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Plotting the Past: Metamorphoses of Historical Narrative in Modern Italian Fiction

Cristina Della Coletta

Through an examination of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theoretical work and novels, Della Coletta presents an authoritatively original recasting of the notion of the historical novel.

Starting with Alessandro Manzoni's classic essay "On the Historical Novel," she examines the aesthetic and philosophical questions surrounding the genre of historical fiction. Manzoni rejected the historical novel as a flawed combination of two contradictory systems: fiction and history. He also devised a new form of creative historiography that attempts to textualize the historical referent by using narrative techniques traditionally pertaining to the craft of fiction.

Della Coletta then demonstrates how Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Elsa Morante's History: A Novel, and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose took up Manzoni's legacies, reshaped the genre, and embarked on a discussion of the meaning of writing within a specific literary genre.

Transformative and revisionist, these novels overcome Manzoni’s philosophical impasse by arguing that both fiction and history exploit the forms of narrative to lend a comprehensible structure to the historical past. They thus become self-conscious evaluations of the ideological, aesthetic, and epistemological values of their narrative discourses.

Della Coletta’s analysis of these novels suggests that genres are ideological units molded by culture and history, and that current ideologies shape the literary representation of the historical past. This innovative case study thus illuminates not just the twentieth-century Italian historical novel but also the function of literary genres as a whole.

"...[a] well-researched and organized book... Plotting the Past exhibits broad knowledge of the Italian literary tradition, makes relevant theoretical claims concerning the history and development of the historical novel, and is persuasively argued.... Della Colletta demonstrates the paradox of Manzoni's legacy as the author of an historical novel which defined and canonized the genre but who for the same reason required of subsequent novelists that they violate or alter the genre itself in specific, compelling manners.... As a worthy example of how Italian studies in North America are revitalized, Della Colletta's Plotting the Past is theoretically acute, textually rigorous, comparative in approach, and informed by cutural criticism; it is aimed not at providing readers with what is elsewhere often gratuitous canon-bashing but at re-envisioning and thus refreshing the Italian and European literary traditions, at making stimulating inroads into our Euroamerican cultural unconscious." —Peter Carravetta, Modern Fiction Studies. For the full review see Modern Fiction Studies 43 (Winter 1997):

"...Della Coletta's study is a well-organized account of the fact that what we see in the world is not nearly as important as how we negotiate it through narrative means.... Della Coletta's study therefore... illustrates the ethical function of literature, the purpose of which is to act 'as a mediator between the real and the ideal, between humanity and truth, thus contributing to the betterment of human nateure' (26)" —John Mastrogianakos, Quaderni d'Italianistica. For the full review see Quaderni d'Italianistica 19.1 (Spring 1998): 155-59.

"Della Coletta's mastery of modern Italian literature and its theoretical underpinnings is everywhere in evidence. She is equally at ease in the fields of historical analysis and literary theory. This is a critical inquiry worth holding on to." —Virginia Quarterly Review. For the full review, see Virginia Quarterly Review 73 (1997): 86.

"A felicitous combination of broad contextual and detailed textual analyses, these readings ... animate issues of genre, gender, historiography, literary history, and epistemology, all the while focusing on the construction of what might be called an 'ethics of historical fiction.' ... This book is a major achievement." —Rebecca West, University of Chicago

"… the book's combination of specificity and wide-ranging speculation should make it welcome reading for a much broader audience. … For its mature historical sense and theoretical refinement, Plotting the Past deserves high praise. … [the author] has given us a book that is engaging, challenging, and astute." — Sandra L. Bermann, Clio. For the full review, see Clio 27.2 (1998): 305-11.

For other reviews, see

MLN 113.1 (Jan. 1998): 253-57 (by Stefania Lucamante).

Annali d'Italianistica 16 (1998): 424-29 (by Massimo Maggiari).

Cristina Della Coletta, University of Virginia, has published articles on contemporary Italian fiction in Studi novecenteschi, MLN, Italica, and other journals.

ISBN: 978-1-55753-091-2
1996. Vol. 12. x, 268 pp. Cloth $29.95 PRICE REDUCED

Information last updated June 24, 2015.

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