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The Many Lives of Ignazio Silone

Inspired by the hardships faced by peasants in his native Abruzzo, Ignazio Silone's Fontamara was one of the great anti-fascist novels of the twentieth century. But his own political journey was deeply conflicted, as he left behind his Bolshevik past to become a strident anti-communist.

Ignazio Silone (1900–1978).

At a three-thousand-strong conference in Livorno in January 1921, an assertive twenty-year-old named Secondino Tranquilli gave a provocative speech to fellow members of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI). Tranquilli recalled the recently murdered communists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg — and insisted that all reformists should be immediately ejected from the PSI. “He was confident, almost to the point of arrogance,” writes historian Stanislao G. Pugliese in his brilliant 2009 biography, Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone. (Tranquilli soon adopted the pseudonym “Silone.”)

But Tranquilli’s suggested purge of the reformists did not transpire — and on January 21, 1921, the left wing of the PSI itself withdrew, to create the Communist Party of Italy (PCI). By 1923, the erudite Antonio Gramsci had become its leading figure; when he was jailed by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government in 1926, the young lawyer Palmiro Togliatti instead took over the reins, leading the PCI through the tumultuous decades up till his own death. As for Silone, over the 1920s he became a member of the PCI inner circle, known for his intelligence and dogged work as an underground political operative and editor in several European cities, between repeated arrests and deportations.

Already after his emotional appearance in Livorno, Silone had suddenly collapsed, coughing up blood. This created a pattern of severe physical trauma and illness, resulting from the great transformations he lived through. His work for the PCI, lasting throughout the party’s first decade, would be all-consuming and dangerous, often shared by his colleague and lover Gabriella Seidenfeld, an intelligent and resourceful partner. “He was a solitary type,” wrote Seidenfeld, after working a few weeks with Silone for the PCI, “sickly, with sad eyes. Very intelligent.”

Yet despite the respect earned by peers in the PCI, Silone found himself increasingly put off by his encounters with top Soviet leaders who ruled over the party. He was annoyed by Vladimir Lenin’s cluelessness about Italian politics, often accompanied by formidable dogmatism. Silone “refused to be cowed by the prestige of the Russians. . . . What struck him most,” writes Pugliese, “’even in truly exceptional personalities like Lenin and Trotsky was an absolute incapacity to discuss with fairness any opinions contrary to their own.’ The dissident, by definition, was a traitor.” And by May 1927 — after Stalin took over the Soviet leadership — Silone refused to denounce Trotsky, as Moscow ordered.

While Togliatti soon rallied behind Stalin, Silone faced a rockier path. As his later friend, the influential literary critic, R. W. B. Lewis, put it, “He did not quite believe the news brought back from Moscow by a long-time PCI friend, Angelo Tasca, that Stalin was destroying the agricultural system begun by Lenin and was murdering or deporting to forced labor in Siberia some six or seven million peasants.” He would eventually mend his relationship with Tasca, purged in 1931, a fate which also befell Trotsky and Silone himself. Again seriously ill, Silone left the PCI and took up residence in Switzerland — making his name as an internationally acclaimed anti-fascist novelist.

Pescina and the “Cafoni

In his writing as in his politics, the independent-minded Silone was particularly molded by his home village of Pescina, in the southern region of Abruzzo. In 1915, a few months before he turned fifteen, Pescina had suffered a calamitous earthquake, killing 3,500 of its 5,000 population, mostly poverty-stricken peasants.

The biggest blow for Silone was the death of his beloved mother, Marianna Delli Quadri. The adolescent searched frantically through the rubble, later writing, “after five days I found my mother . . . stretched out near the fireplace, without any evident injuries.” Speaking to his journalist friend Iris Origo, he later described his mother and grandmother, both weavers — “two grave, remarkable women, serious and extraordinary” — as the dominant influences of his childhood.

“My memories of childhood and adolescence are almost all sad,” Silone later wrote. “After the earthquake of 1915 . . . I was an orphan and homeless . . . The events following led me to undergo three essential experiences: poverty, religion, and communism.” His future lover Seidenfeld spoke of how Silone had “told me of his life after the death of his mother in the earthquake, a mother whom he adored. He . . . wandered the streets of Rome, penniless, spending many a night at the Coliseum.”

Silone’s father, Paolo, and five of his six siblings, had already died earlier on. Paolo, a small landowner, had been a rebel of sorts, urging villagers to take advantage of a new law that made ballots secret. He sought to defeat absentee landlord Prince Torlonia, who ran to represent Pescina in parliament. Mysteriously, a kindly eye doctor who helped people free of charge won that election by a large margin — a short-term victory for the largely victimized peasants, derisively termed “cafoni.”  Since 1871, they had suffered severe economic hardship as a result of a 35,000-acre land gift to the Torlonia family by the monarchy, which left the cafoni powerless and perennially on the edge of destitution.

Pescina’s small size was such that Silone became known, early on, as an observant and particularly precocious child. Aged eight, he regularly wrote letters for an illiterate woman whose son, Francesco Zauri, had been unfairly convicted of murder. After forty years in prison, Zauri would search for and visit Silone in Rome, thanking him for his help so many years before; Silone then published a novel, The Secret of Luca, loosely based on his life.

The cathedral of Pescina in Abruzzo, Italy. (Wikimedia Commons)

But it was Fontamara, published by a small Swiss press in 1933, that captured the zeitgeist of the global Depression and became an international best seller. Silone’s first work after leaving the PCI, it portrayed the plight of his beloved cafoni. It was recognized globally for its universality, echoing the fate of millions suffering all over the world. Followed by Bread and Wine in 1936, and The Seed Beneath the Snow in 1940, it made up the first part of what became known as the “Abruzzo Trilogy.”

What was the Abruzzo of which Silone spoke? “Most of the peasants lived in a single room with their chickens, pigs, and donkeys, and the animals’ presence was generally welcome, an important source of heat during the winter,” writes critic and writer Alexander Stille. “All the world over,” Silone put it in Fontamara, “men such as these — fellahin, coolies, mujiks, peons, cafoni, ‘men who cause the earth to bear fruit and go hungry themselves’ — are alike. ‘They are a nation, a race, a church of their own.'”

Silone’s biographer, Maria Nicolai Paynter, wrote that Fontamara “in its essence, [was] . . . a process of gradual awakening of the conscience of a people to the rights and responsibilities inherent in their human condition.” As Pugliese points out, Silone told an inquiring student that “the entire action of Fontamara unfolds over the fundamental contrast between the still semi-feudal psychology of the ‘cafoni’ and the irruption of new elements of exploitation and oppression.” For Pugliese, “The contrast has tragic elements but comic and grotesque as well.”

Most importantly, these new characters were clearly fascists. Fontamara would, indeed, often be described as the most important anti-fascist novel of the 1930s, hailed by Edmund Wilson, William Faulkner, Alfred Kazin, Albert Camus, and others. George Orwell turned Fontamara into a BBC production.

R. W. B. Lewis was stationed in this region during World War II, serving in the US Army and working with British intelligence. He was amazed at the bravery of the peasants who helped POWs and partisans by hiding them in mountainous caves, even while German troops patrolled the area, threatening them with execution. Silone however also described pro-fascist leanings among local Catholic clerics. Already as a teenager, he had watched the parish priests drown out socialist speeches by the local Peasants’ League by ringing the cathedral bells.

Silone’s writing and politics remained closely connected to his formative experience: as a young man, he had led a peasants’ rebellion against the local police for unfairly arresting soldiers on leave from World War I. He later explained, “everything that I may have written up to now, and probably everything that I will write in the future, even though I have travelled and lived abroad for many years, refers only to that part of the country which can be seen from the house where I was born — no more than 20 or 30 miles in any direction.” And Edmund Wilson, underscoring Silone’s profound knowledge of his characters, compared the figures in Bread and Wine to classic personalities in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Silone’s Swiss Transformation

Exhausted from his undercover work and increasingly disgusted by Stalin’s excesses, Silone took his leave from the PCI in late 1929. He was ill again: some of his doctors thought he had tuberculosis and that he would not live very long. Ironically, just the opposite would happen. His Swiss exile became a turning point, and he proved what Gramsci had seen earlier than anyone else — namely, that Silone was, more than anything else, a writer.

Deborah Holmes took a close look at Silone’s remarkable network of friends in Zürich in her Ignazio Silone in Exile. Carl Jung and Thomas Mann were among his acquaintances, but he spent much of his time with Leonhard Ragaz, a Christian socialist; Aline Valangin, a Jungian psychoanalyst who helped pull together funding for Fontamara; Nettie Sutro, who translated this novel into German after it was retrieved from a pensione owner holding it as collateral for Silone’s unpaid bill; and Marcel Fleischmann, a grain merchant who often subsidized the arts, who offered Silone an entire wing of his mansion to live in and work for more than a decade.

Ignazio Silone in the 1920s. (Wikimedia Commons)

There were, in fact, many writers and intellectuals working in Zürich during the 1930s — most of them Protestant or Jewish. This afforded Silone an escape from the Catholic Church, at least until his return to Italy as the war came to a close in 1944. Still disputed today is whether Silone actually underwent psychoanalysis with Jung himself.

Author Elizabeth Leake makes a very convincing case that he did. In her 2003 work The Reinvention of Ignazio Silone, Leake asserts that Jung encouraged Silone to “narrativize his problematic political and personal choices by absorbing and reinterpreting aspects of Marxist theory, Christological theology, and his own childhood” (similar, in a sense, to Jung’s exploration of his own childhood). Alexander Stille, an astute critic of twentieth-century Italian literature, speaks of how “he began psychoanalysis at the Swiss clinic of Carl Jung”: “It was during this period, in the spring of 1930, that Silone found the way out of his crisis, by beginning the novel Fontamara.”

Part of his despair had to do with the imprisonment and eventual death of his only remaining sibling, Romolo, who had been wrongly charged with the attempted murder of the Italian monarch, Vittorio Emanuele III. Silone’s view, a valid one, was that Romolo was held (constantly beaten and tortured in several prisons) as punishment for Silone’s own political activities. He died on October 27, 1932.

As if this hideous development were not enough, Silone was also deeply involved in trying to extricate himself from a long-term letter-writing relationship that had been imposed on him as a young socialist by Guido Bellone, a police official assigned to monitor his activities in the 1920s. Bellone finally agreed to end the relationship — but that didn’t put an end to the matter.

Eighteen years after Silone’s death, in 1996 historian Dario Biocca produced archival documents implicating Silone as a fascist spy in the 1920s. Biocca was eventually joined in his research by fellow historian Mauro Canali. This complicated affair produced a media circus, attracting journalists the world over. In the end, there was no real evidence that the young Silone, working for the PCI, had ever handed over key party documents to Bellone. But he did maintain a decade-long letter-writing relationship with the police officer assigned to cover him early in his career.

Pugliese quotes historian Mimmo Franzinelli, an expert on the workings of the fascist-era secret police (OVRA), noting that Silone’s name was nowhere to be found in the files — an important omission, in his eyes. Indro Montanelli, a prominent conservative journalist, wrote that “even if Silone himself rose from the tomb and confessed, I would not believe that he was a fascist spy. The man who stood up to Stalin cannot be reduced to a confidant of a minor fascist functionary.” After many long years, “Silone had become, like Orwell, Malraux, and Camus, something of a secular saint, widely revered as a figure of rare intellectual and moral courage,” wrote Stille.

Return to Rome

It took a long time for Silone to be perceived that way in Rome. He had worked closely with Allen Dulles and the OSS against the Nazis during the early 1940s, and Dulles had even flown Silone and his soon-to-be bride, Darina, back to Italy. But Silone soon began to irritate the Americans, recognizing almost before anyone else that they meant to run the show in Italy after the war ended.  Silone repeatedly made clear to key American envoys that Italians needed to be “given legal responsibility to run their own country.” This did not happen.

Silone had returned to Rome as a powerful international figure. As Pugliese points out, “Both Socialists and Communists saw Silone as critical to their cause. … The official line went [that] … Silone was no longer a Marxist; he had degenerated into Christian spiritualism and mysticism but was to be respected as an elderly relative with dementia … at family gatherings.” In fact, he was only 45 at the time.

With the return to democracy, Silone was instrumental in the creation of another left-wing force, the Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity (PSIUP). He worked for several years as editor of its daily Avanti! But, instead of the rebirth of a new Socialist Party, the PSIUP was itself soon destroyed. As Pugliese writes, this party “was a chaotic amalgam, under the tutelage of the Communists … torn to pieces by the inevitable and disastrous schisms.”

Silone represented Abruzzo in the postwar Constituent Assembly, having been involved in the historic referendum on making Italy into a republic.  “But,” remarks Pugliese, “the pettiness, venality and corruption of the postwar period sent Silone into a serious despondency and he refused to stand for the April 18, 1948 election in which the CIA heavily intervened on the Christian Democrats’ behalf.”  ”You believe you go into politics to carry out some reform,” wrote Silone, “while at the ministry there are all these old Fascists who force you to do what you don’t want to do, so that, in the end, you are their prisoners.”

By 1956, Silone and his close friend Nicola Chiaromonte created Tempo Presente, a highly praised publication which they ran until 1968, and to which Silone was dedicated. But in 1967, information emerged that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which sponsored Tempo Presente, was itself funded by the CIA. As it was, the journal had always been short on funds, even with CCF money, and so Chiaromonte and Silone shut down the office. Silone would always remain bitter about the loss of this important publication. A “careful reading of the hundreds of documents now available,” explains Pugliese, “demonstrates quite clearly that he was no spy.”

Primitive Christianity

Silone was often referred to as “a troublesome intellectual” — and that, he certainly was. Lewis wrote in his Picaresque Saint that Bread and Wine and The Seed Beneath the Snow were “an effort by Silone” to chart a way out of modern-day nihilism.” He resembles, thought Lewis, “some member of the earliest Christian community.” Importantly, folktales told to him by his mother and grandmother embodied the powerful oral tradition of the Pescina region. “It was,” Silone wrote, “a real resource, a miraculous reserve. The politicians were ignorant of it, while the priests feared its power. Only the ‘saints and stonecutters’ knew it intimately … the mountains had fostered a tradition of resistance, but it was not at all a tradition of organized political revolt.”

Silone’s last completed play, published in 1968 — the mordantly humorous The Story of a Humble Christian — turns a tale of Catholic institutional scorn into a narrative about the corruption of the thirteenth-century Vatican. Chosen as interim pope in 1294, Celestine V, born in the Abruzzo, lasts only a few months. He scandalized the Vatican’s inner circle by sleeping on the floor; refusing to tax prostitutes to subsidize Vatican luxury; and for his pacifist rejection of blessing soldiers going off to war.  As Pugliese points out, “Silone confessed to “an irrational, almost magical certainty, that life is not absurd, that life signifies, must signify, something.”

“Silone’s books,” writes Stille, “are document one of the great epic battles of that century: the clash between communism and fascism. Silone was in a unique position to describe it, having lived intimately inside both worlds . . . this painfully lived personal experience breathes life into these novels and gives them a remarkable currency and freshness even as the politics of the twentieth-century acquire the patina of history.”