So, on this the last day of March, I've finally put words on the screen about the first of this year's Nobel Prize-winning novelists, which I had hoped to deliver on the last day of January (that's motherhood for you). See here.
Grazia Deledda's novel, Reeds in the Wind, has, quite simply, taken my breath away and effectively given me writer's block (I aspire, but would surely fail). I remember now why the Nobel is the Nobel and why no other literary award except perhaps the Pulitzer and the Booker could ever come close.
Deledda was born in 1871, in Nuoro, Sardinia. She had little formal education, but read and read and read, insatiably you might say. She left her small hometown in 1899, stopping first in Cagliari before settling in Rome. She wrote an astonishing 33 novels and many collections of short stories, and at the age of 55 became the second woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The story? It's the story of the Pintor sisters, their nephew, Giacinto, and their ageing serf, Efix. Most of all it's about Efix, who continues to serve the family even though they have descended from their nobility and affluence to a kind of noble poverty. For Efix has committed a secret crime and has spent most of his life trying to make up for it, and now the time has come for the ultimate penance.
Reeds in the Wind is an astonishing novel. Deledda has here produced a deft and sustained picture of life in Sardinia, evoking its landscapes, its people and its traditions. Her characters, even those sketched in among the crowds, are all people on the brink of a new, modern world. They seem to be struggling with the old ways, the old forms, the old beliefs - the baronial system, for example, and a Christianity mingled benignly with belief in nighttime goblins and witches - as those ways, forms and beliefs seem to be sliding out of their reach, to be replaced by...what?
This is a poignant moment in history, and, for the characters of the novel, one full of emotion. And Deledda doesn't shie away from eliciting those emotions from the reader. In particular, she makes use of what James Joyce would have called the 'Epiphany' to halt the progress of the narrative and encapsulate a moment of pure understanding, emotion or transformation-transfiguration. (And there was me thinking the Epiphany was unique to Joyce.) Two characters in the book fall in love, and I have never before read two such moving renditions of this exact moment as I found in this book.
Reeds in the Wind is a complex novel, but not as demanding as one might expect. And its rewards are many. As Todd Gitlin wrote in the Chicago Tribune:
"The world is suddenly fuller, the reader's own capacity for astonishment miraculously replenished....A writer of the emotional power of Grazia Deledda is overdue for literary resurrection...."
I'd heartily second that emotion, and would recommend Reeds in the Wind to anyone looking for the reading experience of the year, 2009, a full 80 years after this book was first published.