“Ernesto” by Umberto Saba— A Classic of Gay Literature

Saba, Umberto. “Ernesto”, NYRB, 2017.

A Classic of Gay Literature

Amos Lassen

Umberto Saba was a distinguished Italian poet who was widely known in this country. He was a gay man who wrote an autobiographical novella of first love that he would not allow to be published during his lifetime. We meet Ernesto when he had not turned sixteen-years-old. At the turn of the century, he met a day laborer who praised his beauty and for a month after that the two have a wonderful affair However, the difference in their classes, the affair could not last. We then meet him again with a new friend, Ilio, who, like himself, plays the violin and who, we are given to understand, will make music for Ernesto for the rest of his life.

“Ernesto” is a tender and complex tale of a sixteen-year-old boy from an educated family who lives with his mother in Trieste. His mother wants him to get ahead and has asked a local businessman to give him some workplace experience in his warehouse. It was then that one of workers makes advances to him and to whom Ernesto responds with curiosity. A month of tryst follows and then Ernesto grows a bit bored with the relationship and manages to quit his job (the only job he ever had). He is changed by what transpired and begins a new relationship with Ilio. It is here that Saba’s unfinished, autobiographical stops.

Originally written in 1953, “Ernesto” was not published until 1975, long after the author’s death. It is set at the beginning of the 20th century and takes us into the mind of a teenager in small-town Trieste, Italy. Ernesto lives at home with his mother and aunt and is apprenticed to become a flour merchant. As a worker, he is frustrated, angry, and hungry for love. The story was written in three episodes and follows Ernesto’s involvement with an older co-worker (“The Man”) to the point of jeopardizing his job, his relationship with his mother, and his own sanity. The times he had sex with “the man” make his life complicated, hurt his relationship with his mother and makes him feel guilty about what has occurred (and keeps occurring). Interspersed through these scenes are the author’s thoughts as if he is justifying his text by providing more depth to his characters. It is very clear that Saba poured his heart out in creating the character of Ernesto. On this new edition translated by Estelle Gibson, we see the deep relationship the author developed with Ernesto and this sense of love is complicated and punctuates Ernesto’s thoughts and whims.

We follow the themes of the cruelty of youth, the shock of adulthood and how we are humanized by love. The story is deeply beautiful. We do not get chances to red many books of this kind and we can only hope that this publication will bring more and more classics to the reading public.

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