Major Trends in the Maltese Novel
by Charles Briffa.

Order The Literature of Malta by Arnold Cassola.
Order Naked As Water: Selected Poetry (eds Mario Azzopardi, Grazio Falzon).

In Malta, the appearance of the novel in the first half of the 19th century marked a change in Maltese socio-political outlook. The Maltese put themselves, their fellow countrymen, and their world in a different perspective to their pre-19th century ancestors. The development of Maltese prose gave writers the means of being natively creative. Also, given that the Maltese novel emerged when the British and European novel was already an accepted literary form, influences from the past and from abroad found in Malta receptive minds whose ideas were ready to take form.

Through the development of it literature, and especially of prose, Malta joined the romantic movement of European countries. Prose became the medium through which writers could encourage cultural and intellectual interests among the local population. Most 19th century prose writers were religious and conservative in outlook. However, their eventual contribution as a whole was the corrosion of a non-nationalist outlook on which foreign absolutism had often prospered on the islands. Although most Maltese prose writers did not directly and explicitly disperse liberal ideas among their fellow countrymen, Maltese novelists did promote nationalistic sentiments as soon as they associated themselves with the romantic movement most particularly when they chose to write historical novels whose themes interrelated with nationalism and not with rationalism. Emphasis in the novels therefore focused on nationalistic pride. This appealed to the emotions and rather than to the intellect, and so by turning attention to a glorious past novelists stirred heroic sentiments and an enthusiastic pride in Maltese heritage.

The development of Maltese prose made the birth of the Maltese novel easier. Anecdotists, translators, and stylists all contributed techniques which the 19th century novelist could reproduce. The novel borrowed from other genres. Many forms of prose flourished, providing devices which the novelist could use. Among these the novelist found narrative, argumentative, conversational, descriptive, and moralising techniques. These formed the essence of literary prose which attempted to give a formal and spiritual basis to a stylised way of looking at life. Thus the Maltese novel had everything laid for its development, and translations proved a good starting point.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was translated in Maltese by Richard Taylor as Il-}ajja u l-Vinturi ta' Robinson Crusoe ta' York (1846). With this translation Maltese fiction entered a new stylistic era. With Taylor's masterly strokes Maltese prose could now be used for the autobiographical novel. But it was not a form of fiction which attracted the Maltese imagination. The local mind was interested in things other than individual exploits. It concentrated on the creative search for a national identity.

Types of Novel

The historical novel came to Maltese shores via Italy. It came in the form of the historical romantic novel which was compatible with the local mentality. History was a source of national pride and, since fiction gave vent to wishful thinking, the historical novel gained favour as a form of literary expression. At first Malta's historical novels were written in Italian, later in Maltese. There were also a number of Italian novels translated into Maltese. Soon, the novel branched out into the popular novel and the literary novel. In the 20th century, the former developed towards the gothic novel and the latter ushered in the social novel that often assumed a reformist role. Each of these branches further bifurcated to form other subgenres: the social novel into the political, psychological, and socio-psychological novels; the gothic novel into the detective and horror novels. In the second half of the 20th century, the different branches also led to novels being written in English in Malta, and despite the use of the second language, these novels are recognisably Mediterranean in character.

The Popular Novel

By the turn of the century, two varieties of popular novel can be found: the historical and the Gothic. The popular historical novel may be further subdivided into three: the novel that treated of Maltese history, the novel that dealt with foreign history, and the novel that treated of religious history.

The Gothic novel, like Arturo Caruana's Il- Kefrija tal-Bojja Goldo (1899) for instance, is full of horror, violence, and the macabre. It explores the limits of human experience as the writer ventures into an emotional wasteland and an abyss opened up by the imagination. Descriptions relate to violence, death, destruction, darkness, and evil to show human suffering in a sensational manner.

While Gothic fiction was very popular in Europe between 1760 and 1820, a time when Maltese prose was still experiencing teething problems, it reached its peak in Malta during the last decade of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.

For the greater part of its course in 19th century Malta the popular novel was, therefore, flourishing but naïve. It was mainly the product of modest men who believed they were fulfilling a social duty by pleasing an unexacting semi-literate public. Its style had to be simple and its prose speech-based because the popular novel was often intended to be read aloud to a listening public eager for an exciting story. In other words, the popular non-literary novel satisfied the human need for story-telling. The popular novelist had his values in his own time and in his own way, and most definitely contributed to the development of Maltese prose. He existed side by side with the literary novelist.

The Literary Historical Novel

There are three distinct kinds of literary historical novel in Maltese: fictionalised history, romantic fantasy, and historical fiction. The period novel that represents fictionalised history introduces historical characters and events which form the basis of the novel.

Muscat Azzopardi's period novels are instances of this type. Nazju Ellul (1909) emphasises the political situation during the French period in Malta by revealing social preoccupation and national concerns, but it includes a fictionalised love tragedy. Agostino Levanzin's Is-Sa]]ar Falzun (1908-12) is another instance of fictionalised history whose aim was historical instruction through literary means.

The romantic fantasy, on the other hand, is a period novel that depicts a historical romance where the past is simply used as a backdrop for adventurous exploits. Galea's Ra[el Bil-G]aqal (1943) depicts Marku Falzun's adventures on the Mdina bastions and in his hideout on Comino as the islands are threatened by pirates.

Finally, historical fiction includes the period novel that puts fictitious characters and actions within a historical framework. A.E. Caruana's Ine Farru[ (1889), Galea's San {wann (1939), and Aquilina's Ta]t Tliet Saltniet (1938) are all examples of historical fiction.

Stylistic Characteristics of the Historical Novel

We can trace the immediate ancestry of the literary Maltese novel to the 1880s and to the work of A.E.Caruana (1838-1907). Caruana's artistic conscience brought a concept of the novel based on a linguistic theory of semitised lexicon. Considered the father of the literary novel, he composed a formal studied style that created a rhythm which was unfamiliar and unconventional in prose, though conventional in verse. His prose in Ine Farru[ (1889) is largely based on the conscious use of Semitic Maltese. It draws on archaic usage and specialised forms, and on unusual Maltese structures making for a style which is at once unusual and elegant without seeming ostentatious because of its resemblance to poetry. The term 'classical' does not seem inappropriate for this refined prose.

Muscat Azzopardi uses a less formal style which is more familiar and much closer to everyday language. However, Caruana had established a decorum for the diction of the historical novel, and subsequent historical novelists, Azzopardi, Aquilina and Galea, adopted his historical lexicon.

Muscat Azzopardi's Nazju Ellul (1909) is based more on the rhythms of speech than on an affected scheme for the highly educated. Azzopardi wanted a prose that was plain, natural and familiar, one that was by no means beyond his readers since he was writing for an audience considered uncultured as they could not communicate in Italian.

The language question - a political issue that relegated the teaching of Maltese reading and writing to the lower classes of the elementary school - was at its peak and during this period Muscat Azzopardi's vigorous and direct prose, very close to common speech, was an apposite medium for the popular ear. His informal usage, free from rhetorical devices and other literary pretensions, produces a plain prose that seems quite natural in rhythm and content. It is the prose of discourse that begets the illusion of reality in the speaking voice of the author whose presence drifts along the currents of the narrative and descriptive passages to carry the pitch and temper of Maltese casual conversation. The narrator's direct address to his readers and his use of colloquialisms create a close, and indeed a warm relationship between author and reader.

Thirty years after the publication of Nazju Ellul, when the linguistic controversy and tension had somewhat abated, Galea (1901-1978) is still very much involved with the reader, this time not simply for the advancement of the mother tongue, but also for the promotion of the socio-cultural aspect of the history of the mother-land.

Galea's style, reminiscent of the Ciceronian period, is sustained with considerable energy by an accretive clausal structure creating a massive progression that mirrors the characters' feelings and attitudes. The Latin structure is, however, offset by Semitic features (often juxtaposed on Romance register) that make the texture of his prose unique. His juxtaposition of the Romance with the Semitic has thematic significance: it enhances the contrast between the "good" Maltese side and the "bad" foreign one who share a common environment and create a tension which the novelist uses to maintain interest. This juxtaposition therefore charges Galea's prose with emotive power and stimulates the reader into a new sense of reality that conjures contemporary common-day speech.

Enriched with such devices, the literary historical novel becomes sentimental, and its tone complements the thematic atmosphere of nationalism. Logical narration in the hands of these historical novelists conceives of metaphor and simile not merely as illustrative parallels to what is perceived, but as bold, evocative devices to reinforce rational arguments, and they operate on the reader even at sub-conscious level. The chosen style serves then to make the whole process more effective. Thus the Maltese novelist enters the poet's linguistic domain with his emotionally toned prose.

Caruana, Azzopardi, Galea, and Aquilina all handle their prose movements with great sensitivity. They use different skills which are often evocative and sparingly used. This emotional toning of creative prose was part of the national shift in linguistic sensibility and political attitude. The Maltese prose writers found ways of writing to communicate excited feeling. Anguish, fear, shock, passion, tenderness, and warmth could be induced by the variations in syntactic structures of speech-based prose. Thus by the beginning of World War II the prose of the novelist could not be explained solely in terms of classical rhetoric but mainly in terms of romantic devices. The historical novel had introduced romantic prose in Malta.

The Social Novel

Mamo's Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka (1930), perhaps the first Maltese novel born of realism, is the satirical saga of a family engaged in emigration. Detachment and indifference dominate the behaviour of the flat characters as the novel stresses the main social consequences of a lack of education among the low classes. The sharp contrast between the educated and the uneducated creates comedy and tragedy simultaneously so that the whole scene is slapped with an ironic jerk into a cultural reflection of the nation. The effect of a lack of formal education features prominently in these novels. In Ellul Mercer's Leli ta' }a-|g]ir (1938) we have a psycho-social novel that depicts a static society which does not seek the fruits of knowledge. Ignorance is bliss because it offers social and spiritual security. But when the individual becomes conscious of his own potential and seeks knowledge through his reading he becomes a religio-social outcast. Bonnici's }elsien (1940) too treats an aspect of social realism. Insular habits and prejudices of rural life enter into a cultural conflict with urban broadmindedness and emancipation. It tends to become a social comment of village life where poverty, a lack of education, and parochial narrow-mindedness determine the over-all outlook of the villagers. And Orlando's L-Ibleh (1948) is another psycho-social novel whose main character, an idealist, comes into conflict with society. The individual is considered crazy because he does not want to conform to the usages of society. The individual mind is diagnosed insane in the collective mentality which ironically seems to be more insane than the protagonist.

Although the social novel became popular in the thirties and forties, by the turn of the century the Maltese novelist was already detaching himself from the historical novel. Manwel Dimech's (1861-1921) Ivan Prascova (1905), although it has been called a historical novel, is really a political novel (the first of its kind). It is a period novel with a foreign contemporary setting. The theme is based on a love story of two Russians living under the Czarist oppression at the turn of the century. Only four out of six volumes were published because the rest were lost in manuscript form. In the love story of the young doctor, Ivan, and his lover, Prascovia, the author inserts his revolutionary ideas that include liberal and democratic principles and anti-monarchic and anti-dictatorial attitudes. The Czar is depicted as an arch-enemy of the people, a scoundrel who sends millions to their doom.

Novels dealing with social problems are in the main issue of contemporary social realism: they are novels deliberately written as an attempt by their authors to understand their own world, as criticism of society. They are reformative novels with a special climate of opinions and sentiments that relate to social issues. They are critical, almost hostile, to the dominant assumptions of their society. These reformists wrote against their age and they had a close relation with their audience because their literature was topical and contemporary. They actually met their subjects in the street. Such a sense of identity with their own times through social investigation brought them nearer to their European contemporaries. There is in their novels an important dissatisfaction with their times, and this temperament contrasts sharply with that of their predecessors the historical novelists. However, the reformative novels did not turn away from their society in distaste; they turned towards it in distaste to fight it intellectually. Consequently, realism as an aesthetic technique in the Maltese novel was born. Fiction was for them the place where unorthodox ideas could be discussed in a more or less safe way. The novel, thus, became the major means of social and moral criticism even when it was touched by foreign influence, and as a result man had to review his attitudes as he was shown views of his relation to God, to his fellow men, and to the world around him. In short, there is in these reformists an audacity of inquiry which was to have a deep effect on subsequent Maltese novels.

These novels, therefore, deal with the condition of Maltese society. They are socially and politically involved. They see a living structure of elements and people as a problem, and this implies the seeking of judgement on the

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