restricted access Italian Literary Icons (review)
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Reviewed by
Gian-Paolo Biasin. Italian Literary Icons. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985. 199 pp. $27.50.

Italian Literary Icons is an ambitious study of two centuries of Italian literature from the perspective of literary and cultural semiotics. In the Introduction Biasin relates his research to the semiotics of Cesare Segre (which he associates with Russian formalism and French narratology on the one hand and the long tradition of philological criticism in Italy on the other). He acknowledges the importance of the work of Ezio Raimondi and Umberto Eco to his research and stresses in particular the conclusion drawn in Eco's A Theory of Semiotics: "Semiotics is also a form of social criticism, and therefore one among the many forms of social practice." Finally, he focuses on particular theoretical tenets that have helped to shape his own interpretative strategy.

The readings of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian literature that make up the remaining chapters of the book are practical "applications" of the theoretical concepts presented in the Introduction. Biasin analyzes Foscolo's Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, Leopardi's "Alia sera," D'Azeglio's Ettore Fieramosca, verismo and its aftermath (Verga, Pirandello, Tomasi di Lampedusa, Sciascia, Consolo), Borgese's Rubè, Samonà's Fratelli, and Calvino's Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero. I will limit my remarks to two chapters that seem particularly representative of Biasin's interpretative enterprise. [End Page 835]

In Chapter Two Biasin argues convincingly that D'Azeglio's Ettore Fieramosca, an admittedly "minor" work governed by the conventions of the historical novel, is "emblematically minor" in that it allows us to verify three distinct critical propositions, one regarding the collective consciousness of romanticism (Frye), another regarding Lukàcs' thesis on the historical novel as a literary institution, and the third regarding the selection of themes in the formal analysis of a literary text (Tomashevsky). Biasin skillfully verifies these propositions while giving us a greater appreciation of D'Azeglio's novel. In Chapter Six Biasin surveys the many areas (science, anthropology, philosophy) in which the cognitive category "space" comes into play. The author then focuses on the relationship between literature and science as it concerns spherical space. Arguing that the volume of the sphere is a metaphor for the critical description of a literary text, he tests his thesis by applying it to Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero. The pages leading up to the discussion of Calvino's texts are both fascinating and perplexing: the sheer weight of Biasin's theoretical framework and the impressive "interdisciplinarity" of his argument threaten to overwhelm the readings of the individual texts. The analysis that follows happily puts this fear to rest. The author shows how many of Calvino's spatial references "are coextensive with the notion of writing" and highlights some particularly striking examples of self-reflexivity. Having demonstrated the "sphericity" of Calvino's texts on the thematic as well as the linguistic level, Biasin relates this aspect of Calvino's writing to the "philosophical and scientific developments of contemporary thought, in which the notions of structure, code . . . and model . . . have replaced . . . the notion of Subject."

Italian Literary Icons represents an important contribution to the field of literary and cultural semiotics. Above all, Biasin's study is characterized by his admirable respect for the literary text as both an aesthetic object and a communicative event situated in a distinct historical context. [End Page 836]

Joann Cannon
Syracuse University