With the death of Eugenio Corti on February 4, Italian literature has lost the last of its great masters.  Born in 1921, Corti grew up in the rolling countryside south of Lago di Como known as the Brianza.  His father was a textile manufacturer whose handsome brick factory in Besana had been converted into the villa in which Eugenio spent most of his life.

Besana is the fictional village of Nomentana in Corti’s masterpiece, Il cavallo rosso.  When I used to visit him and his gracious wife, we would sit in the garden before dinner and watch his “pets”: an undomesticated rabbit and a wild tortoise, which lived with the family on friendly terms, without cages or any restraint except the gate, which had to be locked to keep out the village dogs.  In the winter, we could look out beyond the back of the garden to see some of the ravages the 20th century had made on the beautiful Brianza, but for the most part, this little plot of green, with its trees and flowers and tame wild beasts, was a reflection both of Eugenio’s character and of the world he recreated in his novel.

Although he came from an industrial family in the most hard-working part of Italy, Corti’s mind was more than a little tinged by an agrarian spirit.  This is difficult to convey in Italian, and when, in the course of a lecture, I put Corti in the context of the Southern Agrarians, I was taken to task for ignoring his very real affection for the little industries and their workers that are the foundation of the Lombard economy.  My critic had a valid point, but he was also misled by my use of the word agrariano, which refers—as it should in English—to governmental land-redistribution projects that are part of the revolutionary agenda.

The author’s agrarian sympathies, nonetheless, are manifest in his great novel, which begins with an unforgettable portrayal of father and son sharpening their scythes and preparing to cut the hay, while at the same time talking about the war that is just about to break out.  It is as perfect a beginning as I know, and when the author asked me to rewrite the rather flawed translation, I took especial care with the opening pages.  I only wish I had had the time and the grasp of Italian to do as well on the rest of the book.  I used to tell him that the only Italian I really knew was his, because I had studied every word of Il cavallo rosso in my feeble attempt to render his fine prose into at least readable English.  People who have read both the translation and the original will appreciate how inadequate the English version is.  But, as Chesterton advises us, if something is worth doing at all, it is worth doing badly.

The author’s unfailing kindness and conspicuous bonhomie were, at least on the surface, undiminished by the horrors of war.  Corti served as an artillery officer in World War II, and his experiences on the Russian front—for which he volunteered—were published in his diary, I più non ritornano (English translation published by the University of Missouri Press), and make up a large part of Il cavallo rosso.

Corti’s imagination rose above the horrors of war and the desolation of our civilization, and he cannot be understood properly except as a Christian, specifically Catholic, writer.  I cannot think of another novelist since Manzoni who has so well captured the sturdy piety of Lombardia, a region that has contributed such distinctive characters as Saint Ambrose, San Carlo Borromeo, and Manzoni himself to the Church.  I recall an evening when we arrived at a restaurant as a wedding party was breaking up.  Eugenio graciously observed that we did not wish to make the wedding guests feel uncomfortable by taking a table, and he took me off to a village church that had been cobbled together with columns and materials from local Roman villas.  The church was so packed that there was no place to sit, and standing room was at a premium.  “What feast day is this?” I asked naively.  It was no special day, he explained, just an ordinary Saturday-evening service.  The church would be just as crowded in the morning.

There was no affection of holiness in the crowd, only the unflinching sincerity that is the hallmark of good Lombards.  Corti himself never put on pious airs or talked too much of religion, and yet he took his religion straight and literally.  What other novelist would have dared to end his masterpiece with the hero and heroine being escorted to heaven by their guardian angels?

So much should be said of this great man, but I shall be content to say that the world of Italian letters has lost its brightest light, and those who are lucky to have known Eugenio Corti have been deprived of the best of friends.