Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Words Are Stones. Impressions of Sicily, by Carlo Levi

I said earlier in the week that I picked up this book because I was short of sunshine and missing Sicily. I’m not sure now that this was the best of reasons to turn to it, though I was pleased to be again in the observant and compassionate company of Carlo Levi, given the profound impression that his classic Christ Stopped at Eboli had made on me. His impressions of Sicily are not full of sunshine and plenty, though there is some austere beauty, but rather of penury, injustice and inequality.

Levi wrote the pieces of journalism collected here in the 1950s. He had survived his persecution and exile during the Mussolini era and become a respected, almost revered commentator on post-war Italy. These essays are the fruits of journeys he made in Sicily, spurred by the consciousness he had developed of the particular situation of the South in an Italy united almost within living memory. His time of political exile in Lucania, depicted in Christ Stopped at Eboli gave him a sensitivity to the huge difficulties of the people of the Mezzogiorno and the failure of the new Italy to solve them. Sicily had problems of its own, in the vast landholdings of the old aristocracy, the grinding poverty of the peasants and workers, and the gulf in between, ripe to be filled by the Mafia.

Words Are Stones starts with a bravura piece on the visit in 1950 of the Mayor of New York, Vincent Impelliteri, to his birthplace Isnello. Impelliteri had emigrated to the USA with his family at the age of one, and was returning, in an imported Pontiac, the ultimate Americano made about as good as you can get. Levi is part of the press corps accompanying the Mayor plus some contestants in the Miss Europe beauty contest on this visit. The Pontiac is an object of worship, touched by hundreds of children. The Mayor’s birthplace is contended for by two hovels in Isnello. His relatives, close or not so close, arrive in droves, and plead with Levi for access to the Mayor. His essay is brilliantly colourful, wonderfully ironic. Impellitteri himself was evidently so admiring of the piece that he ordered 100 copies of the magazine in which it appeared for his friends. Did he fail to see the satire – or did he rather more cleverly decide not to see it? I had never heard of Impellitteri, to my shame – if his admiring Wikipedia entry is anything to go by he might have been really quite a Good Thing – an independent who was elected without the help of the Tammany Hall machine, and took some steps to clean up corruption and New York’s finances. His tenure lasted from 1950-53.

The other pieces embrace descriptions of the island and serious investigative journalism. Levi’s strength in the latter is to craft a means for suffering people to have their voice. Conversations with his (anonymous) travelling companions give life to his descriptions of a Capuchin cemetery, complete with embalmed and mummified corpses, and a journey circling Mount Etna. Here Levi’s painter’s eye creates vivd pictures for the mind’s eye: in the case of the cemetery, of the macabre false sense of life in the poses of the dressed up corpses. His description of the unique lava landscape of Etna is intensely visual, dating the lava flows by the extent to which they had begun to erode into fertile soil, and the succession of plants that help to break them down. He manages to encapsulate the blackness of the city of Catania, built of Etna’s rock. These journeys around Sicily have either a specific investigative end in view, or else his journalist’s eye tells us what lies beneath the beauty. Honed in his Lucanian exile, Levi’s instinct for discovering the failures of the republic to alleviate poverty and eradicate scandalous living conditions is unerring. He is in Sicily in the wake of the career and death of the outlaw Salvatore Giuliano, becoming old news, whose story he hears secondhand from his driver Alfio. But current scandals and deaths possess his attention now.

Distressing to me was his outraged denunciation of the Duchy of Bronte, Nelson’s duchy, then in the hands of the latest heir, who was doing all he could to subvert the new land reform law to force the peasants on the estate to beggar themselves to buy their share of the land. That passage was painful for a British reader. But objectively even more painful were the descriptions of tragic attempts to bring change and equality: the medieval conditions in the sulphur mines, the striking miners, and the cruel portrait of the monstrous Mafioso who was in charge of the mines. In a later piece Salvatore Carnevale, assassinated peasant organiser and fighter for land reform, has his story passionately told by his mother Francesca (her tears are no longer tears but words, and words are stones). In another unmissable passage he recounts his visit to Danilo Dolce, another Northerner with a fellow-feeling for the South, who moved to Sicily and spent his life in activism, and in particular denunciation of the Mafia. The sympathy between the two is evident. In all these cases, Levi crafts the story to be told by the voices to which it belongs.

So, not a sunny, joyous visit to Sicily here, but another account of an magnificent island stuck in its past, the vast gulf between the rich and the poor creating the space for crime, corruption and the Mafia, and all within living memory. Words Are Stones did not have the same impact for me as Christ Stopped at Eboli. If I’m looking for the reason why the latter is regarded as a classic of European writing, and Words Are Stones not quite so much, I think the difference lies in Levi’s standpoint. He lived Christ Stopped at Eboli – his home was among the people whose story he told and he was immersed in it. Writing Words Are Stones, he is a visiting journalist, planning his journeys and investigations. He is more of an external observer. But his clear sight and his humanity make this book well worth reading. The book is the usual beautiful production by Hesperus Press, with a perceptive Foreword by Anita Desai, and a helpful Introduction by the translator, Anthony Shugaar.

Carlo Levi: Words Are Stones. Impressions of Sicily. London: Hesperus Press, 2005. 168pp
ISBN 9781843914044
(First published as Le Parole Sono Piedre, 1955)

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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