The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
by Giorgio Bassani

Giorgio Bassani's masterwork has Vittorio de Sica's 1971 film adaptation to thank for its dual success and obscurity. Not enough people know that this tale of a middle-class Jewish youth's obsession with the far more aristocratic Micol Finzi-Contini stems from a novel, not a novelization. Bassani's doom- and tomb-ridden examination of one-sided love is far more complex--about individuals' inability to contend with personal and political annihilation. Events call for heroism, yet it seems "downright absurd that now, all of a sudden, exceptional behavior was demanded of us." The narrator writes in retrospect, 13 years after World War II's end, and reveals the Finzi-Continis' 1943 deportation to Germany right from the start: "Who could say if they found any sort of burial at all?"

As Fascist racial laws go from strength to strength, the family, which had long isolated itself from the other inhabitants of Ferrara, opens its walled grounds and tennis court to other young Jews and even returns to the local temple. Unfortunately, the situation encourages the narrator's dream that Micol will return his love, and she is forced into cruel honesty. "She looked into my eyes, and her gaze entered me, straight, sure, hard: with the limpid inexorability of a sword."

The author has re-created a tragic era in which even nobility could not outrun events, let alone admit they needed to. (For a nonfiction account of the fates of five Italian Jewish families under fascism, see Alexander Stille's Benevolence and Betrayal.) Bassani's elision of historical and personal agony is furthermore superbly translated by William Weaver. All is foretold in the novel's Manzonian epigraph, "The heart, to be sure, always has something to say about what is to come, to him who heeds it. But what does the heart know? Only a little of what has already happened."

The Decameron (Penguin Classics)
by Giovanni Boccaccio, G. H. McWilliam (Translator)

The Decameron (c.1351) is an entertaining series of one hundred stories written in the wake of the Black Death. The stories are told in a country villa outside the city of Florence by ten young noble men and women who are seeking to escape the ravages of the plague. Boccaccio's skill as a dramatist is masterfully displayed in these vivid portraits of people from all stations in life, with plots that revel in a bewildering variety of human reactions.

Night's Lies
by Gesualdo Bufalino, Patrick Creagh (Translator)

Amazon Reader's Review: "If you know you are to die tomorrow, how would you spend the last night of your life? The same dilemma troubles four political prisoners, a baron, a soldier, a poet, and a student in Gesualdo Bufalino's Night's Lies. On the last night before they go under the guillotine for plotting against the Bourbon monarchy, the four characters review their lives. Is it more betrayal and regret? Or do they find vindication in confession?

Night's Lies is good story-telling. This tale is a brilliant execution of setting, characterization, narrative, and irony. The setting parallels the moral and spiritual exile of the prisoners. Set in a remote fortress on an inhospitable island that "is known as an island but ought to be called a rock. For it is nothing more than a stack of volcanic tufas heaped up into the form of an enormous snout, wearisomely steep in places, but for the most part bare, sheer crag". "As by a tortuous path you clamber up, your eye embraces on the one hand the immensity of the open sea, an infinite reach of blue to the western horizon; on the other, beyond the neck of water, there is the mainland, where you glimpse a harbour, a crescent of dwarf houses; but neither man nor motion."

The man who holds part of the key to their destinies is Consalvo De Ritis, the Governor, who strikes a deal with the prisoners. If one of them should anonymously name their leader by sunrise, then all of them would be freed. If not, all of them hang. They are placed in a small room for the night.

Ingafu, the Baron; Saglimbeni, the Poet; Agesilaos, the Soldier; and Narcissus, the Student narrate in turn their own tales of intrigue, love, lust, violence, jealousy, honour, and twists of fate. They seem to be trying to convince not only the others but also themselves of the sense and purpose of their lives, all knowing that death awaits them in one form or another.

Do they betray their leader but lose their own souls? Or do they find some way to escape their fate? Night's Lies is an intriguing tale that evokes the danger and relief of holding a mirror to our lives and wondering what it all means. Just the ending in itself is worth the read."

Il Piacere: The Pleasure
by Gabriele D'Annunzio, Virginia S. Caporale (Translator)

Pictures from Italy (Penguin Classics)
by Charles Dickens, Kate Flint (Editor)

In 1844, Charles Dickens took a break from novels to travel in Italy for almost a year. This thrilling travelogue is the result of his encounters with Italy's colorful street life, the visible signs of its richly textured past, and its urban desolation. Dickens was particularly drawn to the costumes, cross-dressing, and sheer exuberant energy of the Roman carnival. Avoiding the traditional tourist sites, Pictures from Italy reveals the anxieties and concerns of its author as he presents, according to Kate Flint, the country "like a chaotic magic-lantern show, fascinated both by the spectacle it offers, and by himself as spectator."

The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso (Everyman's Library, 183)
by Dante Alighieri, Allen Mandelbaum (Translator), Peter Armour (Introduction)

Amazon Reader's Review: "I am, and have been for many a year, a scholar of the works of Dante. Coming up to date, I have read thousands of translations of the text of all three parts of the Divine Comedy, and this is the best I have found yet. First of all, it is a treat to find that all three parts of this masterwork are collected in this one volume, and even though the price is quite low for a hardcover book with as many pages as this, I cannot stress the quality of this edition. As many may know, Dante Alighieri was a man of great literary prowess, but was given drive by his single obsession to a small girl by the name of Beatrice. She rings true in this work, as the guiding angel, bringing Dante through the depths of hell, the wasteland of Purgatory, and finally, the glory of heaven. This has been one of the most enduring works on the human spirit, and the concept of god as seen through Christianity. Full of pun and metaphor, this is rich in language, and ready to please. Some people start their studies of Epic Poetry with Milton's "Paradise Lost," but I say, speaking from experience, that Dante is far superior to Milton, but Milton is in good company as his second. I have read the original in Italian, and this is about as close of a translation as you can get. Please enjoy this."

Italian Journey, 1786-88
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

For those who want to experience Campania as part of the 18th- and 19th-century "Grand Tour" taken by everyone who was anyone. The Schocken Bodes edition was translated beautifully by W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer.

Italian Hours (Penguin Classics)
by Henry James

Amazon Reader's Review: "The films Room With a View and Wings of the Dove make one wonder about the Italy reflected in classical paintings executed before the destruction of WWII. My curiosity was heightened in an art history class when the instructor showed a photo slide of the Ponte Vecchio and told the amazing story of the Nazi pilot who disobeyed orders to destroy the last bridge the allies could cross on their advance north. This beautiful book brings to mind the saying, "The Past is a Foreign Country." Italy of the 19th Century is a place none of us can know except through records left by one who witnessed it. The book consists of essays James wrote on his travels to various places in Italy including Venice, Rome, and Florence. He visited some places several times and the text reflects the changes he observed on revisits.

He records an Italy whose poverty for a time prevented the intrusion of developers, who later made many changes perhaps for the worse. James was not a worshipper of old buildings, he appreciated them, but he was also aware of the suffering of the Italians, many of whom existed in dire poverty. His reflections on various cathedrals, churches and other objects of artistic interest are humanized by his comments about the individuals he encounters. He muses on the morality of travel, "whether it has been worthwhile to leave his home [and] encounter new forms of human suffering." His awareness of the Italians themselves makes his writing a bit like that of Paul Theroux, a traveler and writer in our times. James differs from Theroux however. My sense is that James is a little less likely to criticize and a little more willing to overlook unpleasantness. Perhaps that makes him less of a realist, or perhaps Italy was a more pleasant place in the 19th Century."

Portrait of a Lady (Konemann Classics)
by Henry James

Amazon Reader Review: "The novel Portrait of a Lady is a beautiful. It starts out with a girl named Isabel Archer who goes with her Aunt Touchett to England. Isabel is portrayed beautifully by James in the novel as a curious, independent, intelligent lady. She arrives in isolated Gardencourt where she meets her uncle and her cousin, Ralph Touchett. Soon, she is proposed to by Lord Warburten portrayed as a polite, wealthy, radical gentleman but rejects him because her curiousity expects another, better suiter. Caspar Goodward, her other lover, fallows her to England and is determined to marry her. The two men come in even further in the novel when intrigue and scandel take place. Isabel travels all through Europe but is eventually entrapped and decieved. Drama and intrigue take the stage then. By that time it may sound like some dumb soup opera, but really he refines the situations and makes them realistic but still dramatic unlike most stupid soaps. Some parts may seem long and dull because he explains himself so explicitly with huge paragraphs about one subject but it's worth it when you're finished. The characters are done superbly with wonderful description. There is much irony, too, but if you immediately think irony is funny like some people its not in this novel. It's as a whole a serious novel. The ending is very well done if you think about it. Though it may seem odd it is as a whole witty and crafty."

The Leopard
by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun

In Sicily in 1860, as Italian unification grows inevitable, the smallest of gestures seems dense with meaning and melancholy, sensual agitation and disquiet: "Some huge irrational disaster is in the making." All around him, the prince, Don Fabrizio, witnesses the ruin of the class and inheritance that already disgust him. His favorite nephew, Tancredi, proffers the paradox, "If we want things to stay as they are, they will have to change," but Don Fabrizio would rather take refuge in skepticism or astronomy, "the sublime routine of the skies."

Giuseppe di Lampedusa, also an astronomer and a Sicilian prince, was 58 when he started to write The Leopard, though he had had it in his mind for 25 years. E. M. Forster called his work "one of the great lonely books." What renders it so beautiful and so discomfiting is its creator's grasp of human frailty and, equally, of Sicily's arid terrain--"comfortless and irrational, with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung waves into frenzy." The author died at the age of 60, soon after finishing The Leopard.

"...Lampedusa's deftness with words is so fine that... to many readers The Leopard is the greatest Italian novel of this century, perhaps the greatest ever, and uniquely relevant to modern Italy." - The Economist

Trade Paperback, 323 pages

The Siren and Selected Writings
by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Archibald Colquhoun (Translator)

Talk about a late bloomer: Lampedusa (1896-1957) generated nearly all of his literary work during the last 30 months of his life-including two short stories, an opening chapter to a novel, some informal literary essays and his classic historical novel of Sicily, The Leopard. Restored from posthumous editing, the long, multipart essay "Places of My Infancy" impressionistically catalogues the author's lush memories of an aristocratic, isolated Sicilian childhood. Lampedusa displays an evocative attachment to houses, especially the ornate palace of Santa Margherita, with 300 rooms for 12 people. The fiction here makes for tantalizing contrasts: there's a long, sensual fantasy, "The Professor and the Siren," the short, poignant "Joy and the Law" and a mordant tale of a rising peasant family's landgrabs, "The Blind Kittens." The collection also includes captivating excerpts from Lampedusa's seminars in English and French literature, which reveal his autodidactic adoration of Shakespeare and Dickens and a technical appreciation of his master, Stendhal. These disparate, imperfect remains of the author's brief and truncated career form a pleasant if rickety loggia to his palatial The Leopard.

D.H. Lawrence and Italy: Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia, Etruscan Places (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)
by D. H. Lawrence, Anthony Burgess

Amazon Reader's review: "If I were to read only two travel books then this would be the second one, although both my wife and an English friend read it in German translation and reported that it was terrible. Maybe it doesn't translate well. Lawrence, as young man, describes a thread running through his life as he starts the journey by heading south toward Italy on foot from Bavaria with Frida, a way of travel that many Germans still understand very well. Descriptions of people are attractive, like the one-legged Italian who tried to seduce the cold, northern women at a dance. I liked best his description of his own Alpüberquerung, his description therein of the hurried English hiker, the way that Italians have ruined the alpine valleys with industrialization. And I felt loss at his growing distance from Frida. The book made me want to see the lemon and olive trees above Lago di Garda and the villages high above the lake, but we haven't done that in spite of our nearness to the region. Gardasee is completely overrun by German tourists now, not just by those wearing heavy hiking boots."

Survival in Auschwitz
by Primo Levi (Stuart Woolf, translator)

The Reawakening
by Primo Levi

An account of a small group of Auschwitz survivors' impossible, but victorious, walk back to Italy.

If Not Now, When?
by Primo Levi (William Weaver, translator)

The Drowned and the Saved
by Primo Levi

This book, published months after Italian writer Primo Levi's apparent suicide, is a small but powerful look at Auschwitz, the hell where Levi was imprisoned during World War II. The book was his third on the subject, following Survival in Auschwitz (1947) and The Reawakening (1963). Removed from the experience by time and age, Levi chose to serve more as an observer of the camp than the passionate young man of his previous work. He writes of "useless violence" inflicted by the guards on prisoners and then concludes the book with a discussion of the Germans who have written to him about their complicity in the event. In all, he tries to make sense of something that - as he knew - made no sense at all.

If This Is a Man and The Truce
by Primo Levi

(Click here for price and order information)

The Monkey's Wrench
by Primo Levi

In this exuberant novel, one of Italy's greatest living writers celebrates the art of storytelling and the spirit of work through weaving the mesmerizing t ales of an itinerant construction worker, Libertini Faussone, and a writer-chemist, the true and fictional Primo Levi.

The Prince (Everyman's Library)
by Niccolò Machiavelli, W.K. Marriott (Translator)

When Lorenzo de' Medici seized control of the Florentine Republic in 1512, he summarily fired the Secretary to the Second Chancery of the Signoria and set in motion a fundamental change in the way we think about politics. The person who held the aforementioned office with the tongue-twisting title was none other than Niccolò Machiavelli, who, suddenly finding himself out of a job after 14 years of patriotic service, followed the career trajectory of many modern politicians into punditry. Unable to become an on-air political analyst for a television network, he only wrote a book. But what a book The Prince is. Its essential contribution to modern political thought lies in Machiavelli's assertion of the then revolutionary idea that theological and moral imperatives have no place in the political arena. "It must be understood," Machiavelli avers, "that a prince ... cannot observe all of those virtues for which men are reputed good, because it is often necessary to act against mercy, against faith, against humanity, against frankness, against religion, in order to preserve the state." With just a little imagination, readers can discern parallels between a 16th-century principality and a 20th-century presidency.

The History: A Novel
by Elsa Morante

Elsa Morante was Moravia's first wife, widely respected as one of the finest writers of the 20th century. Written in 1974 but first published in the United States in 1977, this was Morante's first novel in 18 years. As the cryptic title indicates, the theme of this novel, said Literary Journal's reviewer, is how "history obscures individual lives." Though the book portrays the brutal existence of one Italian family after World War II, the reviewer added that "there is so much to praise in this long, wonderfully rich novel, including the effortless translation, that its flaws--occasional clumsiness of narration, repetition--are minor indeed." The edition contains a new foreword by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison.

Roman Tales
by Alberto Moravia

This collection of 19 short stories, fables in fact, is by one of Italy's greatest 2oth-century writers. It marked Moravia's shift from describing the Roman bourgeoisie into Rome's seedy slums; a world of spivs, lower working class, thieves and, well, assorted riff-raff. They are stories of emotional suspense, beguiling and magical. They tell a poignant tale of aspiration, love won and lost, and resignation; the problems of everyday life for all people. If you love short stories, you will adore these, for Moravia is the master of the short, short story.

The Oil Jar and Other Stories (Dover Thrift Editions)
by Luigi Pirandello, Stanley Applebaum (Translator)

Amazon Reader's Review: "Not-Hard stories that anyone of just about any mental capacity can read and understand, I liked it for that. Great stories, stories pretty much based on the most common tales of humanity and society, but with an interesting twist. I rated it a 4 primarily for what it offers to a lot of people, the opportunity to read well-written novelettes, and because its not quite a 5 (it's no Les Miserables or War and Peace) but still enjoyable!"

Naked Masks: Five Plays
by Luigi Pirandello, Eric Bentley (Editor)

Amazon Reader's Review: "After reading these plays, I can understand why Pirandello won the Nobel Prize. All of the plays deal with illusion and reality in ways that contemporary writers still struggle with. Both Six Characters in Search of an Author and Each in His Own Way play with the idea that the audience willfully suspends reality in order to watch a play (or a movie for that matter). He plays with the idea that what something appears to be is as important, if not more important, that what it really is. Again, illusion versus reality. Although all of the plays were interesting and entertaining, the two standouts were Six Characters... and It is So! (If You Think So). The former deals with an acting troupe that is approached by six characters who have been conceived by a writer, but not fully realized. The Characters attempt to get the manager of the troupe to write their script, and thus give them artistic life. It is So... deals with the nature of how we know what we know, and how we decide what to believe in terms of what is real and what is not.

The only problem with this collection of plays (and the only reason that I didn't give it five stars) is that in the introduction to Six Characters..., the editor discusses Six Characters in Search of an Author, Each in His own Way and Tonight We Improvise, as a trilogy. He takes the time to discuss the relationship between these plays, and yet Tonight We Improvise is omitted from the collection. Thus, we are left with only the first two plays of the trilogy. What makes it worse is that they are both excellent plays (making me wish I didn't have to scrounge up another book to get the third). Other than that, this is an outstanding collection. Eric Bentley (the editor) writes an informative introduction to Pirandello, and adds Pirandello's own thoughts on Six Characters..., as well as biographical information on the playwright. I would recommend this for people who are or aren't familiar with the work of Luigi Pirandello. It's definitely worth the read."

Open Doors And Three Novellas (Vintage International)
by Leonardo Sciascia, Sacha Rabinovitch (Translator), Joseph Farrell (Translator)

Sciascia, the elegantly learned and quite politically fearless Sicilian writer who died in 1989, wrote most of his fiction in the Sixties and early Seventies; but late in his life he wrote these novellas, in which his patented interests--the law, fascism, classic French and Italian literature, metaphysics--all recombine. Best here is the title novella--a magistrate's sorrowful insistence on conscience during the Fascist period, refusing to sentence a man to death: a meditation on capital punishment, moral traduction, and cultural imprecision ("to see European history in the guise of the Russians who would like to be Germans, Germans who'd like to be French, French who would like to be half-German and half-Italian while still remaining French, Spaniards who would settle for being English if they can't be Romans, and Italians who would like to be anything and everything except Italian"). Equally interesting, and somewhat fleshier, is "Death and the Knight"--a terminally ill police investigator's world-weary slog through lies and much more obvious (though denied) truths. Sciascia (Sicilian Uncles, etc.) here is a compiler of Stendhalian asides and ruminations rather than a narrative-maker. But these are fine literary artifacts for all that: hung upon the police-procedural framework, the cloth is rich and dark if none too form-fitting.

To Each His Own (New York Review Books Classics)
by Leonardo Sciascia, Adrienne Foulke (Translator), W.S. Di Piero (Introduction)

Amazon Reader's Review: "As one expects from Sciascia, this is a highly readable book with well-drawn characters, intriguing plot ... all the makings of a delightful read. But as one also expects from Sciascia, the book is also a pointed political and social commentary. Follow the meanderings of a less-than-socially-observant professor as he tries to unravel the murder of a druggist and doctor on opening day of hunting season. Discover that the real mystery is who knows what when ... and why everyone keeps their knowledge close to their breasts. If you like suspense that reveals the complexity of the human condition, this is definitely for you."

The Wine Dark Sea (New York Review Books Classics)
by Leonardo Sciascia

A novelist, polemicist, occasional politician, and perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize, Leonardo Sciascia died in 1989. He left behind a formidable array of books, all of which revolve around the hallucinatory realities of Sicilian life. But the stories collected in The Wine-Dark Sea may be the best introduction to his work. They offer a kind of capsule history of Sicily, ranging through several hundred years and engaging the country's events from their exhilarating and terrible underside. A good comparison might be the naif's-eye view of Waterloo that Stendhal creates in The Charterhouse of Parma. (Sciascia recalls Stendhal in other ways, too; he shares the same adamant clarity, the same bone-dry wit, which may explain why he's always been a hard sell in the United States.) These tales all have a certain riddling quality, whether they're recounting a nugget of Sicilian history or staging one of Sciascia's many comedies of ironic disillusionment. Included among the latter are "The Long Crossing," in which an assortment of Sicilian immigrants are disbursed of their life savings and put ashore not in the New World but back on their own island. There's also the superb title story, about the bottomless chasm separating Sicilians and outsiders, bridged only temporarily by a group of strangers traveling from Rome to Agrigento. "Philology," the closest thing to a classic Pirandellian exercise, lets us eavesdrop on two mafiosi cramming for an upcoming session with a Commission of Enquiry. The subject: how to answer the question "What is the Mafia?" They consult a battery of dictionaries, arguing about the merits of various definitions and etymologies. At the end, the superior of the two adds his own footnote to the scholarship:

And we know that the thing itself, the association, was already in existence by the fact (this is my addition) that the mafiosi imprisoned in the Vicaria issued a directive in 1860 addressed to their friends outside, advising them to behave well and not commit such crimes as theft, rape and murder that the Bourbons could use ... against the Garibaldi revolution.

This enlightened thug concludes his history lesson with a general point: "Culture, my friend, is a wonderful thing." So too is fiction, at least in Sciascia's hands. He offers little in the way of certainty, but his questions, posed with deadly accuracy, are worth the answers of a dozen other authors.

The Abruzzo Trilogy: Bread and Wine, Fontamara, and the Seed Beneath the Snow
by Ignazio Silone

The classic saga of fascist Italy, in one volume for the first time. The desolate, impoverished mountain region of the Abruzzo during Mussolini's reign provides the backdrop for the three greatest novels of Ignazio Silone, one of the century's most important writers. Bread and Wine introduces the antifascist Pietro Spina, who pretends to be a priest but is reluctantly forced to honor the spiritual obligations of his role. The political fable Fontamara shows villagers battling landowners over water. The Seed Beneath the Snow continues Pietro Spina's story. Together, these revolutionary works create an indelible image of ordinary people struggling against overwhelming events. "One of the most truly . . . significant writers of our time." - The Nation

Bread and Wine
by Ignazio Silone

Amazon Reader's Review: 'The late Ignazio Silone, the author of Bread and Wine, stated that he "would willingly pass [his] life writing and rewriting the same book -- that one book which every writer carries within him, the image of his own soul..." Bread and Wine is just that -- a beautiful reflection of a man's soul. Using humor, easy language and insights into the Italian fascist regime, Silone tells the story of all humanity's search for truth. In the figure of Pietro Spina, a Socialist political activist, the reader is led to ask questions about politics, relationships, and faith. The irony is that Spina has just returned from exile and must remain incognito -- as a priest, of course. Through his experiences, he asks many difficult questions about his Socialist party, his church, and himself. In the end, he is left to bring together who he is as the "priest" Don Paolo and who he was as the anti-political activist Pietra Spina. He must learn to "let the inner and the outer man meet" (Plato).'

The Charterhouse of Parma (Modern Library)
by Henri Stendhal (Author), Richard Howard (Translator), Robert Andrew Parker (Illustrator)

Officer, diplomat, spy, journalist, and intermittent genius, Marie Henri Beyle employed more than 200 aliases in the course of his crowded career. His most famous moniker, however, was Stendhal, which he affixed to his greatest work, The Charterhouse of Parma. The author spent a mere seven weeks cranking out this marvel in 1838, setting the fictional equivalent of a land-speed record. To be honest, there are occasional signs of haste, during which he clearly bypassed le mot juste in favor of narrative zing. So what? Stendhal at his sloppiest is still wittier, and wiser about human behavior, than just about any writer you could name. No wonder so meticulous a stylist as Paul Valéry was happy to forgive his sins against French grammar: "We should never be finished with Stendhal. I can think of no greater praise than that."

The plot of The Charterhouse of Parma suggests a run-of-the-mill potboiler, complete with court intrigue, military derring-do, and more romance than you can shake a saber at. But Stendhal had an amazing, pre-Freudian grasp of psychology (at least the Gallic variant). More than most of his contemporaries, he understood the incessant jostling of love, sex, fear, and ambition, not to mention our endless capacity for self-deception. No wonder his hero, Fabrizio de Dongo, seems to know everything and nothing about himself. Even under fire at the Battle of Waterloo, the young Fabrizio has a tendency to lose himself in Napoleonic reverie:

Suddenly everyone galloped off. A few moments later Fabrizio saw, twenty paces ahead, a ploughed field that seemed to be strangely in motion; the furrows were filled with water, and the wet ground that formed their crests was exploding into tiny black fragments flung three or four feet into the air. Fabrizio noticed this odd effect as he passed; then his mind returned to daydreams of the Marshal's glory. He heard a sharp cry beside him: two hussars had fallen, riddled by bullets; and when he turned to look at them, they were already twenty paces behind the escort.

The quote above, a famous one, captures something of Stendhal's headlong style. Until now, most English-speaking readers have experienced it via C.K. Scott-Moncrieff's superb 1925 translation. But now Richard Howard has modernized his predecessor's period touches, streamlined some of the fussier locutions, and generally given Stendhal his high-velocity due. The result is a timely version of a timeless masterpiece, which shouldn't need to be updated again until, oh, 2050. Crammed with life, lust, and verbal fireworks, The Charterhouse of Parma demonstrates the real truth of its creator's self-composed epitaph: "He lived. He wrote. He loved."

The House by the Medlar Tree

Mastro Don Gesualdo
by Giovanni Verga

One of Italy's greatest writers is Giovanni Verga, best known for the style of writing he helped to create, known as verismo or literary realism. Verga was a leader not only in his use of free indirect style but also in the way in which he portrayed the Sicilian people of the late 19th/early 20th century. Considered one of the outstanding writers of modern Europe, often compared to Flaubert and Zola, his writings have been translated into many languages and have even been dramatized. Mascagni immortalized Verga's Cavalleria Rusticana in music when he dramatized it for his opera of the same name. These two are generally considered Verga's finest works.

Italo Calvino

Italian journalist, short-story writer, and novelist, whose whimsical and imaginative fables made him one of the most important Italian fiction writers in the 20th century.

Calvino left Cuba for Italy in his youth. He joined the Italian Resistance during World War II and after the war settled in Turin, obtaining his degree in literature while working for the Communist periodical L'Unità and for the publishing house of Einaudi. From 1959 to 1966 he edited, with Elio Vittorini, the left-wing magazine Il Menabò di letteratura.

Two of Calvino's first fictional works were inspired by his participation in the Italian Resistance: the Neorealistic novel Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947; The Path to the Nest of Spiders), which views the Resistance through the experiences of an adolescent as helpless in the midst of events as the adults around him; and the collection of stories entitled Ultimo viene il corvo (1949; Adam, One Afternoon, and Other Stories).

Calvino turned decisively to fantasy and allegory in the 1950s, producing the three fantastic tales that brought him international acclaim. The first of these fantasies, Il visconte dimezzato (1952; "The Cloven Viscount," in The Nonexistent Knight & the Cloven Viscount), is an allegorical story of a man split in two--a good half and an evil half--by a cannon shot; he becomes whole through his love for a peasant girl. The second and most highly praised fantasy, Il barone rampante (1957; The Baron in the Trees), is a whimsical tale of a 19th-century nobleman who one day decides to climb into the trees and who never sets foot on the ground again. From the trees he does, however, participate fully in the affairs of his fellow men below. The tale wittily explores the interaction and tension between reality and imagination. The third fantasy, Il cavaliere inesistente (1959; "The Nonexistent Knight," in The Nonexistent Knight & the Cloven Viscount), is a mock epic chivalric tale.

Among Calvino's later works of fantasy is Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics), a stream-of-consciousness narrative that treats the creation and evolution of the universe. In the later novels Le città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities), Il castello dei destini incrociati (1973; The Castle of Crossed Destinies), and Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter's Night a Traveler), Calvino uses playfully innovative structures and shifting viewpoints in order to examine the nature of chance, coincidence, and change. Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e società (1980; The Uses of Literature) is a collection of essays he wrote for Il Menabò.

Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg, arguably the most important woman writer of postwar Italy, always spoke of herself with irrepressible modesty. The woman who claimed she "never managed to climb up mountains" in fact wrote the history of twentieth-century Italy through more than twenty books, chronicling fascism, war, and the German occupation as well as the intimacies of family life. Ginzburg's stories, based in the small town of her childhood or set in Italy's cities, established her as a prolific and superb writer, and her husband's antifascist activities (which led ultimately to his torture and death at the hands of the Nazis) placed her squarely in the center of Italy's turbulent political arena.

Intensely reserved, Ginzburg said that she "crept toward autobiography stealthily like a wolf." But she did openly discuss her life and her work in an extraordinary series of interviews for Italian radio in 1990. Never before published in English, It's Hard to Talk about Yourself presents a vivid portrait of Ginzburg, in her own words, on the forces that shaped her remarkable life--politics, publishing, writing, literary influences, and her family. Transcribed and lightly edited by her close friend Cesare Garboli and her granddaughter Lisa Ginzburg, these interviews will join Ginzburg's autobiography, Family Sayings, as one of the most important records of her life, and, as the editors write in their preface, "the last, unexpected, original book by Natalia Ginzburg."

Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) wrote novels, short stories, poems, plays, and essays and translated Proust and Flaubert. In 1983, she was elected to the Italian Parliament, where she served almost until her death. Among her many books are The Road to the City: Two Novellas (1942), Valentino (1957), Family Sayings (1963), Never Must You Ask Me (1970), and The Manzoni Family (1983).

"Natalia Ginzburg's simple, yet poetic narrative, with its often conversational tone is one of the most distinctive of literary styles. At times, the brevity and concision of her sentences were attributed to the influence of Hemingway, at others to that of Gertrude Stein. But, all said and done, whatever Natalia Ginzburg wrote, it was, simply, sui generis."--The Independent (London)

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco is known to a world-wide audience for his two novels, The Name of the Rose, and Foucault's Pendulum. Both works allude to aspects of past and present theories of signs, as well as to a vast array of scholarly (those of the Middle Ages in particular) and other texts (Sherlock Holmes in the Name of the Rose, and the Corpus Hermeticum in Foucault's Pendulum).

Eco was born in 1932 in Piedmont, Italy. Before becoming a semiotician, he studied philosophy specialising in the philosophical and aesthetic theories of the Middle Ages. His thesis at the University of Turin on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas was published in 1956 when he was 24. Three years later, Eco contributed a chapter called 'Sviluppo dell'estetica medievale' ('The development of Medieval aesthetics') to a four-volume handbook on the history of aesthetics. In 1986, the lengthy chapter came in an English translation under the title of Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages.

All his work on the Middle Ages became an idea for a novel that was the summary of all his learnings so far but also a possibility to mix diverse subjects. His fantasy novel Il nome della rosa (1981; The Name of the Rose)--in story, a murder mystery set in a 14th-century Italian monastery but, in essence, a questioning of "truth" from theological, philosophical, scholarly, and historical perspectives--became an international best-seller (his publishers believed it would sell mildly and certainly not nine million copies). At first, Eco played with the idea of placing his detective story in a modern setting; but soon he realized that his interest in medievalism was manifesting a story set in the Middle Ages. Dragging out notebooks, clippings, papers, and articles that dated all the way back to 1952, Eco began the task of writing a novel tentatively called "Murder in the Abbey." Soon, however, he decided that this title would place undue focus on the "mystery" aspect of his story, whereas he wanted a novel that could be read as an open text -- enigmatic, complex, and open to several layers of interpretation. Inspired by the title of David Copperfield, "Adso of Melk," became the next working title, but eventually a few lines of medieval verse produced the more poetic The Name of the Rose. A film version, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, appeared in 1986.

Carlo Emilio Gadda

Carlo Emilio Gadda was born in Milan in 1893. His childhood and youth were marked by a series of traumatic events which were to return in an almost obsessive manner as the motifs of his work: the construction of a villa in Brianza, his father's bankruptcy, his family's poverty and struggle to make ends meet, and his mother's generosity to people outside the family and lack of attention to her son. This was the origin of his neurosis, the "obscure malaise" he talks about in Cognizione del dolore.

He fought in the First World War in the areas of the Tonale, the Adamello and the Carso and was taken prisoner in Germany. In 1920 he graduated in engineering at the Milan Polytechnic. He began working for a company in Milan and in 1922 travelled for work to Argentina. In 1924 he returned to Italy, where he taught at the Liceo Parini in Milan and resumed studying for his philosophy degree. In 1925 he moved to Rome, where he worked first for a private company and subsequently for the Technical Services of the Vatican. In this period he completed all his philosophy exams and began writing his thesis on Leibniz, which however was to remain unfinished. In 1931 Solaria published his La Madonna dei Filosofi, a collection of narrative prose, followed in 1934 by Il castello di Udine, which won the Bagutta Prize. Between 1938 and 1941 he published Cognizione del dolore in the literary review Letteratura. From 1940 to 1950 he lived in Florence, where he devoted himself entirely to literature and published L'Adalgisa (1944). In the 1950s he published Il primo libro delle favole (1952) and Novelle del ducato in fiamme (1953). Between 1955 and 1973, the year of his death in Rome, he published I sogni e la folgore and Giornale di guerra e di prigionia (1955), Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana; 1957), I viaggi la morte (1958), Verso la Certosa (1961), La cognizione del dolore (Acquainted with Grief; 1963) and Accoppiamenti giudiziosi (1963), Le meraviglie d'Italia and I Luigi di Francia (1964), Eros e Priapo and Il guerriero, l'amazzone e il verso immortale nella poesia di Foscolo (1967), La meccanica (1970), and Novella seconda (1971).

Open City: Seven Writers in Postwar Rome: Ignazio Silone, Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Carlo Levi, Carlo Emilio Gadda
by William Weaver (Editor), Kristina Olson (Editor)

Traddutore, traditore, goes the old Italian proverb: To translate is to betray. But William Weaver, who has assembled a fine anthology of contemporary Italian prose in Open City: Seven Writers in Postwar Rome, is anything but treacherous toward his favorites. For one thing, he is our preeminent translator from that euphonious, vowel-encrusted language, and anybody who reads his elegant versions of Italo Calvino or Umberto Eco will recognize what a great service he has performed to these high-wire stylists--not to mention their readers.

But as Weaver's preface-cum-memoir makes clear, he is not merely a linguistic loyalist. During the late 1940s and '50s, when the young translator lived in Rome, he got to know all the contributors to Open City: Ignazio Silone, Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Carlo Levi, and Carlo Emiliano Gadda. This anthology, then, is a peculiarly personal one, in which the editor exposes us to both the art and life of each author. It necessarily excludes such giants as Primo Levi, Leonardo Sciascia, and Calvino, none of whom happened to cross Weaver's path during his dolce vita phase. But the septet he has assembled is a splendid one, which suggests that the Eternal City was some kind of literary hot spot in the wake of the Second World War.

Gadda undoubtedly wins the crown for sheer stylistic extravagance. The excerpt Weaver has chosen from That Awful Mess on Via Merulana gives a vivid sense of the challenges (and rewards!) of that macaronic masterpiece. (It also includes some of the best portraiture of Rome itself, "lying as if on a map or scale model: it smoked slightly, at Porta San Paolo: a clear proximity of infinite thoughts and palaces, which the north wind had cleansed.") At the opposite end of the spectrum is Natalia Ginzburg, whose antirhetorical style still makes most contemporary novelists sound crude and inflationary, especially when it comes to minute discriminations of feeling. And in between, we find such marvels as Moravia's "Agostino" (a cruelly accurate account of childhood's end), Morante's "The Nameless One," and an excerpt from Carlo Levi's The Watch, which dispenses its wisdom casually but hits the bull's-eye every time:

The world holds us with a thousand ties of habit, work, inertia, affections. It's difficult and painful to separate from them. But as soon as a foot rests on a train, airplane, or automobile that will carry us away, everything disappears, the past becomes remote and is buried, a new time crowded to the brim with unknown promises envelopes us and, entirely free and anonymous, we look around searching for new companions.

Weaver's memoir is primarily an elegy for his "lost, open city" and those writers with whom he inhabited it--all but Bassani have died during the succeeding decades. As such, it includes an unmistakable hint of melancholy. But it manages to convey the excitement of the era, too--and the words that Weaver's companions committed to paper are, as Open City demonstrates, very much alive.