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Ernesto. By UMBERTO SABA. Ed. by MARIA ANTONIETTA GRIGNANI. Turin: Einaudi. 1995. xxiv + 156 pp. 12,000 lire.

One of Umberto Saba's favourite maxims was 'Il poeta e come il porco | si pesa dopo morto' (a statement attributed to his friend Nora Baldi). Saba would have welcomed being 'weighed' in similar fashion. He would have particularly liked his novel Ernesto, first published in 1975, to be 'weighed' after his death. Maria Antonietta Grignani carries out this operation some forty years after the death of the poet. Her critical edition of Ernesto, the first ever published, attempts to place the novel, the only sustained piece of prose narrative ever written by Saba, within the poetic horizon of the author of Il Canzoniere.

The novel, never finished, was written in 1953. Mainly because of an episode of blatant homosexuality that may have been autobiographical, as is so much of the novel, Saba was extremely pessimistic as to the publishability of Ernesto and eventually took the difficult decision to withdraw his authorization to publish it. In 1975, eighteen years after the poet's death, Saba's only daughter, Linuccia, edited the novel and gave permission to have it published.

Like Saba, Ernesto was an adolescent growing up at the end of the nineteenth century in Trieste, the great trading centre that was also home to a rich musical and cultural life, an atmosphere Saba reconstructs accurately. Like Saba, Ernesto lived with a severe mother 'dalla marmorea faccia' and a well-off elderly aunt who supported the family financially, as his father had deserted the family a few months before his birth. Like Saba, Ernesto left school to become an apprentice in a firm which imported flour from Hungary (Saba was an apprentice in the citrus fruits trade). At work Ernesto undergoes a homosexual initiation with a casual labourer. His spontaneous and unashamed reaction to the advances of this man is treated by Saba, in some of his most poignantly autobiographical pages, as an intimation of 'quello che, molti anni piu tardi, dopo molte esperienze e molto dolore, sarebbe stato il suo "stile": quel giungere al cuore delle cose, al centro arroventato della vita, superando resistenze ed inibizioni, senza perifrasi e giri inutili di parole' (p. 14).

Could Saba really be 'porco' (that is, 'queer') in a further sense? Grignani is not interested in joining the sterile polemic on Saba's latent homosexuality. (For this debate see Stelio Mattioni, Storia di Umberto Saba (Milan: Camunia, 1989), in particular pp. 18-20.) She engages the reader instead in the more interesting exercise of unfolding collusions and misapprehensions between the poet as an old man and his young self whom he is describing (see in particular the introductory section 'Ernesto e Umberto', pp. xxii-xxiv).

The philological accuracy of Grignani's work is chiefly due to her access to the 'Fondo Manoscritti di Autori Moderni e Contemporanei' at the University of Pavia, which acquired all the original manuscripts of Saba from Lionello Giorni, Linuccia's husband. Her edition depends entirely on her scrupulous consultation of this fascinating material, particularly the typescript of Ernesto, typed on both sides of cheap, faded paper, annotated in ball-point pen at the margins, and stained with coffee in the last few pages, and the manuscript of the Scorciatoie e raccontini, written in pencil and almost entirely devoid of corrections and annotations. In its accurate comparison, particularly of the two main original typescripts in the meticulous 'Nota filologica', and in its attention to extra-textual material (mainly letters), Grignani's edition not only replaces the one of 1975 (Turin: Einaudi, 1975) but also marks a significant contribution to the general bibliography on Saba.

Grignani's contribution is also commendable in that it does not offer easy escape routes. How the novel relates to Saba's otherwise almost entirely poetical canon must remain, for Grignani, open debate. Ernesto may well be one of Saba's greatest achievements, but, as the poet himself admitted in a letter to Linuccia, one must be careful not to overstate its role, 'se no quel mascalzone mi ammazza il Canzoniere' (p. 140).

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Author:Pizzi, Katia
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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