loves brought him back to Catania so that he could portray his people in the light of a new Italy. Although Verga died without finishing his five-part series I Vinti, he left the world a new means of understanding not only himself but also late 19th/early 20th-century Sicily.
The home of Giovanni Verga has been turned into a museum, at Via S. Anna #8. Perhaps more suitable for true Verga-lovers is Vizzini, the authentic Sicilian village where many of his stories are set. You can stay overnight in a real castle, the town offers a Verga tour year-round, and dramatic adaptations of the writer's works are presented outdoors in summer.
Jacqueline Gomperts, Los Angeles