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Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Novecento’ Part II/ Post-war and the Novel


The Survey of Italian Literature 101 series aims to offer readers a complete overview of the rich and diverse Italian literary tradition. Through summary and description, this series will provide readers with an understanding of the works from different literary periods and from diverse regions of Italy. It will cover both the classics and works by contemporary authors as well as those from lesser-known areas, providing a broad introductory survey to those who are interested in learning more about Italian culture and the country’s literary works.

The Survey of Italian Literature 101 series is divided into eight chapters:

Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Novecento’ Part II/ Post-war and the Novel

In the latter half of the 20th century, Italian poetry and narrative literature experienced distinct trajectories. While narrative literature underwent continuous renewal and a flourishing publishing industry, poetry was relegated to a secondary role despite poets’ efforts to reaffirm its social significance. On the other hand, the post-war era saw a thriving of Neorealist novels that depicted the harsh realities of everyday life in post-war Italy. The authors, such as Silone and Moravia, highlighted the struggles of a peasant community against the tyranny of fascism, explored the human condition, and the conflicts that arise in society. This article will examine the contributions of the most renowned authors of the second part of the 20th century, and their impact on post-war Italian society.

Figure 1: Charge of the Lancers (Boccioni, 1916)

The Second Part of the 20th Century/Secondo Novecento

In the latter half of the 20th century, a striking dichotomy emerged between the trajectory of poetry and narrative literature. While the former was endowed with a distinct tradition, the latter seemed to undergo continuous renewal. The restoration of press freedom following the conclusion of fascism facilitated the emergence of a dynamic and unrestrained publishing industry. In the aftermath of the Second World War, a renewed political climate prompted many poets to reaffirm the social significance of poetry and condemn the disengagement of hermeticism. During this period, poetry was relegated amidst the growing of fiction (Genesini, 2022).

Figure 2: Guernica (Picasso, 1937)

Eugenio Montale

The assertion of the lyrical motif characterises the initial stage of Montale’s poetic output. Montale (1896-1981) subverts the conventional and prevalent stance of poetry, whereby the poet’s role is to provide answers or certainties. Instead, Montale posits the existence of a “Divine Indifference” that looms over human fate, resulting in an emotional involvement that is wholly detached from humankind. In a sense, this “Divine indifference” can be regarded as antithetical to Manzoni’s ‘Divine Providence’. Montale’s contributions to literature were recognised with the Nobel Prize in 1975 (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Montale’s debut collection, published in June 1925, comprises poems composed between 1916 and 1925. The volume is organised into eight distinct sections, one of which is entitled Ossi di seppia (1925), in which Montale highlights the futility of providing a definitive answer to the human condition. In the introductory poem, Non chiederci la parola, Montale contends that a person can only express the things he does not embody and the things he does not desire, thereby emphasising the negative aspects of the human experience. The work's title itself connotes human existence, which has been exhausted by nature and reduced to an inanimate, lifeless object. The metaphor of Ossi di seppia serves to describe human beings who, with the onset of adulthood, are stripped of the joys of youth and cast aside to suffer in a world that is as indifferent to them as a discarded cuttlefish bone. Ossi di seppia, or cuttlefish bones, are the internal skeletons of cuttlefish deposited on the shore by the waves of the sea, left to dry up and shrink, thereby symbolising Montale’s rugged and pared-down poetics (Genesini, 2022).

Figure 3: Cover of Ossi di seppia (Montale, 1943)

The Novel

As mentioned in the Introduction, the post-war period in Italy was marked by a prospering of literary production, particularly in the form of novels. In addition, this era saw the emergence of Neorealism, a literary movement that aimed to depict the harsh realities of everyday life in post-war Italy. Neorealist novels often featured working-class protagonists and dealt with themes such as poverty, social inequality, and the effects of war on ordinary people.

As noted by Sambugar & Salà (2004), during this era, a general sentiment of condemnation was directed towards Italian literary production of the previous years, deemed culpable of having supported fascist ideology, with the exception of the realists from the 1930s. The utilisation of dialects during this time was primarily defensive in nature or a reaction against the forces of standardisation and globalisation. However, in the latter half of the century, the intersection of dialects underwent a transformation, becoming increasingly associated with cultured multilingualism and, at times, linked to extinct languages. Simultaneously, dialects became more intimately integrated into the Italian language, being used in direct speech and quotations from proverbs and idioms.

Figure 4: The Impact (Vedova, 1949)

Ignazio Silone

Ignazio Silone (1900-1978), an acclaimed writer from Abruzzo, is a significant figure in Italian literature. His opposition to fascism and dedication to communism, which led to his exile, are pivotal aspects of his literary and political legacy. Much like the celebrated writer D'Annunzio, Silone also shares a strong bond with the region of Abruzzo, which serves as a recurring motif in his works. Through his writing, Silone portrays the struggles and hardships faced by the impoverished peasant class during the fascist regime while also highlighting their heroic resistance against oppressive measures. Silone's literary contributions are of great importance, not just for their aesthetic value, but also for their political and social relevance, as they shed light on a critical period in Italian history and the struggle against fascism (Esposito, 1980).

Fontamara (1945) is a novel that portrays the plight of a community suffering under the weight of fascism and ancestral misfortunes. The village's name reflects the destiny of misfortune and suffering that the inhabitants endure. Silones use of almost all the names of the characters in the novel is not accidental and serves to testify to their nature. Furthermore, the author’s theme of the peasant hero who rebels against the tyranny of fascism, sacrificing himself, is central to the narrative. Fontamara’s success was extraordinary, galvanising part of the international public opinion of the time, as the novel denounced the immorality and deceptions of Mussolini’s fascist party and its followers. The novel thus became a document of anti-fascist propaganda outside Italy and a symbol of resistance to totalitarian regimes. Silone’s opposition to fascism and adherence to communism, as well as his portrayal of the struggles of the poor peasants, has made him an essential figure in Italian literature and history (Esposito, 1980).

Figure 5: Portrait of Ignazio Silone (1978)

Alberto Moravia

Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), is known for exploring themes related to modern sexuality, social alienation, and existentialism. Moravia’s writing style is characterised by its bareness and simplicity, with the deliberately common and unadorned language used to focus on the structure and construction of the narrative. His prose is marked by an elaborate syntax, with each proposition conveying a specific psychological observation contributing to a larger, more complex whole. Moravia’s writing is defined by an exclusive narrator’s style that eschews lyrical effects in favour of focusing on the unfolding of the narrative. The relationships between individuals and society and between the id and superego are analysed through the lens of sexuality, drawing on Freudian and Marxist themes of transgression in both political and private spheres. Moravia’s works are considered essential contributions to Italian literature, offering incisive critiques of contemporary society and its values (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

In the novel Gli indifferenti (1929), the setting of a provincial Rome provides the backdrop for the story that revolves around a typical bourgeois family. Moravia’s work is represented by a commitment to rationality, and he explores themes of civil passion and cultural curiosity, which are recurrent in his literary activity. His writing is grounded in realism, and he investigates the pathologies of social classes, especially those of the upper and middle classes. On a formal level, the novel showcases shrewd, precise, and realistic prose that contrasts the period’s dominant style and the previous one. The novel's sixteen chapters, written in an essential and almost bare language, serve to highlight the environment within which the characters move and clearly express the thoughts that cross their minds. The novel's significance lies in its portrayal of the grotesque tragedy of the bourgeois family, and it has been considered a masterpiece of Italian literature (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

In contrast, his novel Il Conformista (1951), which was adapted into a film of the same title by Bernardo Bertolucci (1970), portrays the internal struggle of the protagonist, Marcello, between his id and superego. The id, representing his instinctual and impulsive desires, drives Marcello's need for social acceptance and sexual gratification. In contrast, the superego, which represents morality and conformity to societal norms, compels Marcello to conform to the fascist ideals of the society he lives in. This struggle between his desires and societal expectations fuels the novel's narrative, ultimately leading to Marcello's downfall. The novel is a profound exploration of the human psyche and the tensions that arise when one's internal desires conflict with societal expectations (Barberà, 2012).

Figure 6: Front page of Gli Indifferenti (Moravia, 1929)

Elsa Morante

Post-war Italian novelist Elsa Morante (1912-1985), is widely recognised by critics, such as Sapegno, Sambugar and Salà, as one of the most significant Italian authors of her time. In 1936, she met Alberto Moravia, and the two formed a close relationship, eventually leading to their marriage in 1941. Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia were crucial figures in the Italian literary scene after the Second World War. Their social circle included some of the most influential writers and thinkers of the time. Their marriage, as well as their individual contributions to Italian literature, had a profound impact on the cultural and literary landscape of post-war Italy. Elsa Morante’s works often explore complex themes such as memory, identity, and social justice, and her literary style is known for its poeticism and vivid imagery (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

The novel L'isola di Arturo is situated in the historical context of 1938. The protagonist, Arturo Gerace, is a native of the island of Procida, where he spends his formative years. For Arturo, Procida represents the entirety of his world, and all other places are viewed only through the prism of myth and legend. Morante's depiction of Arturo's relationship with the island is emblematic of the interplay between identity and geography. Moreover, the novel explores themes such as the struggle between illusion and reality, the coming-of-age narrative, and the complexities of human relationships (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

The novel La storia (1974) is a powerful and complex work that explores the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people. The story is set in Rome during the Second World War and the immediate post-war period, providing a panoramic view of the events through the subjective experiences of its protagonists. The novel is structured as a choral work, with multiple voices that come together to create a fresco of the war and its aftermath. Morante’s approach to the subject matter is characterised by a blend of realism and poetic vision. The bombings that ravage the Roman neighbourhoods, the suburban villages, and the hills of the nearby Castelli Romani serve as the backdrop for the story. The author’s vivid descriptions of these locations imbue them with a sense of realism. At the same time, her poetic vision elevates them to the level of symbols, highlighting their importance in shaping the characters’ lives (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 7: Book and movie poster for L’Isola di Arturo (1957-62)

Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) was a highly regarded Italian artist, filmmaker and intellectual of the 20th century, renowned for his cultural versatility and his ability to bring to light the realities of Italian society that were often overlooked by the political and bourgeois elites (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

In his work Ragazzi di vita (1955), he recounts the story of a group of boys from underprivileged Roman society over several years. The novel is set in the immediate post-war period when poverty was rampant, and it is in this context the boys find themselves in total disarray. Their families offer no guidance or values, as they are often marked by abusive and alcoholic fathers, submissive mothers, and delinquent siblings. Schools, although present, are not functional and merely serve as temporary shelter for the displaced and the homeless.

As Genesini (2022) points out, Pasolini’s intention through the artistic production of a life is to describe an Italian reality that the establishment often ignores. In many of Pasolini’s literary and cinematographic works, the theme of poverty in the Roman suburbs and the joy and innocence of the children living there are intertwined. Through his portrayal of the Roman suburbs and its underprivileged youth, Pasolini offers a poignant commentary on the human experience, depicting the struggle for survival and the search for joy in the face of poverty and adversity.

Figure 8: Pier Paolo Pasolini during a break in the making of a film (1962)

Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was a prominent intellectual who significantly contributed to the political, civil, and cultural spheres. His position as one of the most distinguished storytellers of the latter half of the 20th century is a testament to his accomplishments. Calvino was adept at navigating various contemporary literary movements, ranging from Neorealism to Postmodernism, while maintaining a unique perspective that distanced himself from those trends. As such, Calvino’s literary production and personality evoke a sense of contradiction, simultaneously showcasing a diverse range of attitudes reflecting the evolution of poetic and cultural trends between 1945 and 1985, while also embodying a substantial unity driven by methodological rationalism and a proclivity for irony and interest in science. On a stylistic level, his writing is characterised by a crystalline clarity that can be described as classical (Luperini et al., 2005)

Italo Calvino’s contribution to literature during his “fantastic period” of poetics is evident in his trilogy I nostri antenati (1952-59), where the author employs an allegorical and symbolic approach to narrate particular events from the past. For example, Il visconte dimezzato (1952) recounts the story of a viscount sliced in two by a cannonball. Subsequently, the two halves of his body are separated, with one half exhibiting good qualities and the other half, bad. The plot follows the viscount’s various adventures, including his romantic involvement with the same woman on both sides of his body, culminating in his eventual reunion into a single body. In Il barone rampante (1957), where the action is set in France before the Revolution, and the plot revolves around a young baron who rebels against the strict family norms by climbing up a tree's branches, pledging never to touch the ground again, as a symbol of his opposition to oppression. Similarly, Il cavaliere inesistente (1959) narrates the story of Agilulfo dei Guildiverni, during Charlemagne’s reign. Agilulfo, who never removes his armour, is reputed to be non-existent, and only identifiable by his armour. The plot follows his quest for his beloved angel-woman and, later, his pursuit of the Holy Grail to redeem his soul. Agilulfo’s character embodies the traits of a tormented hero, even as he remains an epitome of bravery (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 9: Cover pages of the trilogy of I nostri antenati (2006)

In conclusion, post-war Italy saw a notable increase in literary production, particularly in the form of novels that depicted the harsh realities of everyday life in the country. Neorealism emerged as a literary movement that aimed to shed light on poverty, social inequality, and the effects of war on ordinary people. On the other hand, the trajectory of poetry during this time was different, as poets reaffirmed the social significance of their work and condemned the disengagement of Hermeticism. Despite the differences between poetry and narrative literature, both contributed significantly to Italy's cultural and political landscape during this period. Moreover, the literary works produced in Italy in the past still resonate with contemporary Italian writers, inspiring and influencing them. These works are a testament to literature's timeless power and relevance as an art form. Therefore, the remaining article will focus on contemporary Italian literature.

Bibliographical References

Barberà, P. G. (2012). The Conformist by Bernardo Bertolucci: Alberto Moravia and Plato against Fascism. Sezione Di Lettere, 7(2), 141–159.

Esposito, V. (1980). Ignazio Silone. I: La vita-Le opere-Il pensiero. Edizioni dell’Urbe.

Genesini, P. (2022). Letteratura italiana 123. Lectures notes retrieved from:

Luperini, R., Cataldi, P., Marchiani, L. & Tinacci, V. (2005). La scrittura e l’interpretazione. Palumbo Editore.

Sambugar, M., & Salà, G. (2004). GAOT - Generi autori opere temi (Vol. 3). La Nuova Italia.

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Deborah Zaccai

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