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Geoffrey Wheatcroft…absorbing…Bitter Spring is readable, well informed and accurate…If Silone's books are less read now than they once were, they ought not to be forgotten, and they will not be.
—The New York Times
One of the major figures of twentieth-century European literature, Ignazio Silone (1900-78) is the subject of this award-winning new biography by the noted Italian historian Stanislao G. Pugliese. A founding member of the Italian Communist Party, Silone took up writing only after being expelled from the PCI and garnered immediate success with his first book, Fontamara, the most influential and widely translated work of antifascism in the 1930s. In World War II, the U.S. Army printed unauthorized versions of it, ...
One of the major figures of twentieth-century European literature, Ignazio Silone (1900-78) is the subject of this award-winning new biography by the noted Italian historian Stanislao G. Pugliese. A founding member of the Italian Communist Party, Silone took up writing only after being expelled from the PCI and garnered immediate success with his first book, Fontamara, the most influential and widely translated work of antifascism in the 1930s. In World War II, the U.S. Army printed unauthorized versions of it, along with Silone's Bread and Wine, and distributed them throughout Italy during the country's Nazi occupation. During the cold war, he was an outspoken opponent of Soviet oppression and was twice considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Twenty years after his death, Silone was the object of controversy when reports arose indicating that he had been an informant for the Fascist police. Pugliese's biography, the most comprehensive work on Silone by far and the first full-length biography to be published in English, evaluates all the evidence and paints a portrait of a complex figure whose life and work bear themes with contemporary relevance and resonance. Bitter Spring, the winner of the 2008 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, is a memorable biography of one of the twentieth century's greatest writers against totalitarianism in all its forms, set amid one of the most troubled moments in modern history.
There was a time when Ignazio Silone was the most famous Italian author in the world. His earliest novels, such as Fontamara and Bread & Wine, were praised for their depictions of peasant life in his native Abruzzo. As Pugliese reveals in this solid and engaging biography, Silone's literary reputation in his own country was complicated by his political legacy; having joined the Italian Communists to advocate social justice and fight fascism, the author was dismayed by the party's authoritarian tendencies and was eventually expelled. Pugliese (whose previous book was on Carlo Rosselli, Silone's contemporary in the Italian socialist movement) builds his biographical case in careful blocs of information, describing the drama while maintaining the narrative. This holds true even during a review of the controversial discovery, 20 years after Silone's death, of documents that suggest he might have given information to the Fascist police while still a Party member. In graceful prose, Pugliese offers a few intriguing theories (was Silone shielding someone? was he hiding a homosexual affair?), but reluctantly concedes that we may never know the full truth. Whatever did happen, Pugliese concludes, led Silone to create "some of the most poignant and powerful fiction of the 20th century." (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The original allegiance of these ex-Communists was not to a party or ideology but to ordinary working people. Facing the harsh, sometimes lethal conditions of early industrialism, workers gradually organized themselves, usually against ferocious opposition from above. Their struggle for a modicum of comfort, security, and dignity won the support of many sensitive compatriots from other social classes. Some of these sympathizers joined the struggle as spokesmen or even leaders. One was Ignazio Silone, the subject of Stanislao Pugliese's excellent biography.
In the stark physical and moral landscape of rural southern Italy, a boy named Secondino Tranquilli grew up during the first years of the 20th century observing the travails of the peasants, or cafoni. His father died when he was 11, and his mother and all but one of his siblings died four years later in an earthquake that devastated the region. He was a rebellious and melancholy adolescent, but he came under the influence of a saintly priest who, unlike every other priest the boy had known, actually practiced Christianity. The experience left young Secondino with what the Gospels call "a hunger and thirst for justice."
World War I and its aftermath generated waves of revolutionary activity in Europe. Secondino joined the Italian Socialist Party and, before he was out of his teens, became one of its leaders. When that party split, he became one of the leaders of the new Communist Party. A year later, Fascism descended on Italy and "Pasquini" (his Party name) went underground.
Throughout his 20s, he travelled widely on assignments for the Communist International, besides editing numerous Party publications. There were several sojourns in Spanish, French, and Italian prisons, and many pseudonyms. "Ignazio Silone" was the one that stuck.
The intolerance and deceit of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the other Russian Communist leaders increasingly disturbed Silone. In 1927 he attended a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, where Stalin's manipulations shocked and disgusted him. (He told the story in his most famous essay, "Emergency Exit," reprinted in the influential Cold War anthology The God that Failed. ) Two years later, gravely ill with tuberculosis, he went on medical leave from the Party, and two years after that he was expelled.
Exiled in Switzerland, warned by his doctors that he had only a year or two to live, Silone began writing a story about his hometown, "so that I might die among my own people." The resulting novel, Fontamara (Bitter Spring), made him internationally famous. Unexpectedly he recovered, and a few years later came Bread and Wine, his best novel and some critics' choice for the finest political novel of the century. During the Second World War, he divided his energies between fighting Fascism and fighting Communism, advising Allied intelligence and trying to keep the Italian Socialist Party from merging with the Communists.
After the war, and after 20 years in exile, he returned to Italy a hero. He remained highly visible, as a novelist, essayist, and editor of the leading Italian literary/political journal, Tempo Presente, until his death in 1978. Communist intellectuals never forgave him, but among the best of his contemporaries -- Orwell, Camus, Macdonald, Chiaromonte -- he was revered. Camus, on his way to receive the Nobel Prize in 1957, told a friend that the award should really have gone to Silone.
Why, now that both the commissars and the cafoni have disappeared, are Silone's writings still valuable? Perhaps because of his unusual combination of earnestness and skepticism, of lofty idealism and earthy humor. The peasants in his novels are exploited and deceived, but they are also, at times, a stitch, their wry fatalism tempering the reader's high-minded indignation on their behalf with frequent smiles at their expense. The same ability to see from all sides served Silone well as a combatant in the Cold War. Even among the minority of intellectuals who tried to maintain a critical distance from both sides, everyone lost his balance at one time or another -- but Silone less often than most. He was unyielding in his criticism of Soviet-bloc unfreedom, but he also criticized McCarthyism, racial discrimination, and American military interventions.
Idealism without illusions, an unsentimental passion for justice -- this is Silone's legacy. He called himself "a Socialist without a Party, a Christian without a Church." What he meant by both Socialism and Christianity, he explained, was "an extension of the moral values of private life" -- generosity, solidarity, candor -- "to all of social life." It is a simple vision but still a very long way from realization. Few people in his time did more than Silone to keep it alive.
A few last, anticlimactic words must be added. In recent years, two Italian historians have accused Silone -- one of the best-known and most hated opponents of Fascism -- of having been a Fascist informer. Stanislao Pugliese reviews their case and the subsequent controversy with scrupulous fairness. The evidence is slender, but it seems clear that Silone had a correspondence with a Fascist police official. What is not clear is that Silone ever told him anything of importance. If he did, it may have been a desperate attempt to save the life of his brother, who died in a Fascist prison. How significant is any of this? Not very, I'd say; but the reader must decide. --George Scialabba
George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University. He was the very first recipient of the National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.
The Landscape of My Soul
What the"true" image of each of us may be in the end is a meaningless question. —primo levi,"Lorenzo’s Return"
In 1923,"Ignazio Silone" was born in a Spanish prison. Perhaps it was no coincidence—and surely appropri-ate—that at the time he was reading Dostoevsky. Secondino Tranquilli, the person whose identity he erased with hisnew name, had been born twenty-three years earlier in the rural Abruzzo region of Italy and burdened with the given name"Secondino," which, in the local dialect, meant"prison guard." In Spain, he had been writing for Andrés Nin’s journal La Batalla and imprisoned as a Communist. Significantly, he derived"Silone" from the ancient warrior Poppedius Silo, a native of Silone’s beloved Abruzzo. Silo had led a successful revolt against the tyranny of Rome in 90 b.c. and thereby gained official recognition of the local population’s autonomy."Ignazio" he borrowed from the SpanishCounter-Reformation saint Loyola in order to"baptize the pagan surname." In this defiant act of self-appellation and identity creation, he synthesized a classical, pagan past with the Christian tradition.
Silone has most often been associated with the protagonist of his novels Bread and Wine and The Seed Beneath the Snow, Pietro Spina. ("Read my books," he once said,"only in them do I fully recognize myself.") A Communistintellectual and activist, Spina is returning from exile to his native Abruzzo, hunted by the Fascist police. In order to elude arrest and move about the countryside, he dons the robes of a priest and becomes Don [Father] Paolo Spada. The metamorphosis from Pietro Spina (literally Peter [the] Thorn) to Paolo Spada (Paul [the] Sword) is revealing: The Communist"thorn" is transformed into the religious"sword." The American literary critic Edmund Wilson, after reading Silone’s novels while sitting on the benches of the Villa Borghese Gardens in Rome, Italian dictionary at his side, perceptively sensed that Silone was"a queer mixture of priest and communist." Nicola Chiaromonte, Silone’s fellow founder and editor of the literary-cultural journal Tempo Presente, and one of the few people who could claim to be close to the writer, intuited that Silone was in some ways a"prete contadino," a peasant priest.
Yet Silone’s life and experience are reflected in many of his characters, not just Pietro Spina/Paolo Spada. There is the peasant Berardo Viola in Fontamara, Thomas the Cynic in The School for Dictators, the disillusioned party intellectual Rocco De Donatis in A Handful of Blackberries, the doggedly persistent Andrea Cipriani in The Secret of Luca, the compassionate Daniele of The Fox and the Camelias, self-effacing Pope Celestine V in The Story of aHumble Christian. But there is always a clear, explicit, and sincere identification with the poor Christ, the sufferingChrist, the peasant Christ who figures in the mythology of the rural poor. And in his last, unfinished work, Severina, Silone for the first and only time identifies himself with a female protagonist. Severina, a young convent initiate who refuses to give false testimony in court even though ordered to do so by her mother superior, grew out of Silone’s fascination at the end of his life with Simone Weil. A member of the French underground, a writer, and a Jew who died by self-starvation in 1943, Weil inspired Silone to create Severina as bystander to a crime, thus embodying what writing meant for him:"the absolute necessity of bearing witness."
Representativeness was imposed on Silone, wrote R.W.B. Lewis in a profile that, now almost a half century old, is still thebest critical analysis of the writer."He scarcely had a chance to be Italian." Further complicating his portrait isthe essential paradox that defined him: his entrance into politics because of an essentially religious conception of the world."He became a socialist," Lewis writes,"because he wanted to become a saint." As a priest says of one ofSilone’s characters,"socialism was his way of serving God."
Silone is a particularly difficult subject for the biographer because of the labyrinthine meanderings of his own identity and his enigmatic autobiographical comments. He believed that the true nature of any person could not be known because—following the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico—he insisted that man is not nature."Every man," he wrote,"is much more complicated than what he appears and that which he believes himself to be . . . to hell with psychology and facile suppositions."
Did Silone knowingly encourage a misreading and a conflation of his heroic and morally pure main characters with his own biography? Is it true, as others now insist, that Silone offered a confession for his transgressions as a police spy in a minor protagonist? The transfiguration from Secondino Tranquilli to Ignazio Silone was neither the first nor the last of his many self-transformations.
When I asked Silone’s widow about his fate in Italian literary circles and why no biography on him had been written in English, Darina Silone replied,"That situation was Silone’s own fault; his—to say the least—extremely difficultcharacter." When I noted the challenge of tracking down documents in various archives and trying to fashion an identityfrom them, she was quick to respond."There are things that are not found in any archive," she insisted."Silone’s character was difficult; his personality very complex. Of the few people alive who knew him personally, I am perhaps the one who knew him best, even if certainly not completely (no one ever knew him completely)."
Where, exactly, does identity lie? C. H. Cooley’s"looking-glass" theory of self ("I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am") doesn’t help us in Silone’s case, for he simply did not care what others in the Italian political and literary establishments thought of him. But the biographer has a fertile mine in Silone’s own writings. Rarely has an oeuvre been so autobiographical. All of Silone’s novels except one take place in the Abruzzo region of Italy, as do his two plays. Rarely has so cosmopolitan a writer been so closely identified with the place ofhis birth."Look at Silone," said Albert Camus, noting the paradox in an interview after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature,"he is radically tied to his land but is the most European of writers . . . Silone speaks to all of Europe. If I feel myself tied to him it is because he is incredibly rooted in his national and even local tradition." Not that Silone engaged in any sentimental or nostalgic mythmaking of his origins. Indeed, one is struck by his complicated and ambivalent relationship with his hometown of Pescina. Notwithstanding all the autobiographical detail in his work, the problem of uncovering his identity still remains almost insurmountable for the biographer."There is no single truth about Silone," Darina Silone once said,"only many truths."
The writing is deceptively simple and presents the biographer with multiple challenges. Silone recognized himself in Hugo von Hof-mannsthal’s dictum that writers are a human category for whom writing is more difficult than it is for anyone else."I live in a close communion with the characters in my stories that cannot be broken from one day to the next," Silone wrote. So close was that identification that the necessity of actually finishing a book was"an arbitrary and painfulact, an act against nature, at any rate, my nature."
The flawed, tragic hero is only one possible trope in crafting a biography of Silone. Like an ancient Hebrew prophet or oneof the early persecuted Christians, Silone insisted on a moral vision of the world. His writing—"bearing witness"—was to become the testimony of an age. This is related to what might be called"the Christian quandary" or Silone’s"wrestling with the Lord." He refused to take the more facile path of an easy atheism or agnosticism. Christianity for Silone was both a historical movement, tied to a certain place and time, and a transcendent, timeless moral force. This conflicting tension between an adamant historicism and a desire for transcendence are ever-present in his thought and writing. Silone and his main protagonists are not so much searching for a hidden God as being hounded by the Lord. A doggedly persistent deity haunts Silone and his characters, seeking them out in desolate landscapes and humble farmhouses, donkey stalls, and empty churches. The moral and ethical impetus is more St. Augustine’s Confessions than Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. There is, as Irving Howe noted, an irreducible tension in all of Silone’s writings between the secular promise of Socialist liberation and the Christian promise of spiritual transcendence. Despite his identification with both Christianity and socialism, Silone indelibly defined himself as"a Socialist without a Party, a Christian without a Church."
Silone was honest enough to recognize the potential and contemporary failure of the Catholic church just as he fearlessly recognized the potential and failure of orthodox Marxism. There was no Dantean"comedic" vision of Christianity in Silone; he confessed to being an"absurd Christian." Theologically, orthodox Christianity cannot accept absurdity or nihilism, yet for Silone, these must be confronted before they can be transcended. For Silone, the promise of Christianity as embodied in the Easter Resurrection has not come to pass. Instead, for the peasants of southern Italy—indeed, for peasants and workers around the world—it is, he insisted, still—and always—Good Friday. While the writer felt himself hounded by the Lord, Silone’s peasants ask, like Christ on the cross,"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Surely the most anguished and—for the Christian—the most disturbing line in the Bible.
Nor could Marxism offer salvation or redemption. In an early work he concluded:"The future belongs to Socialism." Years later, Silone repudiated that sentiment and the entire work in which it was written and strictly forbade its reprinting. Just as he could not bring himself simply to accept a comedic teleology of Christianity, he eventually came to question and then reject Marxist eschatology and teleology.
William Faulkner thought him Italy’s greatest living writer, and intellectuals as diverse as Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Graham Greene, and Edmund Wilson agreed. Yet even his most astute readers, focused on his moral and political seriousness, often fail to note Silone’s irony and humor. He once wrote that since pathos cannot be eliminated from human life,"a touchof irony is required to make it acceptable." Silone’s irony could indeed be bitter, but it was always moderated by a critical spirit and an independence of judgment. Although tragedy and sorrow were inherent in the human condition— he often wrote of"our inhuman fate upon the earth"—there remained the possibility of hope. His politics could be described as a humanistic socialism combined with a compassionate libertarianism. He was an admirer of the anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, and Camillo Berneri (the last assassinated by Stalin’s agents during the Spanish Civil War). When Berneri’s widow, Giovanna, in her journal Volontà, implied that Silone was an anarchist, the writer responded, saying he would be honored to be counted as an anarchist, if only to distinguish himself from the various forms of socialism then current in Italy."But a great respect toward those who have studied, struggled and suffered to give the anarchist ideal a precise shape" prevented him from identifying himself as such. Nine years later, in a sympathetic response to the student uprisings of 1968, Silone commented that"democracy has a duty to respect utopia."
By nature silent, meditative, and melancholy, Silone belied the stereotype of the gregarious, outgoing, extroverted southern Italian. In The Seed Beneath the Snow, a sympathetic character remarks to Pietro Spina’s grandmother (modeled on Silone’s own maternal grandmother):"There’s a kind of sadness, a subtle kind of sadness that must not be confused with the more ordinary kind that’s the result of remorse, disappointment, or suffering; there’s a kind of intimate sadness and hopelessness that attaches itself for preference to chosen souls . . . That kind of sadness has always been very prevalent among sensitive individuals in this part of the world. Once upon a time, to avoid suicide or madness, they entered monasteries."
Unable or unwilling to enter a monastery, Silone gravitated to politics at an early age. But painfully shy, uncomfortable in the public light, and perpetually doubtful of himself, Silone never had any of the qualities necessary for a successful political career. He was a difficult husband, an exasperating friend, a mediocre politician, an aloof acquaintance, a morosepresence in public, a distant and cool relative, often manic-depressive, sometimes suicidal, and he carried out an epistolary exchange with a police official that has shadowed his reputation for the last decade. Yet, starting in the 1930s, he crafted a body of work that testifies to a searing political and spiritual crisis and still bears fruitful reading. Silone offers us today a critical commentary on everything that we as human beings experienced in the twentieth century: from the failed promise of political utopia to the disillusionment with art; from the nihilism of totalitarianism to the moral temptations and seductive corruption of an affluent but savage, consumerist culture.
Curiously, Silone has never been the subject of a biography in English. Even in Italy, when not neglected by the literary and cultural establishment, he was often the object of scorn and derision, accused of writing"bad Italian." Awash ina sea of hagiographical works, there is some discerning, insightful scholarship on Silone in Italian for the serious reader. But considering the ethical dimensions of his writing and the wide range of his literary production, it is surprising that his work has not attracted greater attention in America. While known mainly for his novels, Silone mastered the art of the essay (Emergency Exit), the theoretical treatise (Fascism: Its Origins and Development), political satire (The School for Dictators), as well as drama (And He Hid Himself ; The Story of a Humble Christian). When The School for Dictators first appeared in 1938 (with dictators ascendant), Silone was acclaimed"a second Machiavelli" by some overly enthusiastic critics, as, conversely, his Manifesto for Civil Disobedience of December 1942, in which he urges the peoples of Europe to rise up against the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships with nonviolent public resistance, makes one think of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Critics and readers of twentieth-century Italian literature are now familiar with the so-called caso Silone (Silone case), first broached in the postwar years: Why was Silone so beloved and read abroad and so neglected at home in Italy? It was only late in his life that the Italian literary establishment issued a collective mea culpa and showered Silone with literaryprizes. Robert Gordon has concisely delineated Silone’s postwar critical reputation:
Ironically, the foreign writers and critics who had championed Silone in the 1930s and 1940s as a great writer gradually lost interest in his later work, unable or unwilling to stomach his increasingly intense libertarian Christianity. For them Silone would always be a standard-bearer of the cause of anti-Fascism and of the necessity for moral enquiry in literature. As such, he was to be set alongside Camus, Koestler, Malraux, Orwell, and others, and to be remembered principally for his earlier works, including Fontamara. Other critics more open to his later work did emerge, but in turn they tended toneglect Fontamara, where the themes of introspective morality and crisis are muted and poverty and politics are to the fore. They tried to fit Silone into another company of writers, of Christian moralists such as Bernanos, Péguy, andGreene. Despite their best efforts, however, it is undeniable that Silone’s international reputation faded somewhat, along with that of the anti-Fascist or existentialist generation.
By 1967, Iris Origo could write that admiration for Silone"has now become not only the fashion, but almost a certificate of integrity." Almost as soon as Origo had penned these words, another"Silone affair" exploded: It was discovered that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, of which Silone was a leading member, and his beloved journal, Tempo Presente, were being indirectly financed by the Central Intelligence Agency with funds laundered through the Ford Foundation.Silone immediately resigned from the CCF and in 1968 closed down the journal, but the allegations that he was a spy for theCIA persisted. Documents from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., however, demonstrate that during World War II Silone was working with the OSS in trying to overthrow fascism and establish democracy in Italy. His fervent letters and telegrams depict a man who was desperate that the Italian people, victims of fascism for more than twenty years, should not have to pay the price for the sins of Mussolini’s regime. A careful reading of these documents reveals that Silone was no spy. It hardly seems likely that Silone was a spy for the CIA when, despite the intervention of both Adlai Stevenson and Clare Boothe Luce, he was denied a visa to visit the United States until the mid-1960s. (He had, during World War II, been offered asylum by no less a person than Eleanor Roosevelt.) In light of his beleaguered circumstances—denied by both the right and the left—Silone was adopted by the democratic socialists of the United States and lauded by the intellectual and literary circles of Partisan Review, Dissent, and The Nation. Critics and writers such as Clement Greenberg, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, and Irving Howe worked to bring his work to the attention of an American audience.
Slowly but surely Silone’s reputation survived all these charges. After his death in 1978, it seemed that his place in the literary establishment was secured, especially after the distinguished publishing house Mondadori published much of Silone’s oeuvre in its prestigious Meridiani series in two deluxe volumes. But over the last decade another caso Silone has darkened his reputation. In 1996, an Italian historian uncovered documents supposedly proving that Silone had been spying for theFascist police. Over the next few years, new revelations appeared in the press and academic journals. Apparently, Silone had spent a decade in an epistolary exchange with a high-ranking police official in Rome. Once again, Silone was at the center of political, literary, and cultural scandal.
This latest caso Silone did not arise in a vacuum. Silone had not been a stranger to controversy in life. Perhaps the ur-scandal was his class betrayal: For although he and his family were petite bourgeoisie, owning some properties in the Fucino plain of the Marsica region in the Abruzzo, he cast his lot with the cafoni all over the world in their myriad guises. As his alter ego Pietro Spina muses in a letter,"Perhaps the real cause of my distress is my defiance of the ancient law, my way of living in cafés, libraries, and hotels, my having broken the chain that for centuries linked my forefathers to the soil." Later, there followed another scandal in his expulsion from the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1931 and his subsequent exile in Switzerland. Although his 1933 novel, Fontamara, was a critical and commercial success, there was the scandal of his writing’s critical reception in Italy, where, upon returning from exile in 1944, he faced a domestic literary ostracization that was no less devastating than his physical exile. For decades, the classically trained literary establishment refused to countenance Silone’s work. It was said that he didn’t write"proper Italian." He was often passed over for major literary awards. His subject matter—the rural Abruzzo and the cafoni—was considered beneath"proper" literature by the conservative establishment while the cultural elites of the left, dominated by the PCI, could not forget his expulsion from the party in 1931 or forgive his criticism of communism during the cold war. When his account of disillusionment with communism,"Emergency Exit," appeared in Richard Crossman’s anthology The GodThat Failed in 1950, Silone was mercilessly criticized by his former comrades, and when that essay became the central piece in the autobiographical volume Uscita di sicurezza (Emergency Exit, 1965), the Communist-dominated committee ofthe prestigious Viareggio Prize refused to accept it for consideration, thus generating further controversy (the book was awarded the Marzotto Prize instead). Italian critics began asking themselves why it was that Silone was so esteemed abroad and so derided at home. As the American scholar Michael P. McDonald has written, it was a classic case of Nemo propheta acceptus est patria sua (No prophet is accepted in his own country). Contemporary neo-Fascists (or post-Fascists, as they like to fashion themselves) as well as paleo-Communists are loath to forget Silone’s"betrayal": his effective demolition of their precious myths.
The most recent scandal, that Silone was engaged in a decadelong spying operation against his comrades in the Italian Communist Party, has come to overshadow everything else, calling into question as it does Silone’s status as a reluctant secularsaint of the independent left in Europe, a persona that Silone worked hard to root in the public imagination. In Silone’s second novel, Bread and Wine, Don Benedetto reads from an old essay of Pietro Spina’s:"But for the fact that it would be very boring to be exhibited on altars after one’s death, to be prayed to and worshiped by a lot of unknown people, mostly ugly old women, I should like to be a saint." But surely he would have echoed Dorothy Day’s retort:"Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed so easily." And it was George Orwell, to whom Silone has often been compared, who wrote"saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent," a sentiment that certainly would have provoked a wry smile and a knowing nod from the Italian writer."Silone was the man of capital letters," his wife recalled."He used to write the word ‘verità’ with a capital ‘V’; ‘libertà’ with a capital ‘L.’ But his lowercase character was mysterious and unknowable."
How then, in this tangled thicket of representation, self-representation, and misrepresentation, is a historian and biographer to approach Silone? And how should these most recent revelations affect our perception of the writer? Perhaps a comparison with an earlier work—also a biography—might prove useful. Then, the subject (Carlo Rosselli), while a complex and charismatic figure, was a relatively"open" text, his thinking accessible through his essays, letters, anti-Fascist activism, and most important theoretical work. Silone, by contrast, has been"known" only through an association with the protagonists of his novels and his autobiographical essays. But this presents the reader and the biographer with a challenge. As Elizabeth Leake demonstrates in her recent analysis, Silone reinvented himself as a novelist who had passed through the inferno of the militant’s life in the Communist underground, thereby giving his writings an aura of authenticity. Because of Silone’s role as Fascist informer, Leake argues that his identity was based on"incoherent decisions" and that when the discrepancies between his life and his fiction are taken into account, the reader is unable to fix Silone’s position on the moral spectrum."The paradoxical nature of his identity," she concludes,"is thus insurmountable." But was Silone’s transformation insincere and therefore, in some way, deceitful? There is no reason to doubt that Silone’s transition from underground political activist to exiled solitary writer was as sincere and painful as he claimed.
Silone’s notoriously difficult personality has sometimes been blamed on a certain strain of misanthropy. Yet, in May of 1936, he wrote to the German writer Bernard von Brentano:
The difficulty Spina encounters (in Bread and Wine) in communicating with other men reflects in good measure my state of mind [stato di anima]. Relations with other people do not have a simple, natural, and direct character which I would love. This dissatisfaction sometimes pushes me toward solitude and willful silence. It is not misanthropy, but just the opposite: a love of man that remains unsatisfied, a need for friendship that fails to find its subject. This ends by irritating me and wearing me out. I begin again to love solitude as I loved it when I was 17: it is a very particular kind of solitude in which one chooses and invents one’s friends, and one reads much.
This biography employs neither the psychoanalytical approach (for which I am not trained) nor the literary-critical method,for I am convinced that the"truth" of Silone’s life lies neither hidden in the archives nor wholly revealed in his writings but in some contested and ambiguously mapped terrain between memoir, literature, and history.
That terrain was shaped by the forces of heresy in daring to challenge certain Marxist and Stalinist"truths," exilein Switzerland, and the twin tragedies of a failed politics and a disillusionment with the Catholic church. In the 1920s, as a major figure of the international Communist movement, Silone refused to accept the orthodoxy of Stalin’s cult and suffered the fate of the heretic, excommunicated from the Marxist church. Broken, disillusioned, told by his doctors that he wasnear death, and contemplating suicide, Silone retreated to Davos, where he began composing his most famous work, Fontamara, literally"Bitter Spring." The book’s"unforeseen and unforeseeable" success"made me a writer," he recalled forty years later. Like a long line of Italian intellectuals before him, from Dante to Machiavelli, from Mazzini to Garibaldi, exile transformed Silone into an entirely new person. He was ostracized by the Communists and hunted by the Fascists. Rather than the relatively congenial exile of bohemian Paris, Silone chose austere, Protestant Zurich. He wasaccused of failing to change with literary taste, of refusing to accommodate the whims of the reading public, of writing the same book over and over again. But as his close friend and colleague the Polish writer Gustaw Herling wrote about him,"Anyone who is deeply convinced that he is saying something important is not ashamed to say things more than once. The secret is the gravity of the words, and what gives words their gravity is their unceasing vigilance."
It was this existential status as an outsider and exile—even after returning to Italy—that marked his life and work. An interviewer once noted a certain"Erasmian component" to his personality. But an Erasmus plucked from the aristocratic Renaissance and dropped into the Industrial Age,"not afraid to get his hands dirty in peasant revolts."This was an Erasmus who rendered Silone"a citizen of an invisible world community of free men, not very numerous, but united by cultural ties." This Italian had no homeland. Indeed, Silone claimed no other citizenship except that of this"imagined communion" with peasants and workers around the world, so different from the"imagined communities"of nationalism.
Silone’s personal traumas (the loss of his father, the death of his mother in an earthquake, his precarious physical and mental health, his brother’s imprisonment and death, his"spying") inevitably left their marks but were only obliquelyplayed out in his work. It was only the public trauma of expulsion from the PCI that was explicit in his writing. His struggle with demons private and public may not have been as obvious as that of other intellectuals with whom he has often been compared, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, or George Orwell, yet it was no less dramatic. His story is, in short, a modernist tragedy.
Silone represents a special genre of intellectual: passionately committed to a political ideology that eventually proves illusory; in the light of that failure desperately attempting not to succumb to nihilism; perhaps morally compromised by a relationship to the very powers of oppression; caught in a Sisyphean task of political liberation in a century that placed all the powers of modern mass communication, technology, and awesome violence in the hands of totalitarian states.
In 1962, Silone and Darina made a pilgrimage of sorts to the Holy Land. They had taken the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehemand found themselves in a barren valley bereft of trees, shrubs, plants, or flowers. There was no sign of water or human life. But near Bethlehem they came upon a woman dressed all in black, carrying a child and riding a dusty, gray donkey. The three silent figures passed Silone and his wife without so much as a glance in their direction. The vision created in Silonea particular state of mind and he was silent for a long time. Although he had never been in this part of the world, he had the distinct impression that he had already seen and lived this panorama. It was Darina who after a long while broke the silence by pointing out to her husband that this was the landscape of his novels. It was a revelation."I saw once again," he later wrote,"outside of myself, something that I had carried within me for years, perhaps since birth: the landscape of my soul." In this landscape, bread, wine, wolves, donkeys, and water all had potent hold on his imagination, both in their literal and symbolic manifestations. Water in all its forms—from fountains and springs to snow and tears—is always critical in his work. (One is reminded of Picasso’s famous remark:"I went to communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water.") In Silone’s work, towns and people have names such as Acquasanta (holy water), Acquaviva (living water), and Pietrasecca (dry stone), indicating their interior life. The cover of his last work was graced with Giotto’s fresco"Miracle of the Spring," depicting St. Francis of Assisi in prayer while a fellow pilgrim quenches his thirst nearby. But"if the spring is not clear," declares one of Silone’s protagonists,"I refuse to drink."
Excerpted from Bitter Spring by Stanislao G. Pugliese.Copyright © [year of copyright] by [copyright owner].Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
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