‘The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories’

Jhumpa Lahiri's picks for The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories may betray her sympathies. She has no problem with this.

The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories
Jhumpa Lahiri
Penguin-Random House
September 2019

The Penguin Book of Short Stories can be judged by its cover. Nathalie du Pasquier‘s untitled 2016 painting features three geometric shapes; gnomic, blocked, enigmatic. They recall ancient Minoan as much as modernist Milan art. They disorient what a reader expects a designer to choose to draw one’s attention to the contents of an Italian story anthology. However, this spare, unsettling composition fits the print its dust jacket guards. It warns that this is no panorama of sun-dappled Tuscany, no Capri blue postcard, no Florentine tower, no Venetian gondola, no Roman dome.

Editor Jhumpa Lahiri explains her editorial selection. In Altre Parole (Guanda, 2016) narrated her decision to write fiction only in the language of her new homeland. Her commitment showed; she refused to copy it into her native English, leaving that to Elena Ferrante‘s trusted translator, Ann Goldstein. The book demonstrated a diligent command of Italian, attesting to her acumen.

Lahiri’s charmed life shows. Few might sigh for the reason she does this new task of editing. Having had to return from Rome to teach at Princeton, Lahiri seeks to “transmit this awe” for the Italian language to her English-speaking students. In The Penguin Book of Short Stories she compiles what she can from the texts she loves. She features women, authors less-known or neglected, and those “who practiced the short form with particular vehemence and virtuosity.” The result is a welcome addition to the shelf of Penguin anthologies of world literature.

Lahiri counters the claim of an American (clearly bereft of history) who exclaimed to her, “Nothing bad can possibly happen in Italy.” She avers that her writers shared “an innate hybridity”, usually growing up speaking dialects rather than standard forms, or even coming to the language as did she, learning it later. Therefore, her picks may betray her sympathies. She has no problem with this.

Estranged, alienated, lonely: these characteristics typify her choices. Rooted in the racconto, a brief form of exchange that differs from dialogue, the Italian spirit conveys a casual, comfortable dynamism lacking in the standard conversation as an English equivalent. This “fleeting by nature” quality expresses the elastic, expansive, and elusive genre — it is subversive, refusing limits.

This style departs from the novel’s structure and rational derivation. Forty stories fill nearly 600pages. Sixteen appear in English for the first time. Another nine merited fresh translations for this volume. Lahiri says she cut the total numer of stories down from 50, but never satisfactorily explains why, conspiring in this creative refusal to be pinned down. Free, she goes on, “from the economic machinery of book publishing”, these texts revel in their autonomy, emerging from the less rigid culture where Italy’s editors, novelists, journalists, and professors exchange roles.

Lahiri ends her introduction by acclaiming translation as the key to unlocking language. Opening the collection, what awaits those who step into these printed corridors? Well, first the surnames ordering the contents begin at the other end of the alphabet. This jumbles routine and chronology. It upends expectations. Each entry’s preceded by a brisk biography and a quick nod to the story below, mentioning its stylistic features or formal elements as if prefacing a recital.

This frames the selections neatly for the reader who likely won’t recognize many of these writers. Holding off the original publication date and provenance to the end of each story enables a freer reaction to its merits. This serves as a synecdoche for Lahiri’s predilections on the whole.

“Name and Tears” by Elio Vittorini floats along as if a dream. It mixes the supernatural with the mundane. In a manner akin to Luigi Pirondello or Samuel Beckett, we follow a protagonist’s path into enigma, after a protracted period of puzzled pursuit. This detached quality tempts twee tones.

The ornamented, arabesque, and mandarin fussiness of certain of Lahiri’s preferences may express the editorial perspective and the professorial parameters of a smitten admirer who wants her predecessors to step out of obscurity. Her criterion: no living authors make the cut.

Giovanni Verga’s stories, thanks to D.H. Lawrence, gained some vogue earlier last century. This direct chronicler unsparingly records a garrulous, meticulous writer whose prolixity suited better a more leisurely time than ours. His 1880 “Picturesque Lives” demonstrates a mood which later followers would appreciate.

“Melancholy” from Goffredo Parise, in Lahiri’s rendering, portrays a girl’s comprehension, dim but undeniable, of the titular affliction. A world-weariness permeates “Life as a Couple”. At least this 1966 back-and-forth inner monologue recounting a couple’s racconto lets out some self-deprecation to lighten what in too many entries settles ponderously.

Whether urban malaise or rural moodiness, one longs for release. It’s easy to see why Lawrence, who championed Italian literature for his own generation, translated Grazia Deledda. This Nobel laureate came from the Sardinia Lawrence loved, and “The Hind” conjures up a pagan-tinged landscape, away from villages and villas. Its 1921 composition conveys the dying voices of civilizations which Lawrence’s evocations of splendid vistas would ironically hasten to silence.

With attention by tourists to attractions—rather than literature—to Italy, before jets and trains enabled hundreds of millions to visit heretofore isolated regions and haunts, Europeans today rush past many of recent Italian culture’s creative successes. British author Tim Parks has lamented the dearth of homegrown talents in his adopted land, and Lahiri, in solidarity continues a valiant effort. Writers who treasure the languages they acquire as expatriates appreciate what natives or foreigners may overlook: they appreciate surprises.

Let the daughter of a Cuban president — married at 15 to an Italian, divorced at 20, later friends with Fidel Castro — sum up the checkered career of many who pursue solo, marry into, or fall in love with another language and its literature. Alba de Céspedes’ “Invitation to Dinner” gets right the bourgeois confusion at the end of the Second World War. The threadbare condition to which the narrator’s family has been reduced contrasts with the English officer’s visit, and rank.

A ghost tale from Fausta Cialente, suitably titled “Malpasso”, the quick racconto as “At the Station” from Carlo Cassola, and a reliably tense evocation of terror from Dino Buzzati n “And Yet They Are Knocking at Your Door” typify successful selections. They blend variety, alter registers, and shift settings. Not all of Lahiri’s Top 40 may stay long on a reader’s hit parade. However, as with any exposure to new sounds, the experience incorporated as The Penguin Book of Short Stories may reward the patient listener to the voices of these tellers.

RATING 7 / 10