Monday, October 28, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“CHRIST IN CONCRETE” by Pietro di Donato (first published in 1939)

It’s sometimes possible to shoot a novel full of holes in criticising it, and yet still to admire it.  Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete is one such novel. It is one of the ‘rough diamonds’ of literature, full of good things, but also bumping over god-awful lapses in style and tone; rising to great heights of poetic insight, but also collapsing into rant. Yet I still put it down feeling I had read something worthwhile.

Its author, Pietro di Donato (1911-1992), was a working class New York Italian-American, who had to take up the bricklayer’s trade at the age of twelve, and become the chief support of his mother and her large family, when his father was killed in an industrial accident in 1923. A building collapsed on his father, burying him in the rubble. Di Donato recreated this incident alone as a short story in 1937, when he was 26. The short story was highly praised and di Donato was encouraged to expand it into a whole novel, which he did. In effect, the original short story becomes the first of the five long chapters of Christ in Concrete, first published in 1939 when di Donato was 28.

As all the guides and websites note, the novel was at once hailed as a proletarian masterpiece, and was chosen over Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath by the influential Book-of-the Month club in their monthly listings. Yet though di Donato lived a long life, he never repeated this success and never produced another work of the same note. One hostile critic even dismissed Christ in Concrete (together with the Native Son of Richard Wright, who had a similar career trajectory) as “beginner’s luck”. The novel is, however, esteemed still, especially by those critics interested in the Italian-American immigrant experience.

Needless to say, it is highly autobiographical. Needful to say, it is NOT set mainly in the Great Depression, although some commentaries insist on saying it is. Most of the action takes place in the mid-1920s, when there was an economic boom. Only in the last of its five parts is it 1929 and the depression begins.

In the opening chapter the Italian immigrant bricklayer Geremio (a native of the Abruzzi) is killed in an industrial accident. It is Good Friday, and as he works Geremio thinks, with the type of religious fatalism that the novel comes to condemn  Yes, the day is cold, cold…. But who am I to complain when the good Christ himself was crucified?” (p.4 – all page references according to Signet Classics edition of 1993).

 The building Geremio is working on collapses, literally burying (“crucifying”) him in the fast-setting concrete that is being poured. The whole novel could be read as a reverberation of this disaster. Geremio leaves behind a widow Annunziata, who is pregnant with their eighth child. Having no income and no insurance, the family at first have to beg for help. (“The money that was to have bought your little house barely pays the burial and stone. You have no money. ” p. 44) Twelve-year-old Paul (occasionally also called Paolo in the novel) tries to get credit from the butcher and the grocery, but he is refused. The local priest offers vague sympathy and a piece of cake. So the twelve-year-old has to go to work, stepping into his father’s shoes as a bricklayer.

The graphic scenes of his toil are set in a vital and colourful immigrant working class community, rich in speech and rich in cultural and religious allusion. But there is no doubt that it is both exacting and backbreaking work for a kid – and all for the lousy five dollars a week that the corporation pays him. He is doing exactly the work his father did, but he is not respected as an adult. And Paul’s daily crucifixion is set against other family stresses. The cramped conditions in which the large family live in a tenement are played up in the scene in which Annunziata gives birth to her youngest child. Uncle Luigi (Annunziata’s brother), who is some sort of emotional support to the family, suffers his own industrial accident and is off work with his leg amputated.

In fact, as the years go by, there are other industrial accidents, including a Swedish carpenter having fingers shorn off by the cable of a winch; and a major fall, the consequences of which are described in graphic and bloody detail a few pages from the novel’s end. Frequently the appalling safety standards of work sites and the callousness of employers about accidents are referenced.

Paul is the author’s centre of consciousness and fictional counterpart. The novel follows him through five or six years (he is said to be fifteen on p.165). He is interested in neighbours (of various ethnicities) in the tenement. After puberty he has these awful, aching, unfulfilled lusts centring on a neighbouring girl. There is the very occasional reference to ethnic or racial prejudices directed against Italians. When young Paul asks to identify the corpse of his father, an insensitive Irish cop says within his earshot, “What? – oh yeah – the wop is under the wrappin’ paper out in the courtyard! ” (p.26). There’s also a scene where neighbourhood toughs attempt to beat up a Jewish kid, who belts them back. But racial tension is not a major emphasis of the novel. Indeed, the workplace is more often presented in “melting pot” terms, with Italians, Irish, Jews, Cockneys, Germans, Swedes and blacks jostling together on the skyscraper girders, despite the odd racial insult.

The focus is on the Italian community and on work. Paul gets a job at more pay. An old bricklayer called Vicenzo takes him under his wing as a sort of site godfather. At one point, Paul wins a medal as best site bricklayer. He is as good a provider as he can be to his mother and family. But the toil is relentless. And then (in the last chapter) the Depression comes and work dries up and life becomes even more stressful.

Much of it is highly episodic. In fact, sections could almost be read as detachable short stories, just as the first chapter originally was. The grim episode where an accident board withholds adequate compensation from the widowed Annunziata. A wild scene where, on Christmas Eve, bricklayers get drunk on wine (at a time of official Prohibition in the USA, there is never any suggestion that they can’t get it), visit a brothel, and mock one modest workmate by greeting him as the infant Christ. A wedding feast which turns into a noisy sauce-splashing, spaghetti-sucking competition.

There is also the shocking scene in which Paul and Annunziata visit a tawdry and patently fake medium (“the Cripple”) who claims to put Annunziata in touch with her late husband in the “spirit world”. What is particularly shocking about this episode is that mother and young son both take real comfort from the medium’s charlatanry.

This is linked to a major train of thought in the novel, namely its reaction to belief and to religion. To use exactly the right metaphor for bricklayers, the novel’s religious symbolism is laid on with a trowel. It is not only the frequent references to Christ and Crucifixion. It is not only the fact that key events take place on major religious festivals like Good Friday and Christmas Eve. Nor is it only the curses and idioms of the Italian community, which are drenched in religious terms. It is the ongoing relationship between the increasingly sceptical Paul and his pious – and often superstitious – mother. The novel moves towards a final climactic explosion in which young Paul renounces his mother’s Catholicism (pointing to a crucifix he says “That’s a lie”, p.230). He has moved towards another outlook in which his Job (which is always capitalised) is seen as guiding his life rather than God – in other words, he sees people as economic beings rather than spiritual beings. Apparently some ink has been spilled by critics anxious to show that this is part of the secularising experience of poor European immigrants to America in the early 20th century.

Christ in Concrete is in large part a protest against the passivity of workers who allow themselves to be exploited and die. In di Donato’s view, this theme links with a critique of the church, which encourages workers to accept their fate in the belief that Christ will ultimately reward them. (This is essentially the ‘Wobbly’ Joe Hill’s “pie in the sky when you die” criticism.) The church’s comforts are as delusionary as the fake medium’s. This attitude is particularly acute in the long interior monologue in the last chapter when, before refusing to go with his family to mass, Paul has an hallucinatory dream in which he momentarily sees an unhelpful priest and a harsh boss as one and the same person.

When I first read this novel, I was surprised at how there is virtually no political talk or political consciousness among the workers di Donato depicts. At most they feel resentment against bosses and foremen, but they never think of organizing themselves (even in the boom days, before the Depression makes them competitors against one another for work) and there is no talk whatsoever about unions. I thought more overtly political content was going to begin when there is a passing reference to a Jewish friend of Paul’s reading Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (p.122); but such political content never appeared. At first I judged this a deficiency in the novel. But then it occurred to me that it was exactly di Donato’s point. These workers haven’t yet developed a full awareness of their economic position, and di Donato sees their inherited peasant culture and religion as part of the obscurantism that prevents them from reaching such awareness.

(At which point I have to add that di Donato’s attitude towards the religion into which he was born was a very ambiguous one. His few other works of fiction have an anti-clerical tone like Christ in Concrete, but later in his career, in the 1960s, he wrote Immigrant Saint, an admiring biography of the Catholic saint Mother Cabrini, which was praised by the church and became a bestseller in Catholic circles. Yet at his death, di Donato left an unfinished work, which renewed his attacks on the church. My feeble guess is that he had abandoned the religion but still loved the inherited culture and its best representatives.)

All this has simply told you what the novel is about. But how do I justify the critical judgement that I made at the beginning of this notice? Why is Christ in Concrete a memorable ‘rough diamond’ of mixed literary achievement?

Its style is a heady mixture of social realism and modernist expressionism. Especially in the scenes where he is describing work, di Donato writes like this:

             Trowel rang through brick and slashed mortar rivets were machine-gunned fast with angry grind Patsy number one check Patsy number two check the Lean three check Julio four steel bellowed back at hammer donkey engines coughed purple Ashes-ass Pietro fifteen chisel point intoned stone thin steel whirred and wailed through wood liquid stone flowed with dull rasp through iron veins and hoist screamed through space Rosario the Fat twenty-four and Giacomo Sangini check… The multitudinous voices of civilization rose from the surroundings and melted with the efforts of the Job.” (p.8)

            There is much, much more where that came from.

Di Donato is very good at long, sensual, evocative descriptions of place, as in his account of the heavy, dank atmosphere of the Tenement (which, like Job, is capitalised as a determinant character in the novel). It ends thus:

Then the winding staired passage of Tenement hall-way gaseous in its internationality of latrines, dank with walls that never knew day, acrid in the corners where vermin, dogs, cats and children relieved themselves; the defeated air rubbery with greasy cooking and cut with cheap, strong disinfectant.” (pp.104-105)

There are throughout quirky and idiosyncratic cultural references, like the mention of the tough old workman who is nicknamed Lucy “because his favourite opera is Lucia di Lammermoor, and then he, like a woman, is mobile, and goes insane if he hears himself thus referred to.” (pp.77-78) Of course this one assumes knowledge of a couple of operas at least.

But on the deficit side – oh dear! The heavy-handed and repetitive religious symbolism is one thing. Maybe it can be justified as genuinely representative of the culture depicted. But the lapses into rhetorical rant are many and there is an awful problem throughout with the dialogue. The author was an Italian-American working class man, and therefore presumably knew the way his people spoke better than you or I do. But in Christ in Concrete, Italian idioms are rendered into English as an awful fake poetry that does not ring true for one moment:

  ‘Listen not to these peasants and potato diggers…. Cart your eight hungry little children to this official post. You need not speak, for if they belong to our Christ, these men will know their duty when they look upon the faces of Geremio’s children.’
‘Yes, but I, this stupid Grazia who counts with fingers on nose, tell you that the full gut sees not the hungry face’
‘Nor sees God nor Christ nor saints and company beautiful.’ ” (p.107)

This, in fact, is a mild example of a problem that plagues the novel. Di Donato’s tough proletarians sound as if they are auditioning for a verse play.

But outside the woeful dialogue, the author does have his moments. I underlined in my copy a sentence describing a midwife attending a birth: “The dame coaxed its oozing passage with puckered mouth and intent care.” (p.37) The word choice here is exactly right.

And who but a fool would not respect a novel which gives us so powerfully the back-breaking specificities of a physical labour? Take this part of a description of an aged working man:

Shovel in hand, bareheaded, his clothes and face powdered with lime and cement, and almost as white as his hair, he was an ancient mighty athlete of Job. He shovelled sand from a great heap in the mortar box with timed wasteless grace, lifted ninety-four-pound cement bags easily and spread their contents upon the sand, shovelled both into easy mixture, hollowed the mound, bucketed soft hot lime and water into the hollow, and then hoed the sand-lime-water-cement into warm greenish-grey plastic mortar. ” (p.69)

            Di Donato wrote about what he knew, and for all the rhetoric and awful dialogue, this is still a novel that lets us share that experience.

Impertinent footnote: Ten years after it was written, Christ in Concrete was filmed, under the title Give Us This Day, in a British studio by a director who was temporarily blacklisted in Hollywood.  Synopses I’ve read of the film tell me that it’s essentially an expansion of the first chapter, making Geremio the main character and introducing characters and plot elements that have nothing to do with the novel. I’ve caught a brief clip of it on Youtube. Being filmed in Britain, it has a supporting cast of British actors trying to be American, and it’s fun to see young Sid James pretending to belong to Brooklyn. But the clip also had the dismal fake-poetic dialogue that the novel has.

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