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after the divorce
6 november 2021
Early in Grazia Deledda's 1902 novel After the Divorce, a prisoner named Costantino gets a letter from his home village in Sardinia.
He read and re-read his letter till he knew every word by heart. During the day he hid it in the sole of his shoe, ripping this open again each night. And always, as he sat silently bending over his work, his mind dwelt continuously on the people and events in that little, distant village, and he identified himself so completely at times with the subjects of his thoughts that he lost sight of his real surroundings. (location 840)This is not just a "scene of reading" of the kind that sparks interest in literary critics. It is also a scene that mirrors back the exact kind of reading that the reader of Deledda's novel is currently doing. Well, not that you are going to hide After the Divorce in your shoe and read it till you have it memorized. But that, while you are reading it, you become absorbed in the characters and events in an imaginary Sardinian village – and if the book does its work well, you lose sight of your actual surroundings.
There's a lot to keep track of in the village of Orlei. Costantino has been shipped to imprisonment on the mainland of Italy for killing his tyrannical, grasping uncle. Costantino claims to be innocent but don't they all. He leaves behind his wife Giovanna and a young son. By the rules of immemorial tradition, Giovanna would just have to wait for Costantino to get out again. But by the laws of the recently-unified kingdom of Italy, she is allowed to divorce her husband and remarry, at least in a civil wedding.
Brontu Dejas, the handsome but alcoholic son of the local miser Martina, had always wanted to marry Giovanna in the first place, and nominally has enough money to support her in style. Brontu is a well-drawn character: feckless, impulsive, dominated by his mother; abusive when in his cups but not entirely a bad sort and genuinely attracted to Giovanna, who reciprocates his desire. Giovanna's own mother, the horrible Bachissia, urges her to dump her good-as-dead husband and marry Brontu.
But remarriage solves none of Giovanna's problems. She is now worse off materially, since Martina seems determined to work the young couple to the bone while keeping them on strict rations. Brontu still drinks away his discretionary income, and the passions of their extended families – especially those of Giacobbe Dejas, another dependent of "Aunt" Martina, who himself pines for the love of Giovanna – are kept at high flame.
Two murders serve as central nodes in the plot of After the Divorce: the original killing of Costantino's uncle, which happens before the first chapter; and a second killing that happens just before the novel ends, and that I thus won't spoil here. I am not sure that we ever definitively learn the identities of the killers. It takes a village to create the story line of After the Divorce, and when a village decides the appropriate solution to a murder case, their wisdom prevails. But one senses that the force fields of the village interaction warp facts into new realities in both cases.
Nobel Prize winners in literature can perhaps be divided into three categories. A very few have become international, even global figures of central importance to writers everywhere: Yeats, Pirandello, Beckett, Pasternak, García Márquez. A much larger group has been completely forgotten by everybody everywhere, including a fair number of recent winners who started on the descent to oblivion the moment they delivered their Lectures.
But there is a middle group, also perhaps not large, but interesting, of Laureates who have remained important in their countries and languages while fading from worldwide notice. Halldór Laxness is still the great national novelist of Iceland. Selma Lagerlöf is central to Swedish literary history, at least in Sweden, where they should know. Gerhart Hauptmann is important in German literature, S.Y. Agnon a founding presence in Israeli literature, the poets Quasimodo and Montale significant in Italy.
And so with Grazia Deledda, still a major figure in Italian-language verismo writing, and the greatest novelist of Sardinia. After the Divorce is sharp, wry, finely-crafted, and socially perceptive; it measures up well against any realistic novel across Europe in the height-of-realism decades around the year 1900. As a reader in the 2020s, you expect the novel to turn glurgy, or religious, or judgmental, or social-scientific, but it never does. Deledda presents her acid-etched portrait of ignorance, desire, and the stifling weight of convention, and never reaches for formulaic answers to the aesthetic and social problems that she poses. And Maria Hornor Lansdale's translation, now well over a century old itself, is fresh while conveying a strong sense of its period still today.
Deledda, Grazia. After the Divorce. [Dopo il divorzio, 1902.] Translated by Maria Hornor Lansdale. 1905. Kindle Edition.