In early December 1927,
a very small, reserved, middle-aged and somewhat
overwhelmed Grazia Deledda made the gruelling journey by train from Rome to Stockholm.
She was the first female Italian writer and only the second woman author (after
the Swedish writer, Selma Lagerlòf) to be awarded the Nobel Prize for
literature. According to the Nobel committee, she was given the prize ‘for her
idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on
her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in
general.’ Because she was a distant cry from the stereotype of other Italian
writers of her day, the prize caused a stir throughout the country and, above
all, in her native Sardinia where, initially,
she was harshly criticised for daring to so vividly depict some of the island’s
primitive, even primeval, cultures, customs and beliefs.
Deledda never stopped writing from the time of the publication of
her first story as a 17 year-old girl until her death in Rome at 65, from breast cancer, on August 15,
1936, an illness she described in her most openly autobiographical novel, Cosima (1937), published posthumously. In all, she published 36 novels, often as
serials in literary magazines; 250 stories; two plays; some verse; an opera
libretto; the screen play for Cenere (‘Ashes’), the film, starring
Eleonora Duse, based on her 1904 novel of the same name; and a collection of
popular Sardinian traditions. Although their themes were universal and ageless,
her major novels were all set in Sardinia.
Some but not all have been translated into English.
The moral laws of
the peasant farmers and pastoral world that Deledda’s novels depict were, by
tradition, even more implacable in her birthplace and form the backdrop to the
struggles her heroes and heroines must face. Without ever condemning her
characters, she takes her readers on a journey through their anguish as they
try to live within those almost sacred rules yet inevitability must break them.
Their deep sense of guilt and sin is haunted by their desire for expiation and
redemption. These torments and tragedies are
explored in her most important novels, including Elias Portolu (1903,
[trans], 1995), considered a masterpiece; Dopo il divorzio (1902,
[trans] ‘After the Divorce,’1905); Cenere (1904, [trans] ‘Ashes’,
1908); L’edera (1906); Canne
al vento (1913, [trans] ‘Reeds in the Wind,’1999); Marianna Sirca (1915); L’incendio dell’uliveto (1917); La madre (1920, [trans] ‘The Mother’, 1922); La chiesa della solitudine (1936, [trans] ‘The Church of Solitude’, 2002).
The fourth of six children in a well-off family, Deledda was born in
Nuoro, an inland city in eastern Sardinia on
September 27, 1871. Not unlike many girls of her generation, her formal
education ended after the fourth grade. But her love of literature led her to
continue to read everything she could find, ranging from epic Russian and
French novels to the cloying love stories by the then very fashionable Gabriele
D’Annunzio. She soon also began to experiment by writing her own prose.
While staying in Cagliari
with Maria Manca, the editor of the literary magazine Donna Sarda,
between October and December 1899, Deledda met Palmiro Madesano, an official of
the Ministry of Finance who was on assignment there. From a small town near Mantua, Madesani fell in
love with her and they married on January 11, 1900. After their wedding, the couple
moved to Rome,
where she divided her time between her husband and two sons, Sardus and
Francesco (known as Franz), and her writing. She wrote regularly every afternoon.
In Rome, she
finally broke free of the isolation imposed by her island home and met members
of the contemporary literary community working in the capital. Opening her
horizons even further, she spent her summer holidays until 1920 in Viareggio
with her children and two of her beloved sisters, Pina and Nicolina, who had
moved to live nearby her in Rome.
There, she often attended stimulating soirées with other writers and artists
hosted by the great composer Giacomo Puccini at his home in Torre del Lago.
In a recent
posting on an Italian Facebook site dedicated to Deledda, her grandson,
Alessando Madesani Deledda, lamented that today she has more fans abroad than
at home and that Italian schools are failing to teach students about her life
and work. Others, among them the well-known writer Dacia Maraini, share this
view. In a press interview, Maraini said that despite the fact that Deledda had
won the Nobel prize for literature, after her death she ‘vanished from
literature. No studies were ever made of her work. She is not included in the
all-important anthologies.’ Many agree with her that this is profoundly
regrettable and should be remedied.