“Can you recommend some good Italian books?” is one of the questions I get asked the most.
Reading is one of my most favorite things in life, so this question always makes me really happy. I try to write about books as much as I can, here on my blog, and I am always looking for interesting reads to suggest you.
To make things easier for you, I have created a specific category – called books about Italy – which you can find in the navigation bar of my blog. I have selected this title for the section because it includes all kinds of books about Italy and its culture, not just books written by Italians.
There are a lot of Italian books I’d love to recommend you but the problem is that many of them are not translated into English. This makes them a good option for advanced Italian learners, obviously, but can be very challenging for other speakers or simply impossible for someone who likes Italian culture but doesn’t know the language. I always aim at finding books that can be interesting for everybody, but I have a very limited selection to choose from.
However, there is a section of books that are very likely to have an English version: Italian classic novels. There are some really incredible books in this section, so it is definitely worth delving into it. I wrote a post about Italian classic books in the past but its goal was to focus on the staples of Italian literature, in order to give you an idea of the basis of our literature. Sometimes these books can be really hard to digest and I won’t recommend them unless you really want to learn more about Italian literature.
This time, instead, I decided to focus on some Italian classic novels that can make a great and interesting read. Books that are useful to understand Italian culture and entertaining at the same time. Therefore, I selected my favorite Italian classic novels, making sure that you can find them in English too.
The list is not very long because I only selected the books I like the most. All the authors listed here are some of my favorite Italian writers as well, so you can explore their production further and I am sure you won’t be disappointed. They are very well known Italian writers, you may know them already if you are an expert in Italian literature, but I hope you’ll find some good ideas anyway.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
La storia (History: A Novel) – Elsa Morante
I have just finished reading this novel – which I had never read before! – and I have loved it so much that I wanted to include it in this list. It is a thick book but the story is so intense and powerful that you can’t put the novel down and you end up reading it very quickly.
La storia (which in Italian both means history and story) tells the story of Ida, a poor part-Jewish widow who lives in Rome with her two sons, Antonio, who is the son she had with her husband, and Giuseppe, who is the result of a rape by a German soldier. The life of Ida is intertwined with the big events of Italian history at the time of World War II and immediately after.
This is Elsa Morante’s most famous novel – the book had a huge success when it first came out, in 1974 – yet her most controversial one at the same time. It caused harsh criticism both by leftist and rightist reviewers for its clear anti-establishmentarianism. I really liked it because it shows how strongly history impacts the daily life of ordinary people.
Elsa Morante is one of the most important Italian female writers of all times and has written other three noteworthy novels: Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars), L’isola di Arturo (Arturo’s Island) and Aracoeli, plus a number of short stories,
Un amore (A Love Affair) – Dino Buzzati
Dino Buzzati is known for his masterpiece Il deserto dei Tartari (The Tartar Steppe), an incredibly powerful novel about the uselessness of war, which I also included in my first list of Italian classic books. It is definitely a must-read because it is a compelling story that delivers a very powerful message against war.
However, that is not my favorite book by Dino Buzzati. His work I like the most is Un amore (A Love Affair), a novel that tells the story of Antonio Dorigo, a wealthy Milanese architect who falls in love with a much younger prostitute and part-time ballerina named Laide. She becomes his obsession and a story of love turns into one of hate and tragedy.
The book is set in Milan during the 60s and the city, sublimely portrayed in its coexistence of bustling economy and post-war poverty, is a perfect setting for such a story. Actually, the city of Milan and the way it is depicted is one of the things I loved the most of the book.
As I said, Dino Buzzati is a distinguished Italian writer mainly famous for a masterpiece, a book that every Italian knows – hopefully. However, his body of work is huge and includes novels, short stories, poems, articles, and even paintings. Definitely, a figure that needs more detailed study!
Il giardino dei Finzi Contini (The Garden of The Finzi-Continis) and Gli occhiali d’oro (The Gold-rimmed Spectacles) – Giorgio Bassani
I did my best to choose one favorite book by Giorgio Bassani but I simply couldn’t do it. I love these two great books in the same powerful way and I decided to include them both here because they are equally awesome.
As you may imagine, Giorgio Bassani is one of my absolute favorite writers and one of the greatest Italian authors of all times. Born in a wealthy Jewish family in 1916, he had to face the race laws and limited job opportunities and was even arrested for anti-fascist resistance.
Il giardino dei Finzi Contini – which has also been made into a very famous movie by Vittorio De Sica – is Bassani’s most famous work. It tells the story of the relationship between the narrator and the Finzi-Continis, a rich Jewish family: even if the story focuses on personal relationships, contemporary Italian history (with Mussolini, race laws and deportation) constantly looms over it.
The same themes, which are always present in Bassani’s work, can be found in Gli occhiali d’oro as well (this book was made into a movie too). Set in Ferrara in 1938, the book tells the story of the homosexual doctor Athos Fadigati, who is gradually marginalized and ostracized. Both books are amazing for their themes but also for the sheer elegance of Bassani’s writing.
Marcovaldo, o le stagioni in città (Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in The City) – Italo Calvino
Again, choosing a novel by Italo Calvino among all the awesome ones he wrote has been incredibly difficult. I had to think about it quite carefully and I have finally chosen the one I am most fond of, the one I like as if it was real, like a living object – if you see what I mean.
I don’t think Italo Calvino needs any introduction but in case you don’t know him, he is one of the most important – and most prolific – Italian writers. Son of a botanist, he was born in Cuba where his father was doing research but the family moved back to Italy – in Sanremo, Liguria – in 1925, when Italo was only two years old.
As I said, Italo Calvino is a leading figure in Italian literature and one of the most translated Italian writers, so finding his work in English should be really easy. Famous for his unique style, that mixes fantasy, fables, and reality, he has written great novels. Some of his best works are: Il visconte dimezzato, Il barone rampante, Il cavaliere inesistente, and Le città invisibili.
My favorite book by Calvino, though, is Marcovaldo, a collection of short stories set in different seasons of the year: the first one is set in spring, the following one is summer, the other one in autumn and so on, in a sort of cycle. The main character of these stories is always Marcovaldo, a poor worker living in a big industrial city (probably Turin) in the 50s and 60s, a man with a unique nature and personality who is the real gem of the book.
Lessico famigliare (Family Sayings) – Natalia Ginzburg
This selection ends with one of the books I read the most in my life. I think I first read it when I was in middle school – it was a mandatory read at the time – and came back to it many times over the years.
The book is Lessico famigliare, a semi-autobiographical novel that tells the story of the daily life of the writer’s family, whose main figure was Giuseppe Levi, the father of Natalia. By telling mundane stories and little facts about everyday life, the book depicts life in Italy in the years 1920-1950 and it is also a way to write about more serious facts both in Natalia’s life and in those of Italians in general.
A very famous and distinguished Italian writer, Natalia Ginzburg was born in Sicily but grew up in Torino, where his father was teaching at the University. She married Leone Ginzburg, who was an opponent of the Fascist regime that was imprisoned and died in jail, after terrible tortures, in 1944.
Natalia Ginzburg’s career has been long and prolific, consisting mainly of novels and short stories that explored themes like family relationships and politics in Fascist and post-war Italy. Most of her work has been translated into English, so you have a lot of choices if you want to dive deeper into her work.
I hope you found this list interesting. What are your favorite Italian classics, if you have some? Let me know!
If you are interested in improving your Italian language skills, I’d suggest you check Chiacchieriamo, your way of chatting with an Italian without moving from home.
Chiacchieriamo is a Skype chat which helps you practice and improve your Italian with a native speaker. If you want to give it a try, you can request a 30-minute free chat, so that we can meet each other and see if you like the service.