What changes took place in the successive incarnations of Rabito’s work from typescript to book, film and DVD and its resulting compression from 1,027 to 411 pages and subsequent conversion into a 76-minute film? The answer has to track the relations between the shifts within and between media, worked out by different sets of collaborators in different institutional settings, each set with its own specific expertise but with objectives not necessarily convergent with those of its predecessors or successors. Modification of an author’s original text by a sequence of professionals who shepherd it through to publication is characteristic of all domains of literature, not just the literature of the diversamente colti, in which perhaps the interventions are usually more clearly indicated. Writers receive advice and instruction from a range of friends, readers, editors and copy editors, and the meaning even of what they think of as their final version can still be changed involuntarily by their own oversights and mistakes by printers. The career of Terra matta provides a good illustration of McKenzie’s general observation that ‘The book as a physical object put together by craftsmen … is in fact alive with the human judgements of its makers’ (1984, 335, quoted in McKitterick 2010, 9). Since the details of those judgements will be explored in the contributions that follow, I shall trace here only the large-scale changes in the career of the work.

The most obvious change is the shift in the title given to each successive incarnation. In leaving the text unfinished, the author had also left it untitled. When his son Giovanni decided to send it to the ADN, he gave it the title Fontanazza, the name of a hamlet outside Chiaramonte, which carried various resonances. His father’s parents on both sides came from there; his grandfather, father and mother had all worked for the baron whose ancestor had taken his title from the place in 1638; and his father makes several references to having drunk the wine of Fontanazza on the evening that he maintained ruined his life (Rabito 2007, 224–225). To Giovanni, the name Fontanazza also carried a deliberate echo of Fontamara, Ignazio Silone’s well-known account of peasant life in the Abruzzi. Fontanazza was therefore the title under which the work was awarded the Premio Pieve and remains the name under which the typescript is catalogued at the ADN. In the revised manuscript, which the Pieve archivist sent to Einaudi, however, the work acquired a new title, Terra matta in Sicilia, which the publisher chose to abbreviate simply to Terra matta. This choice of title made use of a phrase [terramatta = ‘madlands’] that occurs in the original typescript only as an insult hurled in the direction of Vincenzo and a Sicilian fellow-soldier by a family in the Veneto which had befriended Vincenzo during the war but had been offended by the loutish behaviour of his companion (70). It denotes the author’s place of origin seen from the outside, not by Vincenzo himself, who never uses that or any similar phrase elsewhere in his text but who takes it over here (69) to underline the misunderstanding by his fellow-Sicilians of local customs. The film, however, expands the title to Terramatta; Il Novecento italiano di Vincenzo Rabito analfabeta siciliano, beginning with the same phrase but in almost exactly the form used by the author himself. Finally, in the latest incarnation of the work, the DVD based around the film, the title returns to that precise form: terramatta followed by a semi-colon.

Although they might seem trivial, these changes in fact signal the changing relations, direct or indirect, between the author and the people who intervene successively on his text. ‘Fontanazza’ has a resonance, unavailable to outsiders, that links Vincenzo’s son to his father and relatives and their collective local past. ‘Terra matta in Sicilia’, chosen by a non-Sicilian, suggests one kind of external perspective on the society and experiences that marked the author’s life. Perhaps the ‘crazy’ component also suggests something of the manic intensity of the conflict between Vincenzo and his mother-in-law. On a larger scale, we could even extend it to a judgement on the Italy in which the men of the author’s generation were exposed first to the particular horrors of the First World War along the Piave and then to the pressures to emigrate simply to earn a bare living. And ‘terramatta;’ reproducing exactly the way in which Vincenzo himself recorded the phrase, anchors a film in which official images of wartime and emigration occupy significant space to the private recollections of the author.

An analogous shift takes place in Terra matta‘s visual incarnations. The film repeatedly draws the spectator’s attention back to the text on which it is based, deliberately underlining in a series of striking images its strategy of ‘remediation’ (Bolter and Grusin 1996). It opens with the sound of a typewriter and pictures of the typescript; and both the sound and the images recur frequently, invariably when the focus of the action shifts to a new stage in Rabito’s life, so that viewers are reminded that what we are watching is a visual version of the life that Rabito has chosen to present to us in his text. Often, too, the appropriate term in the typescript comes into focus on the screen at the moment when the narrator introduces that topic. In the transfer to DVD that reminder is reinforced by the addition to the film of extra material: the reading of an extract from the original text by Roberto Nobile, the narrator in the film; the story of the transformation of the typescript into the version despatched to Einaudi by Giovanni Rabito; a collective interview of Vincenzo’s three sons; and an interview with the Einaudi consultant who helped to transform the original text into the published version.

The film’s repeated focus on the pages of the original typescript not only underlines its inspiration but points towards the change of balance that the work’s sequence of transformations has introduced between public and private material. Rabito’s express motivation for writing his life was to provide his own side of the story in the face of the continuous public deceptions and humiliations he had endured from his mother-in-law. However, the space occupied by the family tirades is steadily reduced as the work is transformed; indeed, when we reach the film, the topic of his domestic conflicts has disappeared altogether. Correspondingly, the space given to perhaps the major dramatic event affecting all members of his generation, the First World War, is given an increasingly prominent position. From roughly 10 per cent of the original text, it came to occupy about 25 per cent of the published version. The film makes it even more central, surrounding the quotations from Rabito’s descriptions of his experiences with images, drawn from official sources, and thus to provide a dramatic visualization of an ordinary soldier’s by no means exceptional experience of war. As the work has moved outwards from circulation within the family to national distribution on a cinema or TV screen, its contents therefore steadily separate the author from his work. We move away from the autobiography that Vincenzo Rabito intended towards a more general picture of the times he lived through – a shift signalled by the second part of the film’s title: Il Novecento italiano di Vincenzo Rabito analfabeta siciliano. Only at the end of the film does the personal dimension return, marked by the insertion of a piece of Super8 home movie taken on a family occasion which shows us Vincenzo in person for the first time. And the film closes by returning us to the past. First, it shows us the river Isonzo, recalled by Vincenzo as full of the war dead and now, revisited in his old age, seen flowing peacefully as pages from his text slip transparently across the screen. Then we hear again the typewriter against the narration of how he first learned his letters with the help of his sister. The ending of the film thus closes the cycle of transformations by reminding us of the acquisition of the basic resources without which neither text nor film would have been possible and accompanying it with an image of his gravestone: there, signalling the parallel transformation of the author’s identity thirty years after his death, the description ‘Writer’ is inscribed.