Ava & Tom's Top 10 Italian Books

Ava’s picks

Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino’s 1979 postmodernist work is probably my favourite Italian book of all time, if not one of my favourite books I have ever read. In this tale, you, the reader, are the protagonist. You are trying to read Italo Calvino’s new book, Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore; however, the book turns out to be very different to what you were expecting. The structure alternates between your narrative and the openings of all the books that you read, so expect many different genres, writing styles, and a few truths about the process of reading.

Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini by Giorgio Bassani

One of Bassani’s most well-known works, Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini comes from a series of his novels that explore the lives of Italian Jews living in Ferrara. This is a historical novel, the prologue is set in 1957 during which the narrator tells us that none of the Finzi-Contini family are alive at the time. From then on, we are taken through the narrator’s childhood experiences. These are focused on the narrator’s relationship with Micòl Finzi-Contini, the influence of racial laws on their friendship with each other, and with other characters, and an informal tennis club situated in the gardens of the Finzi-Contini’s mansion.

Il gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Another historical novel, this one is written in 1958 and is set against the backdrop of the Risorgimento (Italian reunification). Lampedusa writes about an aristocratic family, the Salinas, who get caught up in the civil war and revolution led by Garibaldi and follows the downfall of them, as part of the Sicilian aristocracy. The threat of Garibaldi’s troops overthrowing the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies is a constant in the novel. However, this is not a purely historical and political novel, as Lampedusa also includes a love triangle between the Prince’s daughter Concetta, Tancredi who has recently joined Garibaldi’s Redshirts, and Angelica, daughter of the Salina’s rival family. There really is something here for everybody.

Il giorno della civetta by Leonardo Sciascia

A slightly unconventional murder mystery set in Sicily, Il giorno della civetta tracks detective Bellodi from Parma who in working a murder case finds the Sicilian mafia’s ties with Rome. This is a fast-paced novel which has many elements of a classic whodunnit. However, Sciascia goes beyond this structure by writing about the peculiarities that a detective from Parma discovers about life in Sicily and how much influence the mafia has on the other characters in the novel.

L’amica geniale by Elena Ferrante

The first in a four-part series that has had huge success in the UK with both theatre and television adaptations. In this first novel, Elena (nicknamed Lenù) receives a call from her childhood friend Lila (short for Raffaella)’s son, who informs her that his mother has disappeared. Believing this to be a conscious decision, Elena begins to write out everything she remembers about Lila. Focusing on her own and Lila’s childhood (in Naples during the 1950s), Elena talks about the violence of the Camorra, the at times competitive nature of their friendship and Lila’s determination to continue studying. Ferrante’s novel is loved by many book clubs and for good reason; I would highly recommend it.

Tom’s picks

Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno by Italo Calvino

Calvino’s first novel, this coming-of-age story is set in Italy during WWII. The protagonist, Pin, comes from a relatively humble family in Liguria. It is a story that looks at both partisans and collaborators, but seen through a child’s eyes. With this in mind, there is a lack of judgement, meaning it is an original and relatively refreshing addition to the WWII literary canon. Pin’s perspective allows for the darkest aspects of war to be approached in a somewhat blasé manner. It is full of action, but also very interesting from a historical perspective for anybody interested in the Italian resistance movement.

Se questo è un uomo by Primo Levi

Written by an Italian survivor of the Holocaust, Se questo è un uomo is perhaps one of the most profound books I have ever read. Levi’s style is very accessible, even when he is recounting some of the most awful atrocities in the history of mankind. If you can read it in Italian, I would urge you to do so; however, the translation is very good too. Se questo è un uomo is certainly a challenging book given what Levi discusses, but it is one that you really have to read.

Uno, nessuno e centomila by Luigi Pirandello

Luigi Pirandello’s Uno, nessuno e centomila is a story about a man who, one day, loses his sense of identity. He realises that everybody he knows has a different understanding of his selfhood; each person sees him in a different light. As such, he has the existential crisis to end all existential crises. Is there one concrete version of his ‘self’? Are there infinite versions? Or does his ‘self’ not even exist seeing as nobody has the same understanding of it? In this novel, the protagonist undertakes some social experiments in and attempt to work out what selfhood is, and if it even exists.

Tra donne sole by Cesare Pavese

When I moved to Turin in December 2020, I decided to buy this book because it is set in that very city. This is one of Pavese’s most renowned works, as well as one of his last; it was published just months before his suicide in 1950. An attempted suicide at the very start of the novel actually sets the stage for the rest of the plot. The protagonist rubs shoulders with the friends of the lady who tried to take her own life, and as such she ends up in a circle of female artists and writers who are immensely nihilistic and hedonistic. The plot takes place just after WWII and shows Turin’s post-war melancholy.

Una questione privata by Beppe Fenoglio

Una questione privata is a war novel that deals primarily with the lives of Italian partisans during WWII. However, it is also about love, loyalty, and betrayal. Italo Calvino praised this piece and said that it was “the novel our generation wished we created.” It is arguably one of the first novels to look at the private lives of the partisan fighters, as opposed to treating them as one collective entity.

Ava Siena Cohen & Tom Godfrey