Or Elena Ferrante. Or Italo Calvino. Or Umberto Eco (RIP).
By Sara Iacovelli
In the wake of the unfortunate death of one of few well-known Italian writers from the past century (or, truly, any century later than the Renaissance), it seems high time to highlight some others who ought to be given a little more attention. Italian literature, contrary to apparently popular belief, thrived throughout the 20th century and continues to thrive today. And thanks to a few good translators, it is increasingly available for consumption in English. The three writers presented here may not show up on all that many college reading lists, but they can be found in your local bookstore, and are worth checking out if you’re wondering what the creatives of that boot-shaped country in the Mediterranean have been up to since the dawn of the modern era and the elevation of their vernacular language seven centuries ago.
Giorgio Manganelli (1922—1990)
Translated by Henry Martin
“Being a labyrinth makes me uncertain of the amount of space I occupy.”
(“The Self-Awareness of the Labyrinth,” from All the Errors by Giorgio Manganelli, trans. Henry Martin, 1990.)
Out of Manganelli’s extensive collection of absurdist fictional and philosophical works, only two have been translated into English. All The Errors (Tutti gli errori) appeared in English in 1990, just four years after it was published in Italy; but it took a quarter of a century for his 1979 Viareggio Prize-winning Centuria (McPherson and Company, 2005) to be available to English-reading audiences, thanks to translator Henry Martin. This collection, subtitled “One Hundred Ouroboric Novels,” is made up of one hundred two-page tableaux, titled only by their numbers and featuring nameless characters in circumstances both ordinary and surreal. Individually, each story is a kind of miniature game, concise and densely-packed enough so as to be hard-hitting—“the equivalent of a shot of grappa,” according to novelist Jhumpa Lahiri. Together, they form the kind of textual maze postmodernists dream about.
The comparisons to Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco are expected—all three were members of the avant-garde group “Gruppo ‘63,” and the neoavanguardia movement, and like the others Manganelli’s prose is marked by semiotic experimentation and deconstructivist play. Calvino called him an inventor, “irresistible and inexhaustible in his games with language and ideas.” Fans of Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges will likely also find something appealing and familiar in the literary labyrinths of this Italian intellectual. Manganelli’s works have appeared in French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Greek, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and Hungarian as well as English.
Amelia Rosselli (1930—1996)
Translated by Jennifer Scappettone,Giuseppe Leporace and Deborah Woodard, Diana Thow, Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti, and others.
this is the sea today
in waves more serene that slash
that scream & that toil of yours deliberately
vision of a gash with a gash
everything remakes itself,
& from the top & again
(“Document” by Amelia Rosselli, from Locomotrix, trans. Jennifer Scappettone, 2012.)
One of Italy’s foremost experimental poets, Rosselli has become a hot topic in global literary discussions as more and more translations of her work have appeared in recent years, most notably Jennifer Scappettone’s edited and translated collection Locomotrix (University of Chicago Press, 2012). A self-described “poeta della ricerca” (poet of research), Rosselli’s work is decidedly well-informed, intellectual, and rebellious. She grew up speaking English and French as well as Italian, and her multilingualism shines through her work. In the words of Diana Thow, one of her translators, “Rosselli’s multilingualism opens English up to Italian and French in a way that illuminates all three languages, sharp rays of light cast through a prism.”
Her writing admits its influence from traditional forms, most notably the dolce stil novo made famous by one divine comedian, but also turns tradition on its head as it plays with language and style. Her intense lyricism, likely brought on in part by her extensive musical training, as well as her subversive modernist language play, sets her apart among a school of postwar Italian poets. In addition to her own poetry, Rosselli worked as a journalist, editor, and mentor to younger poets. Fluent in English, she published her own poems in both languages, and translated poets including Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath into Italian.
Dacia Maraini (1936—)
Translated by Silvester Mazzarella, Vera F. Golini, Martha King, Cinzia Sartini Blum & Lara Trubowitz, Corrado Federici, and others.
Her voice will perhaps be hard and low
but it’s the voice of a lionness that has been
for a numbingly long time treated like a sheep.
(“Women’s Poems” by Dacia Maraini, in Italian Women Poets, ed. Biancamaria Frabotta, trans. Corrado Federici, 2002)
A well-known writer in Italy for both her poetry and her prose, Dacia Maraini is perhaps best known for her work in film and in theatre, and particularly in promoting the role of women in these industries. A founder of the La Maddalena, a theatre group composed entirely of women, and of the Theatre of Centocelle, whose aim is to present plays in working-class neighborhoods, her contributions to the feminist movement in Italy are undeniable, Her poems broach subjects from masturbation to family histories; they play with language, and often eschew capitalization and other grammatical conventions. Her short stories and novels deal persistently with gender roles and their associated power dynamics as well as sexual experiences and their implications. Her essays betray her social activism, and her plays aim to give voice to women’s experiences and issues.
Another poet of the postwar era, Maraini too grew up with more than one language—she lived with her family in Japan for a decade of her young life. She is critical of her own country, but also a devoted contributor to its literary history, attempting to push her own people “to do better.” Her work has been translated into over eighteen languages.
Sara Iacovelli is a graduate of Clark University and a graduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she is nearing completion of her second Comparative Literature degree. She writes poetry and essays, and translates from Italian and Japanese. She also skates on a roller derby league and works in a bar.