It was written in Florence between December 1943 and July 1944, during the German occupation, and published by Einaudi publishing house by September 1945. It was immediately a great success and aroused debates and reflections on the relationship between peasant civilisation and modernisation. The book represents for Italian literature one of the masterpieces and, in Carlo Levi’s life, the beginning of his writing activity.
The cover of the first edition reads: “As in a journey to the beginning of time, Cristo si è fermato ad Eboli tells the discovery of a different civilization. It is that of the peasants of Southern Italy: out of history and progressive Reason, ancient wisdom and patient pain. The book, however, is not a diary: it was written many years after the direct experience from which it originated, when real impressions no longer had the
prosastic urgency of the document [… ] the reader can find in it a reason for poetry, a world of language, a mirror of the soul, and the key to otherwise incomprehensible historical, economic, political and social problems.”
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As defined by Italo Calvino, it is the “book that must be the starting point for any discussion of Carlo Levi as a writer”… “an unusual kind of book in our literature, intended to propose the broad outlines of a conception of the world, a reinterpretation of history”. Even though it was written at the end of 1939, while the beginning of Second World War was raging and Levi was exiled in France, the book was not published until 1946. In the preface to the first edition, Levi wrote that it was “a small book, only meant to be a preface to a much larger book, that uncovers on each page what I thought was the truth of the world”. This essay, full of philosophical and psycho-analytic subjections, concludes stating that “Tomorrow is not prepared with brushes but in the hearts of men: and men who have followed their Gods to the depths of hell, yearn to return to the light and sprout, like buried seeds. From the summit of Fear, a hope is born, a light of agreement for man and things. Gods die, the human person is recreated. Can death and night overturn destiny? The war of man with himself is over, if art really shows us the future, and if we can read it on men’s faces and gestures.”
“At night, in Rome, it seems you can hear lions roaring. There is an indistinct murmur, and that is the city breathing, amidst its dark domes and the distant hills, in shadow that glistens here and there; and every so often, the raucous noise of sirens, as if the sea were nearby, and ships were setting sail from the harbor for unknown horizons. And then there is that sound, both lovely and savage, cruel but not devoid of an odd sweetness, the roaring of lions, in the nocturnal desert of houses”. This is one of the most poetic passages of Carlo Levi’s second novel, L’Orologio, published in 1950. Whereas Cristo si è fermato ad Eboli accounted for a world out of time and history, L’Orologio tells a world in which all times and all histories are contemporary. Levi recounts the end of Ferruccio Parri’s Resistance Government, the beginning of the crisis of the liberal and shareholder parties, the coming to power of Alcide De Gasperi and the Christian Democrats, and, above all, Rome and Italy at that time. The book appears as a container in which the atmospheres, feelings, and enthusiasm of the immediate post-war period are mixed with the contradictory and immobility of a political class that doesn’t manage to go beyond an abstract vision of the problems.
It is the diary of three trips made by the author in the lands of Sicily between 1952 and 1955. With this book, a new literary vein opens up in Levi’s production (even if he had already demonstrated it in his articles published in La Stampa and L’Illustrazione italiana), that of reportage.
Le parole sono pietre, published in 1955, is a harsh account of the backwardness of Sicilian farmers “the spectacle of the most extreme peasant misery”, of a land where it becomes difficult to apply those laws that the Italian state has approved for the redistribution of land, to improve working conditions, to enforce rights that should apply to everyone, but in those lands must submit to the privileges of the powerful. The book is dense with facts that the writer transfigures by placing them in the symbol of human consciousness, where “…tears are no longer tears but words, and words are stones”: stones are the words of Francesca Serio, the mother of Salvatore Carnevale, the rebel peasant murdered by the mafia for having found, in Sciara in 1951, the section of the Partito Socialista and the Camera del lavoro; stones are those, thrown by a Sicilian mother, in the courtroom of the Tribunale di Palermo, who tells and challenges Cosa Nostra, the law of the fief and the complicity of the institutional power.
Second travel book by Carlo Levi, published in 1956. This time it is the journalistic account of the trip made between 17 October and 19 November 1955 in the Soviet capital, Leningrad, Kiev, Armenia and Georgia.
“Just as the inhabitants of New England have preserved the puritan ways of their homeland, or as the Canadians have preserved the french language of the 1700s, the Soviets have remained the guardians of the feelings and customs of Europe, when Europe was united, believed in a few ideal truths and had confidence in his own existence”. This is what Carlo Levi tells us in his book, a narration full of details, of descriptions of a world that is both outdated and young. The author refers to a poetic, childish image and lets himself be carried away by the description of the places and souls he meets.
It is not a novel, but an essay written by Levi to complement a volume of black and white photographs, by János Reismann. The title, Un volto che ci somiglia, has been translated into German and published in 1959 by Belser, an editor of Stuttgart. The following year it was published in Italy by Giulio Einaudi under the title Un volto che ci somiglia: ritratto dell’Italia. The book contains photographs of well-known monuments of our country, marinas, hilltop villages, working-class districts of large cities such as Naples and Rome, as well as the faces of farmers, fishermen and children living around the monuments of the past. Accompanying these images we find Levi’s analysis of a rural and urban Italy that lives its time by making “…the past alive…” as if “…time has laid a friendly hand on everything…”, revealing the traits of Italian identity as cultural identity, as opposed to the national identity that had already been established with the liberal state and fascism.
Published in 1959, the book recounts the sensations of his post-war journey to Germany. It is named after a verse of Goethe’s Faust, which tells of the guardian of the tower that scrutinizes and sees down overnight fires and signs of massacre everywhere “durch den Linden Doppelnacht” (“for the double night of linden trees”). The cover of the first edition reads: “Carlo Levi’s countries always become ‘his own’, related to this guest in a perpetual state of grace by a relationship (as if of consanguinity or identification with an inner reality) with a lyrical, existential, rational and historical symbol. Germany is and remains for Levi, the antithesis, the other from himself. Even his cognitive solicitude would lead him to attack it from all sides, to try to incorporate it, to bring forth that which, beyond the glittering showcases of the “German economic miracle” and the shutters of the oblivion of the past, is his soul”.
Last travel story published in 1964, that time dedicated to Sardinia. Carlo Levi visited the island two times, ten years apart, in May 1952 and December 1962. The reflections that the author transcribes in his travel diary tell of a land with its myths and archetypes, a ‘barbaric and fairytale-like’ description, as Franco Antonicelli defines it, “a Sardinia of stones and shepherds, and of modern and living men”. The author dwells on describing the daily problems of the Sardinian land, collecting the places and faces of the innermost territory, telling in particular of areas that imprinted his memory, such as Nuoro, Orgosolo and Orune. The title Tutto il miele è finito takes its cue from a Sardinian funeral song in which a mother mourns her murdered son, comparing him to the honey that is no longer there, represents a land that is not motionless and timeless, but a reality in which we feel the change of history, starting from archaic and primordial images: “Here, in the island of the Sardinians, every going is a going back”.