Alexey Vasilyevich Ganzen, "House on the Dalmatian Coast," c. 1900
Triestan writer Giani Stuparich’s L’île (translator Gilbert Bossetti, Éditions Verdier, L’Isola in the original Italian, The Island were there an English translation, which there is not) originated in a personal experience so frightening the author works it into his book twice. I’ll provide the first:
In passing through the streets of the town, his father at his side, he had had the impression that the world of men had been cleft into duplicate in an ultra-incandescent atmosphere. Advancing before him, he saw phosphorescent skeletons, while behind, within another atmosphere, as though superimposed on the preceding one and in a light at once dramatic and unnatural, the coverings of the flesh trailed behind. This impression had been so forceful and upsetting that he feared he might never free himself from it.
The vision haunted Stuparich for a decade until, seated at his desk one morning, he discovered that it “had lost all its horror” and become “full of poetry, steeped in poetry, bathed in poetry,” a transformation the author seems to have carried over wholly into L’île (1942); my admiration for this short novella grew by magnitudes as I found myself returning again and again to its elegant, moving narrative. Employing a formal, strikingly lucid style, Stuparich maintains intense focus on his subject: the confrontation with mortality in the story of a son whose terminally-ill father has invited him to journey together, “perhaps for the last time,” to the island of his ancestors.[i]
The arc of the story, a graceful parabola with a short tail at one end, traces the voyage to the island, the stay there, and the departure. The island itself serves as a kind of oasis, a crucible in which the two men must deal with the weight that hangs above them. Yet despite this exigency and the displays of mutual affection between father and son, a palpable distance exists between them, emphasized by the narrator’s contrast of the son’s mountains with the father’s sea, “those two marvelous rivals,” as the son calls them. A few lines reveal the father’s absence during much of his son’s life, his having left behind a family towards whom he had felt “a reciprocal indifference” in order to pursue the life of a sailor. One rare visit home, he had felt a connection with the boy, “whom he discovered a bit by chance; it had happened as though he’d discovered something in himself he didn’t know.” Undertaking the task of helping his son “learn to walk into existence,” the father had sent the 10-year-old to the island for a time, an initiation from which the timid child had returned transformed.
Now on the boat 20 years later, burdened by the diagnosis of esophageal cancer, the son regards his father and reflects on the past:
He had seemed to him then like a god, powerful, his face luminous, his voice resounding, with the manners of a conqueror: upright, simple, gay… And now this god here leaned his back and neck against a wooden railing, letting himself be lulled, in his lassitude, by the movements of the ship.
His melancholy eyes followed the distant profile of the coast, softened by blue and pinkish lights, of small houses dispersed here and there around their church tower like herds, reflecting on the mirror of inlets. This was no more than a tired man, face profoundly wrinkled, mouth bitter and slightly open, as though it pained him to breathe.
These contrasts of gaiety and gravity take on increasingly sharp definition, with the island - first viewed as an indistinct haze on the horizon - serving as an idyll enclosed by the parentheses of the voyage and offering occasional, temporary respite:
All of a sudden, they reached the end of the path where an admirable view presented itself to the eyes of the two men who, as though in perfect accord, halted together. Above the water, a tufted garland of tender green, light and undulating, crowned a large bay, a perfect semi-circle of golden sand before an amethyst sea of an enchanting clarity, which had just given birth to the curling hem of a wave of smiling sea spray. The entire pine forest twittered with the drunken sound of cicadas, their song rivaling the multi-sonic agitations of the sea.
Stuparich sensitively contrasts the son’s dire presentiments with the constitutional rejection of death by a man filled with life and capable of drawing out, even from those cast off and discounted, the “joyful side of their nature, long beaten down by the blows of fate.” A use of free indirect discourse quietly shifts between father and son across the difficult terrain of communication about death as they face “the exasperating sentiment of impotence” over their final parting. The father’s already tightening esophagus finds parallel in this constricted communication, a subject treated with enormous and forgiving tenderness by the author. Male reticence and rehearsed speeches, conveyed in internal monologues discarded for their inadequacy before being uttered, impose themselves on the reunion, forming a strained dialectic that yearns for comforting synthesis.
L’île is intimately concerned with finding the right words, both in its concentrated style and in its characters’ own vigilant attention to language. Mere phrases, even single words, can perfuse the story like drops of dye in water. The son’s glimpse of La Croda Rossa as he departs identifies his home as Italy’s Dolomites. The old man’s joie de vivre is communicated by his “solar manner of drinking.” An offhand comment that the son “did well not to marry” opens a world. When the father says, “I don’t really believe in doctors. Up until now, I haven’t counted on the slightest improvement,” the response underlines the tremendous weight words can carry: “The son, who watched for the least intonation in the voice of his father, trembled: with what intense color the words ‘up until now’ had vibrated in the middle of that grisaille of all the rest.”
L’île contains great silences, raising a host of questions about what lies beyond its crystalline circumference: Why is the son away in the mountains? What does he do in life? What relationship did he have with his mother (referred to but once, leaving one to wonder about her story)? What of the novella’s war-time publication, by an author active in the anti-fascist cause no less? Though the work displays no overt relation to the global events then unfolding, it nonetheless seems to contain the tensions of its time.
Deftly balancing granularity with expansiveness, despair with the imperative to defy it, the cruel inevitability of death with the exaltation of “a life solidly and justly lived,” L’île is a work of exceptional beauty. In the last glimpse of the island, one senses not only the extreme poignancy of impending separation, but also that, slipping below the horizon, an entire way of life is about to disappear.
Alexander Gubarev, 2000