Before the law

I’ve been having great fun, lately, reading The House by the Medlar Tree – as Verga’s I Malvoglio is translated. Verga, like most European novelists of the late nineteenth century, seemed to have received Zola as a total shock to the system. In England, Zola didn’t have quite the same effect – the English merely thought he was dirty. Dreiser, in America, did take hints from Zola, but Dreiser probably read him in English. In other countries, though – in Portugal, Spain and Italy – the Zola effect was pervasive. It would be fair to say, I think, that there was only one other novelist in the nineteenth century who exerted a similar international attraction – Walter Scott.


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According to Giovanni Cecchetti, who wrote the introduction to the edition I’m reading, there’s a clear divide between Verga’s early works – which Cecchetti implies are so much milquetoast – and the Sicilian novels, or which The House by the Medlar Tree is, I think, the most famous. In his preface, Verga wrote:

“This story is the sincere and dispassionate study of how the first anxious desires for material well-being must probably originate and develop in the humblest social conditions, and of the perturbations caused to a family, which had until then lived in relative happiness.”

Well, that immediately attracts a reader such as myself, whose days and ways are filled with the anxieties occasioned by the desire for material well being. It is the hopeless war of the flies caught in the webs of the spiders against the spiders intent on eating the flies. The spiders, we know, will win – we know it inside and outside the book.

In this case, the Malvoglio family, fishermen who own their own boat, make a fatal decision. The head of the household, Master ‘Ntoni, decides to buy a boatload of lupins and sell them in a larger town, where they would be shipped to Trieste. He gets the lupins on credit extended by the town’s moneylender. The lupins – a bean I have never tasted – are half rotten, it turns out. But they must be shipped. Unfortunately, the Malvoglio boat, which is being run by one of the sons and a hired man, goes down. And so begins the tale. As I’ve pointed out in other posts, many of the great European novels use money as a form of time. This is time as urgency – time as worry. This gives a particular coloring to the standard three-fold temporal modalities (past-present-future ) in that it sets agents and objects in a ‘race’ against each other. In the case of the Malvoglios, the rhythm that they are used to, which is seasonal, is peculiarly unsuited to the rhythm of their debt, which is legal. The comic-tragic part of the story is that, essentially, the Malvoglios don’t understand their debt. They don’t understand either its temporality or its extent. The legal extent of the debt is delimited by the fact that the two asset the Malvoglio’s hold – their house – are under dotal mortgage – that is, they are legally secured to the daughter, who has them as the major parts of her dowry. So the moneylender, in a sense, should be the ultimate loser.

However, the moneylender, “Uncle” Crocifisso, keeps insisting to old man Malvoglio that he will take the house. In order to increase the pressure, the moneylender pretends to sell the debt to Piedipappera, a village notable. Malivoglio, assaulted by both the moneylender and the apparent holder of the debt, goes to a lawyer with his whole family.
This is a wonderful scene. The lawyer looks at Malvoglio’s paperwork.

‘At last, after he’d read the papers and managed to understand something from the muddled answers which he had to pull out of Master ‘Ntoni with a pair of tongs while the others sat on the edge of their chairs, not daring to open their mouths, the lawyer began laughing heartily and they all laughed with him, without knowing why, just to ease their anguish. “Nothing,’ said the lawyer. “Nothing, that’s what you must do.” And since Master ‘Ntoni repeated that the bailiff had come, the lawyer said: “let the bailiff come even once a day. If he does, the creditor will soon tire of paying for the expenses. They won’t be able to take anything away from you, because the house is dotal…Your daughter-in-law had nothing to do with the purchase of the lupins.”

The lawyer went on talking for more than twenty-five lire’s worth, without even stopping to spit or scratch his head, so that Mater ‘Ntoni and his grandsons suddenly itched to speak too, to blurt out their whole beautiful defense which they could feel swelling in their heads; and they felt dazed, overwhelmed by all those arguments which they now possessed, and all the way home they went over and over the lawyer’s speech, gestures and all.”

So they get home, and explain to Maruzza (Master Ntoni’s daughter-in-law) that they owe nothing.

‘We won’t pay Uncle Crocifisso anything,” added ‘Ntoni [Master ‘Ntoni’s son] recklessly. “Because he can’t take the house of the Provvidenza… We don’t owe him anything.”
‘And the lupins?”
“That’s true. What about the lupins?” repeated Master Ntoni.
‘The lupins… We didn’t eat his lupins, we don’t have them in our pockets, and so Uncle Crocifisso can’t take a thing from us, the lawyer said so, he’ll just lose his money for the expenses.”
At this there was a long moment of silence; but Maruzza didn’t seem convinced.
“So he said not to pay>”
‘Ntoni scratched his head, and his grandfather said: “that’s true, he did give us the lupins, and we must pay for them.”
There was nothing to say to that. Now that the lawyer was no longer there, they had to pay for the lupins.”

I love this scene partly because it is an exact description of the encounter between the various forms of discourse that have been invented within the legal and economic matrix and the popular discourse of property, which is primitively moral and superstitious. In fact, having worked for lawyers, I’ve witnessed the effect of legal speech: the initial hope of the client, the leaning forward, the repetition of various words, and the almost visible evaporation of understanding that occurs when “the lawyer was no longer there.” One of the great tools of governance, actually, is the ability to couch the desires of the governors in a language of purposive inscrutability so that it produces this sequence: an immediate, simulacrum effect of understanding, followed by a consequent evaporation of it.