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Poor People are Like Oysters: The Life of Giovanni Verga

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VergaThe English-speaking world knows little, if anything, about the writer Giovanni Verga: at most, he’s known to opera fans because composer Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, the one-act opera usually played in tandem with that other one act-opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo, I Pagliacci (a combination known to aficionados as Cav-Pag), was adapted from one of Verga’s short stories. Even D. H. Lawrence, an admirer and translator of Verga, couldn’t quite pin him down:

The trouble with Verga is, that as all Italians, that we can never find an exact place for him. When we read Manzoni we ask ourselves if he’s more “gothic” or German than Italian. In the same manner, Verga’s vision of life appears to have been borrowed from others: from the French this time… Italians are like this: they always act a part to be on a par with someone’s else vision of life.

Other factors limited the popularity of Verga’s mature work even in Italy. First, the Italian public was then enamored of what poet Giosue` Carducci called the culture of the “Italietta” (“Small Italy”): pretentious, bombastic, searching for respectability, and thirsting for colonial conquests and great power status. This “Italietta” in the period preferred on the one hand the exciting, melodious, frilly, pretentious, sexually-charged style of poet, novelist, and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio, its symbolism and cosmopolitanism, its surface varnish of modernity and smartness, its psychological involutions and emphasis on adventure, the human body, pleasure, decadence and death, and on the other hand the final embers of the tragic psychological romances of novelist Antonio Fogazzaro, the sense of restlessness, bewilderment, an indeterminate contrast between the moral and religious beliefs of the author. The last thing they wanted was Verga’s bleak pessimism and fixation on poverty and hopelessness.

Verga’s portrayal of the impoverished people of Sicily, living in a dusty landscape where nothing had changed in hundreds of years, his sparse, matter-of-fact style in which character is not developed by interior thoughts but revealed through actions and language (that great linguistic experiment, trying to replicate the blunt and proverb-heavy Sicilian syntax of the day) – these things prompted mainly indifference from the reading public and disdain from the critics. Italians of the period wanted to be entertained, not reminded that more than half of the country was very poor, illiterate, and spoke only its local dialects.

Likewise, the author’s own brooding, reserved character hardly endeared him to the press, the public, or literary critics. Particularly after he returned to his home town of Catania in 1893, his nature as a man of a few words, disinterest in participating even in events held in his honor, contributed to his neglect, both at home and abroad – although discerning readers likened the literary realism of his work to such masters as Flaubert, De Maupassant, Turgenev and Dostoevsky. After his death in 1922, critics such as Benedetto Croce and Luigi Russo reassessed his verismo very highly, and that reassessment has continued to the present day – and yet without a broader reading public. To those readers, Giovanni Verga remains a mystery, a one-opera name on a program. But there was much more to him than that.

cataniaHe was born in 1840 in Catania, the second largest city in Sicily, to borderline-poor family of noble descent, their only patrimony some mountainous farmland 40 miles near the town of Vizzini, where the family also had a house.

After elementary school, Giovanni was educated in Catania under the tutelage of a priest, Don Antonio Abate, and developed an interest in writing. The Verga family frequently decamped from Catania to their country farm, particularly when bouts of the cholera infested the city, and it was there that in 1856 he wrote the ponderous romantic action novel a la Alexandre Dumas pere, Amore e Patria (Love and Homeland), a story set in the American colonies during the Revolution (there’s a cameo appearance by George Washington) with fearless patriot Edward Walter’s love for the beautiful Eugenia contested by her rival Clary, and the triumph of the good and great after many travails. The book was not published, and only three chapters saw the light of the day in 1929 (the manuscript, believed lost, was found in a basement trunk in 2013).

In 1958, Verga matriculated in the Faculty of Law of the University of Catania but his attention to studies was somewhat desultory, as he preferred continuing to write. Bored, in 1860 he joined the National Guard of the newly-constituted Kingdom of Italy, which had replaced the Bourbon rulers in the south, and served in the army for four years. During this period, he wrote and published two more Romantic historical novels, potboilers of limited literary value but which were reviewed favorably and did not icarbonarilack a certain narrative fluidity. The scene of the first, I Carbonari della Montagna (1861-62), which he published at his own expense, was set in the mountains of Calabria and narrated the fight of Italian “Carbonari” patriots against both the Bourbons trying to return to power and the Napoleonic usurpers led by Joaquin Murat. The second, Sulle Lagune (1862), takes place in 1861 in Venice, then ruled by Austria-Hungary. The hero, a Hungarian officer named Stefan Keller, is in love with Giulia Collini, whose father and brother are anti-Austrians. Dramatically, Keller chooses love over duty, refusing to fire on the protesting Venetians, “breaking his sword on the stone pavement.”

In 1865, several years after his father died, Giovanni Verga borrowed money from his uncle Salvatore and moved to Florence, then the temporary capital of the Kingdom of Italy. He remained on and off in Florence until 1871, frequenting literary saloons and starting friendships with leading Italian literati such as poets Aleardo Aleardi and Mario Rapisardi, Giovanni Prati, Arnaldo Fusinato, Francesco Dell’Ongaro, Caterina Percoto, the anarchist Mikhail Bukanin, and the Sicilian novelist and literary critic Luigi Capuana. Capuana, through the years became the most faithful of Verga’s supporters.

He was also busy writing, and in 1866 he published Una Peccatrice (A Sinner), the romantic story of a noblewoman who falls in love with a young writer, who first carries on a torrid affair with her and then abandons her, pushing the woman to take her own life. The book was a success with the public, and in 1871 Verga followed it with Storia di una Capinera (The Story of A Blackcap), a book partially based on Verga’s first love. This book was also a notable success: Verga was learning his craft well, and although the style is that of a late romanticism, his descriptions of the ambiance and dialogue are well done. Verga exhibited in the writing a pedagogic aim, exposing the immorality and falsehood prevalent in the so-called “good society”, in which love was often viewed as a matter of convenience or financial interest, or worse, a diversion from the ennui of daily life.

unapeccatriceIn 1869, while visiting the home of Francesco Dell’Ongaro, Verga met Giselda Fojanesi, an 18 years old who had just graduated as a middle school teacher; the two became friends. Giselda was also a friend of Mario Rapisardi, a self-taught poet also born in Catania who, like Verga, was then living in Florence. Rapisardi was an eccentric, self-absorbed egotist, who changed his surname from Rapisarda (which meant “kidnap a sardine”) to Rapisardi mainly because it rhymed with that of the poet Leopardi!

In 1869 both Verga and Rapisardi started pulling strings from Florence to get Giselda a job as a teacher in a boarding private school in Catania. In the late summer, while Rapisardi stayed behind in Florence, Giovanni Verga, Giselda Fojanesi, and her mother travelled to Catania, where until the start of the school year they were guests of Verga at a family’s country house. Verga was in love with Giselda but at this point it remains speculative whether or not the relationship during the train and ship voyage to Catania had become intimate.

Meantime, Rapisardi, on the verge of obtaining a position at the university, returned to Catania and started to pay an intense courtship to Giselda. Verga, who was in Catania only from time to time, prudently left the field to his more fuocoso friend, and Mario and Giselda soon became engaged; the marriage was delayed for over a year since Mario’s father had died and a long period of mourning was observed but they finally married in February 1872.

Right from the start it was not a happy marriage as the newlyweds moved in with Rapisardi’s widowed mother-in-law and sister and the three women did not see eye to eye.

It was an impossible situation and one that Giselda bore patiently until 1875 when, while on a visit with her husband to her mother in Florence, she re-started or started an intimate relationship with Verga, which continued for many years and included assignations whenever she visited Florence or he visited Cantania.

On the morning of December 23, 1883, one of Verga’s letters to Giselda, hidden in a batch of newspapers she was carrying, dropped on the floor. Horrified she yelled: “Do not touch that letter!” but Rapisardi lunged for it and read it quickly: “Dear, dear, dear, you are the woman as I would have dreamt it, a friend, sister, lover, all…”

Rapisardi told his wife to pack up and leave, while the mother-in-law in the background covered her with insults. Giselda first went to see Verga and then took the train back to Florence and moved in with her mother.

In those days, dishonor of this type was washed by blood, at least a duel, particularly in Sicily. Verga fully expected his love rival to challenge him to a duel and stayed put at home for a few days. But the challenge never came. The only action Rapisardi took was to sit down and write his most famous tercet:

E se, indegna di me, fia che mi volga
la sposa infida e la rea prole il tergo
solo starò, come solingo sasso.
(And if, not worthy of me, wishes to turn
Her back to me my treacherous wife and hers
I will stand alone, as a solitary rock.)

(Translated by author)

Normally, in the Sicily of the time, carrying on an affair with your best friend’s wife was a sign of guts and daring; Verga’s esteem in the eyes of his fellow compatriots should have risen, while cuckolded Rapisardi should have become the city’s laughing stock. Nothing of the sort happened: Verga became more averse to the Catanesi, while the very same night Gisela had left, a vast group of city folks paraded with lit torches under Rapisardi’s balcony, expressing their support love and admiration for their wronged poet.

sullelaguneIn the meantime, in November 1872, Verga had moved from Florence to Milan, where he would live for the next two decades. As he had in Florence, he quickly established contacts in the literary world, involving himself with followers of the Scapigliatura, an artistic-literary movement similar to the Bohemian trend in France. Members of the Scapigliatura (meaning unkempt, disheveled) aimed to renew Italian culture by combining German romanticism, French bohemia, the style of Edgar Allen Poe, and a certain dose of realism. Its most prominent members were poet and composer Arrigo Boito and poet and painter Emilio Praga. Verga also started to frequent the literary saloon of Countess Clara Maffei (1814-86), where Milan’s intelligencia had continued to meet for many decades.

Although Verga claimed to live frugally in Milan, he still out-spent his income, and his uncle in Catania frequently had to send him money; this discouraged Verga to the point that for a while he planned to abandon his writing career and return to Catania. In need of money, during the Carnival season of 1874, between attendance at balls and parties, Verga found time to write a novelette of 61 pages, which he completed in three days, Nedda.

With Nedda, which Verga subtitled “A Sicilian Sketch,” he changed directions, moving toward Verismo, the rough equivalent of French Naturalism. In this story, and all his work to follow, except for two late Romantic novels he published in 1875, Verga denied himself the role of all-knowing puppet master and sought to keep the author’s identity, feelings, and commentary out of the narrative, allowing the fictional characters to tell their own story, principally through their dialogue, silence, and gestures against a realistic background. In a writing style he called “free indirect,” he let characters take over the story, speaking an Italian that has the neddaidiomatic and syntactic structure of the Sicilian dialect the character would have spoken in reality. With this stylistic turn, Verga anticipated 20th century stylist devices such as stream of consciousness and interior monologue, although at first its own author held it in low regard (he referred to it as a “miserable thing”), instead pushing on editors his two other current novels.

Nedda, however, was an unexpected success when first published on June 15, 1874. A second edition followed shortly after, and Verga, spurred by this success, wrote a number of short stories set in Sicily and began a longer story of poor fishermen called Padron ‘Ntoni, a subject that within years he developed into the novel I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree). The short stories were published in the collection Primavera e Altri Racconti (Spring and other Stories) in 1876, and in the meantime, his two Romantic novels, Tigre Reale and Eros, proved to be successes with the reading public. They would be the last such novels he would write.

Hereafter, Verga’s veristic style matured. Inspired by the matter-of-fact journal of a local fisherman, Verga adopted a terse new narrative style. The change was a revelation to him, opening his eyes to the faults of his earlier work. “I was as false in my art as I was outside in the ‘true’ life,” he said.

Several books of veristic short stories, Vita Dei Campi (“Life in the Fields” 1880), and Novelle Rusticane (“Rustic Stories” 1883) followed Nedda. Some of these short stories, set in small town and countryside Sicily, are classics. Malpelo is the story of a boy working in a sulphur mine who for a while refused to give up to his wretched fate until he disappears in the mine; La Roba tells of an avaricious poor farmer, who has compulsively amassed great wealth any way he could, and is then told by his doctor that he is soon to die. At this, he runs around killing his chickens, ducks, and other farmyard animals since he can no longer enjoy his possessions. The most famous short story, however, is Cavalleria Rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”), a story of love, jealousy, and death which Verga turned later into a play and which was also made into a famous one-act opera by composer Pietro Mascagni.

In 1878, Verga had also started to plan a cycle of five novels, a kind of Italian version of Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine, using the philosophical approach of Emil Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart. The planned Verga novels would describe a man’s struggle in escaping poverty and his fall back to into it because of his own shortcomings and hubris.

His friend and fellow novelist Luigi Capuana wrote later that in the novels’ cycle, which Verga called first called Marea (The Tide) and then I Vinti (The Losers), the novelist

intended to study the various faces of the struggle for material well-being in life, with particular emphasis on the weak that are left behind, of the indolent who let others take advantage of them, of the losers who raise their arms in desperation and who lower their heads under the brutal heel of the winners of the day, those rushing to make it, anxious to reach their goal and who, in turn, will be surpassed tomorrow. Of the struggles of the most humble, he [Verga] will move up to the most elevated level of the spiritual needs, where all dreams, all vanities, all human ambitions, will be summed up and will become more painful for the intensity acquired during the fast race to success.

In the introduction to I Malavoglia, Verga told the reader:

This tale is the sincere and dispassionate study of how in all probability must be born and develop in the most humble conditions the first stirrings for the good life; and what trouble this brings to a family that until then has lived relatively happy, the vague desire for the unknown, taking notice that you are not living well, or that your life could be better… Only the observer, carried along himself by the raging river, looking around, has the right to care about the weak, that are left behind on the road, about those without strength that are overtaken by the waves so that they finish the race sooner, to the losers that raises their arms in desperation, and bow their heads under the cruel foot of these above them, the winners of today, who rushed themselves, eager of arriving, and who will be surpassed tomorrow.

imalavogliaI Malavoglia is the story of a fishing family in Acitrezza, a village north of Catania. They live in the house by the medlar tree, relatively content in their poverty with the sense of community they enjoy by working together. The head of the family, Mastro ‘Ntoni, expresses his concept of family unity by quoting an old proverb that goes “To row the boat it is necessary that the five finger of the hand help each other,” and gives his opinion of their place in the scheme of things in life by quoting another proverb: “Men are like the fingers of a hand: the big finger must hold its place as big, and the little finger must be only a little finger.” When their boat, Provvidenza, sinks with a cargo of lupines they had purchased on credit, and the strongest of the “Malavoglia” sons drowns, the entire family is ruined and loses their home to the creditor. Soon they also lose their honor when young ‘Ntoni a goes to jail because while engaged in smuggling he has knifed a custom officer, a daughter, Lia, becomes a prostitute, an a third son, Luca, who has been drafter in the navy, dies in the Independence War of 1866, and the mother dies of cholera. But, amidst these misfortunes, by persistence and hard work, another member of the family, Alessi, takes his sister Mena in to live with him, and is able to save enough to buy the house back and marry his sweetheart. Young ‘Ntoni, now out of jail, returns to the old home where Alessi offers him a place to stay; however he has experienced life outside the village and is afraid that he cannot adapt to the old ways and leaves. Life continues.

Verga’s major theme in this novel is that hard work and rectitude do not ensure one’s progress or indeed survival in society. Fate, social changes, materialism, capitalistic self-interest, and political pressures play a large part in determining what happens in life: the individual is mostly powerless, isolated, and buffeted to and fro by these outside forces. The style Verga used, direct and matter of fact but sympathetic, is very effective and some passages of the novel read like poetry rather than prose.

Critic Attilio Momigliano writes about the book:

The ending of I Malavoglia is a melancholy song toward a sanctity that is only human, toward a nuclear family in its traditions of honesty and affection, as a solid rock against the tempestuous waves of life… Verga has a hard view of life. His world is without transcendence and without joy, ruled by a destiny deaf to that tempers and proves the will: a world always the same, heavy with weight, tied to the ever present and always imperious necessities of daily life, scarcely lyrical, scarcely tragic, with very rare peaks above the bitter minimum necessities of life that we are compelled to live and earn… moral life is this necessity and this duty to live working without rest: a stoic morality, a little monotonous, poor, of that poverty hat appears inevitable in the restrictive life of an illiterate person who must think about the provenance of his bread daily.

Despite its worth, I Malavoglia was a critical bust, since apart from the favorable review written by his friend Capuana, all the others were negative. In a bleak mood, Verga wrote to Capuana on April 11,1881: “I Malavoglia has failed, failed, fully and completely… but if I was to return to write that book I would still do as I did it…”

Despite this, he started to write another novel, Il Marito di Elena (Helen’s Husband), started researching a new novel in the cycle of the Vinti, Mastro Don Gesualdo, and continued writing short stories with a Sicilian background to earn some money.

In Il Marito di Elena (1882) Verga combined a bit of Verismo with the tried-and-true moneymaking romantic-psychological style. It is the story of Cesare, who hails from a middle class family and becomes a lawyer. In love with wealthy Elena, he marries her but the solidity of traditional small town ideals he represents crashes against her frivolous big-city modernity, and her extramarital affairs, and the marriage flounders. The marriage is saved temporarily by the birth of a child, but Cesare, at the end, unable to adjust to Elena’s capriciousness, kills her.

Intent on preserving his outward standard of living as a fixture of Milan’s demimonde, Verga was almost always short of money, constantly writing, constantly getting advances from publishers and borrowing from friends. The precariousness of his finances may have been one of the reasons he never married.

vita dei campiOn the other hand, he may have had an aversion to marriage per se since marriage would have brought a certain loss of his cherished freedom. Familial obligation in Catania may also had had a part in his attitude toward matrimony, but with the passage of time these should have faded away; his beloved sister Rosa died in 1877 and his mother at the end of 1878, but as relatives died, he took upon himself to look after their children. His attitude toward marriage may have been expressed by one his own characters: “Marriage is similar to a rat trap: those that are within it want to get out, and the others circle around it to get in.”

In 1878 he had started a relationship with Countess Paolina Greppi Lester in Milan. The countess was married to an English businessman, K. Bingley Garlam Lester and had a child, and after Lester died in 1892, she and Verga could have married. The relationship continued for 27 years, until 1905, and has been documented by 207 surviving letters that Verga wrote to Paolina, and which her son Augusto Lester donated to the Verga archives. Sometimes the two traveled together, one trip to Sicily, another to France, with trips to northern Italy. Verga was frequently her guest in the large Villa Greppi at Monticello Brianza (Lecco) and at their other family villa-castle in Mendrisio (Switzerland), but even after Paolina became a widow, Verga declined to marry her, writing in 1893 that he needed “absolute independence” and described marriage as “a chain that would be hateful to both of us.”

It was in his short novel Fantasticheria that Verga struck on the metaphor of oysters when writing about society in small town Sicily. He explained that townspeople in Trezza behaved like oysters, clinging to each other and to the rocks to resist the violence of the strong waves of life. When one oyster falls or is taken, the danger level for the remaining ones increases; it will be impossible for that oyster to reattach itself to the rock and the oyster also will find it impossible to survive independently. As he put:

… the dogged clinging of poor people to the rocky shore on which fate has dropped them… of the instinct that the small people have to band together to resist the tempests of life this courageous resignation to a hard life, this religion of the family appear to me to be worthy of high respect… and when one who is weak or less careful or more egoist of the others wants to detach himself from the group for desire to explore the unknown or lust of betterment the world like the hungry fish it is will swallow him.

With varying success, Verga had also tried his hand at playwriting and became friends with Arrigo Boito, a poet and composer, Giuseppe Giacosa, a poet, playwright and librettist, and poet Luigi Gualdo. In 1883, Verga worked at turning his short story Cavalleria Rusticana into a play. With the help of Giuseppe Giocosa, who had many contacts, the play then premiered at the Royal Theater in Turin on January 14, 1884. Arrigo Boito, then actress Eleonora Duse’s lover, encouraged her to take the leading role in the play, and she brought along her former lover, Flavio Ando` to take the male lead.

The play was a signal success and helped to keep Verga out of debt, at least temporarily.

erosThe short story recounted with realism the conclusion of the tragic drama of Turiddu Macca, a young Sicilian who returns home to Vizzini from military service, to find that his former girlfriend Lola has married Alfio, a carter from another town. To spite her, he then engages in a relationship with Santuzza, even though he still yearns for Lola, with whom he also starts anew the relation while her husband is away on his business. Jealous Santuzza then reveals Lola’s affair to her husband Alfio, who to protect his honor challenges Turiddu to a knife duel and kills him.

In transforming the short story, less than ten pages, into a stage drama, Verga added scenes and dialogue but maintained the realism of the agrarian society in small town Sicily. After Turin, the play opened in Milan and continued to be performed in other cities to great public success.

Enter Pietro Mascagni, a young musician from Livorno with aspirations as an opera composer. Mascagni had spent one year at the Milan Conservatory and then abandoned his studies, taking the job of musical director of a civic band in the large town of Cerignola, in Puglia. Reading about the success of Verga play, Mascagni conceived the idea of using the subject as his submission to a competition being sponsored by Milan’s musical editor Edoardo Sonzogno. In late 1889, without contacting Verga for permission, Mascagni asked two poets he knew to turn the story into a libretto. The two, Giovanni Targione-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci, set to work, sending fragments of the libretto written on the back of postcards to Mascagni in Cerignola.

On the last day before the competition closed, Mascagni submitted the composition to Sonzogno, and lo and behold, in March 1890 it was picked as the winner out of 73 entries. Only after it was scheduled to premiere did Mascagni finally write to Verga for permission to use the subject – and offering him a cut of the proceeds. Verga wrote back giving his consent and mildly adding that he’d have been happy to write the libretto himself, had he been asked.

The première of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana was an outstanding success, and the opera was soon performed in the major opera theaters all over Italy. By December 1890, Gustav Mahler presented it in Budapest, and within a year and half the opera was performed in St. Petersburg, Munich, Hamburg, Dresden, Vienna, Buenos Aires, Philadelphia, and Chicago. On October 1, 1891, New York held two premieres on the same day in two different venues, one directed by Oscar Hammerstein!

Toward the end of 1890, Verga, seeing how his original story-turned-opera was making lots of money for Sonzogno and Mascagni, now demanded from them “the share of the profit established by copyright law.” Sonzogno replied by offering 1,000 lire, about $4,000 in today’s value and an offended Verga appealed to the Society of Authors and Editors, who ruled he should be paid a percentage of the profit, not a single payment. But the Society’s ruling had no legal standing, so Verga sued in court, demanding one half of past and future profits, to be shared with the poets who had provided the libretto, if they had not already been paid. The Milan court ruled in March 1891 in Verga’s favor, but Sonzogno appealed all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. Sonzogno still wanted to make only one payment, and finally late in 1892 the two parties agreed on 143,000 lire, approximately $570,000, a substantial sum. With the money Verga was able to pay his debts, repaired his house in Catania, and buy a lemon orchard.

But he still wasn’t happy, and he continued to sue, alleging that the agreements he had concluded with Sonzogno were based on false information. His lawsuits came to nothing this time.

daltuoalmioIn 1902, twelve years after Mascagni’s opera had premiered, Verga granted permission to another composer to do a Cavalleria Rusticana. The composer, Domenico Monleone, with his brother writing the libretto, finished the opera in 1907, and it premiered in Amsterdam. Sonzogno now sued both Verga and Monleone and won all the way to the Italian Supreme Court. Monleone then had his brother write another libretto on a different subject and used the same music for a new opera titled La Giostra dei Falchi. Meantime Verga had successfully sued Monleone for a share of the profits of the original work, although the court awarded him only the reimbursement of legal expenses, some $20,000. (By this point Verga was addicted to litigation, suing both a copyright-infringing movie studio and even the seller of his new lemon orchard).

Verga, who in 1893 had left Milan and returned to live in Catania, had virtually abandoned his grand literary project. Very likely, he had lost faith in himself and the power of literature; he might have believed, given the success of D’Annunzio, that the time of Verismo was past. He continued to write and penned three other novels: I Ricordi del Capitano D’Arce ( (Captain d’Arce Remembrances – 1891), Don Candeloro e C.i (Don Candeloro and his Troupe -1894), and Dal Tuo al Mio ( From Yours to Mine – 1903), but the old ambitions and spark was gone.

Delusion then set in, both literary and political. He was disgusted by the scandals and corruption he saw in public life and became more and more conservative, supporting hardline social policies and Italy’s entry into World War I. He paid little attention to literary issues and devoted himself solely to his farms and orchards and the interminable legal lawsuits in which he embroiled himself.

Now an old man, Verga with the passage of years became more crusty and solitary. He would go out daily to visit a man’s club to which he belonged, but otherwise he led a very secluded and quiet existence.

In 1920, King Vittorio Emanuele III appointed him senator, and his 80th birthday was celebrated both in Rome and in Catania, with speeches by Luigi Pirandello. Verga briefly attended the function in Catania and left early.

While going to bed on the night between January 24th and 25th, 1922, Verga suffered a cerebral thrombosis. He never came out of the coma and died on January 27. His funeral was a simple thing attended only by a few friends and relatives and by some poor people, the type of persons he had so well described in his Sicilian-based novels and short stories. A simple tomb, now in disrepair keeps his remains, a tomb on which Federico De Roberto placed the violets sent by Giselda Fojanesi and the flowers sent by Dina di Sordevolo.
Luciano Mangiafico is a retired U.S. diplomat who served, among many postings abroad, as consul in Milan and Consul General in Palermo.