There are topics which aren’t actually a taboo in our society, but we still prefer to envelope them with silence because they are embarrassing, terrifying or painful. Sometimes they are all three and many of them are related to serious health problems. Also literature uses to deal with fatal illness only reluctantly and tends to insinuate it rather than call it by name. This was the case regarding tuberculosis and still is the literary approach to cancer and AIDS. For today’s review I picked The Church of Solitude by Grazia Deledda, the Nobel laureate in Literature of 1926, which shows the effects of breast cancer on the life of a young woman in Sardinia, Italy, during the 1930s. Silence and solitude play an essential role in the story.
Grazia Deledda was born in Nuoro, Sardinia, Italy, in September 1871. She was largely educated by private tutors and completed her literary studies as an autodidact. Already in 1888 she brought out her first novel Sangue sardo (Sardinian Blood). Over the following five decades the author produced an immense number of novels, short stories and essays along with poetry and plays, most memorable among them After the Divorce (Dopo il divorzio: 1902), Elias Portolu (1903), Ashes (Cenere: 1904), L'edera (1908; The Ivy), Reeds in the Wind (Canne al vento: 1913), and – rather untypical – The Mother (La madre: 1922). In 1926 Grazia Deledda was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature with only one vote ahead of the Spanish writer Concha Espina (»»» read my review of The Metal of the Dead). Her last novel published during her lifetime was The Church of Solitude (La Chiesa della solitudine: 1936). Having suffered from breast cancer for a while Grazia Deledda died in Rome, Italy, in August 1936. The (unfinished) autobiographical novella Cosima and a collection of novellas titled Il cedro del Libano (The Cedar from Lebanon) first appeared posthumously in 1936/37 and 1939 respectively.
The Church of Solitude is the story of twenty-eight-year-old Concezione who has just been discharged from hospital after a mastectomy, the removal of her cancerous left breast. She has resigned herself to living as a recluse and passing the rest of her days taking care of her mother. They live together (sharing even the bed) in a two-room house outside town which Concezione’s grandfather built at a fork in the road together with the adjoining small church consecrated to the Virgin Mary, Mary of Solitude. Her late father left house and church to her along with some money so she won’t need to work. However, Concezione takes pride in earning her own living sewing linens, above all men’s shirts. It was through her work that she got to know Aroldo, a blond blue-eyed foreigner who has been hired like many others to build a provincial road. Love was budding between them, but cancer changed everything. After her return home Concezione behaves reserved and cold to Aroldo.
“…; she seemed another person to him too. It was as if the hospital, instead of the operation the two women had described to him – that is, the simple extraction of a nasal polyp – had by witchcraft taken her blood, her flesh, her youth.”Aroldo asks her to marry him despite all. At the same time other suitors make an unexpected appearance. Old Giordano, a friend of her father, wants to convince her that she should marry one of his two grandsons. He tempts her with the prospect of reuniting land, woods, and livestock that her sick father sold to provide for her and her mother after his death. Her mother’s wealthy and childless friend Maria Giuseppa would like to see her married to her nephew, an illegitimate son of her late brother who is handsome and strong, but even in his aunt’s opinion an imbecile. She makes Concezione opulent gifts and paints the splendour of her house and all her stuff, which would one day belong to her, in the brightest colours to persuade her to take her nephew for a husband. For Concezione, however, getting married to any of them is out of the question. In the church she prays to Mary of Solitude to be spared the suffering which they all cause her with their constant pestering:
“‘Mary, Mother of God, make them leave me alone,’ Concezione prayed, kneeling at the foot of the altar. ‘… And if they knew that a terrible illness, the worst of all, was lurking like a poisonous snake in my poor breast, they would flee me like they flee lepers and the possessed. Most Holy Mary, make them leave me in peace, like an old woman who has nothing in the world but a meter of ground on which to die, and under which to be buried.’”Aroldo at last realises that his efforts are hopeless and takes to playing the guitar, drinking and running after women to hurt Concezione. The others too become less pressing although they continue the courting. Month after month slips by. All the while Concezione is trying to understand the reasons for her illness and fighting against the love for Aroldo that she has forbidden herself. It doesn’t help that one day in July Aroldo turns up dead drunk in the neighbourhood and then disappears without a trace. People gossip and the local sergeant of the Carabinieri (the police) starts an investigation about the young man’s fate.
Probably due to its serious topic The Church of Solitude is one of the most neglected works of Grazia Deledda. Like her other novels it is full of descriptions of the ways of life in Sardinia in the 1930s and of hints at the social changes that modern times were slowly bringing even to the remotest parts of the island at the time. The central focus of the author is, however, on Concezione’s inner world and on her reaction to what happened to her and to what she expects to be her fate. She’s a young woman with a great zest for life and at the same time she knows that she needs to be reasonable. So she hides, she renounces and she prays a lot, but she remains silent about the true nature of her illness because she’s too ashamed. Consequently the word cancer appears only once in the entire novel and not with regard to Concezione. Not knowing her secret, people – of course – treat her like any other woman of marriageable age with a tempting little fortune and don’t leave her alone as she wishes. Grazia Deledda displays her protagonist’s constant, though changing inner conflict in a powerful and very convincing way. Although Concezione herself never leaves the immediate environs of house and church, the plot is surprisingly varying and gripping. In addition, the author’s language is rich in strong images and often poetical which made it a pleasure to read despite the topic.
It goes without saying that I warmly recommend The Church of Solitude by Grazia Deledda for reading. Since the author died already in 1936, at least the original Italian version of this novel is in the public domain in Europe. La chiesa della solitudine can be downloaded for free from several Italian websites, but unfortunately it isn't available on Project Gutenberg or the sites of other big providers of free e-books as it seems.
* * * * *
This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.
For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!