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In libreria

Irish Literature in Italy in the Era of the World Wars

by Antonio Bibbò

13 maggio 2022
Versione stampabile

This book addresses both the dissemination and increased understanding of the specificity of Irish literature in Italy during the first half of the twentieth century. This period was a crucial time of nation-building for both countries. Antonio Bibbò illustrates the various images of Ireland that circulated in Italy, focusing on political and cultural discourses and examines the laborious formation of an Irish literary canon in Italy. The center of this analysis relies on books and articles on Irish politics, culture, and literature produced in Italy, including pamplets, anthologies, literary histories, and propaganda; translations of texts by Irish writers; and archival material produced by writers, publishers, and cultural and political institutions. Bibbò argues that the construction of different and often conflicting ideas of Ireland in Italy as well as the wavering understanding of the distinctiveness of Irish culture, substantially affected the Italian responses to Irish writers and their presence within the Italian publishing field. This book contributes to the discussion on transnational aspects of canon formation, reception studies, and Italian cultural studies.

Antonio Bibbò is research fellow at Department of Humanities of the University of Trento

From Introduction: Imagining Ireland in Italy (pagg. 11-14)

The perception and reception of Irish literature in Italy provides an interesting case study of the dynamics between stability and variability of national stereotypes in and through translation. A relatively narrow and monolithic notion of Irishness in the 1910s was characterized by an image that primarily focused on a depiction of the Irish as melancholy and contemplative Celts, but was also ingrained in the traditional idea of Ireland as a fellow Catholic country. This resulted in a repertoire of Irish writing that privileged the dramatic production connected with the Abbey Theatre’s most lyrical, mystical, and least political works. Moreover, it emphasized some commonplace ideas about the Irish, including their religious allegiance, which resulted, as we will see, in a virtual erasure of the Protestant element and a tacit agreement that Irish writers were, in one way or another, Catholic. It is only around the 1920s that different images of Ireland and Irish literature began making inroads in Italy, first in the political discourse, influenced by the turmoil of the early 1920s, then in literary criticism. These new images rearticulated some of the elements that were already part of Matthew Arnold’s discourse, such as the rebelliousness of the Celts and their inconsistent behavior, to add more elements to the Italian hetero-image of the Irish: inconsistency and rebelliousness were instrumental, for different reasons that will be explored, to making room in the Italian repertoire of Irish writers for the likes of George Moore, James Stephens, and Liam O’Flaherty, around the year 1930. In those same years, this also brought about a decisive shift from the notion of Irishness as non-Englishness to a more bellicose anti-Englishness. While present from the beginning of the century, the latter notion was especially foregrounded by fascist propagandists focusing on denouncing English colonial atrocities and using Ireland as a pawn in their cultural diplomacy war, especially after the Ethiopian crisis of 1935. As is hopefully clear from these necessarily brief introductory remarks, the hetero-images of Ireland that were disseminated in Italy at the start of the century were closely dependent on the British-Irish dynamics that produced them in the first place. In the works of the cultural mediators here at play, the colonial discourse and the “reciprocity between colonizer and colonized” whereby “the colonized” is “the repressed and rejected other against which the colonizer defines an ordered self” (Cairns and Richards 1988: 8), is still at the foundation of the most common images of Ireland. These images tend to maintain their original function but are in most cases also redeployed within Italian political and cultural discourses imbued with new meanings. To give but one example, the notion of virile and fighting Gaels became more frequent in fascist discourses that framed Ireland as a thorn in Britain’s side and a possible fascist ally. This, in turn, brought about the rediscovery of Irish literature during the Second World War, and especially its politicization. By the time the war was being fought, the commonplace image of Ireland had decidedly shifted to anti-England, to the point that even writers, who until that moment had been perceived as uninterested in politics, such as James Joyce, were deemed anti-English. 

An analysis of texts, their contexts, and their intertextual relationships for the purposes of following “the textual dissemination history of a given trope or commonplace concerning a given nation’s ‘character’” (van Doorslaer et al. 2015: 3) is instrumental to an exploration of the variability and hybridization of national images, as they interact with each other and are continuously altered by their context of reception. It is for this reason, in particular, that this book devotes significant attention to the dissemination of journalistic, political, and diplomatic discourses about Ireland. It is outside of the purview of this work to discuss the story of Irish politics in Italy, or to provide a full survey of the intense debates on Irish politics that interested Italian-based mediators at various stages during the early decades of the century and that provided a reflection on the political turmoil in Ireland. Instead, the book will focus on some outstanding contributions and analyze them from the point of view of the stereotypes of Ireland that they conveyed. The principle of selection is that the texts analyzed here—that are not immediately concerned with literary matters— should address cultural issues and attempt to affect a wider debate on Irishness beyond the political commentary. The sections that are more concerned with political writings and issues, then, display a focus on intellectuals who also often disseminated information on Irish culture and whose views directly or indirectly influenced the status of Irish literature in Italy. These mediators are well represented by the rectors of the Irish College Michael O’Riordan and John Hagan, the historian Ernesto Buonaiuti, and the philosopher Mario Manlio Rossi, as well as by most of the fascist authors of propaganda texts (e.g. Nicola Pascazio, Luigi Villari, Pier Fausto Palumbo). As alluded to earlier, politics and literature were tightly bound together in Italian accounts of Irish affairs, to the point that a strong affiliation with Ireland and its politics was often a necessary element for a writer to be considered Irish. The main source of confusion was, to be sure, the language. English, North American, and Irish writers shared a language that, however different, could easily be perceived as one and the same by a foreign observer. Due to this confusion, Italian literati had two main ways of figuring out whether a writer was Irish or not: their biographical circumstances or their interest in, and work on, things Irish. Preference for one or the other criterion could vary from book to book, or even within the same book. A case in point is Mario Borsa’s biography of Roger Casement (1932), an extremely interesting text that served not only as an engaging narrative about the great martyr of the Easter Rising, but also as a well-documented history of Ireland’s struggle for independence and, in places, an idiosyncratic guide to contemporary Irish literature. Here Borsa, who had a profound knowledge of both Irish and English literatures and politics, tended to recognize as Irish those authors with an interest in Irish matters or in some ways linked to the Irish Revival. The two mentions made of Arthur Conan Doyle in the book on Casement confirm this attitude in quite striking, albeit puzzling, terms. The first time he mentions the creator of Sherlock Holmes, he compares his perspective that the end of the British Empire would be a catastrophe for Ireland with Casement’s opposing view. The second reference in the text to Conan Doyle concerns the petition he started to convince the king to have mercy on Casement. Only in the latter case is Conan Doyle, whose parents were indeed of Irish descent, presented as an Irish writer.

While the primary focus of the book is on the dissemination of literature, the analysis of other discourses was thus necessary for a more comprehensive understanding of the notions of Irishness in Italy. Since the reception of foreign literature is about the co-production of new meanings rather than the transferring of pre-packed meanings, the diverse and, at times, contradictory elements of which a culture consists are selected by mediators in order to present a necessarily limited version of that culture to domestic readers. […] It is for this reason that this book addresses the emergence and dissemination of stereotypes and images connected with the circulation of Irish literature in Italy. In order to do so, it does not limit itself to the narratives that gained more traction, but instead attempts to provide a survey of lesser-known mediators, the minority voices seeking to disseminate alternative ideas of Irishness that did not become common currency in the Italy of the time. In the reconstruction of motivations and aims of mediators, minor or otherwise, I attempt to ascertain the trajectories of certain ideas of Ireland and how they were intertwined with the reception of Irish literature. This book therefore comprises a survey of images of Irishness in Italy and a history of the reception and dissemination of Irish literature in the country.

Courtesy by Springer