Thursday, September 24, 2015


Eleonora Cavallini, La Nekya omerica (Odissea XI) nella traduzione di Cesare Pavese. I libri di Levia Gravia, 16. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2015. Pp. iv, 112. ISBN 9788862745987. €16.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Benjamin Eldon Stevens, Trinity University (

Version at BMCR home site


In her 2014 review of Eleonora Cavallini's edited volume, La Musa nascosta: mito e letteratura greca nell'opera di Cesare Pavese (Bologna: Dupress, 2014), Barbara Graziosi remarks that it is surprising that Pavese's "engagement with ancient Greek literature and myth ... has attracted surprisingly little attention" in scholarship on classical receptions.1 As Graziosi notes, Pavese (1908-1950) is considered "one of the most important authors of the Italian twentieth-century," producing original writings in a range of genres—chiefly novels and novellas, including the 1950 Strega Prize-winning La Bella Estate (which collects three novellas), but also essays, letters, and poems—and introducing Italian readers to American authors and others in Italian translation. This work is highly charged with the politics and cultural pressures of the mid-20th-century; Pavese himself endured imprisonment and an "internal exile" (confino) in 1935 for his connections to antifascist circles, and, a declared communist, took his own life in 1950. Pavese's classical receptions should thus be of significant interest to students of classical scholarship as well as twentieth-century Italian letters.

Building on her work in that 2014 volume, in the book under review here Cavallini develops a more detailed image of how Pavese's lifelong interest in ancient mistero and mito took shape in his translations from the Greek. Apparently not intended for publication, the translations went unpublished in Pavese's lifetime and have still mostly not appeared in critical editions (11). Beyond the intrinsic interest, for Pavese's translation of Homer Odyssey 11 to appear in print for the first time should help correct what has been considered imbalance in the study of his classical receptions, perhaps especially the disproportionate attention paid to his 1947 Dialoghi con Leucò.2 Indeed, the book may be thought to make good on opportunities missed in the 2014 edited volume to match Pavese's own "broader horizons"; nor does it merely "see[k] to inform those who already know" (Graziosi). Thus Cavallini takes the opportunity to offer, by way of context for the translation of Homer, a history of Pavese as student, reader, and translator of ancient Greek more generally. The result is a fascinating and illuminating study.

A great part of the interest Cavallini generates in Pavese's long practice of translation lies in the fact that he seems, deliberately, never to have finished his translations: beyond going unpublished, they are in themselves not 'complete,' employing artistic devices that one might at first consider 'adaptation' rather than translation (e.g., the substitution of words from English, Latin, and other languages for Italian) and existing in relationship with translations by others, including some that Pavese supervised (above all Rosa Calzecchi Onesti's versions of Homer for Einaudi). Similarly, Pavese's interpretations of ancient texts, recorded in correspondence as well as reflected in choices in the translations themselves, seem to raise questions more than offer answers. As Cavallini puts it, quoting Pavese from "uno dei sui ultimi saggi, «possedere significa distruggere, si sa»: e forse, proprio per questa ragione, quel mistero e quel mito non volle mai possederlo fino in fondo, o almeno, non fino al punto di violarne l'originaria aura 'sacrale'" (32). This negative desire is unsettled and unsettling—we might think of how Pavese's life ended—but, in Cavallini's retelling, electrifying: a deliberately liberating countermelody to the well-known Italian theme, "traduttore, traditore."

Cavallini thus argues that Pavese's choices in translation come from a deep and complex sense of fidelity to the text and its meanings: "Il suo vero scopo è addentrarsi nel mistero dell'epica omerica e del lungo processo di stratificazione linguistica, culturale e religiosa che questa presuppone" (35). In Cavallini's view the result is provocative and insightful: for example, Pavese writes evocatively of the Iliad's "fulgido sole meridiano" in contrast to the Odyssey's "sole ancora "'grande"' ma già sul punto di tuffarsi nel mare" (31). These sorts of phrasings can enrich our own readings of the ancient texts. Cavallini's book should thus be fascinating indeed to any reader interested in how the practice of translation can serve to deepen understanding of the source text paradoxically, by clarifying the presence and strengthening the effect of its untranslatable mysteries.

Perhaps the highest praise I could give the book is to say how wonderful it is to be reminded—through the lens provided by a lifetime's meditation on ancient mistero and mito—of the richness of the history of classical scholarship in connection with larger cultural currents that transmit and transmute material from antiquity. For that reason a volume of this sort is recommended to readers interested in two intersecting areas: the history of translation theory and practice (with special reference of course to Homer but perhaps including ancient Greek more generally); and the history of classical scholarship in the 20th century (with special reference to fascism, communism, and the arts in Italy).

The volume includes preface, introduction, a list of bibliographic abbreviations, a critical (philological) note, Pavese's translation of Odyssey 11 with facing-page Greek and extensive footnotes by Cavallini focusing on the translation, and an index nominum. The introduction, of which some sense has been given above, is divided into sections. "Pavese e lo studio dei classici greci" gives a brisk and engaging overview of the history of Pavese's interest in Greek, especially language and myth, from his school days on. "Due frammenti di lirica greca in una lettera del confino" offer a nuanced first look at Pavese's approach to translation as exemplified by those fragments (from Ibycus and Sappho). "Pavese, Untersteiner, e la Nekyia omerica" details the inspirational role played in Pavese's mature study of Greek by the noted classicist Mario Untersteiner, who had favorably reviewed Dialoghi con Leucò and to whom, in subsequent correspondence, Pavese mentioned his "sogno di vedere stampata una versione quasi letterale" (24) of the Homeric epics. Untersteiner's notes and suggestions about Odyssey 11 were at least consulted by Pavese while he was working on the translation (26-27). "La traduzione einaudiana dell'Iliade" discusses the translation by Rosa Calzecchi Onesti, which Pavese supervised for the press. Finally, "Le traduzioni omeriche di Pavese e la critica" examines some of the published criticisms of Pavese's translations, concluding—as quoted above—that such criticism has limited our potential appreciation of the richness of those translations by mistaking their reason and purpose. Aside from the footnotes, which are extensive and informative in their focus on Pavese's choices in translation, the other substantial section of the volume is the critical (philological) note, which details the provenance of the previously unpublished Nekyia.3


1.   BMCR 2014.11.06. Cavallini has also published elsewhere on Pavese's translations and other approaches to ancient Greek, including the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus ("L'Inno Omerico a Dioniso nella traduzione di Pavese", in Cesare Pavese, un greco del nostro tempo, ed. A. Catalfamo [S. Stefano Belbo, 2012] pp. 65-82).
2.   One small disappointment: the volume does not contain reproductions of the relevant manuscripts: (part?) of the first page of Pavese's Nekyia appears on the front cover, and this plus parts of Cavallini's discussions whetted my appetite for more vieiwing of those original materials.
3.   One quibble: "Nekyia" is spelled three different ways at different points in the volume, so far as I could see without explanation. But overall the book is nicely designed, printed, and bound. Listed at € 16.00, it also seems reasonably priced.

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