In Search of the Italian Language:
Integrated Italian


by Carmen Covito (A reprint from World Literature Today, A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma, Spring 1997)


In Italy there has been a revolution of historical significance which should have an obvious and immediate consequence on literature. Today, finally, the national language is not what it has been in the past. For centuries the national language has been a utopia of lettered men who always felt like arguing on the values and failings of the vernacular Tuscan tongue, or else liked to display their own preferences regarding blends of dialect. Standard Italian is today a reality.

As a matter of fact, a recent Doxa (1) survey confirms the existence of a standard Italian, revealing that 86 Italians out of 100 speak it, that among those 86 speakers 24 speak only standard Italian and use no dialect at all, and that the other 62 speakers are bilingual, capable of alternating standard Italian with dialect depending on the context and on the circumstances. Out of those 100 people there are a mere 14 individuals who are able to speak nothing but their dialect. So I ask myself: who are they? where do they live? How can they manage without being able to speak the national language? Probably they are the last mountaineers left who are still living in the most inaccessible Alpine or Apennine peaks, cut off from the circuit of tourism, secluded in their Alpine huts without electricity and, of course, with no access to the Internet. Poor, dear, old, pure dialectophones. I presume they are all on in years and consequently on their way to extinction. They deserve to have a suitable park reserved for them in order to preserve them as long as possible, because soon even the Alpine chamois and the Marsica (2) bear will begin to mumble some Italian words, but they won't. They persist in being the last illiterates of spoken language. One would have to presume that they are so conservative or so broke that they do not even own a small transistor radio, or maybe they have one they never listen to because... well, because with old age they have become deaf, either slightly or completely. I could not explain otherwise how in the world they manage without speaking even a bit of standard Italian, especially today, now that telecommunication pervades the entire country and the rest of Europe as well.   As a matter of fact, standard Italian established itself by means of the mass media, independently of the will of linguists.

To be precise, radio began the process of "sowing" standard Italian, and later, with exponentially increasing speed and force, television took over in the early 1950s, evolving rapidly and spreading widely into every part of the country and into every social class. In less than fifty years television has solved the multipartite "language question", leaving us with a new set of problems. But it is not up to me to decide whether the goddess TV has been good or bad at teaching standard Italian to the Italians. I would rather leave it up to grammarians and theorists of language to make that determination. Some of them are already codifying linguistic deviances and variants imposed on traditional rules by modern usage. Other grammarians and theorists, however, are already pulling their hair out and complaining a great deal about the impoverishment of vocabulary and the fact that the subjunctive is falling into disuse. I am not a scholar. I write novels. I believe that my task, ethically and esthetically speaking, is not to accept or reject ex cathedra the new usages of language; on the contrary, my work consists in capturing and recording standard spoken Italian with the shifty purpose of integrating it into my literary writing.   Am I merely discovering hot water here?(3) Foreign readers would be right to think so, especially if they come from countries like England, France, or Spain, where a similar discovery was made at the same time that their representative states were constituted several centuries ago. Since then, the literatures of those countries have been happily paddling in that discovery, their readers and writers worrying only about stylistic issues inherent to its language. For instance: "If this time my rubber duck is the color of the slang of metropolitan slums (or the patois of Maghreb immigrants, or Buenos Aires lunfardo, etcetera), would it be better to immerse it in a homogeneous linguistic flow (for instance, shocking-pink bath salts) or to make it float on a medium-tone discourse (like delicate lavender soap) that by contrast would enhance its aggressive coloring?" These are interesting questions. However, a great many Italian writers have not been in the position to ask themselves such questions, because in Italy either we still have faithful servants who carry buckets of hot water, as in Don Alessandro Manzoni's times, or at the other extreme we dump cold water on people. In just a moment, I will get out of my metaphor, dry myself off, and explain.

When confronted with spoken Italian as a standard national language, in theory writers should have reacted as one would when having a vision of the Madonna. They should have been either perfectly satisfied to see an article of faith finally become reality, or it would have been right for them to be skeptical and eager to debunk the miracle in order to find out what the trick was, if there was one. Instead, if I examine the landscape of contemporary Italian literature, I see two types of writers, different both from each other and from those mentioned above. On the one hand there are the lettered writers who have not yet realized that spoken Italian has indeed become the standard national language. They do not see, they do not hear, they know nothing about spoken Italian as a standard national language. They would ask: what is it? dare not interfere! do not bother us! let us work! As a matter of fact, essi (or "they": today only a lettered writer would use egli, ella, and essi [he, she, they] with no intent of irony; all other writers would instead use the oblique pronouns lui, lei and loro [him, her, them] in place of their corresponding subject pronouns) - essi, therefore, continue to write in a canonically accepted literary language, at times even courtly, and possibly vague, because from the Petrarchists on down "vague" equals "refined". And if it is not possible to be vague, then at least the language can be neutral, smoothed out, depiliated and deodorized, deprived of any sign and smell of life. Extremists in this group of writers make themselves authentic virtuosos of variatio on Nothing. They are epigones of Manganelli and admirers of Citati. They are lovers of the most deleterious divinity ever created by the genius of Italic inconsistency: the "beautifully written page".

At the very opposite end from this group, but in the same field, we find several novelists who are not particularly virtuosic but who are nevertheless praised by academic literary critics, who, like them, still don't have a clue. (Wake them up, for God's sake! I wish someone once and for all would rouse those corpses that cannot bring themselves to die, or at least bury them together with their bloodless favorites! Oops... I've just caused a lot of reviews about my new book to be left unwritten...) In addition to them, almost all the writers who write for mass consumption belong to the same group. Both types of writers seem to be convinced that in order to "do" literature, it is enough to write well; by "well" they mean writing following a specific word order - that is, subject, verb, object, and now and then slipping in, simply for a "thrilling" effect, nothing less than a subordinate clause. What about the lexicon? That needs to be neat and compliant with the rules of good conduct currently practiced in society and in high schools that emphasize classical studies.   I will not mention names. I will only say that in order to belong to this group of old bookstore weeds, one need not be old. As a matter of fact, in this group there are young lettered writers blossoming who are very well educated, like Baricco or Capriolo, yet are also popular, sometimes very popular with the reading public, like Tamaro, not to mention Tabucchi and . . . No, as I already said, I'd rather not mention names. There would be too many.

I will give instead a small, useful key - to my mind infallible - in order to identify at a glance whether an Italian writer belongs to the abovementioned group of lettered writers. The key is in the dialogues. When, in reading the dialogues contained in a novel, you cannot tell one character from another because they all speak in the same manner, namely like the narrator, well, then, you can be certain that you have in front of you a lettered writer who has not yet realized anything about spoken Italian.   In fact, the dialogues - and by dialogues I mean direct and indirect speech - are the privileged place in narrative where we can put on the page the copiousness of language, including dialectisms, grammatical mistakes, the jargon of different professions and generations, linguistic status symbols, tics and psychological and sociocultural slips of the tongue. All these aspects of language help create a character and unmask that character to the reader. This might seem obvious, but actually it is not so obvious in Italian literature. Among the authors I have read, I believe only Aldo Busi to be capable of creating around each of his characters a linguistic aura that portrays that character's background, personality, personal history, intentions, and, eventually, self-betrayal. But if forced to follow this path, I would end up having to define the parameters of the literary genre we call "the novel" and the current state of its practice in Italy, something altogether too ambitious on my part and which at any rate would require too much space here. I would like merely to open a brief parenthesis to say that in order to define the Italian novel, one must use as a point of reference the tradition of the novel in some foreign literature - English, French, Russian, German, whatever. In other words, in Italy the novel as a literary genre, far from being dead or growing old, is still in its infancy. The Italian novel has not yet expressed all its potential. Close parenthesis.  We can find an obvious symptom of the vitality of the Italian novel among those writers nowadays identified as "young novelists" or "new authors" of the 1990s. (Maybe we should fish out the old definition of the Group '63 and call them "novissimi". This is because for some decades new waves of "young" or "new" writers have been following one another, overlapping and creating such confusion as to make of me, for instance, who made my debut at the age of forty-four, a now forty-eight-year-old "young writer.") Unlike lettered writers, these "novissimi-novi" are making their own discovery of the aforesaid "hot water" and its different stages of canalization and temperature.

On a structural level we are finally realizing that the "beautifully written page" is not enough to make a novel. The enthusiasm for this realization has been such that in many cases the interest (the most sacred interest) in the plot has prevailed (even too much) over any other consideration. A pleasant consequence of this strong interest in plot is the emergence today, for the first time in Italy, of a tradition of "genre" literature. Genres such as science fiction, the thriller, the roman noir, the horror novel, and "splatter" fiction have become feasible choices for several "novissimi-novi", who do not, as a consequence of their choices, feel guilty or in any way inferior to novel writers who do not fall neatly into any specific category. That in itself would be a useful tendency, because no matter how we consider genre literature, it is a fact that this type of fiction must necessarily focus not only on the plot but also on the making of the text. Consequently, there will be more and more writers perfectly aware of the quantity of work, regardless of quality, required to produce a text. If we were to begin to consider literature as craftsmanship, it would do Italian literature good, deteriorated as it is by an idealism not yet entirely over, and, suffering as it does from numerous childhood memories, preliminary landscape descriptions, poetic memoirs, sketches, and diaries. (So much so that I ask myself why no one has ever written "A Sadistic History of the Twentieth-Century Italian Novel" subtitled "The Absent Structure". It might turn out to be fun.)  

On a linguistic level, lettered writers are poles apart from the new novelists and the novissimi-novi, who instead, unlike the lettered writers, have not only seen the Madonna of the standard national language but are intimate with her and live happily with her. Many of the new novelists and novissimi-novi write as they speak. Some of them could not write any other way. Most of them know how to write "well", but they could not care less or, to use a more consonant expression, "don't give a damn." The thirty-year-old Rossana Campo, Silvia Ballestra and Tiziano Scarpa, for example, belong to this group of new novelists; they have already produced, and are continuing to produce, very interesting works. There are also some younger writers like Nove, Ammaniti, and Brizzi, whose stylistic use of the spoken language is a conscious choice coherent with their themes, almost always based on juvenile motifs and written with the structural rhythms often associated with rock music or TV channel surfing. From my point of view, the problem is that the particular choices of some of these writers may be so exclusive as to become exclusionary.

If we used always and only standard spoken Italian, we would end up making of it a new standard literary norm. By doing so we would also lose all the layers of history stored up through the centuries in literary Italian, which, however contrived and artificial it may be, is still a language with a history and therefore a reality. A country and, above all, a writer cannot afford such a waste. And the most annoying thing would be to prove to many of the lettered writers that they are right. They are right to fear that the language will become plasticized, flattened, and reduced to a precooked confection in a supermarket culture with more and more vacuum-packed supplies inside an ever greater vacuum of culture.   Now, what would the quintessential Italian citizen, the butt of national jokes, do when asked to make a choice at a two-way junction? He would have no doubts: he would go for the third. And so would I. As an Italian writer, aspiring in my own small way to become a classic, I would make the same choice.

I believe that a third path situated halfway between deaf-and-dumb literariness and the indiscriminate predominance of the standard spoken language is feasible. I believe this, but not quia absurdum. At least one of the Italian writers of the generation before mine has brilliantly followed that path, though with the unique catch of often having been too brilliant. Of course I am referring to Alberto Arbasino, whom a group of post-postmodern cynics like Campo, Ballestra, and myself have idolized as if he were a stylistic icon, a bit démodé but not to be disregarded. Even Busi, great vehement iconoclast that he is, does not completely reject Arbasino.   Busi himself, on the other hand, shows in his works that it is possible on both a lexical and a syntactic level to weave the form of the spoken language inextricably into the literary web. Recently Busi has successfully applied the same textual strategy to the issue of translation.

Often works from other literatures turn out flat in their Italian versions. The dullness of those translations is due not to the excessive use of colloquialism but, on the contrary, to the excessive use of literariness that translators employ. This is even more true with the classics. Either out of timidity, or for the sake of peace and quiet, or because of a baseless scruples about having to emphasize a temporal distance from the text, or simply out of habit, the average translator betrays the original text by making the mistake of unnecessarily raising its language to a stately literary niveau, even when the language of the original text is colloquial. Busi established the criteria of translation for the Frassinelli publishing house's series "I Classici Classici". He required that translators not level the original language of the text but instead translate into Italian the several different register of the source language, resorting when and where necessary to all the forms, even the most colloquial ones, of standard Italian that are actually in use today. The results have already been surprising due to the original purity that has been returned to the style of several works often obscured by previous translators.   Therefore the objective is to take possession of all the Italian language in one's own writing, distributing the complexity of the language according to the various registers of which a narrative text consists or theoretically should consist. This objective will create a language that is more alive, supple, smooth, and clear. It will give us a language that is not purged of jargon, dialectisms, neologisms, foreign words, anacoluthons, and distortions of the spoken language, a language that is not deprived even of the educated words and the most elaborate syntax.

Everything depends on attributing the right language to the right speaker at the right moment, which is the most banal and elementary task for a writer when dealing with the choice of a point of view.   Surely if the writer has it in mind to write a contemporary novel (one not meant to be historical or antiquarian or commercial), that writer must portray different sociocultural environments, characters of different provenance, personality, and linguistic competence, high, middle, middle-low, and low usage of language, and maybe even more than one narrating voice. Such a writer will be in the ideal situation to display all the richness of this Italian language, which adds the actual use of the spoken language to the uses of literariness. I propose to call this combination "integrated Italian", a term I borrow from the computer lexicon. In practice, I think the use of integrated Italian is a possible and desirable way to write short stories, too, or novels based on a simple structure, or even novels with only a few characters, clean "romanzi da camera" that at least will not be musty or artificial.

(Translated by Francesca Novello, revised by the author)
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(1)Doxa is an Italian statistical-research organization.
(2) Marsica is an area in the Abruzzo region in central Italy.
(3) "Fare la scoperta dell'acqua calda" (to discover hot water) is an Italian idiom meaning "to do or say something obvious."
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Carmen Covito (b. 1948 near Naples) lives and works in Milan. She is a writer and translator, has been a theater and literary critic, has written comic screenplays and has worked as a free-lance journalist and editor. She is the author of the prizewinning novels La bruttina stagionata (Plain and of a Certain Age, 1992), Del perché i porcospini attraversano la strada (Why do Hedgehogs Cross the Road?, 1995) and Benvenuti in questo ambiente (Welcome to this Environment, 1997).

Short-stories by Carmen Covito translated in English: Tales from the Web (e-book, 2001, translated by Ercole Guidi), "The man who was there" (in Nimrod International Journal vol 45, number 2, spring/summer 2002, translated by Natalie Danford).