Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone

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9780374113483: Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone

One of the major figures of twentieth-century European literature, Ignazio Silone (1900-78) is the subject of this award-winning new biography by the noted Italian historian Stanislao G. Pugliese. A founding member of the Italian Communist Party, Silone took up writing only after being expelled from the PCI and garnered immediate success with his first book, Fontamara, the most influential and widely translated work of antifascism in the 1930s. In World War II, the U.S. Army printed unauthorized versions of it, along with Silone's Bread and Wine, and distributed them throughout Italy during the country's Nazi occupation. During the cold war, he was an outspoken opponent of Soviet oppression and was twice considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Twenty years after his death, Silone was the object of controversy when reports arose indicating that he had been an informant for the Fascist police. Pugliese's biography, the most comprehensive work on Silone by far and the first full-length biography to be published in English, evaluates all the evidence and paints a portrait of a complex figure whose life and work bear themes with contemporary relevance and resonance. Bitter Spring, the winner of the 2008 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, is a memorable biography of one of the twentieth century's greatest writers against totalitarianism in all its forms, set amid one of the most troubled moments in modern history.

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About the Author:

Stanislao G. Pugliese is a professor of modern European history at Hofstra University. A former fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Italian Academy at Columbia University, and the University of Oxford, he is the author of Carlo Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Antifascist Exile and the translator of Silone's Memoir from a Swiss Prison.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

The Landscape of My Soul 

What the"true" image of each of us may be in the end is a meaningless question. —primo levi,"Lorenzo’s Return"

 

In 1923,"Ignazio Silone" was born in a Spanish prison. Perhaps it was no coincidence—and surely appropri-ate—that at the time he was reading Dostoevsky. Secondino Tranquilli, the person whose identity he erased with hisnew name, had been born twenty-three years earlier in the rural Abruzzo region of Italy and burdened with the given name"Secondino," which, in the local dialect, meant"prison guard." In Spain, he had been writing for Andrés Nin’s journal La Batalla and imprisoned as a Communist. Significantly, he derived"Silone" from the ancient warrior Poppedius Silo, a native of Silone’s beloved Abruzzo. Silo had led a successful revolt against the tyranny of Rome in 90 b.c. and thereby gained official recognition of the local population’s autonomy."Ignazio" he borrowed from the SpanishCounter-Reformation saint Loyola in order to"baptize the pagan surname." In this defiant act of self-appellation and identity creation, he synthesized a classical, pagan past with the Christian tradition.

 

Silone has most often been associated with the protagonist of his novels Bread and Wine and The Seed Beneath the Snow, Pietro Spina. ("Read my books," he once said,"only in them do I fully recognize myself.") A Communistintellectual and activist, Spina is returning from exile to his native Abruzzo, hunted by the Fascist police. In order to elude arrest and move about the countryside, he dons the robes of a priest and becomes Don [Father] Paolo Spada. The metamorphosis from Pietro Spina (literally Peter [the] Thorn) to Paolo Spada (Paul [the] Sword) is revealing: The Communist"thorn" is transformed into the religious"sword." The American literary critic Edmund Wilson, after reading Silone’s novels while sitting on the benches of the Villa Borghese Gardens in Rome, Italian dictionary at his side, perceptively sensed that Silone was"a queer mixture of priest and communist." Nicola Chiaromonte, Silone’s fellow founder and editor of the literary-cultural journal Tempo Presente, and one of the few people who could claim to be close to the writer, intuited that Silone was in some ways a"prete contadino," a peasant priest.

 

Yet Silone’s life and experience are reflected in many of his characters, not just Pietro Spina/Paolo Spada. There is the peasant Berardo Viola in Fontamara, Thomas the Cynic in The School for Dictators, the disillusioned party intellectual Rocco De Donatis in A Handful of Blackberries, the doggedly persistent Andrea Cipriani in The Secret of Luca, the compassionate Daniele of The Fox and the Camelias, self-effacing Pope Celestine V in The Story of aHumble Christian. But there is always a clear, explicit, and sincere identification with the poor Christ, the sufferingChrist, the peasant Christ who figures in the mythology of the rural poor. And in his last, unfinished work, Severina, Silone for the first and only time identifies himself with a female protagonist. Severina, a young convent initiate who refuses to give false testimony in court even though ordered to do so by her mother superior, grew out of Silone’s fascination at the end of his life with Simone Weil. A member of the French underground, a writer, and a Jew who died by self-starvation in 1943, Weil inspired Silone to create Severina as bystander to a crime, thus embodying what writing meant for him:"the absolute necessity of bearing witness."

 

Representativeness was imposed on Silone, wrote R.W.B. Lewis in a profile that, now almost a half century old, is still thebest critical analysis of the writer."He scarcely had a chance to be Italian." Further complicating his portrait isthe essential paradox that defined him: his entrance into politics because of an essentially religious conception of the world."He became a socialist," Lewis writes,"because he wanted to become a saint." As a priest says of one ofSilone’s characters,"socialism was his way of serving God."

 

Silone is a particularly difficult subject for the biographer because of the labyrinthine meanderings of his own identity and his enigmatic autobiographical comments. He believed that the true nature of any person could not be known because—following the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico—he insisted that man is not nature."Every man," he wrote,"is much more complicated than what he appears and that which he believes himself to be . . . to hell with psychology and facile suppositions."

 

Did Silone knowingly encourage a misreading and a conflation of his heroic and morally pure main characters with his own biography? Is it true, as others now insist, that Silone offered a confession for his transgressions as a police spy in a minor protagonist? The transfiguration from Secondino Tranquilli to Ignazio Silone was neither the first nor the last of his many self-transformations.

 

When I asked Silone’s widow about his fate in Italian literary circles and why no biography on him had been written in English, Darina Silone replied,"That situation was Silone’s own fault; his—to say the least—extremely difficultcharacter." When I noted the challenge of tracking down documents in various archives and trying to fashion an identityfrom them, she was quick to respond."There are things that are not found in any archive," she insisted."Silone’s character was difficult; his personality very complex. Of the few people alive who knew him personally, I am perhaps the one who knew him best, even if certainly not completely (no one ever knew him completely)."

 

Where, exactly, does identity lie? C. H. Cooley’s"looking-glass" theory of self ("I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am") doesn’t help us in Silone’s case, for he simply did not care what others in the Italian political and literary establishments thought of him. But the biographer has a fertile mine in Silone’s own writings. Rarely has an oeuvre been so autobiographical. All of Silone’s novels except one take place in the Abruzzo region of Italy, as do his two plays. Rarely has so cosmopolitan a writer been so closely identified with the place ofhis birth."Look at Silone," said Albert Camus, noting the paradox in an interview after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature,"he is radically tied to his land but is the most European of writers . . . Silone speaks to all of Europe. If I feel myself tied to him it is because he is incredibly rooted in his national and even local tradition." Not that Silone engaged in any sentimental or nostalgic mythmaking of his origins. Indeed, one is struck by his complicated and ambivalent relationship with his hometown of Pescina. Notwithstanding all the autobiographical detail in his work, the problem of uncovering his identity still remains almost insurmountable for the biographer."There is no single truth about Silone," Darina Silone once said,"only many truths."

 

The writing is deceptively simple and presents the biographer with multiple challenges. Silone recognized himself in Hugo von Hof-mannsthal’s dictum that writers are a human category for whom writing is more difficult than it is for anyone else."I live in a close communion with the characters in my stories that cannot be broken from one day to the next," Silone wrote. So close was that identification that the necessity of actually finishing a book was"an arbitrary and painfulact, an act against nature, at any rate, my nature."

 

The flawed, tragic hero is only one possible trope in crafting a biography of Silone. Like an ancient Hebrew prophet or oneof the early persecuted Christians, Silone insisted on a moral vision of the world. His writing—"bearing witness"—was to become the testimony of an age. This is related to what might be called"the Christian quandary" or Silone’s"wrestling with the Lord." He refused to take the more facile path of an easy atheism or agnosticism. Christianity for Silone was both a historical movement, tied to a certain place and time, and a transcendent, timeless moral force. This conflicting tension between an adamant historicism and a desire for transcendence are ever-present in his thought and writing. Silone and his main protagonists are not so much searching for a hidden God as being hounded by the Lord. A doggedly persistent deity haunts Silone and his characters, seeking them out in desolate landscapes and humble farmhouses, donkey stalls, and empty churches. The moral and ethical impetus is more St. Augustine’s Confessions than Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. There is, as Irving Howe noted, an irreducible tension in all of Silone’s writings between the secular promise of Socialist liberation and the Christian promise of spiritual transcendence. Despite his identification with both Christianity and socialism, Silone indelibly defined himself as"a Socialist without a Party, a Christian without a Church."

 

Silone was honest enough to recognize the potential and contemporary failure of the Catholic church just as he fearlessly recognized the potential and failure of orthodox Marxism. There was no Dantean"comedic" vision of Christianity in Silone; he confessed to being an"absurd Christian." Theologically, orthodox Christianity cannot accept absurdity or nihilism, yet for Silone, these must be confronted before they can be transcended. For Silone, the promise of Christianity as embodied in the Easter Resurrection has not come to pass. Instead, for the peasants of southern Italy—indeed, for peasants and workers around the world—it is, he insisted, still—and always—Good Friday. While the writer felt himself hounded by the Lord, Silone’s peasants ask, like Christ on the cross,"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Surely the most anguished and—for the Christian—the most disturbing line in the Bible.

 

Nor could Marxism offer salvation or redemption. In an early work he concluded:"The future belongs to Socialism." Years later, Silone repudiated that sentiment and the entire work in which it was written and strictly forbade its reprinting. Just as he could not bring himself simply to accept a comedic teleology of Christianity, he eventually came to question and then reject Marxist eschatology and teleology.

 

William Faulkner thought him Italy’s greatest living writer, and intellectuals as diverse as Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Graham Greene, and Edmund Wilson agreed. Yet even his most astute readers, focused on his moral and political seriousness, often fail to note Silone’s irony and humor. He once wrote that since pathos cannot be eliminated from human life,"a touchof irony is required to make it acceptable." Silone’s irony could indeed be bitter, but it was always moderated by a critical spirit and an independence of judgment. Although tragedy and sorrow were inherent in the human condition— he often wrote of"our inhuman fate upon the earth"—there remained the possibility of hope. His politics could be described as a humanistic socialism combined with a compassionate libertarianism. He was an admirer of the anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, and Camillo Berneri (the last assassinated by Stalin’s agents during the Spanish Civil War). When Berneri’s widow, Giovanna, in her journal Volontà, implied that Silone was an anarchist, the writer responded, saying he would be honored to be counted as an anarchist, if only to distinguish himself from the various forms of socialism then current in Italy."But a great respect toward those who have studied, struggled and suffered to give the anarchist ideal a precise shape" prevented him from identifying himself as such. Nine years later, in a sympathetic response to the student uprisings of 1968, Silone commented that"democracy has a duty to respect utopia."

 

By nature silent, meditative, and melancholy, Silone belied the stereotype of the gregarious, outgoing, extroverted southern Italian. In The Seed Beneath the Snow, a sympathetic character remarks to Pietro Spina’s grandmother (modeled on Silone’s own maternal grandmother):"There’s a kind of sadness, a subtle kind of sadness that must not be confused with the more ordinary kind that’s the result of remorse, disappointment, or suffering; there’s a kind of intimate sadness and hopelessness that attaches itself for preference to chosen souls . . . That kind of sadness has always been very prevalent among sensitive individuals in this part of the world. Once upon a time, to avoid suicide or madness, they entered monasteries."

 

Unable or unwilling to enter a monastery, Silone gravitated to politics at an early age. But painfully shy, uncomfortable in the public light, and perpetually doubtful of himself, Silone never had any of the qualities necessary for a successful political career. He was a difficult husband, an exasperating friend, a mediocre politician, an aloof acquaintance, a morosepresence in public, a distant and cool relative, often manic-depressive, sometimes suicidal, and he carried out an epistolary exchange with a police official that has shadowed his reputation for the last decade. Yet, starting in the 1930s, he crafted a body of work that testifies to a searing political and spiritual crisis and still bears fruitful reading. Silone offers us today a critical commentary on everything that we as human beings experienced in the twentieth century: from the failed promise of political utopia to the disillusionment with art; from the nihilism of totalitarianism to the moral temptations and seductive corruption of an affluent but savage, consumerist culture.

 

Curiously, Silone has never been the subject of a biography in English. Even in Italy, when not neglected by the literary and cultural establishment, he was often the object of scorn and derision, accused of writing"bad Italian." Awash ina sea of hagiographical works, there is some discerning, insightful scholarship on Silone in Italian for the serious reader. But considering the ethical dimensions of his writing and the wide range of his literary production, it is surprising that his work has not attracted greater attention in America. While known mainly for his novels, Silone mastered the art of the essay (Emergency Exit), the theoretical treatise (Fascism: Its Origins and Development), political satire (The School for Dictators), as well as drama (And He Hid Himself ; The Story of a Humble Christian). When The School for Dictators first appeared in 1938 (with dictators ascendant), Silone was acclaimed"a second Machiavelli" by some overly enthusiastic critics, as, conversely, his Manifesto for Civil Disobedience of December 1942, in which he urges the peoples of Europe to rise up against the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships with nonviolent public resistance, makes one think of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Critics and readers of twentieth-century Italian literature are now familiar with the so-called caso Silone (Silone case), first broached in the postwar years: Why was Silone so beloved and read abroad...

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Descripción Farrar, Straus Giroux Inc, United States, 2009. Hardback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Although he was born Secondino Tranquilli and was known by more than a dozen aliases during his period of clandestine political work for the Italian Communist Party and with the American Office of Strategic Services, the subject of this fascinating new biography has become known in history as Ignazio Silone (1900-1978). One of the major figures of twentieth-century Italian literature, Silone was as notorious for his anti-fascist activism as for his writing. So well known was he as a symbol of freedom during World War II that the United States Army printed unauthorized versions of his novels Fontamara and Bread and Wine and distributed them throughout Italy during the country s liberation after 1943. More recently, after his death Silone was the object of controversy, after reports arose that Silone had been an informant for the Fascist police. Stanislao Pugliese s biography evaluates all the evidence and arrives at a portrait of a complex figure, whose life and work should be the topic of far wider discussion. Bitter Spring is a memorable biography amidst one of the most troubled moments in modern history. Nº de ref. de la librería FLT9780374113483

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Stanislao G. Pugliese
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Descripción Farrar, Straus Giroux Inc, United States, 2009. Hardback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Although he was born Secondino Tranquilli and was known by more than a dozen aliases during his period of clandestine political work for the Italian Communist Party and with the American Office of Strategic Services, the subject of this fascinating new biography has become known in history as Ignazio Silone (1900-1978). One of the major figures of twentieth-century Italian literature, Silone was as notorious for his anti-fascist activism as for his writing. So well known was he as a symbol of freedom during World War II that the United States Army printed unauthorized versions of his novels Fontamara and Bread and Wine and distributed them throughout Italy during the country s liberation after 1943. More recently, after his death Silone was the object of controversy, after reports arose that Silone had been an informant for the Fascist police. Stanislao Pugliese s biography evaluates all the evidence and arrives at a portrait of a complex figure, whose life and work should be the topic of far wider discussion. Bitter Spring is a memorable biography amidst one of the most troubled moments in modern history. Nº de ref. de la librería FLT9780374113483

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