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il benefattore

9 march 2018

I had a strange and perhaps revealing experience while reading Luigi Capuana's novella "Il benefattore." I had found Capuana listed somewhere as a master of verismo, the literary movement associated with Giovanni Verga and other sober chroniclers of late-19th-century life among the obscure of the earth. Il benefattore was free on iBooks, and you know how that goes: there either isn't a table of contents, or it doesn't fit on one screen, and there's no way of easily leafing through an iBook. You just start reading. Anyway, I just plunged in at page 1 and was cruising along, apparently about 2/5 of the way through the book, when the story was suddenly over. Come to find that Il benefattore consisted of "Il benefattore" and several shorter stories.

What's notable about that, aside from me being an idiot as usual, is that I had no strong structural clues that the story I was reading was about to finish. Verismo can include the eschewing of melodramatic structures in favor of the mundane and the contingent. Verga's most famous tale, "Cavalleria Rusticana," for instance, takes the motif of a "chivalrous" challenge involving honor and a lady, and turns it into a sordid street fight. (The composer Mascagni would turn "Cavalleria Rusticana" back into sensuous grand opera, but that is another story.)

"Il benefattore" promises to be a "rainmaker" story. A mysterious foreigner arrives in a decrepit town in Sicily. He claims to be "Inglese, di Dublino, in Scozia": an Englishman from Dublin, Scotland. Yeah right. Whatever his origin, the Englishman's money is good, and he proceeds to buy up tracts of wasteland on the outskirts of town. He acquires fans; he acquires detractors. A local clergyman is certain that the "inglese" will turn everyone into godless Protestants. But most people are happy with the Englishman's improvements, especially when long-exhausted fields and groves begin to flourish.

Paolo Jenco, the son of the local "Sindaco" (roughly "Mayor") finds another reason to appreciate the Englishman: his daughter, Miss Elsa. Things seem headed in one of two directions: either a Romeo-and-Juliet plot that will tear the place apart, or the growth of an economic empire and the consequent complications for all concerned.

Instead, neither direction gets followed, because the story just isn't that substantial. After a scruffy, unmotivated revolt by the local peasantry (upset that the Englishman has made productive use of some water they've ignored), Paolo Jenco comes to the defense of his lover's father and wins her hand in marriage; and the tale ends. There's both less and more than meets the eye here. It's not a typical love story or a fable of capitalism. But it's not just a quickly-abandoned plot idea. Capuana addresses Sicilian potential and Sicilian inertia, themes that would persist through later writers from Tomasi di Lampedusa to Andrea Camilleri. For readers interested in literary history, "Il benefattore" represents a stage in world writing where authors no longer had to deliver a conventional plot tangle or a conventional resolution.

Capuana, Luigi. Il benefattore. 1901. iBooks.