Sound familiar? It might have been written last week about a writer who died last year. Rather, the words are the novelist Shirley Hazzard’s, and her subject is Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), in her introduction to the reissue of Iris Origo’s Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (1st ed., 1953; Books & Co./Helen Marx Books, 1999). Origo is a fortunate writer. Her first edition came with an introduction by George Santayana, who contributes a miniature essay, a meditation on the great Italian poet: “The world is always classical, the truth of human destiny is always clear, if only immersion in our animal cares does not prevent up from seeing it.” Irigo herself writes in her introduction:
“`Almost all writers of real feeling,’ he wrote, `in describing their despair and their total disenchantment, have drawn the colours from their own heart.’ Tedium and disillusion, love unfulfilled and dreams unsatisfied, nostalgia, loneliness and grief—these are the colours of his palette. With them he painted—in his poems, in his notes about his childhood and youth, in his letters, and in the four thousand pages of his encyclopedic day-book, the Zibaldone—a merciless and tragic self-portrait.”
I’m late coming to Leopardi. Italian literature for me meant Dante until, more than forty years ago, I came across a reference to him in Beckett’s Proust (1931). The Irishman refers to his “wisdom that consists not in the satisfaction but in the ablation of desire.” Beckett then quotes two lines from “A se stesso” (“To himself”): “In noi di cari inganni, / Non che la speme, il desiderio e` spento.” (“Not only our hope / but our desire for dear illusions is gone.” Trans. Jonathan Galassi, Canti, 2010). Only ten years ago or so did I follow up on Beckett’s suggestion. Now, along with Galassi’s Canti, we have one of the great gifts of recent years to English-language readers: Zibaldone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Hazzard writes of her own discovery of Leopardi:
“My own connection with him was formed when I was seventeen: standing in a bookshop ten thousand miles from Recanati [the poet’s birthplace, in the Marche region of Italy], I opened a blue volume of new translations by John Heath-Stubbs. A little later, the revelation of Leopardi’s life was supplied by the present work: Iris Origo’s admirable and deeply felt biography.”
Do seek out a copy of Leopardi: A Study in Solitude, one of the essential biographies.