As Elena Ferrante’s much anticipated new novel The Lying Life of Adults (Europa Editions) recently hit the bookshops in the UK and the US, we take a look at some of our other favourite Italian writers. In their own ways, these novelists capture some essence of Italy, be it a piece of history or the landscape and people of a specific region. Pick up one of their books, and travel to Italy from the comfort of your sofa.
Born in Palermo in 1916, Natalia Ginzburg has long been famous in Italy but her work is now finding new English-speaking fans thanks to fresh translations by Jenny McPhee. Ginzburg grew up in a large Jewish-Italian family in Turin, their home a hub for activists, artists, industrialists and intellectuals. Her autobiographical novel Family Lexicon (originally published as Lessico Famigliare in 1963) draws on her colourful youth of books and politics, especially the relationship with her father Giuseppe Levi, a renowned scientist at the University of Turin. The novel unfolds against the backdrop of Mussolini’s Italy, and the Levi household becomes an anti-fascist stronghold. It masterfully explores, in Ginzburg’s signature economical style, the intimacy of family, memory and the early years of fascism in Italy.
When Sardinian writer Grazia Deledda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, she was only the second woman to be awarded this honour and yet she remains little known outside Italy. Born in 1871, Deledda started writing about the lives of Sardinia’s peasants as a young teenager, publishing her first story in a local newspaper aged 13. Though she moved to Rome, Deledda remained attached to Sardinia and always wrote about the land and its people. Her eighth novel Reeds in the Wind (originally published as Canne al Vento in 1913) was translated into English in 1998. Set in the early 1900s, it tells the story of four Sardinian sisters. The noble Pintor family, once wealthy, now lives in poverty, selling vegetables from their dilapidated home and struggling to stay afloat. It’s a beautiful story of loss, family and superstition in rural Sardinia.
A contemporary of Ginzburg, the novelist Elsa Morante grew up in the Testaccio quarter of Rome. She left home at a young age, and soon started writing – she published her first collection of stories, Il Gioco Segreto, in the same year that she married the author Alberto Moravia. It was, by all accounts, a tumultuous marriage. The couple had to go into hiding during the Second World War, moved frequently and seemed unable to reconcile personal differences – Morante wanted both autonomy and affection, while Moravia never fully committed. The couple eventually split in 1961. Arturo’s Island (published in Italian as L’Isola di Arturo in 1947) is undoubtedly Morante’s best novel. It tells the story of Arturo, a boy who grows up pretty much alone in an old house on the island of Procida, off the coast of Naples. It’s a strange, dreamlike book that heads off in unexpected directions.
Born in 1966, Melania Mazzucco studied at La Sapienza in Rome before becoming a writer. As well as four novels, she has written for the theatre, cinema and radio. Vita, which won the 2003 Strega Prize, is perhaps her best known novel. Drawing on her family’s history of emigration, it follows twelve-year-old Diamante Mazzucco and his nine-year-old cousin Vita from a small Italian village to Ellis Island in the United States, a journey that more than four million Italians undertook around the turn of the twentieth century. As Diamante and Vita adjust to their strange, sometimes inhospitable new reality, we learn about their hopes, dreams and disappointments, and share their struggles and victories. It’s a rich and moving insight into the emigrant experience.
Viola di Grado
The youngest writer on our list, Viola di Grado is originally from Catania in Sicily, now based in London. She won the prestigious Premio Campiello Prima Opera for her first novel Settanta acrilico trenta lana at the age of twenty three. One of “most experimental and fearless new voices” to come out of Italy, she is creating quite a buzz in literary circles. Her second novel, Hollow Heart (published in Italian as Cuore Cavo in 2015), is set in Sicily and tells the story of a suicide. It’s frightening, thought-provoking and very, very good.