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Elio Vittorini: Il garofano rosso (The Red Carnation)

This was Vittorini’s first novel, in the sense that it was the first he wrote but, because of Fascist censorship, it was not the first of his novels to be published. Indeed, it was only published in book form after the war, fifteen years after he had written it. Though a relatively straightforward Bildungsroman, it is now recognised as an Italian classic, not least because of Vittorini’s skill in making it something more. Firstly, there is the link between sexual and political awareness, which is fairly explicit in this novel. Secondly, the external environment is very important which Vittorini definitely stresses. Finally, this is, of course, a novel for a generation, namely that generation that grew up in the 1920s and therefore grew up with Fascism, whatever side they finally chose.

The main character is Alessio Mainardi. At the start of the novel he is sixteen, going on seventeen. He is, by his own admission, at that difficult age where he wants to be an adult but still feels, to a certain degree, that he is a child. His adulthood comes when he falls in love with Giovanna, who is somewhat older than him. When they kiss for the first (and last) time, she gives him a red carnation, a symbol of his initiation into manhood. He and his friends even form a Red Carnation Sect. Meanwhile, Alessio’s best friend, Tarquinio, has apparently had a relationship with Giovanna, while Alessio is drawn to Tarquinio’s friend, Zobeida, who may or may not be a prostitute. Alessio and Tarquinio are also becoming politically aware and, while nominally supporting Fascism, this is more a gesture of revolt than a commitment to the ideals of Fascism. But at the end of the book, torn between the ideal of Giovanna and the more earthy Zobeida, moving away from his parents and more politically aware, Alessio has become, if not fully an adult, at least well on the way to becoming one.

Vittorini was going through his own struggles while writing this book and it is doubtless these that helped him put so much into the story of Alessio. It could have been trite and, in fact, occasionally verges on the trite, but ultimately it does work, becoming the novel for a generation.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Mondadori
First published in English in 1952 by New Directions
Translated by Anthony Bower