So my NYRB Challenge Book #5 is another Pavese work that is available in Canada - his novel The Moon and the Bonfires, translated by R.W. Flint. It was published in 1950, just before the author committed suicide. The narrator, known only by his nickname "Eel", has returned to the small Italian town he grew up in. He has been away in America for many years - including those of the Second World War - making his fortune and trying to put his past behind him. (Incidentally, Pavese worked as a translator on many American classics by Melville, Gertrude Stein and Faulkner). Eel grew up in poverty, never knowing his parents and reliant on a family who takes him in for the few lire that the orphanage pays each month. He feels the stigma of his illegitimacy all his life. Later he goes to work on the Mora estate, a nearby vineyard, where he spies on the three daughters of his master as, desperate to leave their farm, they chase the attentions of any available bachelor - with tragic results (unhappiness and hopelessness seem positively glued to Pavese's female characters despite their defiant posturing). While wandering the familiar landscape of his past, and reconnecting with an old friend, Eel becomes interested in the family now eeking out a living on the poor parcel of land where he grew up, and also in finding out how the youngest Mora daughter died during the war.
This is a heartbreaking novel very much about wanting the unattainable yet never truly being able to escape from your past. Eel may have made money in America, but he's restlessly wandered that country for years, never content. The repetitive human cycles of inevitable despair mirror, and are very much embued with, the changing seasons - the promise of sown crops and the disappointment when harvests are poor. The title refers to the folk superstitions practised in hopes of cultivating the land, now sneeringly dismissed by the older, wealthy Eel. His wise friend quietly corrects him:
[he] told me that superstition is only what does harm, and if someone should use the moon and the bonfires to rob the peasants and keep them in the dark, then that man would be an ignoramus and ought to be shot in the piazza. But before I spoke I should become a peasant again. An old man like Valino might know nothing else, but he did know the land.
One small quibble that I have with the NYRB edition is the introduction by Mark Rudman which has plenty of interesting background information on the author but contains far too many plot spoilers. This novel is filled with a lot of shocking and emotional revelations. If you want to be surprised, skip the introduction until after you've finished the book. It really should have been an afterword.