Grazia Deledda wrote every day, even after she was married and had children. She lived in Rome in the 1920s, so it was rare for a woman to give priority to her own work but she had a commitment to herself to write every day and she stuck to it. Her schedule was like this: breakfast, reading time, lunch, nap, afternoon for writing.
Almost every article I read about her for this post noted that she even held to that schedule on the day she found out she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, and how she also had a pet crow, named Checcha, who was not pleased with all the visitors the announcement of the prize brought to her home.
I had never heard of her. I ordered 4 of her novels and found myself transported to a time and world I could barely relate to. The books are like fables or mythological tales about humans living within a worldview foreign and strange. The worldview of a punishing God with a strict moral and ethical code the humans are trying to live by. The protagonists in these stories experience temptation and succumb to it. They repent, and find deliverance through death or extreme sacrifice. They are noble souls trying to live good lives. Their lives are small, isolated to the small island of Sardinia, often to one or two villages. They have very few choices and options in life and very few decisions to make except to follow the honorable code or not.
They are both pagan and Catholic. The priests hold power but not absolute power. It’s more like a responsibility, a Civic position to aid and assist these villagers in their daily lives and struggles. The priests too are normal humans, with foibles and questions. The priesthood is viewed as an occupation, an option for poor men to move themselves up in the economic world or men who have sinned through which to redeem themselves and be given a second chance.
In the world of Grazia Deledda’s Sardinia, if you are a man and not born a landowner, your choices are very few: teacher, shepherd or priest. If you are born a woman the options are even fewer. The women’s lives are completely determined by their biology (having sex, consensual or non—more often non— getting pregnant, being a mother or not), their “marriageability” and the kindness or wickedness of the men in their lives. Deledda illustrates this in painfully harrowing detail yet with no commentary. She just lays it bare on the page. These books are like stepping into this world and being shown the “way it is,” or was.
It’s a hard life full of work, death and tragedy. Everything is destiny. She isn’t showing the lives of the elite, or the wealthy or even what we call the middle class but people of the land, and not a wealthy land— an isolated land on an island with, at that time, very little to offer—the life of uneducated peasants who have enough religious exposure to try in their way to be what they believe to be good.
And yet she lets nobility shine. The main characters become philosophers in their own right.
As “the teacher,” the main character in The Flight into Egypt (1926), muses:
“Oh sea . . . I feel like you’re truly earth’s soul and that you’re there to teach us the nature of our own souls. The earth renews slowly with its seasons, like our bodies but you renew every single moment in your bottomless abysses with the monsters and divine wonders of your infinite depths, like our souls.”
And it felt like he’d finally found a true friend, a counterpart, one he could confide in better than any human being because they truly understood each other”(FE 88).
In Deledda’s novels the characters are trying to be good but they are challenged and the story is about them trying to self-correct within the bounds of their beliefs. And they fail, a lot. They struggle. And they suffer. They whole-heartedly believe this is what life is about.
I can compare her novels to those of Herman Hesse which are often about humans attempting to be good in a sea of temptation and finding redemption within a religious belief system, or Paulo Cohelo, who writes fable type stories which are infused with moral philosophy and striving and struggle as the human condition.
In Deledda’s books, it is a Catholicism layered over a loosely concealed paganism which has turned into mostly superstition.
What Grazia Deledda has left us is a snapshot of the time and place. It’s amazing. Deledda is narrator and witness to it. The books also shed a harsh light on the patriarchy and all the pain it causes to both women and men.
In Elias Portolu (1903), the sweet main character Elias is extremely sensitive and emotional. Deledda shows how this is frowned upon in this culture and how he suffers from it. It’s a subtle but important theme of this book: how the patriarchy hurts men.
“During those first few days spent in the sheepfold, he would frequently even avoid the company of his family when his work allowed. He would wander all over, seeking out places that reminded him of his childhood, often becoming emotional. He was easily moved by every little thing, but after his initial, impulsive burst of emotion, he considered that reaction an irritating weakness, all the more irritating when his brother—or worse, Uncle Portolu—would notice and mock him about it.
‘Hey, hey, what are you?’ Uncle Portolu would ask him. ‘A soft, fresh-cheese man, that’s what you’ve become, Elias my son. There he is, turning white like a weak little woman over every little thing. Men need to be men—lions!—and not get emotional, not make faces, not cry. What is a man who cries? Not a damned thing”(EP 107).
Elias falls head over heels in love with his brother’s betrothed. The feelings are mutual and he struggles and agonizes about what to do. He does not want to hurt his brother and yet, what about his love for this woman? The pain endures over years, even long after his brother marries her. Elias resists and resists but then when he sees that his brother is abusing his wife, he feels compelled to give into his temptation and so they do and it continues. They have a child together and then the brother dies but by then Elias is already trying to expiate his sins by becoming a priest and the suffering and agony continue.
Elias deals with doubt, wants to do the right thing, questions his own motivations and is tortured by not wanting to hurt others but his options are so very limited and the people he has to talk to so unhelpful that he is truly alone in his quest.
In the novel Reeds in the Wind (1913), we are immersed into the psyche of Efix, a servant to a family of wealthy landowners who have lost their riches and status due to tragedy and scandal. Efix remains committed to the sisters that remain, growing food for them on a small parcel of their remaining land and bringing it to their large dilapidated villa in the town. And yet Efix’ loyalty is about something more. There is a crime he has committed that he is repenting for in continuing to care for these women.
The novel is layered with the pagan beliefs that are as much a part of this island as the rocks and the trees:
“It was the elf that caused the branches and rocks to glitter under the moon. And along with the evil spirits were spirits of unbaptized babies—white spirits that flew through the air changing themselves into little silvery clouds behind the moon. And dwarfs and janas—the little fairies who stay in their small rock houses during the day weaving gold cloth on their golden looms—were dancing in the large phillyrea bushes, while giants looked out from the rocks on the moon-struck mountains, holding the bridles of enormous horses that only they can mount, squinting to see if down there within the expanse of evil euphorbia a dragon was lurking. Or if the legendary cananèa, living from the time of Christ, was slithering around on the sandy marshland.
During moonlit nights especially this entire mysterious population animates the hills and valleys. Man has no right to disturb it with his presence, just as the spirits have respected him during the sun’s course; therefore it’s time to retire and close one’s eyes under the protection of guardian angels”(RIW 1).
Deledda was born the 4th of seven children in the village of Nuoro on the island of Sardinia to bourgeois parents in 1871 just one year after Italy’s final unification. Her mother tongue was Logudorese Sardo, a dialect of Sardinian. Her father had a large library and though formal education for girls was not long lasting on the island at the time, she was able to acquire tutors to continue once hers ended.
When she began to write, the people of her village were angry with her for telling their stories and exposing their lives. But she didn’t stop. She continued writing over 40 novels as well other books.
“The rigid, patriarchal society simply didn’t approve of her work, and Deledda was initially infamous on her native island and endured harsh criticism for daring to so boldly depict some of Sardinia’s pagan customs and beliefs”(Intro to EP 10).
She eventually married and moved to Rome where she lived for the rest of her life. She was very well known in her time. In 1926 when she was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature, she was recognized “for her idealistically inspired writings, which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general”(Intro to EP 9).
She died of breast cancer in 1936 in Rome.
Now there is a church built in her honor in Nuoro and her childhood home is a museum. Museo Deleddiano di Nuoro. In 1985 a crater on the planet Venus was named after her.
She said of herself:
“I’m very small, you know, I’m short even compared to Sardinian women who are very small, but I’m bold and brave like a giant and I’m not afraid of intellectual battles”(Intro to EP 13).
Grazia Deledda is a #NastyWomanWriter
©Theresa C. Dintino 2021
Deledda, Grazia. Trans, Kevan Houser. Elias Portolu. ISBN Services, 2020.
___________. Trans. Kevan Houser. The Flight into Egypt. ISBN Services, 2020.
___________. Trans. Martha King. Reeds in the Wind. Italica Press, 2008.