If America is a saga, France a poem, and England a novel (recently, a comic one), Italy is a short story. Jhumpa Lahiri has clearly understood this. In love with the Italian language, the American-Indian author (whose debut collection of short stories won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and who has chosen, since about 2012, to write in Italian) built this anthology—a collection of work from several 20th-century authors, none of them still alive—with the knowledge that the short story is the native Italian literary medium; all the others were imported. The origins of this medium date from the anonymous author of the Novellino (13th century) and from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, written circa 1349–1351.
“Fleeting by nature,” writes Lahiri, “short stories, in spite of their concision and concentration, are infinitely elastic, expansive, probing, elusive—suggesting that the genre itself is essentially unstable, hybrid, even subversive in nature.” Isn’t this the exact likeness of the Italian spirit? Not only its 20th-century spirit, represented in this book, but also its current one, teetering between demagogic temptation—Matteo Salvini as a young Donald Trump, all’amatriciana—and ancient wisdom. Take some of the first few titles in this collection: they resemble a summary of 2019 Italy. We lead Picturesque Lives, we listen to The Siren of populism, we console ourselves with Generous Wine, knowing we’re in for a Long Voyage, which started 2,800 years ago and continues to surprise us.
The Real Italia
Out of the 40 stories included in the anthology, 16 had never before been translated into English, and 8 were re-translated. Many of the authors included in the anthology were themselves translators, and several used pseudonyms. (Elena Ferrante certainly isn’t the first!) Some had been ignored or forgotten, even in Italy. Almost all, writes the editor, were, like her, “hybrid individuals with multiple proclivities, identities, signatures and shadows.” To have re-discovered, edited, and re-proposed these authors is laudable. But Lahiri went further: she understood them. And she shares a deep appreciation for their common denominator: Italy.
Italy’s spirit teeters between demagogic temptation—Matteo Salvini as a young Donald Trump, all’amatriciana—and ancient wisdom.
Only the superficial, among which should be counted not a few travel writers, consider Italy to be a discordant, temporary mosaic, made up of regional traditions and rival cities. These exist, to be sure. But there’s also a common thread at work, consisting of those essential, unifying intangibles: gentleness, imagination, and taste; empathy and intuition; restlessness melting into incoherence; everyday resilience, rewarded by the sweetness of the country’s landscapes; emotiveness, sometimes bordering on unreliability; and the capacity to truly see people who elsewhere in the world are accustomed to only being looked at. This is the real Italy. And The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories demonstrates this better than any travel guide does.
It’s impossible, in the space of a book review, to mention all of the vibrant stories contained in this volume. Some, as one might imagine, touched me more than others. After compiling a list, I realized that the ones I preferred were the ones whose time frames paralleled my own: those that told the tales of an Italy I knew, or that I glimpsed in infancy or childhood. Among these, there’s the strange journey described by Antonio Tabucchi, called Controtempo; Tuscan writer Luciano Bianciardi’s raw description of his protagonist’s sexual habits in The Streetwalker. Or—a highlight of the anthology—the surreal description of Italy’s capital city contained in A Martian in Rome, Ennio Flaiano’s masterpiece. (Flaiano also served as Federico Fellini’s screenwriter.) Though the names have changed, the situations in this story remain familiar: “At the Campidoglio, the mayor made a fool of himself speaking of Rome, master of civilization.”
Jhumpa Lahiri knows that the short story is the native Italian literary medium.
Some characters are set in sharp relief, like in a photograph—these are hard to forget, among them the family in And Yet They Are Knocking at Your Door, in which Dino Buzzati masterfully combines the supernatural with everyday domestic life, as only the best writers can; the sad child Silvia, the protagonist in Melancholy, by Goffredo Parise, a chemist who toils in feelings (the Sillabari, a collection of Parise’s work which includes Melancholy, explores the “sentimento italiano senza nome”—that feeling each Italian knows but can’t explain); and Alberto Moravia’s “unglued wife,” who narrates The Other Side of the Moon—full of dissatisfaction, superficiality, and fatalism, a trifecta of feelings still widespread today, both inside and outside of marriage.
Moravia once wrote that the literary genre of the short story is born of intuition. There are many examples of this in Lahiri’s anthology, which is why The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories is an excellent introduction to Italy—a sentimental Baedeker useful for traveling into the mind of a fascinating if elusive nation. We Italians enjoy confusing our observers. But if those onlookers happen to understand us, we are grateful for it, and are willing to open up the windows on an Italy unbeknownst to them. Not the country of Tuscan hills, Roman ruins, and Venetian waterways they are used to, but an entirely different Italy—vital, pulsating, and all the more intriguing.
Beppe Severgnini is a columnist and editor at Corriere della Sera and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. He is the author of several books, including Ciao, America!: An Italian Discovers the U.S. and, most recently, Off the Rails: A Train Trip Through Life, out now