By Claudia Quesito
Italy has a prominent literary tradition, and the Italian language itself was “formalized” by one of its greatest writers, Dante Alighieri. Dante’s century—il Trecento—was particularly prolific for Italian literature, as Petrarca, Boccaccio, and Dante—i tre grandi—published their masterpieces during that time. But let’s fast-forward to a more recent century, il Novecento, and let’s pick three must-read authors: Italo Svevo, Elsa Morante, and Eugenio Montale.
Italo Svevo (1861–1928) wrote short stories, plays, and three novels, the most celebrated being La coscienza di Zeno, a psychological novel written as fictional memoirs. The novel, which reflects Svevo’s deep fascination with Sigmund Freud’s theories, was totally ignored by readers and critics at the time of its publication. It only became a classic thanks to a very notable sponsor, James Joyce. Svevo and Joyce met in Trieste at an English school where Joyce was teaching English, and where they found out they had a lot in common, from their sarcastic wit to their fascination with psychoanalysis.
Elsa Morante (1912–1985) wrote novels, poems, and children’s books. She had a troubled life. Being of Jewish descent, she had to leave her native Rome during the German occupation and had a long and turbulent relationship with Alberto Moravia, another pillar of Italian literature in the 1900s. Similarly to Svevo, Morante was interested in Freud’s theories, and among her many topics is narcissism. Her most celebrated novel is La storia (History, or The Story, an unresolvable ambiguity). Set in Rome during and soon after WWII, it chronicles the life of a woman of Jewish heritage and her two sons, and it’s a long, touching—and at times controversial—reflection on war, social justice, and motherhood.
Last, but certainly not least, is Literature Nobel Prize winner Eugenio Montale (1896–1981). An antifascist, anti-conformist, admirer of Dante, and nature lover, Montale is one of the finest poets of modern Italian literature. His first collection, Ossi di Seppia, was published in 1925, not long after Mussolini took power, and contains his most distinguished verses, words that every Italian high school student knows: Codesto solo oggi possiamo dirti, ciò che non siamo, ciò che non vogliamo (Today we can only tell you this: what we are not, what we do not want).