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9 january 2022

The first half of Cenere – "Ashes" – is Grazia Deledda's 1904 saga of a boy growing up any way he can in 19th-century Sardinia: poor, "illegitimate," at times wanted by neither of his parents, but resourceful and even optimistic at times, out of what seems the natural energy of childhood.

This part of Cenere reminds me of the first volume of Martin Andersen Nexø's Pelle the Conqueror, though that's because of the order in which I read them; Deledda's novel is a couple of years earlier, and if influence went in any direction it was from Sardinia to Bornholm.

The central character in Cenere is Anania, son of a guy named Anania. The novel begins before his conception. The senior Anania falls truly in love with the teenage Olì, who bears his son; but Anania is married and Olì's father is implacable when confronted with his daughter's disonore (location 2717). She must leave home, to be taken in by a widow that the older Anania seems to know somehow.

The first few chapters pass in the mountain village of Fonni; young Anania grows into a spirited boy who longs to find his father. He does so soon enough: Olì takes him to Nuoro, a larger town where Anania padre works as an oil-mill operator. But this is no marital reunion. Olì vanishes: maybe off to the continent, maybe to a life of prostitution. Once again young Anania depends on the kindness of a stranger: his father's wife zia Tatàna, who not only bears him no ill will, but adopts him as her own.

Before long, young Anania has been taken up by the local patrician, Signor Carboni, who spots his academic promise and makes plans for him to go off to study law. And Anania and Carboni's daughter Margherita fall in love, and despite his low status, the Carbonis seem tentatively pleased with him as a prospective son-in-law. Halfway through the novel, "la sua felicità è così completa che egli non ricorda più che nel mondo esiste il dolore" (location 4894): his happiness was so complete that he no longer remembered that sorrow existed in the world.

Of course, if you're on top of the world halfway through your book, the only place to go is down. Everybody's helped Anania so far, everybody wishes him well; but he can't let go of the way his mother abandoned him. As abandonments go, it could have been worse: Anania was well-cared for by his stepmother. But he can't see the positive side. His childhood disgrace becomes his adult obsession.

In Rome to read law, Anania sets about doing some detective work, sure that his mother is living somewhere in the capital. He finds a Sardinian woman named Maria Obinu, who naturally takes him in as a lodger and nurses him through an illness. But he cannot relate to Maria as herself; he is irrationally convinced that she is his mother, somehow concealing her identity from him.

Things come to a head when Anania goes back to Sardinia during a term break and finally does find his mother, broken down, ill, and unrepentant. He flies off the handle, threatening violence, but also perversely determined to throw up his career, his engagement, and his prospects of happiness in order to devote himself to a mother who doesn't want his support and hasn't even wanted to see him.

The plot of Cenere takes such a dramatic turn for the worse that it's hard to make aesthetic or intellectual sense of the novel. I almost suspect that Deledda set the whole course of Anania's rise and fall in motion so that her character Margherita, Anania's fiancée, could write a single letter that we get to read near the end of the novel. Anania has pre-emptively told her that he's off to sacrifice himself for his disgraceful mother, that Margherita will probably hate that idea because she's so attached to conventional morality, but that he doesn't care, Duty calls.

Margherita writes back to say that au contraire, Anania is the one shackled to convention, and moreover, he's an idiot. (I'm paraphrasing here.) Margherita argues that Olì has never given Anania a thought, that she doesn't need or want his help now, and that by doing the "right" thing Anania will be cultivating an image of himself as high-minded, while actually selfishly hurting everyone who's cared about him. Reading only slightly between the lines, one perceives a keen point about women's independence and men's desire to control them. The kind of man who would imperiously dismantle his life for the sake of an idée fixe about his mother would be capable, years down the road, of doing the same to his wife, and Margherita, we imagine, wants none of that possibility.

Cenere is an uneven novel. Aside from descriptions of the marvelous nuraghe – prehistoric Sardinian ruins where Anania senior dreams of finding buried treasure – the book's setting can seem underdeveloped. The Roman scenes have little sense of place; Rome is just a generic impersonal big city. Sardinia stands for nature and agriculture, but even there the impressions that Deledda offers are not crisp. She is much better at drawing the motley cast of poor folks among whom Anania, in Nuoro, grows to adulthood.

Several English translations (all called Ashes) seem to be available in varying formats, qualities, and price points. One could choose far worse long thoughtful reads: Cenere may not be an essential novel, but it is an unusual one and represents a strong authorial voice untinctured by bromides.

Deledda, Grazia. Cenere. 1904. Kindle Edition.