«I used to dream of scraping together enough money to save the stocks of my unsold books from the fire. Then came the war and with it, instead of saving money, I was suddenly faced with the need to make some. I assure you and you must believe me that if I'd known how to work or been able to do so, if they'd been willing to employ me, I would have worked as an accountant, a warehouseman, a dockhand or a bootblack earning forty liras a day; but I was obliged, instead of having my unsold books burned, to agree to the reprinting of editions that had been out of stock for twenty or thirty years as well as to setting pen to paper once more. It's all I know how to do, the only way I can earn a little money.»
orn on 16 January 1861 in Naples to a Neapolitan father by the name of don Ferdinando, an officer on Francesco II's General Staff, and to a mother from Catania, a donna Marianna degli Asmundo, who was from a family of the petty nobility, though of ancient lineage, Federico De Roberto grew up profoundly influenced by the hardships of life in post-Reunification Sicily; for friends and teachers he had Verga and Capuana.
He studied at the Technical Institute of Catania, obtaining a diploma in accountancy, but early on his attention turned to the study of Latin and the classics. He went to Florence and Milan where he worked as a literary critic for the «Corriere della Sera»; here he came into contact with the Scapigliatura movement without, however, himself becoming a Bohemian. On the other hand, he was to write a monograph about Catania in 1907, and it was here he met Paul Bourget; it was the decisive background for his development and the themes he both sought and found there.
A distinct inclination to criticism led him early on to write essays on naturalist and realist literature, particularly on Zola, Flaubert, Capuana and Matilde Serao; these essays have since been collected in Arabeschi (Arabesques) appearing in 1883. At the same time he devoted himself to writing short stories which retain the imprint of his lessons from Verga, though he then turned to more disturbing, subtler lines of enquiry. Evidence of this may be seen in collections such as La sorte (Fate) in 1887, Documenti umani (Human Documents) in 1888, and both Processi verbali (The Minutes) and L'albero della scienza (The Tree of Science) in the year 1890.
Notwithstanding a strong antipathy on the part of critics to his work, De Roberto continued writing and publishing prolifically. His sentimental and erotic themes, his own inclinations and autobiographical probings along with his taste for psychological analysis of character in the realm of politics and the aristocracy all contribute to making a special place for this author within the wider context of realist literature.
In Ermanno Reali (1889), a wide-sweeping novel full of autobiographical details, as in Spasimo (Agony), another work of a similar cast published in 1897, the protagonists exhibit an angst and a pessimism which relate them to the characters Corrado Silla and Daniele Cortis in Fogazzaro's writings or even to DAnnunzio's Andrea Speralli. The positivistic, not to say Zolaesque, primacy of history as evidenced by the existential relationships of a family inheriting wealth and passing it on is at the source of the choice of his most successful themes as well as of his most famous work' I viceré (The Viceroys) published in 1894.
The saga of the Uzeda family, that great Catanian dynasty, descendants of Spanish viceroys, whose activities fill the pages of I viceré, had already been prefigured in L'illusione (The Illusion) published in 1891 in his very special portrayal of a tormented female character, Teresa Uzeda Duffredi di Casaura; then in L'imperio (Dominion), which appeared posthumously in 1929, the political career of Consalvo Uzeda, a familiar character from I viceré, was to be traced.
In the light of a certain affinity with regard to historical background, personified here by the failure of the Italian Reunification, Il Gattopardo redirected the public's attention to De Roberto's I viceré. Pirandello and Capuana, later followed by Brancati, liked the novel (though Croce tore it pitilessly to pieces in two short pages of one of the issues of «Critica» in 1939 and also in «La letteratura della nuova Italia» (Literature in the new Italy); but after writing it De Roberto was unable to continue developing these hitherto successful themes. He turned instead to a certain interest of his in the psychology of love and indulged himself in involved theoretical discourses that did not come off at all. This can be seen especially in L'amore, fisiologia, psicologia morale (Love, Physiology and Moral Psychology) which came out in 1895, Gli amori (Loves) in 1898 and finally in Come si ama (How People Love) in 1900.
Moreover, motivated by his antifeminism, he told the story of George Sand's amorous adventures in Una pagina della storia dell'amore (A Page from the History of Love) in 1898.
Once more in his critic's hat, in 1898 he wrote a positive study of Leopardi as well as a series of essays, among which were Colore del tempo (The Colour of Time) in 1900, and L'arte (Art) in 1901. His posthumous studies of Verga under the title Casa Verga e altri saggi verghiani (The House of Verga and Other Vergaesque Essays) published in 1964 are an important contribution. He also commented on the events of the First World War in Al rombo del cannone (Roar of the Cannon), which appeared in 1919 and was followed in 1920 by All'ombra dell'ulivo (In the Shade of the Olive Tree). Furthermore, in 1911 he had published a collection of novellas called La messa di nozze (The Wedding Mass) and in 1920 brought out another entitled La cocotte (The Loose Woman). He also tried his hand writing for the theatre, producing both Il rosario (The Rosary) and Il cane della favola (The Dog in the Fable) followed by Tutta la realtà (The Whole of Reality) in 1921.
Federico De Roberto was cut down by flebitis at his front door in Catania on 26 July 1927 a few days after his seventy-sixth birthday. His death, however, - like his life, it may be passed by almost unobserved in the nation's cultural milieu in view of the fact that scarcely a day later, on 27 July, Matilde Serao died in Naples, having been more popular than him and therefore more widely known.
A cura della Redazione Virtuale. Traduzione di Nicholas J. Hancock
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