"Under the star of the nouvelle"

A review of Moscardino by Enrico Pea, translated by Ezra Pound

"It was under the star of the nouvelle, that, in other languages, a hundred interesting and charming results [were achieved]. For myself, I delighted in the shapely nouvelle," wrote Henry James about the novella, and his qualifications certainly apply to Enrico Pea's Moscardino. In its most recent incarnation with Archipelago (2005), the book is certainly shapely, illustrated with a stunning portrait by Modigliani and printed on vellum paper with hand-sewn signatures and a moss-green jacket cover. The force of this slim volume is twofold: the novella form serves as an excellent vessel for Ezra Pound's translation, with its impressionistic, surprising seasonal descriptions, as well as for Pea's sharp, sensitive depiction of characters and their hierarchic social classes—and by extension, Pound's interest in class and character.

*

"The Signora Pellegrina went into mourning at once, she put on black silk, put a black hem on her nightgowns, lowered the blinds, and lit a lamp on the wide linen-cupboard," begins this first novella in Pea's tetralogy, Il romanzo di Moscardino, published in 1922. Though it starts with the death of Doctor Pellegrina, a landowner who left his house to his three grown sons (the youngest being Moscardino), the story closely follows the servant girl Cleofe and how she lives—and at times survives—amidst the advances of abbé Don Lorenzo, the jealousy of Moscardino, and his brothers' reactions towards her. The story is told by Moscardino's grandson, Buck. Cleofe is beautiful and quiet—the only one in the story to possess these qualities.

Cleofe came from the hills by Terrinca, a place known for beautiful women. They are lean, with rather long faces, that seem perhaps a bit longer because they part their hair in the middle and coil it in two braids over their ears. They have very white skin, perhaps from the milk and flour diet . . . Their lips [are] full like those of young children, and their eyes are dark as the chestnut rind.
From the first few pages, we learn that servants do not stay long because the household and its inhabitants are so demanding and at times, lunatic. Cleofe is different, though, as the grandfather "listened for the tap of her heels, it seemed like a leit-motif, life in that house's monotony: click, tac!" Cleofe's presence serves to ground the story when at times it threatens to digress. She is the bloom of the house and all of its men are in various stages of love or lust with her, but none so much as Moscardino, who goes into a blind rage if he thinks that the abbé, who walks around "all day long with his hands in the folds of his soutane," has looked at her.

Often in literature, the servant plays the role of comic relief or is the only character with common sense, or both. Although Cleofe's character is not comical, she is sane and reasonable—unlike the others. She provides a constant in an otherwise unstable, volatile and mad household and the other characters look to her for this stability. She attempts to keep the family together, and her outsider position as a domestic (even after the birth of her child by Moscardino) allows enough distance for her to do this. Ultimately, though, Cleofe fulfills her nineteenth-century feminine literary role: she dies of consumption on the novella's closing pages.

The word 'novella' in Italian originally meant a piece of news that could be recounted many times over for enjoyment or edification—in some ways, gossip. And although not directly addressed, gossip is inherent to Moscardino's story, especially in the intrigues between servant and master and the ruses of the clergy. Both the characters of Cleofe and Don Lorenzo, the most fully formed in the novella, can be seen as critiques of social order—or disorder—and class in 1850s Italy, not long before the Italian Unification of 1861.

"The abbé perambulated up and down in the corridor. Stopped at Cleofe's door, stayed fixed like a shadow with his hands in his pockets, with his head between the door and the door-frame." This is what the abbé does both literally and figuratively throughout Moscardino: pacing the halls, watching Cleofe and the family drama voyeuristically without any direct involvement, snickering. His constant scrutiny adds great tension to the story, and Pea's depiction of the clergy reveals the deep distrust on the part of both author and translator. Don Lorenzo embodies the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church while Cleofe exemplifies the vulnerable yet crucial role of servants in a society of fading and failing landowners.

*

To sustain the story's lyricism, Pea and Pound make the language itself—the rich, dense prose—propel the story forward:

A September already cold, though fanned with scirocco, a few reddish clouds, rain's sheeplets feeding in grassless meadow. Heaven calm, but unlit, a grey dampness pervading the house and a will to let the eyes close. [Cleofe] gazed at the light gallop of far clouds going mountainward. The square orange flowers that had given fragrance in springtime were now dark balls in the lighter leaves.
Here the mid-19th century farm and country estate in Lunigiana, Tuscany, really comes to life. Using organic, unexpected phrases and words ("sheeplets"), Pound's translation is both lyrical and lush. His lyrical, distinct language, and use of assonance and consonance make for a condensed concentration that further elucidates Pea's resonant landscapes.

Pound's daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, writes in her foreword, "I think it's fair to say that [my father] preferred novelists who at heart were poets," and he certainly found a similar spirit in Pea. In one of his radio speeches from 1941, the same year he translated Moscardino, Pound proclaimed: "This is just announcin' that Italy has a writer, and it is some time since I told anybody that ANY country on earth had a writer." Much has been written about Pound's notorious behavior during the Second World War—namely his support of Mussolini and Hitler. The radio speeches were a polemic platform for him to discuss a rather wild variety of subjects, including his support of Fascism and his severe criticism against the United States, more specifically against Roosevelt and Jewish people. He was indicted on treason charges in 1943, and at the end of the war arrested and turned over to American forces.

Despite this troubled life story, Pound was a prolific writer; as was Pea, who published over fifteen novels, three poetry collections and four plays in his lifetime, with his last book appearing two years before his death in 1958. Having been so enthused by Moscardino, Pound was eager to meet the author in person and travelled to Pea's home in Viareggio to discuss the Versilia dialect that appears throughout the novella. In his preface, Pea explains that when they met in 1941,

War was already raging.In a short and unexpected letter Pound had informed me of his proposal to translate Moscardino. It was typical of his dynamic personality that the next thing [that happened] was the sight of him in person, jumping down from a cab, at the entrance to the café . . . where I used to work.
They immediately became friends. Fourteen years after the translation had been completed, in 1955, New Directions published Moscardino, with Archipelago Books re-releasing the novella in 2005. This new edition honors the harmonic bond between the novella's form and story as well as Pound's apt translation.

For all the household's (and the country's) instability and flux, Pea and Pound found a perfect and perfectly compact vehicle, the "beautiful . . . charming . . . [and] shapely" novella. "A single candle is not much to light a whole room," explains Moscardino's grandson Buck, but like this novella, with Pea's rich imagery and Pound's lyrical translation, it illuminates a space in which you can read comfortably and intimately, if only for an evening.



Heather Hartley is author of Knock Knock (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2010) and Paris Editor for Tin House. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, The Rumpus, and other venues and anthologies including Food and Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. She has curated Shakespeare & Company Bookshop's reading series, and has taught creative writing at the American University of Paris. Her monthly Aperitif on the Tin House website is about literary Paris.