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il marchese di roccaverdina

28 november 2021

Il marchese di Roccaverdina (1901), Luigi Capuana's best-known novel, presents an interesting problem in constructing fiction. It is basically a murder story, though not a murder mystery: the culprit, as Wikipedia and even the back of the paperback will cheerfully tell you, is the title character, the marchese of Roccaverdina himself. (And if you're not the type who reads the back of books, the marchese confesses on page 62.)

His motives for the crime are laid out in the first few chapters, even as somebody else is being convicted and imprisoned for it. They are not nice motives. For a decade, the marchese lived with his servant/mistress, Agrippina Solmo. At times it seemed that he would marry her – to the dismay of everyone, high or low born, with an interest in the Sicilian social order. But the marchese eventually orders his retainer Rocco Criscione to marry Agrippina, on condition that she stay his mistress, and the husband and wife never consummate their marriage. This proves too much to ask, and consumed with jealousy, the marchese ambushes Rocco and shoots him dead.

And this all happens before the novel begins. Yet as I noted here when I first read Capuana, the master of verismo seemed drawn to asymmetrical and unformulaic plots, where instead of putting the story comfortably into gear and concentrating on incident, he generates suspense by the very act of defusing it. The marchese is guilty. Blame falls on a contadino, Neli Casaccio, who is tried and sentenced. How will this hidden, smoldering guilt corrode the fiefdom from within?

The plot of Il marchese di Roccaverdina is stately: not completely static, but incidents are few. A key dynamic in the book is that the people who either know or care about the marchese's guilt keep dying. Of natural causes, I hasten to add: this is not a serial-killer novel. But as mortal decay brings a reduced chance that the marchese's murder of Rocco will come to light, the psychological pressure on the murderer, internal now, becomes steadily more unbearable.

Capuana plays with the boundaries between the material and spiritual realms. The marchese has grown up as a conventional Catholic. He believes in the watchful eye of God, in heaven, in hell. Flanking him in the character array are his cousin Pergola, a blaspheming freethinker, and his lawyer Aquilante, a proponent of the scientific spiritualism that captivated quite a few European intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century. The two engage in a contest for the marchese's attention and have a strong influence on his conscience. Among the more striking scenes in the book comes when Pergola takes mortally ill and turns to extreme piety – then gets better and goes back to his atheist ways. The scene recalls, at a great distance, the story of Ser Ciappelletto in Boccaccio's Decameron.

The marchese marries "la Solmo" off to a second contadino who lives further away, and to try to get back to normal, proposes to his long-ago girlfriend Zòsima Mugnos, a well-born woman in reduced circumstances who has been waiting in patient poverty for him till he got the servant out of his system. The introduction of Zòsima is the nicest psychological touch in Capuana's novel. It allows the perspective to shift in her direction as the marchese descends into madness, and it makes for a fine character study of abnegation, apparent reward, and tragedy.

Che aveva mai fatto per meritarsi tale castigo? Non aveva giá rinunciato al bel sogno della sua giovinezza? Non si era giá rassegnata a morire in quella sua triste casa dove ora la sembrava di non aver sofferto niente a paragone di quel che soffriva là, tra la richezza e il lusso che le facevano sentire maggiormente la desolazione del suo povero cuore? (242)

[What had she ever done to deserve such punishment? Hadn't she renounced the beautiful dream of her youth? Hadn't she resigned herself to dying in that house – where now it seemed, she had suffered nothing to equal what she suffered here, in the midst of wealth and luxury that accented all the more her miserable heart's desolation?]

Il marchese di Roccaverdina looks backward, in Italian literary history, to Manzoni's I promessi sposi (1827) with its imperious, arbitrary noblemen, and forward to Tomasi di Lampedusa's Il gattopardo (1958), which is also about the disintegration of a Sicilian noble house, though with a much more sympathetic central character. It seems, from my limited grasp of that literary history, to be a major milestone along the way.

The book also took me a very long time to read, though it's only 268 paperback pages and the font is not small. Maybe my Italian is disintegrating too. Or maybe it's something intrinsic; without a spellbinding plot, but a lot of subtle touches instead, Capuana's novel is truly no page-turner, and it repays close attention. At least that's my story and I will stick to it for now.

Capuana, Luigi. Il marchese di Roccaverdina. 1901. Milano: Garzanti, 2016.