The author of no fewer than 18 novels, Vasco Pratolini is regarded as one of Italy’s greatest 20th-century novelists. He was also a successful literary translator, journalist, and film screenwriter.
His first novel, Il tappeto verde (The Green Carpet), was published in 1941. In 1943 he joined the Resistance, an experience later immortalised in the novel Il mio cuore a Ponte Milvio (My Heart at Milvio Bridge, 1954). With the war over, in 1947 Pratolini produced his two best-known – and arguably most distinguished – works: Cronaca familiare (Family Chronicle) and Cronache di poveri amanti (Tales of Poor Lovers). The latter won Switzerland’s Libera Stampa (“Free Press”) prize the same year, while the former was made into a film by Valerio Zurlini.In 1955 Pratolini wrote another notable work, Metello (1955). He also worked as a film screenwriter for directors such as Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini.
Several of Pratolini’s books have been translated into a number of languages. And he himself translated Victor Hugo and Jules Supervielle, among others.
Pratolini’s works – many of which have a decidedly autobiographical character – are notable for their terse, spare prose, passionate concern with politics and society, and occasional flashes of luminous lyricism. He is principally interested in the lives of ordinary people, whom he presents in an unvarnished, entirely unsentimental way. He was very much a man of his time.
Featured Reading Group Title
Cronache di Poveri Amanti (Tales of Poor Lovers)
Italy in the mid-1920s. Via del Corno, a tiny working-class street in the old centre of Florence, is a teeming, self-contained world. Coal merchant, shoemaker, prostitute, barber, blacksmith, fascist thug, Resistance fighter – all live literally on top of each other in a huddle of tenements. Presiding over this microcosm is the enigmatic, bedridden Signora, a sort of female godfather who seems to know – and possibly control – everything.
The residents of Via del Corno (where Pratolini lived as a youth) work, fall in love, get drunk, get married, fight, and die. Their lives form a complex plot of many intertwining strands, giving the novel a somewhat epic breadth. But Pratolini does not invite the reader either to identify with or condemn any of this great cast of characters. Indeed, there is more than a hint of Brechtian epic – in the sense of dramatic detachment – in what some critics have referred to as a theatrical novel.
The little street is its stage. And ever present – both on- and offstage – is an Italy in ferment, with a tightening fascist dictatorship and a growing resistance movement. Fascists and anti-fascists are locked in a desperate struggle; violence is never far away, and poor people are its principal victims. No one is immune.
This is an autobiographical novel (the author himself appears in the final chapter, in the person of the youth Renzo), but Pratolini’s writing remains spare, almost detached, with occasional moments of tender lyricism, while drawing characters that are entirely convincing.
Cronache di poveri amanti powerfully conveys the brutality of fascism and the fragility of a society in turmoil, against the background of a crisis in the West. It is a novel which, with the rise of the far right across Europe, remains as relevant today as it was almost a century ago.
- Tales of Poor Lovers is featured in our Italian Reading Group Winter 2012-2013.