by Umberto Saba, translated from the Italian by Estelle Gilson
An NYRB Classics Original
Ernesto is a classic of gay literature, a tender, complex, and poignant tale of sexual awakening by one of Italy’s most famous and beloved poets. Ernesto is a sixteen-year-old boy from an educated family who lives alone with his mother in Trieste. His mother is eager for him to get ahead in the world and has asked a local businessman to give him some workplace experience by employing him in his warehouse. One day a workingman makes advances to Ernesto, who responds with willing curiosity. A month of trysts ensues before the boy begins to tire of the relationship. He starts to avoid the unhappy man and finally escapes him altogether by engineering his own dismissal from the firm. And yet his experience has changed him, and as Umberto Saba’s unfinished, autobiographical story breaks off, Ernesto has struck up a new, increasingly romantic attachment to a boy his own age.
Ernesto combines remarkable honesty with delicate and exact psychological insight. Saba not only describes Ernesto’s feelings, restlessness, and passion but also, in witty, sardonic, and emotion-laden asides, comments and reflects on them from the more knowing but also rueful point of view of the older man he became.
This little miracle of a book tackles the weightiest themes—the unthinking cruelty of youth, the shock of adulthood, the humanizing force of love—with the humor and lightness of touch that are the surest sign of mastery. For all its modesty and charm, the novel’s profound, unassuming beauty has a force and finally a grandeur that come from the source of all great art, what Saba calls "the red hot center of life."
— Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
Even in an incomplete state, Ernesto has the limpid style and emotional power of a major literary work.
—Benjamin Ivry, Forward
One of the greatest modern Italian poets.... What sets Ernesto apart (and Saba’s prose) is the equanimity, the sparkling irony of the sensibility with which he greets this unexpected turn in his life...a lovely, bright, wise fragment that by comparison makes most other adolescent sex-memory fiction read like drying cement.
Spare, realistic prose that...manages to convey great emotion and deep thought simultaneously...should gain [Saba] some of the recognition already won by his friends and fellow Italian writers Carlo Levi and Eugenio Montale.
From this skeletal account, one may derive the main elements of the story, and the key images and preoccupations, from which Saba would build his poems: the errant father, the lost paradise of Peppa’s house, the city of Trieste, the innocent and then tormented love for his wife, melancholy, solitude, and sexual desire, including some lightly sketched yearning for boys.... Saba inherited the mixture of Romantic plangency and Classical stoicism that gave his own work its peculiar timbre.
—Rosanna Warren, The New Republic
He saunters through every street of Trieste, catching glimpses of the city’s manifold forms of life; his sky holds a little cloud that has haunted him from childhood...a certain crisp exactitude.... Saba’s straightforward language, use of traditional forms and realism also have had an impact on the work of many of the leading Italian poets today.
—Susan Stewart, The Nation