Thursday, July 10, 2008


Rigoni Stern departs

I was saddened to read about the death of Mario Rigoni Stern on June 16. According to this report in La repubblica, the 86-year-old author had been ailing for some time. The obituary goes on to quote another Italian novelist and essayist, Ferdinando Camon, about Rigoni Stern's idiosyncratic gifts: "He was a very great writer--great in the way that solitary men are. When I was president of the Italian PEN Club, he was the first Italian that I nominated for the Nobel. He was a classic writer, with a lucid vision and a simple, powerful style, and a charismatic figure. His temperament was mild, good-natured, and he didn't give a damn about literary societies or meetings." (This description was certainly borne out by Rigoni Stern's cameo in a 2007 documentary, Primo Levi's Journey. Looking rather dapper, in an alpine sort of way, he discussed his old friend and fellow survivor with an appealing gravity and utter lack of self-regard.)

Rigoni Stern was probably best known in this country for The Sergeant in the Snow, his autobiographical account of the disastrous Italian retreat from the Russian front in late 1942. The author, who had enlisted in the Tridentina division, took part in this 300-mile death march, which killed about 90,000 men. He then spent two years in a German POW camp before returning to Asiago in 1945. His account of the catastrophe, published in 1953, became a bestseller and classroom staple in Italy. Yet most of his succeeding productions (he published 16 books, the most recent just a few weeks before his death) were considerably more bucolic. Rigoni Stern loved to write about the terrain, customs, and culture of the Altopiano, the mountainous region in northern Italy where he spent his entire life. I had hoped to translate one such novel, The Story of Tönle, back in the early 1990s. Instead my friend John Shepley did the honors, and I wrote a brief review of the book for a certain online bookseller. Rather than paraphrase, I'll just reproduce the bite-sized piece in its entirety:
Mario Rigoni Stern is best known in the English-speaking world for The Sergeant in the Snow, an account of combat--and brutal retreat--along the Russian front in 1942-43. But his novel The Story of Tönle is a miracle of narrative concision. In little more than a hundred pages, the author recounts a half-century in the life of Tönle Bintarn, a jack-of-all-trades living in the mountains of northern Italy. On one level, the book functions as a snapshot of a peculiar peasant culture, one whose very dialect is a mysterious stew of Italian and German syllables. Yet Stern is particularly good at capturing the steady incursion of modern life into these alpine reaches. By around 1900, for example, partisan politics finally reaches Tönle's neighborhood: "While the moderate side founded the Savings and Loan Association, the progressives founded the Workers' Association. While one side had a brass band with red caps, the other had one with green caps and pheasant feathers." (So much for the two-party system, which would get a lot more rancorous before Tönle's death in 1917.)

It's hard to describe the magic of this novel. Stern's prose, which has been very capably translated by John Shepley, is so artfully understated as to make Raymond Carver resemble William Faulkner. Yet Tönle's wanderings through Italy and Central Europe never lose their fascination. Nor do his emotions. When his mother dies, for example, his grief is almost wholly instinctual, almost unconscious: "He had been overcome by a strange feeling of apprehension, a sort of melancholy uneasiness, wanting to be by himself in the castle park among the tall trees, which were beginning to turn red, and with no desire to eat or drink: like that mild anxiety that sometimes overtakes animals, too." To convey such inarticulate feeling without a grain of condescension is a real feat. To telescope 50 years of such feelings into such a diminutive volume is an even greater one, which makes The Story of Tönle a necessary work of art.
Two summers ago, wandering the streets of Lucca and attempting to dodge the intense heat, I popped into a tiny bookstore. There I bought a copy of Aspettando l'alba (Waiting for Dawn), a 2005 collection of essays and stories. With a little luck (and some extra time), perhaps I can translate a couple of the pieces and post them here.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?