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la madre

13 february 2023

"La madre" in Grazia Deledda's 1920 novel of that title is the mother of a parish priest – presumably in Sardinia, though specific local color is at a minimum. The mother has grown up, poor and in servitude, in an ignorant rural community that suffers under the thumb of a cynical, sensual pastor. She dreams of going away and returning some day as a person of quality, someone to be reckoned with. When her son Paulo has a chance to go to seminary and then replace the now-deceased tyrant priest in his mother's home village, her wishes seem answered. But of course there would be no story if things were that easy.

Paulo is an inspirational priest, though mostly in spite of himself. When the villagers bring him a distraught young child, he prays over her and she gets better: and suddenly Paulo is a heroic exorcist. He doesn't believe at all in his powers to cast out demons, but the role is thrust upon him.

In fact, Paulo has lost interest in pastoral life and is consumed with illicit passion for a woman named Agnese. Wealthy heiress of the village's one patrician fortune, Agnese is obsessed with Paulo; she wants Paulo to abandon his clerical career and his vows, for them to run away together, subsist on her money, live happily ever after.

Paulo tries to break up with Agnese, telling her that he has scruples for both of their immortal souls. She knows better:

La verità era allora un'altra. Adesso qualcuno ti ha scoperto, forse tua madre stessa, e tu hai paura del mondo. Non è la paura di Dio che ti spinge a lasciarmi. (98)

[The truth is quite otherwise. Somebody found you out – maybe your own mother – and you're afraid of everyone. It wasn't the fear of God that led you to spurn me.]
And … that's about it for plot. It's a brief novel, just 121 pages long, and the whole action of the book consists of Paulo and Agnese simmering over what's to become of their illicit relationship. The title mother fades away from the story, and re-enters it only to die at the end, leaving the lovers' fate up in the air.

La madre was translated into English in the early 1920s (variously titled The Woman and the Priest or The Mother), by Mary G. Steegman (variously with an extra "n" at the end of her name). D.H. Lawrence admired the novel, and you can see why, as it is fraught about sensuality, though not really very sensual.

I think that the novel holds little of the interest of Deledda's earlier, longer works. But here and there, she has a writerly moment that shows her skill at observation. At one point the mother's apron string gets knotted, and after some frustrating attempts to untie it, she decides to cut it.

Ella mosse un passo per cercare le forbici nel suo paniere da lavoro. Nel paniere da lavoro s'era accovacciato un gattino e al suo contatto i gomitoli s'erano scaldati; anche le forbici erano calde, ed ella le sentì come vive fra la sue dita. (81)

[She went over to look for the scissors in her work-basket. A kitten had crawled into the basket and warmed up the yarn within; even the scissors were warm, and felt like live things in her fingers.]
That's exceptionally well-done.

Deledda, Grazia. La madre. 1919-20. Kindle Edition.