The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpa Lahiri
Compiled and edited by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories is an astonishing and academic collection of forty works by significant Italian writers. These authors will be new to most English-language readers, and as a whole, the book is a horizon-broadening triumph. Lahiri is a perfect curator for such an experience: although she’s known for her stories about Indian-American families and for her 2000 Pulitzer-winner Interpreter of Maladies, she has refocused in recent years to all things Italian, striving to master the language as both novelist and translator. Her recent books were originally written in Italian, and in this collection, she uses her skills to highlight under-celebrated writers with fresh translations (many of which are her own). Further, Lahiri contextualizes each work with a short biography of the author and situates them into the literary and political landscape of their time. The result is an illuminating, worldly tome.
Lahiri’s collection has been meticulously selected, but it might not resonate with those looking for a cohesive reading experience. Compared to last year’s Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, which thematically traced that nation’s literary evolution from nineteenth-century fiction to the likes of Haruki Murakami, Italian Short Stories is content to simply be a presentation of a geography. Lahiri notably abstains from creating a narrative for this region’s fiction, choosing instead to arbitrarily present her collection in reverse-alphabetical order. This is a boldly definitive way of explaining that Italian fiction did not evolve from itself, with one writer influencing later writers, and so on down the line, but that Italy’s literature is as diverse as its history. Ancient myths, Parisian-style romances, and Russian literature can be seen in many of these works, and considering Italy’s history over the last 150 years, it’s appropriate that its fiction, too, feels influenced by all its surrounding powers.
Readers with cursory knowledge of Italian cinema might come to this collection expecting a certain chic blend of cafe culture and profound aesthetics, and Ennio Flaiano’s wonderful story “A Martian in Rome” will meet those expectations. Flaiano wrote the screenplays for Fellini’s celebrated films La Dolce Vita and 8 ½, and “A Martian in Rome” reads like a lost new wave classic. When an alien lands in the city (imagine a being with David Bowie-like allure), Rome responds at first with nearly-papal adoration that, over time, wanes into cultural ennui. As Lahiri explains in her intro, Flaiano’s “perspective was laconic, pessimistic, at times nihilistic,” and captured the “cultural zeitgeist of the 1950s.”
A handful of stories circle around these themes of cultural zeitgeist: even the more provincial, simpler work wrestle with ideas of tradition and modernity, depicting lives on the cusp of some kind of spiritual, national evolution. In Silvio D’Arzo’s hazy wartime story, “An Elegy of Signora Nodier,” the narrator reflects on stories past: “This too, I remember as partaking of myth, but also of the present — somewhat more than a memory, almost a pale memory.”
Curiously, a number of stories look backwards and incorporate mythological themes into their narratives. Another highlight is “The Siren” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which recounts the story of a curmudgeonly old political figure and his tense relationship with a younger, local man. As the story unfolds, the old man recounts a rhapsodic affair with a mermaid that, when it ended, soured his general outlook on life. Primo Levi’s “Quaestio de Centauris” is a deadpan history of the centaur and one particular beast’s exploits in a small village. Alberto Sciascia’s “The Long Voyage” feels like an updated parable, in which a boat full of passengers journeys to a new world (in this case, America), only to find they’ve looped around back to where they started.
Still, much of this collection doesn’t adhere to a particular theme; many standout stories stand alone. Luciano Bianciardi’s “The Streetwalker” reads like an Italian Henry Miller story, in which the narrator unabashedly lurks the streets of Milan after the Merlin Law of 1958 made brothels illegal. The madcap and surreal “Gogol’s Wife,” by Tommaso Landolfi, tells the marital secrets of the Russian absurdist, and recounts how the celebrated writer was in fact married to a shapeshifting, sentient balloon. And then there’s “My Husband,” by Natalia Ginzburg, which is a quietly devastating tale of marital infidelity. While not quirky, challenging, or part of a particular literary wave, it’s one of the finest works in the collection.
The longest stories are often the best, and some of the shorter pieces feel at times fleeting despite their obvious cultural significance. Lahiri also occasionally struggles with balancing her selections with the learnedness of her audience: in many of her thoughtful introductions, she describes an author’s most celebrated works, only to follow those accolades with an explanation for why she chose a more obscure piece for this collection. Her Italo Calvino choice is a good example: newly-translated, the three-page “Dialogue with a Tortoise,” will not sell newcomers on Calvino’s genius but will delight established fans and completists. Still, as a whole, Lahiri has built an impressive paean to Italian literature, as suitable for a college classroom as it is for a bedside stack.