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Autobiographical writing – Voices


Corrado Alvaro: the emblem of the twentieth-century diary

by Gloria Maria Ghioni (University of Sassari)

When looking at twentieth-century autobiographical writings, Corrado Alvaro can be a very fruitful case study. In his nearly forty-year long career, Alvaro effectively interprets the uneasiness of the century, as it is evident not only in the contents of his writings, but also in his restless turning to different genres and narrative modes: from projects of plays and poems – not always finished, and sometimes not wholly satisfying – to the search for the most adequate essay form to express realism and thought, to a moralistic (though never pedantic) journalism, always aimed at society’s benefit, to the discrepancy between literariness and stylistic verisimilitude. In Alvaro’s writings, these and other themes are almost constantly linked to the autobiographical dimension; which, although at times eluded or concealed, is often the ‘hypotext’ or the ‘architext’ of many of his works (if we may use Genette’s categorisation). This can be seen in the many short stories published in national newspapers (and collected later in autonomous volumes): the travels within and outside Europe, the personalities met in Rome, even the childhood spent in San Luca are part of the narration, although differently altered. For instance, in the trilogy Memorie del mondo sommerso [Memories from the Submerged World] the real author hides behind the figure of the protagonist, Rinaldo Diacono, and can be spotted only by those who know about his life.

Alvaro’s reserve, in fact, cannot match with an admittedly autobiographical narration or with self- exhibition. Accordingly, his diary writing is distant from the idea of the French journal intime, and it is not a form of verification of one’s identity, nor of self-accusation, nor of apology. Even the offhandedly attributed definition of ‘diary’, is at most times problematic, as Alvaro himself writes in the foreword to Quasi una vita. Giornale di uno scrittore [Almost a life. A Writer’s Journal], a collection of works from 1927 to 1947 (published by Bompiani in 1950 and winner of the Premio Strega in 1951):

People like me, of my generation, do not have a tale of life. Hence this book is neither a diary nor an autobiography. It was a collection of notes destined to myself, useful for stories, essays, literary works which I would have written one day, and which I hope I will have the time and vigour to write. In the most part, those notes are printed here, following today’s singular fashion that a writer publishes by himself his secret book.[1]

Is it then neither a diary nor an autobiography? Different materials are present: personal notes, works-in-progress, political considerations, war memories, narrations of travels and social events, drafts of short stories, meetings with other intellectuals and friends, and metaliterary reflections among others. Alvaro is at times a silent observer and interpreter of the surrounding reality (e.g. he registers extracts of conversations), as if vouching for its authenticity; at other times, he is directly involved in society, though never craving for the foreground. There is, therefore, the need to also analyse the relationship between sender and addressee in the diary, different from that of the novel: although never directly addressed to the reader (neither in an ‘imperative’ nor in an ‘involving’ way)[2], these notes seem to suppress the distance between him and the author, edging closer to the genres of memorial writing and confession. However – and this confirms how problematic a definition can be – Alvaro’s works lack both the exemplary dimension of memorial writing and the self-declared nature of the confession.

The same attitude is to be found in the second volume, Ultimo diario [Last Diary], which should be approached with caution because of its uncertain editorial situation – a consequence of the doubtful philological criteria adopted by the editor Frateili in the 1959 edition. The notes follow Alvaro in the difficult post-war years and in his personal struggle with his acute disease (the last notes date back from the last months before his death in 1956).

In addition to refusing both the role of a model for society and the egocentrism typical of the writer of autobiography, in these works Alvaro undermines other cornerstones of diary-writing: the dates (regarded as an essential condition of the diary) are sporadic; the adherence to reality is crossbred with an intricate mass of different themes and with the mixture of different textual genres (budding novels, news stories, social observations, and, only occasionally, personal events). Moreover, the publication of the major part of these notes calls for a manifest addressee, which is the contemporary reading audience (e.g. in travel writings as Viaggio in Russia [Journey to Russia], Itinerario italiano [Italian Itinerary], Viaggio in Turchia [Journey to Turkey]), but also the forthcoming audience (especially for Quasi una vita [Almost a Life] and Ultimo Diario).

Alternately labelled as ‘journal’ or ‘diary’ from the critics, these last two works demonstrate how an attentive observer can set his vision of the world down on paper, sometimes with bewildering anticipations on history. Here, the feeling of the present time is everywhere: travels, meetings with writers, politicians, friends and strangers are re-read in the light of a personal research on it. Nothing is detached from ‘our time and hope’ (Il nostro tempo e la speranza is the title of one of Alvaro’s works): even dry anecdotes or drafts for future stories always need to be read in relation to the whole work. But one might ask where Alvaro’s ‘I’ can be spotted, then, since it is not characterised by the self-manifestation typical of journal-writers. It is in the most autobiographical notes, such as those carefully recounting his difficult exile, or his coming back to his home village for his father’s death. When autobiographical events become more apparent, determinations of time and place become more frequent, as a memento for the future and escape from oblivion.

If we go seeking for a satisfying definition of these texts, texts on which I am currently working for my PhD research, we might say that the great variety of genres and the complexity of the themes are emblems of what we can label the ‘twentieth-century diary’. That is, a diary escaping any comprehensive definition, which sometimes challenges the rules of tradition, sometimes reaffirms them, being therefore the example of a continuous calling into question of the past and of the future, in front of the uncertainty of the present’s reality and values.

[1] ‘La gente come me, della mia generazione, non ha una favola di vita. Perciò questo libro non è un diario né un’autobiografia. Era una raccolta di appunti che dovevano servire per me, pei racconti, i saggi, le opere che avrei scritto un giorno, che tuttavia spero mi sia dato il tempo e la lena di scrivere. Nella maggior parte, quegli appunti sono stampati qui, col singolare procedimento ormai in uso, che uno scrittore pubblichi egli stesso il suo libro segreto’ (trans. by ReadingItaly).

[2] I am referring to Maria Corti’s terminology in Principi della Comunicazione, Milan: Bompiani, 1976, p. 54 (‘forma imperativa’, ‘forma cattivante’).

Gloria Maria Ghioni is a PhD student in Italian Literature at the University of Sassari, where she works on the autobiographical writings of Corrado Alvaro. In 2012 she ranked third for the ‘Premio Tarquinia Cardarelli’, section ‘Critica militante under 35’. She is the founder and administrator of the online literary journal ‘CriticaLetteraria’ (


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This entry was posted on March 12, 2013 by in Voices.
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