Italy’s only woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature (1926) was born in 1871 in the mountain town of Nuoro in Sardinia. It is at 2,000 feet (c. 550 meters) and in rugged country. At the time, if you wanted to go from Nuoro to Caglieri, the regional capital in the south, you went by horseback, and it was a three-day ride.* The entire island was a foreboding and distant place, even farther beyond the ken of the average continental Italian than Sicily, the great island to the south. It is fair to say that Grazia Deledda introduced Sardinia not only to the world but to the rest of Italy by transforming the island into “a land of myths and legends,” as she, herself, once said.
Deledda was born to write and, indeed, was somewhat of a child prodigy. She attended only elementary school (as was common in the education of most girls in rural Italy of the day); she spoke only her native Sardinian dialect of Italian, but took private lessons in standard Italian (and English and French). At the age of 15, she secretly submitted a short story called Sangue Sardo (Sardinian Blood) to a magazine in Rome. They published it, which fact shocked her traditional Sardinian family and community. The idea of a woman, much less a 15-year-old girl, writing stories for publication horrified them. She resisted all attempts to talk good sense into her about the role of women in society and kept writing. By the time she died at the age of 60 she had written 30 novels and numerous collections of short stories. She presented the inner lives of her characters and their secrets and repressed libidos against the backdrop of their rituals and customs in the wild nature of Sardinia. She succeeded in showing the emotional crises and drama of rural life, of peasants with the same problems of moral choice as anyone else. The Nobel committee had this to say in its award speech for the 1926 prize:
In Grazia Deledda's novels more than in most other novels, man and nature form a single unity. One might almost say that the men are plants which germinate in the Sardinian soil itself. The majority of them are simple peasants with primitive sensibilities and modes of thought, but with something in them of the grandeur of the Sardinian natural setting. Some of them almost attain the stature of the monumental figures of the Old Testament.Grazia Deledda married at the age of 24 and moved with her husband to Rome. There she kept up a steady, simple life, tending house in the mornings and writing in the evenings.
Most Italians I know, if they have read Deledda at all, know her 1913 novel Canne al Vento (Reeds in the Wind). Other works include Cenere (Ashes) (1904), La Fuga in Egitto (The Flight into Egypt) from 1925, and a posthumously published, autobiographical novel, Cosima, (1937).
*Nuoro. The population today is 36,000; one-hundred years ago, it was about 8,000. Even today, if you say you are going to Nuoro, people tell you to watch out for bandits, though I don't know the last time anyone saw a real live bandit there. Maybe. The town is now well-linked into a modern highway system, but if you speak to old-timers in the Italian national police force, the Carabinieri, they recall even older-timers who used to dread getting stationed to that part of Italy. Forget Fort Apache. They were so far out in the hinterland that even the bandits couldn't find them. Perhaps an advantage.)