Matilde Serao's Il Paese Di Cuccagna

AMONG recent Italian novels, Matilde Serao’s II Paese di Cuccagna1 seems to us worthy of notice less for excellence in workmanship than for the theme itself, — the Neapolitan lottery, — and the evident knowledge with which it is treated.

Signora Matilde Serao may be briefly described, to those who do not know her work, as an Italian follower of M. Zola. Like most neat and handy definitions of the kind, this one errs on the side of incompleteness. Matilde Serao’s talent is eminently Neapolitan, and has far too rank and luxuriant a growth to allow her to bend it into any given form, even if she chose. Still, some of her most ambitious efforts have been modeled on the programme of M. Zola. Thus, she has analyzed and apostrophized journalism in Riccardo Joanna, parliamentary life in La Conquista di Roma, the life of Neapolitan girls in Il Romanzo della Fancuilla, and now, in this her latest book, the important part that the state lottery plays in the life of the people of Naples.

Realism and analysis have had their day, it is now rather the fashion to say ; all that was said for them as the typical and noble form of artistic expression of a democratic and humanitarian age was mere exaggeration of the moment; our twofold longing for move mystery, more simple, direct, light-hearted story-telling, is not the natural swing - back of the pendulum, but the reaction of our better selves. MM. Zola, Bourget, Maupassant, and other exponents of the principle have, unfortunately for them, lived and flourished at a time when their talents were unavoidably diverted into profitless back-waters.

The representative works of the men in the first rank may be trusted to take care of themselves. As for the others, it seems hard to believe that the demand for them, born of the widened sympathies and sociological interest of the age, should be as short-lived as the demand for romances of the Rhine or for the articles known as dress-improvers. Yet there is no knowing; each age feels and decrees its own standpoint to be the only true centre of gravity.

One thing is pretty certain, however: if the analytical novel or picture of life is destined to live, its votaries must learn the art of condensation. We may have a good healthy general curiosity as to the inner life of alien races and all sorts and conditions of men ; we do not care, unless we are specialists, to give too much of our time to gratifying it. And specialists in psychology are least likely to put up with all the vices and inconsistencies of the realistic school : the word - painting, protracted far beyond the possibility of producing one impression or calling up a picture, which ought to be its aim ; the falsifying of evidence ; the straining of points and creation of situations to suit the programme; the long descriptions of frames of mind, which somehow do not emit the spark of psychological insight.

I suppose we must have schools of fiction as well as masterpieces, but then let them be schools, keep in touch with the times, and apply the study of psychology to the presentment of their subject and the æsthetic capabilities of the reader as well as to the analysis of frames of mind and forms of society. Æsthetics as a science is more and more tending that way in Germany itself, but the modern school of fiction, that professes to deal with nothing but realities, still very often fails to see that the surest way to reach its goal is to study the art of making its realities seem real.

These reflections have been irresistibly suggested by the reading of Signora Matilde Scran’s Il Paese di Cuccagna. It seems sad to think that so much loving observation should count for nothing in the long run ; that this picture of the inner workings of a complex and curious form of society should have no more lasting worth than the fanciful products of the romantic school. Yet such is probably its destiny, just because the contributions of permanent value are imbedded in the vices and mannerisms of the school, in this case accentuated rather than smoothed over by the peculiar temperament and style of the writer. Matilde Serao is nothing if not Neapolitan ; Neapolitan in activity and fertility of imagination, in vivacity of story-telling power, and in quickness and warmth of sympathy, but Neapolitan also in carelessness of construction and lack of stylistic sense. She has practiced the technique of her craft after the fashion of the realists, but the very discipline she has chosen to undergo has been full of pitfalls for her; her style abounds in mannerisms, and her wordpainting, often admirable, is only too often of what may be termed the “ readymade ” type.

Yet, in spite of all these faults, the book is a deeply interesting one. On the whole, no book has been written lately that so helps foreigners to realize what the lottery really means to the people of Naples ; how inextricably it is confused with their superstitions and passions and prejudices ; how it pervades all classes of society, and vitiates the whole mass with its own inherent poison and the parasite evils that spring up round it. The state of things Il Paese di Cuccagna depicts seems as hopeless as it is sad, and it would be well if this book might be more generally read, and give foreigners some notion both of the reality underlying all these picturesque superstitions and this animated local color, and of the difficulties that the much-abused Italian government has to deal with.

Il Paese di Cuccagna is, as may be imagined, less a story than a kind of shifting panorama of Neapolitan figures and scenes. The author has made the adventures of her personages a pretense for describing Naples, the sights and scenes of Naples, at all possible times and seasons. Some of these descriptions are wearisome to excess, but read the description of the festival of San Gennaro, — of the procession through the streets, and the growing excitement of the crowd in the church as credo after credo is repeated in vain, the miracle still hangs fire, and the precious blood remains congealed in the vessel ; and I think you will agree with me that no mere outsider could so show us the curious intertwining of real fervor with gross superstition in the imaginative Neapolitan mind.

Superstition is indeed the dark shadow that lurks in every corner of the picture. All gamblers are superstitious, and Neapolitan gamblers doubly and trebly so; and we are shown how every form of superstition, absurd, religious, or cabalistic, gathers round the lottery. A good deal of the interest in the book turns on curious or tragic instances of the belief that certain persons, either in virtue of devout and immaculate lives, or through the agency of some mysterious power, or for some unexplained reason, are assistiti; that is, gifted with the power of “seeing” the “good" numbers. The tragedy of the book, told with real pathos, turns on the sad fate of Donna Bianca Maria, the last of the Cavalcanti, the martyr to the insane passion of her father, the old Marchese. Not content with pawning or selling everything in the house, he becomes possessed by the idea that his pale, patient, devout daughter is an assistita, and could, if she chose, retrieve the fortunes of the house of Cavalcanti. He refuses her hand in marriage to the man whom she loves, and who loves her and would save her ; he persecutes her with exhortations, till she becomes a prey to hallucinations which are but fuel to the flame of his madness, until finally she is attacked by brain fever and dies.

The professional assistiti do not, of course, give the numbers they dream in so many words, but in oracular utterances, such as, “ The camellias will soon be in bloom on the mountain by the seashore,” or “ It rains, but the sun will appear at midnight.” There is a special “ key of dreams,” but the true meaning of the inspired utterances of those who are verily assistiti is recondite, and revealed only to the eye of faith. Even ordinary mortals can, under special conditions, dream numbers. If these numbers are not drawn, it is a sign either that something is wanting in the conjuncture of circumstances, or that evil spirits have drawn a film before the eyes of the dreamers. Spirits, good and evil, are firmly believed in; the assistiti are so called because they are assisted by a special attendant spirit, whose behests must be implicitly obeyed if he is to remain favorable.

The web of imposture thus cleverly spun breaks sometimes, however, as in the case of Don Pasqualino Feo, one of the central figures of the book, who is at last imprisoned, starved, and ill treated by his exasperated followers, bent on extorting the right numbers by foul means, as the fair ones have been found to be of no avail. Among the persecutors are men of the world and of the learned professions.

Next in importance to the assistiti are the whole tribe of bloodsuckers, great and small, pawnbrokers, and keepers of the giuoco piccolo, or illicit lottery. There is no reason to believe that all these figures are not drawn from life, and as necessary factors in the life of Naples as the author represents them to be. They are necessary; people must know where to go, when Friday comes round, to find money for gambling. And gamble they must, all these people who have but once been lured on by a vision of the land of Cockaigne. They have all their fortunes to make or to retrieve, sinking ships to save, ugly scores to pay off ; and there is no method so speedy, and if you but have patience, so sure, as the lottery. And so they go on, until moral and financial bankruptcy overtakes them all, while the land of Cockaigne is still as distant as ever.

  1. Il Paese di Cuccagna. Di MATILDE SERAO. Milano: Treves. 1891.