The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri (ed) - review by Robert S C Gordon

Robert S C Gordon

Heirs of Boccaccio

The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories


Penguin 528pp £25 order from our bookshop

In 1928, Laura Riding and Robert Graves published their excoriating polemic A Pamphlet Against Anthologies, which tore strips off modern publishers for their venal offerings of smorgasbord anthologies for easy consumption by the reading masses. These grubby volumes, they sneered, turned high art into ‘a commodity destined for instructional, narcotic, patriotic, religious, humorous and other household uses’. They were the ‘second-hand clothes shop of poetry’. The heart can indeed sink at the prospect of the latest survey anthology of a niche field, such as the Italian short story, part primer, part worthy nod to a neglected corner of the global literary field. But against all odds, Jhumpa Lahiri has pulled off something quite striking here: a literary anthology that sparkles with invention and variety, makes a remarkably convincing case for the vitality of the modern Italian short story and also beguiles, thanks to her sharp-eyed work as editor, compiler and part-translator.

The collection consists of forty stories by forty authors, the number fixed as an exercise in editorial discipline, as Lahiri explains in her lucid introduction. The period covered is broadly the 20th century, with one early outlier from 1880 by the Sicilian naturalist Giovanni Verga and a couple from the 2000s (by Antonio Tabucchi and Fabrizia Ramondino). Many of the stories were written in the middle decades of the 20th century, amid the convulsive modernisations of Fascism and then postwar democracy, and the destabilising shifts in attitudes and mores that accompanied them. These, together with a vibrant publishing industry, helped give rise to a collective epiphany of the possibilities of narrative form. The Second World War, as Lahiri notes, is a hidden, only half acknowledged subtext of many of the stories (one explicit exception is Alba de Céspedes’s acid ‘Invitation to Dinner’, published in 1945 and set just after Rome’s liberation), casting its shadow over not only the tales but also the lives of the authors who penned them. 

The focus on the mid-20th century is to a degree a result of Lahiri’s decision to exclude the living. This is ostensibly an odd choice, perhaps giving too much credit to the Grim Reaper as coeditor. But it somehow pays off, not least by solving what we might call the

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