NAME AND TEARS & Other Stories

Forty Years of Italian Fiction

Edited and translated by Kathrine Jason

Graywolf Press. 231 pp. $17.95

Italian short stories! Come on, get real. According to the unimpeachable Dave Barry polling service, our own all-American, corn-fed writers produce more than 43,000 published short stories every year. Sometimes it seems like every minute. Who can hope to keep up?

Still it would be a shame for anyone who likes fiction to miss out on Dino Buzzati, Tommaso Landolfi, Anna Maria Ortese, Leonardo Sciascia or Natalia Ginzburg, all of whom are represented in this exceptionally handsome collection (along with the sufficiently celebrated Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino and Alberto Moravia). These are not simply Italian writers; several are among the greatest writers of our time. Never to have read them is like never having read John Cheever or Flannery O'Connor.

That said, "Name and Tears" provides a fairly good sampling of postwar Italian fiction. I think the collection could have been a mite stronger, since a few of the selections struck me as inconsequential, what Italians call terza pagina (referring to the short fiction that traditionally appears on Page 3 in many newspapers). Jason's 31 choices nearly all run four to eight pages, and a couple are even shorter. Couldn't room have been found for one or two longer stories, perhaps even a novella, for variety?

Jason includes, for instance, Calvino's much anthologized "Adam, One Afternoon," the folk tale-like story of a gardener's boy cum nature sprite who showers animal pets on a bewildered servant girl. Instead, why not reprint the novella "A Plunge Into Real Estate," unavailable in any of the main Calvino collections. Jason herself translates -- in several cases, retranslates -- all the stories she has chosen and she plainly knows her stuff. In Landolfi's celebrated "Gogol's Wife" she calls that strange creature a doll when an earlier English version coyly dubbed it a balloon. Somehow, Gogol frolicking with a balloon hardly conveys the disturbing kinkiness of sexual antics with a life-size rubber doll.

At least a handful of these stories will stay with a reader for the rest of his life. The most powerful by far is Ortese's "A Pair of Glasses." A destitute family -- father, mother, several children, spinster aunt -- live in a cramped basement apartment; its fetid air breeds respiratory disease and has probably contributed to the near blindness of one of the daughters. One day, Aunt Nunziata -- out of a religious mania -- decides to spend hard cash, thousands of lire, on glasses for Eugenia. At the optometrist's the child has a glimpse of a glorious world:

"Well-dressed people, so many of them, passed before her on the sidewalk. ... ladies in silk suits and powdered faces, young men with long hair and colorful sweaters, an old man with a white beard and reddened hands clasping a cane with a silver handle; and in the street, beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, painted shiny red or light green; and green trolleys as big as houses. ... There was a cafe with red and yellow tables outside, and young girls with golden hair sitting cross-legged laughed as they drank from tall, colored glasses."

Eugenia can hardly wait to get her lenses made. Finally, the great day arrives; her arthritic broken-down mother returns home with the precious glasses. Eugenia puts them on and immediately begins shaking, her head spins, all the joy of expectation goes out of her:

"Staggering, she turned back towards the courtyard and the terrible impression grew: the courtyard she saw now, a slimy funnel pointing up towards the sky, had leprous walls and decrepit balconies. ... The pavement was white with soapy water and cauliflower leaves, scraps of paper, garbage; and in the middle of the courtyard, the group of tattered, deformed Christians, their faces pocked by poverty and resignation, turned their eyes toward her ..."

Several other stories -- Ginzburg's "House at the Sea," Vitaliano Brancati's "Arrival in the City," Giuseppe Pontiggia's ironic "Publisher's Reader" -- present similar postwar slices of life, often in the neo-realist style. In "Woman" Goffredo Parise obliquely evokes an empty marriage and an incipient love affair; it could almost be a short feature by Antonioni. Admired for crime novels about the Mafia, Leonardo Sciascia is represented by a tour-de-force tale of murderous double-cross.

Still other stories give the Latin Americans a run for the surreal. In Giovanni Arpino's "The Peacock" a shy fiancee comes to a doctor with an awful secret: During wilder days she was tattooed while working as a hostess on a cruise ship; she knows her future husband will be shocked, and hopes something can be done. The bored physician asks to see the offending tattoo; when she removes her clothes, he discovers a thing of transcendent and disorienting beauty, one that he cannot live without. In Antonio Tabucchi's "The Arhant" a traveler, taking a bus through India, stops at a lonely wayside inn, where he, in his turn, meets a young boy and a strange misshapen creature who can see into his soul. In Gesualdo Bufalino's "The Invaded Man" the protagonist finds that "the evidence is undeniable: I, Vincenzino La Grua, am no longer a man, but an angel, probably a seraphim." (I love that "probably.")

Jason provides an overview of contemporary Italian fiction, as well as biographical headnotes for each story. I wish that she had also offered a guide to further reading. She generously acknowledges that small presses like Carcanet, Marlboro and Eridanos have done much to bring Italian fiction to American readers, but her own book would have benefited by references to, say, the recent translation of Ortese's masterpiece, "The Iguana" (McPherson & Co.), or to the selection of Tabucchi stories brought out by New Directions. All cavils notwithstanding, "Name and Tears" is an attractive, enjoyable book, a welcome sampling of this dolce letteratura.

The reviewer is a writer and editor for Book World.