Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The New International, April 1936


Lionel Abel

Silone the Modern

From New International, Vol. 3 No. 2, April 1936, pp. 62–63.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Writers who have come to take a revolutionary political position pose again and again the problem of relating their non-political insights to their new revolutionary standpoint. There was the famous quarrel about propaganda and its bearing on literature, a quarrel which propagated endless discussions on several continents. How much of a break with the past of literature must a revolutionary writer make? was the fundamental question. Such a question it goes without saying cannot be solved by discussions, but only by a creative act. Ignazio Silone is one of the few revolutionary writers who have made a creative act. In the two books of Silone published to date, Fontamara and Mr. Aristotle, the necessities of literary vision and the necessity of a propagandist attack on the bourgeoisie, which most writers felt as contradictory, appear as one necessity, as one movement of thought, as one direction. One is tempted to describe Silone’s solution in too simple terms, to say: his hatred of Fascism makes him a great story-teller.

But how much of a break with the past of literature has Silone made?

Now the great moments of bourgeois literature are dominated by the notion that an individual can achieve freedom within the framework of capitalist society if endowed with a sufficient amount of genius. One of the many corollaries of this point of view is that only men of genius deserve to be free. There have been many variants on the specific type of genius the individual was asked to develop in order to liberate himself. In a sense every great literary work of the past thirty years was an experiment in yet another type of genius. If an individual were only brutal enough, Christian enough, rational enough, individual enough, sexual enough (this, the value hymned by D.H. Lawrence, finally involved the negation of the Individual in the Couple), mystical enough, he could be free. These varying programs for the salvation of the individual are in one respect the same program, since all are agreed that without genius freedom is impossible, – genius in sex or genius in reasonableness, but in any case, genius. No great bourgeois writer of the twentieth century has differed on this point, nobody lied and held, out hope to mediocrity, though the genius-program was sometimes stated in an equivocal form. Thomas Mann, for instance, seems to hold that mediocrity is a necessary element in the synthesis of a, free man with his society. Actually Mann is interested in the challenge of mediocrity to genius, in mediocrity as a sort of moral mask which genius finds it necessary to wear at times, in order to live in harmony with the generalized mediocrity of social relations, and again, in mediocrity as the temptation of genius, which genius deliberately undergoes only to become more profound and genius-like than ever. The problem is still the same: the freedom of the individual. And the methodology of liberation: genius.

The point of view I have described has gone through many mutations. Its contemporary adherents are of much lower stature than the adherents of its past. No new types of genius are being proposed as solutions. The old types are simply defended by commentators. The view has lost its old capacity to instigate, to experiment, but nevertheless continues to. influence non-revolutionary writers, and lives, too, a kind of subterranean, half-conscious life in the works of many writers who have gone over to the revolution.

Ignazio Silone has made a complete break with this point of view. The ideas that organize the events in Fontamara and Mr. Aristotle are the concepts of revolutionary Marxism. Freedom is for Silone the problem of the group, and it is to be attained by concerted action, and by the proper revolutionary tactic which in turn evolves from the experience of the group. A group of anti-Fascists in Silone’s story The Trap, is destroyed because one of them, for considerations of personal honor, spares the life of a Fascist spy who has fallen into his hands. The substitution of the group for the individual as the center of the problem and of tactic for genius as the means of solution separate Silone from the bourgeois past of literature. And what differentiates him from other revolutionary writers is the absoluteness with which this judgment organizes his experience. While Malraux hesitates between Nietzsche and Lenin and records his hesitations in a trembling prose, Silone, certain of his judgments, orders his insights, polishes his style, and produces a new, objective art.

To be modern in art often means to contradict the styles of the immediate past with the style of an earlier past. Silone is outside naturalism and symbolism, the two dominant tendencies of bourgeois literature. His method of narration is closer to the methods of dramatic poetry and the popular fable than to the methods of the bourgeois novel. Of the ponderous paraphernalia of naturalism, the realistic landscape, colloquial modes of speech recorded for their own sake, detailed biographies of the characters from birth until their entrance into action, psychological minutiae – of all the endless stock in trade of meaningless verisimilitude there is as little in Silone as there is of the old genius-ideology. The characters of Fontamara are located and defined by the type of torment which afflicts them. This torment is engineered by the historical process. Their problems are the problems of the Italian peasant under Fascism. Fontamara itself is not an actual place but a poetical place like Hell, segmented off into different zones of pain. There is nothing picturesque, unique about its landscape, – it has no local color. Geography, as in the oldest tradition of poetry, is here a function of meaning. We know almost nothing about the characters but the laws of their response to the action of the Fascist gangs against them. Most of the Fontamarans do not know what is to be done and their pathos is adjusted to their ignorance. Berado, who learns what must be done, cannot any more than they escape destruction; bringing pain and death upon himself with full deliberation, he enters into a sort of higher circle of Hell bounded by the ignorance and helplessness of his comrades. A Trip to Paris in Mr. Aristotle is the story of a dream, the dream of a young Fontamaran who attempts to escape the common fate of a Fontamaran farmer which he identifies with “corn-meal mush”. This dream suggests the methods of the superrealists: a series of monstrous images and complicated and absurd events torment the half-starved, half-asleep Benjamin as he lies in the baggage car of the Rome-Paris express. But the mad images in Benjamin’s dream are more like the images in the famous dream of Jacob than like those of the superrealists. The images in Benjamin’s dream are monstrous, but it is monstrous to live in a world of “corn-meal mush”; through the dream of one individual we get an exact picture of the desires of the Fontamaran youth. Exaggeration is in the service of the exact.

As Silone’s art weaves together the older methods of imaginative simplification with the most modern interpretation of social processes, so it represents also a weaving of the values of naive and sophisticated art. It is naive art in that almost all of the characters are naive. But it is a sophisticated art in that the problems of the characters are problems of tactics. What they need is knowledge. Their drama is a drama of knowledge and their ignorance is a historical fate. They try to learn, try to find out what they must do and the development of their understanding is a succession of blows on the mouth. Perhaps it is because Silone conceives the problems of these ignorant peasants as indivisible from the problems of intellectuals, organizers and theoreticians of freedom that he is able to achieve so complete an identification with them. His characters, unlike the primitive types of such modern novelists as Lawrence, Anderson and Hemingway are not suffering or exultant landscapes outside the processes of rational thought. As the revolutionary relates himself to the masses through intellectual clarification of their problems, so the ruses of Silone’s peasants, ineffectual efforts in the proper direction, relate them to the ruses of the working class formulated in Marxian theory and to all the intellectual artifices of humanity.

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 8.12.2013