There’s a delicious sleight of hand at the end of Giovanni Verga’s story, Springtime, (in translation, Penguin Classics, Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories ). That’s the point at which we arrive at the ‘now’ of the telling.
It’s a tightly focussed story in which only two characters appear, though a third is referred to, and only one character is actually named. That’s Paulo, an impoverished musician, and he falls in love with a girl introduced as the ‘Princess’, though she isn’t one. The third person is ‘The Other One’, who also loves the girl, and who in fact financially subsidises the developing relationship between her and Paulo.
This is a story of a doomed love because right from the outset there is a doubt that it will continue long term. The very existence of The Other One haunts the story, though it never seems to curtail the meetings between Paulo and the girl. It’s almost as if they themselves don’t quite believe in the continuation of their affair.
The turning point comes when Paulo finally begins to get paying work, and when he inherits ‘an enormous fortune’. This frees him, in effect, to move on, which he decides to do. The sleight of hand comes as ‘the Princess’ sits on a bench outside the railway station where he has just caught the train that will take him away forever. Verga has her speak aloud to him: ‘Farewell you, that are going now,….’
It is a subtle shift in what has been a standard third person narration, not a shift at all in the sense that one of Verga’s characters is addressing another who happens not to be present. Yet it nudges us towards a change that Verga will soon make. He qualifies her speech with the standard, third person tag: ‘The poor girl was almost demented.’ But when he begins the next paragraph, he too has adopted that second person voice.
‘And you, penniless great artist of the cafes…’
By slipping into this second person voice, Verga changes not only the relationship between his narrator and the characters, but also between the narrator and the reader, and by implication between the author and reader too. For ‘you’ addresses us as well as them.
In a half-page closing paragraph Verga now foretells the future life of not only the errant Paulo, but also, by implication, that of others who might think of themselves or be thought of as the ‘great artist of the cafes’, or the minor ones of anywhere. He prophesies a return and a meeting between the two when Paulo will be ‘no longer young, nor penniless, nor foolish’, and warns him not to reminisce with her of their past. This is because she too will have changed and ‘would no longer understand you.’
The bleak prediction though, is not the end of the story. Verga adds to it one more sentence, and that second person voice which he has introduced seems to address us even more directly: ‘And that, sometimes, can be the saddest thing.’ His conclusion is not only to the story, but is drawn from it, and for me at least it implies the sting of hard-won experience.
For those interested in how we talk and write about writing, there’s a codicil that can be added to this piece. Verga’s Springtime is said to be one of two stories from the mid 1870s that marked his move as a writer towards ‘verismo’, the Italian version of France’s ‘naturalism’, and is, in the references I’ve found, always referred to as a ‘novella’. Yet collections of Verga’s tales contain many of what are called ‘short stories’, or simply ‘stories’, yet which are as long and even much longer.
The term ‘novella’ is a difficult one to grasp, meaning different things at different times in different writing cultures. At present, in English speaking competitions it refers to something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, but the actual word counts quoted can vary enormously. It might be argued that the length of a story depends on the story, not on the form, and that long short stories (such as are some of D.H. Lawrence’s) might exceed the word count of short novels, seemingly leaving the novella high and dry!
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms has a definition, and a description that does not revolve around the number of words but which fixes the novella as having a ‘wendepunkt’, which it calls a ‘turning point.’ After this point, the story slides quickly into an unexpected, but inevitable conclusion, which, perhaps not surprisingly if it is a novella, is exactly what Verga’s tale Springtime might be said to do.
Mike Smith writes poetry, plays and essays – mostly on the short story form, in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com . He lives on the edge of England within sight of a sliver of Solway Firth.