Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone
Stanislao G. Pugliese
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One of the major figures of twentieth-century European literature, Ignazio Silone (1900-78) is the subject of this award-winning new biography by the noted Italian historian Stanislao G. Pugliese. A founding member of the Italian Communist Party, Silone took up writing only after being expelled from the PCI and garnered immediate success with his first book, Fontamara, the most influential and widely translated work of antifascism in the 1930s. In World War II, the U.S. Army printed unauthorized versions of it, along with Silone's Bread and Wine, and distributed them throughout Italy during the country's Nazi occupation. During the cold war, he was an outspoken opponent of Soviet oppression and was twice considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Twenty years after his death, Silone was the object of controversy when reports arose indicating that he had been an informant for the Fascist police. Pugliese's biography, the most comprehensive work on Silone by far and the first full-length biography to be published in English, evaluates all the evidence and paints a portrait of a complex figure whose life and work bear themes with contemporary relevance and resonance. Bitter Spring, the winner of the 2008 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, is a memorable biography of one of the twentieth century's greatest writers against totalitarianism in all its forms, set amid one of the most troubled moments in modern history.
Yet Silone’s life and experience are reflected in many of his characters, not just Pietro Spina/Paolo Spada. There is the peasant Berardo Viola in Fontamara, Thomas the Cynic in The School for Dictators, the disillusioned party intellectual Rocco De Donatis in A Handful of Blackberries, the doggedly persistent Andrea Cipriani in The Secret of Luca, the compassionate Daniele of The Fox and the Camelias, self-effacing Pope Celestine V in The Story of a Humble Christian. But there is always a clear, explicit, and sincere identification with the poor Christ, the suffering Christ, the peasant Christ who figures in the mythology of the rural poor.
And here, Silone wrote, was the “paradoxical and painful consequence” of the police operation: Both the accused and the accusers “clearly fight for the same ideal, the latter to defend democratic institutions in their own country, the former to introduce those very same institutions in their wretched country. ” This was one of the many “painful contradictions” of wartorn Europe. It was “a tragic, objective, real contradiction,” due to the unequal development of the various European countries. The Swiss had indeed been fortunate; they had a “miraculous” advantage over the Italians in that their confederation had been born 750 years ago, while true liberty and freedom had never taken root in Italy.
To a small number of people, toward whom, for diverse reasons, I feel tied by affection and gratitude, I intend to leave some tangible sign of memory, unfortunately measurably limited because of scarce resources. ” After his expulsion from the Communist Party, Silone was invited to join the Union Internationale des Écrivains Révolutionnaires and write for its review, La littérature de la Révolution Mondiale, but declined both invitations. (Publishing in French, English, German, and Russian, the union and its review were based in Moscow and Leningrad.
The Socialists continued their suicidal propensity, dividing once again. By now there were three major Socialist parties: the once-venerable PSI, the PSIUP, and the PSLI (Socialist Party of Italian Workers). Postwar Italian politics, in Silone’s eyes, was incapable of fostering the moral, ethical, and cultural regeneration necessary after the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. (Silone did not place these two on the same moral plane; he meant only that war generated moral catastrophes all around.
In the bittersweet moment, Silone is carried away and soon he is adding his contributions to those of the other—less destitute—patrons for the wandering musician. When it comes time to pay the bill, Silone is short sixty centesimi. The owner (surely in a foul mood, having to work Christmas Day) threatens to call the police. Silone humbly proposes a deal: his hat and cape in exchange for the sixty cents until the debt can be paid. Walking out into the cold streets with neither hat nor cape, Silone is desperate.