Writing in her diary in Paris in 11 . 5 . 47, while she was working for E.C.I.T.O., my mother concluded her entry on Bread and Wine with these reflections.
‘His return to religion stripped of its furs & furbelows seems to indicate that he is becoming a Liberal — the poor unfortunate who wants to introduce a new way of living & not a new way of organising life.
Perhaps it is right that the only possible way to evolve a happy social system is the ‘happiness by product’ one again. Live honestly so that it helps others to do likewise & sooner or later the perfect democracy will spring from this good soil without plan or forethought but merely because it can’t help himself. — After all that is Ghandi’s power over India — the strength & altruism of his own personal life.’
My mother would have read the original unrevised version of the novel, first published in 1936 in a German language edition in Switzerland as Brot und Wein, and in an English translation in London later the same year, which the author himself critiqued and thoroughly revised later. This revised version can plausibly be described as a modern classic, despite its political even ‘agit-prop’ characteristics. It contains many of the qualities of classical tragedy, focussing on the interiority of a main protagonist and representative hero, striving to reconcile two aspects of his character: secular, revolutionary fervour and a spiritual/existential quest for significance and justice. Other main characters include Don Benedetto, the protagonist’s teacher and mentor, and the two women who reflect the two aspects of Don Paolo/Pietro Spina’s personality: Cristina and Bianchina. It is worth remarking that all these names have symbolic significance: the protagonist is both a St Paul and a Peter figure, Cristina portrays a Christ-like type who would prefer to renounce the world, and Bianchina is the more worldly character, who despite her demonstrable sexuality and sensuality chooses to leave personal gratification behind and work for the cause. Secondary characters include revolutionary comrades of Pietro and vignette sketches of other women and Italian peasants. So we are presented with something close to main actors and a chorus of characters, and yet each member of the ‘chorus’ is a detailed, differentiated vignette, depicting the variety of human figures in this political-realist drama. One could also say that the action is divided into five parts, according to the classical tragedy model: 1, Pietro’s initial covert return from exile to his birthplace, 2, his donning a priestly disguise and move into a safer hiding place up in the Abruzzi mountain village, 3, a brief interlude in Rome when he meets up with comrades, challenges the pressure to conform to Soviet dictat and encounters disaffected former party members, 4, his return to the mountain village, and the final denouement, when he flees further into the mountains to escape arrest. Through these five ‘acts,’ the argument of the novel centres on his own character development and struggles, but these only make complete sense because of the scenarios, debates and actions that take place around him. Like the author, the protagonist is full of revolutionary fervour but cannot vow obedience to a revolutionary international communist party that he perceives as transforming into a totalitarian state and transnational regime. Nor can he remain quiet confronted by the totalitarian nature of the Fascist government. No more can he espouse the Catholicism of his upbringing. Yet, his ‘spiritual’ journey towards reconciliation of opposites and his realisation that the individual man must continue to work out an existential ethics that serves common humanity rather than any institution, is comprised of the best of the two traditions he is unable to pay lip-service to: Marxism and Christianity. At times bleak, the novel is not without moments of redemption. The ‘saintly’ Cristina dies a martyr’s death in the final scene of the novel; this comments on the difficulties women faced in 1930s Italy, constrained by traditional family values and a Catholic church that has lost touch with the spirit of radical Christianity. In a comic interlude, the three daughters of the ex-socialist lawyer all give themselves sexually to the first three enlisted soldiers they can find, but other young female characters overcome both Church and family pressures and the temptation to selfish gratification to work in the cause of humanity whatever way they can. (The older women peasants are depicted as part of the problem of peasant ignorance, superstition and resignation.) The older male peasants depict various responses to their situation and lack of hope, from despair, drunkenness and violence, through to sly, undermining of authority. The younger male characters also represent a whole series of different responses to the socio-economic and political status quo, ranging from reckless egotism, pragmatic obedience to the totalitarian regime, undisciplined revolutionary fervour, naïve idealism, total despair. One issue that the novel highlights is that of a student party member acting as ‘double agent,’ becoming a police informer as a result of intense police pressure and extreme poverty. After Silone’s death it emerged that he had been a police informer, although many contemporaries refused to believe the verity of this report. While the novel can be accused of not fully developing all the characters, as my mother rather harshly did, my considered opinion is that in a relatively short novel, Silone implies a large canvas, as if the breadth of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky has been married to the symbolic intensity of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Despite the unresolved questions that now hang over the author, one can still accept the novel’s premise that ‘He is saved who overcomes his individual, family, class selfishness and frees himself of the idea of resignation to the existing evil.’ (257). this sentiment is expressed both through ‘showing’ in plot and action, and through ‘telling’ in the conversations that constitute an important part of the novel’s discourse. For example, having carefully written revolutionary graffiti all around the mountain village on the same day as the war in Abyssinia is declared, Don Paolo/Pietro Spina states: ‘The dictatorship is based on unanimity […] It’s sufficient for one person to say no and the spell is broken.’ (207).
My mother, trained in Modern History rather than English Literary Criticism, reads the novel more literally than I do. In particular, she focusses on the lack of positive outcomes for the young female characters. In doing this, she pinpoints a highly significant issue for herself and for her generation of young women, anxiously wondering what (if any) fulfilling and significant roles will be available for them post war. Her other main act of interpretation tells us much about her own political beliefs, already firmly embedded: rather than read Don Paolo /Pietro Spino as a representative modern, existential hero, she concludes that the novel’s ultimate message, and as she expresses it the author’s own intentional message, is that the only solution is Liberal individualism. Silone was not a Liberal. He was a founding member of the breakaway Communist Party of Italy in 1921. Because of his opposition to Stalin, he was expelled from the Communist Party of Italy during the 1930s while he was in exile. He returned to Italy in 1944, and in 1946 he was elected as an Italian Socialist Party deputy. However, my mother’s reading of the text is a plausible and valid one, given its emphasis on the significance of individual action; moreover, it reveals her deep-seated commitment both to liberal politics and to liberal humanism.