After the Divorce.

Italian author Grazia Deledda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, the second woman to win that honor, the second Italian to do so, and the first Italian prose writer to win it. (There have been 113 winners, six of them from Italy, but four of the winners won for poetry or drama.) Her work focused largely on portraits of regional, peasant life in her native Sardinia, a Mediterranean island that is an autonomous region within Italy, with its own indigenous language and unique history, and a relatively strong economy today that, prior to World War II, was poorer and more driven by agriculture and mining. Deledda’s works, including her 1902 novel After the Divorce ($2 on Kindle), tend to put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances so Deledda can display or criticize social mores, such as the economic disadvantage of being a woman in Italy at the center of this book.

Giovanna and Constantino are a young, happily married couple with an infant son whose unremarkable lives are shattered when Constantino is arrested for and convicted of the murder of his cruel, abusive uncle. A new law passed in Italy shortly after the trial allows a woman to divorce a husband who has been convicted of a crime and jailed, so Giovanna does so, under duress, and marries the neighboring landowner who has been lusting for her for years but whom she rejected prior to marrying Constantino. The marriage is a disaster, of course, and eventually the truth of the murder comes to light and Constantino is released to return to his village, where he and Giovanna begin an affair that leads, almost inevitably, to tragedy.

Although the end of After the Divorce doesn’t quite match the common ending of early novels on the same theme – Madame Bovary, The Awakening, and Anna Karenina all mine somewhat similar material – the novel is still at heart about how women of that era lacked economic power. When Constantino was jailed with no real hope of parole or acquittal, Giovanna has no way to feed herself or her child, and becomes a burden on her own money-obsessed mother.

Deledda never blames her protagonist, instead creating the framework of Shakespearean tragedies to put her core characters on a collision course with each other that you know will end badly for at least one of them. There’s no real way out of the mess short of someone dying; under the law, Giovanna is married to the vile neighbor, Brontu, who, along with his mother, treats her as a servant, and can’t divorce him to return to her first husband now that he’s free. Yet the culture of the time presented no avenue for her to earn any living, and the trial wiped out her family’s only source of income. It’s a feminist novel that predates most feminist literature; even The Awakening, which I think is one of the earliest examples of that genre, has a protagonist driven to infidelity by boredom (inflicted on her by a society that won’t let her do anything with her mind) rather than economic need. Deledda here seems to be describing an injustice of the time, one that might feel a little quaint today but was a real issue in much of Christendom before the post-World War II liberalization of laws around marriage and civil rights.

I’ve seen a few references to this book or Deledda in general as antecedents of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, but I didn’t see the similarity; Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym and has avoided nearly all media, hasn’t mentioned that this was an influence, and other than the setting there doesn’t seem to be a common thread here. If you liked Ferrante’s novels, you could certainly give Deledda a spin, but I wouldn’t say liking one indicates that you’ll like the other.

Next up: I’ve finished Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, a Puliter winner, and am now reading Anna Smaill’s weird, dystopian novel The Chimes.

Comments

  1. Hi Keith

    I just finished Smart Baseball and really enjoyed it. As a Pirate fan for 47 years the mention of Mike Williams All Star made me bust out laughing, Somehow I forgot about him as an All Star, but then most of their All Stars from the early mid 90s to roughly 2010 were pretty forgettable.

    The proven closer ™ and relievers in the HOF, I found particularly interesting.

    In closing I’ll be looking for your next book.

    Good Luck with the book.

    Jeff

  2. Hi Keith,
    I’m wondering how many hours of sleep you get a night. I’m a relatively successful person in his mid 40’s with a daughter to care for and I don’t seem to get half the things done in a day that you do. There’s definitely some big differences in how ours brains work. Curious as to what it might be. HUGE fan by the way! Keep being you.
    All the best!
    Paul

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