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Carlo Sgorlon's Vichian Narrative
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-08-13 11:27:43
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Many have heard of Giuseppe di Lampedusa and his novel “The Leopard” rendered even more popular by Luchino Visconti’s film by the same title. But there is another contemporary Italian writer who ought to be better known on both sides of the Atlantic. His name is Carlo Sgorlon, a Friulian novelist who began to write and publish novels in 1968 and kept on writing till his death in 2009. He produced no less than 31 novels in the space of 40 years, not to mention his essays and articles. His novels have been translated in many languages including Chinese.  Like Lampedusa, he changed the very milieu of Italian narrative literature, if for no other reason than the fact that he swam against the present cultural current. That counter-current is what makes him fascinating. In fact, the philosophical underpinnings of his narrative are Vichian. I will attempt to elucidate this assertion through this short introductory article. I trust the reader will then venture to read some of his novels, in the original Italian or in translation.

Carlo Sgorlon was born on the 26th of July 1930 in Cassacco, a village some ten miles from Udine, the capital of the Italian Friuli region, also known as South Tyrol. He died in Udine on the 25th of December 2009. Rather than attending elementary school, he lived in the countryside with farmers where he absorbed the nuances of an agricultural culture which figures pre-eminently in his novels. He attended high school in Udine where he fell in love with art and poetry. At the age of 18 he won a competition to attend one of the best schools in Italy: the university of Pisa where he studied literature graduating with a thesis on Franz Kafka. He then  began teaching literature in Italian High Schools, but his real vocation was that of a writer.

In 1960 Sgorlon writes his first novel titled The Wind in the Vineyard (Il Vento nel Vigneto) but he does not publish it. He rewrites it in Friulian dialect and then publishes it ten years later in both Italian and dialect form. Already in this novel one can discern the main themes of his mature narrative: the predilection for a farmer’s world which at the time was slowly disappearing, the existential very personal themes, the privileging of feelings above ideologies, the vocation to an ecological vision of human existence. These themes were not very popular in the novels of the time. Few, if any novels portrayed an harmonious relationship between man, nature, seasons and cosmic time. Sgorlon was a pioneer in this respect.

After writing a couple of other novels with very modern themes of existential anxiety in the attempt to fit in within modern culture, suddenly, in 1970, he turns around and reveals himself an author against the grain. He publishes what can be considered his first novel where individualism is rejected in favor of the collective and the coral. The title of the novel is La Luna Color Ametista (The Purple Colored Moon). It is the story of some friends who live in a semi-abandoned village cut off from modernity and from the mutations of history itself.  They recover the pleasure and joy of living by being in contact with Rabal, a mysterious personage who is a metaphor for imagination and vitality. He comes from nowhere and then disappears just as suddenly. When he does, quite desperation returns once again and the end of the book can then be connected to the beginning. In the beginning there is the end and in the end there is the beginning. This is undoubtedly a Vichian theme: the attempt to recover the vitality of the origins via imagination and finding out in the process that the times one lives in are those of the “barbarism of rationality” devoid of imagination.

From then on Sgorlon will no longer tell stories of suffering individual solitude and existential despair, but stories that emphasize the collective and the social. If there is any salvation, it resides in the group and the collective, in the people, in the epic collective stories of families and people and nations. This too is a Vichian theme: true wisdom resides not in individual egomania, what Vico call “la boria dei dotti” (the arrogance of the learned) but in the common sense of the people or the collective wisdom of a whole people or nation.

He begins with his own people: the Friulian people to whose orgins he will return in his novel Gli Dei Torneranno (The Gods shall Return) written in 1977. I remember coming across Sgorlon and this particular novel when I was at Yale University writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Giambattista Vico and being immediately struck by its unmistakably Vichian themes. The very title of the novel is Vichian. Later on he will write stories of gypsies, Jews, Cossacks and Sgorlon will be known as an epic writer of the stories of exploited and injured people. The protagonists of his novels will always attempt to integrate themselves in the collective story of their people. Even his heroes are such as a reference point for the others and as a shaper of common values. They are indeed a sort of prophetic heroes.

To achieve this collective effect Sgorlon utilizes myths and legends and sagas that are archetypal; a type of knowledge that is pre-scientific, poetical, what Vico calls the first era of the gods, a poetical era preceding the era of full-fledged rationality. This does not mean that Sgorlon was ignorant of the latest scientific and psychological trends. He was much interested in quantum mechanics and what it has to say about modern materialism and read Jung and his notion of the collective unconscious. It is in the reading of those modern developments that Sgorlon becomes more aware of the limitations of modern man, what Vico calls “the barbarism of rationality” vis a vis archaic culture. He discovers Jung’s archetypes which are universal and essential to envisage how the human spirit functions. He discovers Vico’s understanding of he myth, a narration that is eternally valid, rediscovered time and again, with ever new meanings. He becomes aware that even rational knowledge needs to reconnect to myth and the collective unconscious to retain its humanity.

For Sgorlon, as well as for Vico, the imagined, the fairy tale, the myth have as much right to be included in the human mind as rationality and science, in fact without them rationality itself becomes destructive; we will proceed to rationalize what ought never be rationalized. They are the fountainhead of metaphors and therefore of poetry, and consequently of the joy of living and the elan vital. This is why I said above that this poetic is the other side of the coin of Di Lampedusa decadentism and reflection on the decadence of a whole civilization, that of the nobility.  Sgorlon will not give up this poetic till his death. In fact without understanding it one will misguidedly think of Sgorlon’s novel as retrograde and anachronistic, as some critics have erroneously charged.

The first successful book of Sgorlon was The Wooden Throne (Il Trono di Legno) which in 1973 won the Campiello award in Venice, a veritable best seller which within 30 years was republished 25 times. After that success Sgorlon becomes an internationally known writer. It is an adventurous story of a farmer with epic overtones. The protagonist is searching for a woman he retains his mother which is a metaphor for the search for his origins. He falls in love with two women, one very passionate and the other timid. One represents active life and the other contemplative life. He becomes a writer but his roots are in the oral tradition of farmers’ civilization and his model is a patriarch by the name of Pietro, who had an emigrant who had traveled the world and had become a myth. With this book Sgorlon abandons forever the decadent, banal culture of modernity, devoid of true and lasting values. He opts for the archetypes, the stories and the legends that resist time and thus overcomes what is temporary and unstable.

With this first book Sgorlon begins to change the Italian and European novel which got its nourishment from a rather flat and shallow culture often based on modern nihilism. He does this by rediscovering the horizons of the epic narrative applied to farmer’s civilization, of a living in touch with nature and imagination. Epic, as Vico, well understood when he made Homer the foremost Western poet and the inspiration of his second cycle in his New Science, is the best form for representing collective values of a whole people and nations. It is in fact the very opposite of modern nihilism and extreme individualism. Sgorlon is the very first Friulian writer who attempts to set up a grandiose epic cycle through the tragic events of the history of his people.

In line with this epic narration we have The Gods shall Return and then in 1979 The Thin carriage (La Carrozza di Rame) which is the story of a farmer family over five generations ending with the tragic earthquake of 1976. Then in 1983 comes what some critics have branded as Sgorlon’s masterpiece: Anataj’s Shell (La Conchiglia di Anataj) which wins the Supercampiello award and tells the story of Friulian emigration to Siberia when Russia was building its first tran-siberian railroad. Then in 1985 we have The Armada of the Lost Rivers (L’Armata dei Fiumi Perduti) which wins the Strega award, the highest literary award in Italy, republished 23 times, recounting the tragic encounter at the end of World War II between the Friulian people and the Cossacks who were brought to Friuli by the Germans with a promise that Friuli would be their new country. And there are several other books, some thirty of them, written within the space of forty years. This is an epic treasury which Friuli had never possessed before Sgorlon. In this epic appear not only the Friulians descendant from the original Celts, but the population that live in Friuli or nearby: the Austrians, the Slavs, the Germans which are like a mosaic of farmer civilization in Friuli. German as well as Italian is spoken in Friuli This middle Europe multiculturalism at its best!

Despite this type of narration going against the modern current, fantastic and mythological, respectful of a people’s historical heritage, Sgorlon’s books have sold into the millions, some three millions. This is what many avanguard  modern critics find hard to explain. Sgorlon’s world seems a world that vanished long ago with the advent of industrialization. But those critics are missing something essential about Sgorlon’s narration and it is this: that Sgorlon is one of the few writers in the whole of Europe who has confronted head on the ecological problem of the preservation of nature and therefore of the human race and of history itself, for without human race there is no history either.

And here lies the paradox that is Sgorlon, in retracing the story of his own people has recovered the nexus between nature, metaphysics and ecology which was also the aim of Vico’s New Science. The new man whom Nietzsche calls “the last man” must re-learn once again that he is a product of cosmic forces and not the lord of life and nature; must become more humble and less prone to addictive consumerism which destroys nature and promotes social injustice. In other words this new man must recuperate some of farmer’s virtues: frugality, respect for nature without over-romanticizing it, the very sacredness, in fact, of nature.

Like Vico, Sgorlon is advocating a return to the sheer pleasure of narration, to the ethical life, to the archetypes of nature and of history, to the linguistic origins of the human world. All these ideas can be found in one of the more philosophical of Sgorlon’s novels: The Kingdom of Man (Il Regno dell’Uomo) written in 1994. For those who are imbued with the poetical, language is always fresh, immediate, generating ever new emotion. It begins anew from its origins. To get away from these origins is to run the danger of falling into what Vico calls the new barbarism but this time it is not physical but intellectual; the predicament, that is, of the whole of Western civilization nowadays.

Indeed the whole narration of Sgorlon is an attempt, quite rare nowadays, to reconsacrate the world. For indeed, if one recovers the joy of living, one has arrived at the edge of the sacred. In fact, the spiritual and the sacred are constant dimensions of Sgorlon’s narrative. And this brings us to the ethical dimension of Sgorlon’s narrative. In this narrative Sgorlon is firm in denying that what is evil can ever create anything of beauty. For him a genuine literature is born from a fresh, auroral, childlike perception of the world. It begins in wonder and proceeds with sentiments that are elementary, full of surprises, and represented in ever new modes. In Sgorlon’s myths one finds the sheer pleasure of bettering the world, that some may call naïve or romantic but are in reality sacred, visionary and full of hope for the future. The protagonists of his novels often appear to have arrived from other planets, since they don’t seem to conform with present boorishness and vulgarity and echo South American fantastic literature. They represent the quotidian renewal of hope, the simplicity of genuine human relationships and human sentiments. Sgorlon remains one of the foremost representative of a counter culture which is Italian and European, and indeed Western, inviting the reader to experience once again the pleasure of narration, be it nothing else but one’s own story.



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