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by Bamber Gascoigne

Grazia Deledda (1871-1936)


Italian novelist and short story writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. Grazia Deledda spent her childhood in a small isolated village, where the people spoke Logudorese, a dialect closely related to Latin. Her stories are usually set in Sardinia and depict the life and customs of simple folk – small landowners, servants, farmers, and shepherds. Often they must find their own solutions to complex moral problems. From 1900 until her death in 1936 Deledda resided in Rome.

"The moon rose before him, and evening voices told him the day had ended: a cuckoo's rhytmical cry, the early crikets' chirping, a bird calling; the reeds sighing and the ever more distant voice of the river; but most of all a breathing, a mysterious panting that seemed to come from the earth itself. Yes, man's working day was done, but the fantastic life of elves, fairies, wandering spirits was beginning." (in Reeds in the Wind, translated by Martha King, 1999; original work appeared in 1913)

Grazia Cosima Deledda was born in the Sardinian village of Nuoro into a middle-class family. Her her father,  Giovanni Antonio Deledda, was a prosperous landowner, who served as a mayor of Nuoro for some time. Francesca Cambosu, Deledda's mother, was not his first choice for a wife. She spoke only Sardinian and didn't read, write or speak Italian. Until the age of ten, Deledda attended the local elementary school, where she shared a desk with a doctor's daughter. She became her close friend. Five years of school was her only formal education, before she was privately tutored in French and Italian. Deledda's father died in 1892, her older sister died in 1896 following an abortion.

Deledda was an avid reader of Russian novelists, Cadrucci, D'Annunzio, and Giovanni Verga, but her reading was unsystematic. At the age of eight she began to compose poems. She also absorbed stories from servants, farmhands, and shepherds. When Deledda was fifteen, her stories, 'Sangue Sardo'  (signicicantly entitled 'Sardinian Blood') and 'Remigia Helder,' appeared in L'Ultima moda, a fashion magazine. The subject of 'Sangue Sardo', a love triangle, was considered by many to be inappropriate in her home village. However, Deledda continued to contribute in 1888-89 to magazines published in Rome and Milan. At the same time she took care of the household responsibilities. Her older brother had become the head of the family, but he had started to drink and dissipated the inheritance. "An ugly, horrendous vice, getting drunk!" Deledda wrote. "At first, I remember, Andrea didn't have this vice, but for a year now he has raised his elbow at least every fifteen days." (Grazia Deledda: A Legendary Life by Martha King, 2005, p. 74)

Her debut as a novelist Deledda made with Stella d'Oriente (1891), published under the pseudonym Ilia di Saint Ismail. But it was Anime oneste (1895), a family romance for young women, which secured her fame. Deledda's early works reflected the influence of folklore. In Tradizioni popolari di Nuoro in Sardegna  (1894-95), an ethnographuc study which appeared in the periodical Rivista delle tradizioni popolari italiane, she examined the customs of the village, where she was born. Deledda's interest in the lives of ordinary men and women and rural customs connected her to Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), who depicted provincial Sicilian people, and whose style infuenced deeply a number of prose writers. The stark landscape has more symbolic value in Deledda's later novels. Her work has been seen to fall between verismo, a 19th-century Italian literary movement related to naturalism, and decadentismo, which emphasized instincts and irrational forces; love, sin, guilt, and death are the central elements of Deledda's stories.

In the 1890s, Deledda had three love affairs by mail, beginning from Stanis Manca, the drama critic for La Tribuna, who interviewed her for an article published in Vita sarda. He was followed by Andrea Pirotta, a teacher, and Giovanni De Nava, a poet and journalist. Deledda left Nuoro in 1899 and went to Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia. There she met  Palmiro Madesani, whom she married in 1900; they had two sons, Franz and Sardus. Madesani worked as a civil servant in the Ministero della Finanze. With her husband, Deledda moved to Rome, but Sardinia remained always for her the most important source for inspiration. She kept contact to her native region and made there frequent visits. For the remainder of her life, Deledda wrote novels at the rate about one a year, producing some 40 works. However, in 1916, the year when her mother died, her only publications were reprintings of her older works.

Deledda also translated Balzac's Eugénie Grandet into Italian in 1930. Benito Mussolini claimed being a great admirer of Deledda's work, but fascist reign did not leave much traces on her writing – in Rome she lived a rather restricted life, occupied by her writing and domestic matters. Her only travel abroad she made in 1927, to Stockholm, when she attended the Nobel Prize ceremonies. Deledda died in Rome on August 15, 1936

"In Grazia Deledda's novels more than in most other novels, man and nature form a single unity. One might almost say that the men are plants which germinate in the Sardinian soil itself. The majority of them are simple peasants with primitive sensibilities and modes of thought, but with something in them of the grandeur of the Sardinian natural setting. Some of them almost attain the stature of the monumental figures of the Old Testament." (Henrik Schück, President of the Nobel Foundation, in Presentation Speech, on December 10, 1927)

Il vecchio della montagna (1900, The Old man of the Mountain) was the first of the author's many books dealing with simple characters and illustrated the destructive and tragic effects of overpowering sexual attractions. Dopo il diverzio (1902, After the Divorce) was a moral story a man, Constantino, who is condemned to a long prison term for a murder, and his wife, Giovanna, who finally decides to divorce him. However, Constantino is freed after a deathbed confession by the actual murderer.

Elias Portolu (1903), one of Deledda's major works, depicted a shepherd, who prepares to enter the priesthood because he falls in love with his brother's fiancée. His brother dies and he must resolve the conflict between his love and demands of society. Cenere (1904) told about a story of a young girl who sacrifices herself for her illegitimate child, killing herself in order not to harm his son's prospects in life. In this as in other stories Deledda's protagonist is a woman and a victim, who must eventually sacrifice herself. The tale was adapted into screen starring Eleonora Duse, the only film she made. The first proceeds of the film, released during the final years of WWI, went to the Red Cross.

Deledda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature mainly for La madre (1920), a tragedy set in an isolated Sardinian village. It tells of a poor woman, who has made many sacrifices so that her son, Paolo, would become a priest. Paolo is torn between love and clerical celibacy. At the end she dies in a church during the service while her son looks on from the altar. The work was translated into English by Mary G. Steegmann as The Woman and the Priest (1922), and republished in 1928 with an introduction by D.H. Lawrence. In 1921, when Lawrence collected material for his travel book Sea and Sardinia (1921), he had traveled through the island with his wife. He did not meet Deledda, but he visited Nuoro, her place of birth. "So, we stop at the Dazio, the town's customs hut, and velveteens has to pay for some meat and cheese he is bringing in. After which we slip into the cold high-street of Nuoro. I am thinking that this is the home of Grazia Deledda, the novelist, and I see a barber's shop. De Ledda. And thank heaven we are at the end of the journey. It is past four o'clock." (Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence, New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1921, p. 242)

Deledda's later novels have a wider setting than the harshly beautiful Sardinia but continue to deal with moral and ethical themes, among them La chiesa della solitudine (1936), which dealt with the subject of breast cancer. Her last novel was published posthumously in 1937. Entitled by her editor, Antonio Baldini, Cosima, quasi Grazia, it was also Deledda's fictionalized autobiography – Cosima was her second name – in which she chronicled the difficulties faced by a woman who wants to be a writer.

In 1971-1972, Deledda received new attention  at a symposium marking the hundredth anniversary of her birth. New translations of her books are also available. Though Deledda's Christian and archaic world view has made her work somewhat outmodish, her unpretentious manner of writing creates still powerful impact. Her characters, many of them society's outcasts, are driven by their desires and sinful passions, and their face terrible fates when they challenge community values. The desire for money is spiritually dangerous. Aparently her own favorite piece of work was Canne al vento (1913), which told the story of a aristocratic Pintor family, sliding deep in poverty. Efix, the family servant, is the personification of loyalty, but she hides a secret: she has killed the father the three sisters, and tries to protect them.

For further reading: 'Introduction to The Mother' by D.H. Lawrence (1928); La vita e i romanzi Grazia Deledda by Y.E. Di Silvestro (1945); Grazia Deledda by G. Buzzi (1952); The Modern Italian Novel from Capuana to Tozzi by S. Pacifici (1972); Self-Made Woman by C.A. Balducci (1975); 'Deledda, Gracia' by T.G.B. [Thomas G. Bergin], in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, edited by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Grazia Deledda by M. Aste (1990); Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook by Rinaldina Russell (1994); 'Gracia Deledda 1871-1936' by Gaetana Marrone, in Encyclopedia of Literary Translation Into English: Volume I: A-L, edited by Olive Classe (2000); Grazia Deledda: A Legendary Life by Martha King (2005); Race and Narrative in Italian Women's Writing Since Unification by Melissa Coburn (2013); 'Sardinian confines in the works of Grazia Deledda' by Rhianedd Jewell, in Italian Women Writers, 1800-2000: Boundaries, Borders, and Transgression, edited by Patrizia Sambuco (2014); Deledda: una vita come un romanzo by Luciano Marrocu (2016); Grazia Deledda: i luoghi, gli amori, le opere by Rossana Dedola (2016); Grazia Deledda: una vita per il Nobel by Maria Elvira Ciusa (2016); Constructing the Self in Language and Narrative: The Work of Grazia Deledda by Rhianedd Jewell (2018)

Selected works:

  • Nell'azzurro!, 1890
  • Stella d'oriente, 1890
  • Fior di Sardegna, 1891
  • Amore regale, 1891 [Regal Love]
  • Racconti sardi, 1894
  • Tradizioni popolari di Nuoro in Sardegna, 1894
  • Anime oneste, 1895
  • La via del male, 1896
  • IIl tesoro, 1897
  • Paesaggi sardi, 1897
  • La giustizia, 1899
  • Le tentazioni, 1899
  • Il vecchio della montagna, 1900
  • Dopo il divorzio, 1902 (as Naufraghi in porto, 1920)
    - After the Divorce (translations by Maria Hornor Lansdale, 1905; Susan Ashe, 1985)
  • La regina delle tenebre, 1902
  • Elias Portolu, 1903
    - Elias Portolu (translated by Martha King, 1992)
    - Elias Portolu: romaani (suom. Jalmari Hahl, 1928)
  • Cenere, 1904
    - Ashes (translated by Jan Kozma, 2004)
    - film 1916, dir. by Febo Mari, written by Eleonora Duse, starring Eleonora Duse, Febo Mari, Misa Mordeglia Mari
  • Nostalgie, 1905
    - Kotikaiho: avioliittoromaani (suom. Jalmari Hahl, 1929)
  • La giustizia: romanzo, 1906
  • Odio vince, 1906 (play)
  • L'ombra del passato, 1907
  • L'edera, 1908 (play, 1912: based on the novel, with Camillo Antona-Traversi)
    - Muratti (suom. Jalmari Hahl, 1929)
    - film 1950, dir. by Augusto Genina, screenplay by Vitaliano Brancati, starring Roldano Lupi, Columba Domínguez, Juan de Landa, Emma Baron
  • Il nonno, 1909
  • Il nostro padrone, 1910
  • Colombi e sparvieri, 1912
  • Canne al vento, 1913
    - Reeds in the Wind (translated by Martha King, 1999)
    - Kuin ruo'ot tuulessa (suom. Taru Nyström, 2021)
    - TV film 1958, dir. Mario Landi, written by Gian Paolo Callegari
  • Le colpe altrui, 1914
  • Marianna Sirca, 1915
    - Marianna Sirca (edited with introd., notes and vocabulary by Maro Beath Jones and Armando T. Bissiri, 1940; tr. Jan Kozma, 2006)
    - Marianna (suom. Jalmari Hahl, 1928)
    - film: Amore rosso, 1952, dir. Aldo Vergano, starring Marina Berti, Massimo Serato, Guido Celano
  • L'incendio nell'oliveto, 1918
  • La madre, 1920
    - The Woman and the Priest (translated by Mary G. Steegmann, 1922; introduction by D.H. Lawrence, 1928) / The Mother (with and introduction by Mary G. Steegmann, 1923)
    - Äiti (suom. Jalmari Hahl, 1928)
    - film: Proibito, 1954, dir. by Mario Monicelli, starring Mel Ferrer, Amedeo Nazzari, Lea Massari
  • Il segreto dell'uomo solitario, 1921
    - film 1988, dir.  Ernesto Guida, starring Giulio Bosetti, Mimsy Farmer, Nada, Didi Perego, Riccardo Cucciolla
  • La Grazia, 1921 (opera libretto based on Deledda's short story, written and composed by Vincenzo Michetti)
    - film 1929, dir. Aldo De Benedetti, written by Grazia Deledda, Claudio Guastalla, Vincenzo Michetti
  • Il Dio dei viventi, 1922
  • Le più belle pagine di Silvio Pellico, 1923 (ed.)
  • La danza della collana, 1924
  • La fuga in Egitto, 1925
    - Pako Egyptiin (suom. Jalmari Hahl, 1928)
  • Annalena Bilsini, 1927
  • La casa del poeta, 1930 [The Poet's House]
  • Il paese del vento, 1931
  • Sole d'estate, 1933
  • La vigna sul mare, 1932
  • La chiesa della solitudine, 1936
    - The Church of Solitude (translated by E. Ann Matter, 2002)
  • Cosima, 1937
    - Cosima (translated by Martha King, 1988)
  • Romanzi e novelle è un libro, 1945 (introduction by Emilio Cecchi)
  • Opere scelte, 1964 (2 vols., introduction by Eurialo De Michelis)
  • Versi e prose giovanili, 1972 (ed.. Antonio Scano)
  • Romanzi sardi, 1981 (ed. Vittorio Spinazzola)
  • Lettere ad Angelo De Gubernatis, 1892-1909, 2007 (ed. Roberta Masini)
  • Amore lontano. Lettere al gigante biondo (1891-1909), 2010 (ed. Anna Folli)
  • Un'amicizia nuorese: lettere inedite a Pietro Ganga (1898-1905) / Grazia Deledda, 2019 (a cura di Giovanna Cerina; trascrizioni, note e apparati di Piero Mura; in appendice sette Saggi deleddiani di Giovanna Cerina)

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