I’m listening to Jan Kaczmarek’s soundtrack for Washington Square, the movie directed by Agnieszka Holland in 1997. It’s really a nice piece of work, and one I do not tire of (except for the short children’s song “The Tale of the String”). In particular, there is one song in it, sung by Catherine and Morris as they play the piano, that is quite lovely. The words are in Italian; they are actually a poem by the Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, “Tu chiami una vita.” (I feel quite certain that the song is not in Henry James’s book, although I have not read it. The book was published in 1880; Quasimodo was born in 1908.) The opening words are “Fatica d’amore.”
Ah, now, what is fatica d’amore? I’m sure you know that amore is “love”. Fatica, for its part, happens to be related to English fatigue. (It it also pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.) So is fatica d’amore “fatigue of love”? It could mean that; it could also mean “hard work of love” – you could say “labour of love,” though more in the sense of “love’s labours.”
But how is it that the word could mean both the labour and its result? Well, at least the senses are connected. The Latin source, as it happens, is a verb, fatigare, which means (according to the Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary) “weary, tire, fatigue; harass; importune; overcome” (and of course we have an English verb fatigue, which you now know was not formed by verbing the noun). Verbs that denote the causing of an effect can be nouned into the effect or the cause. Or, sometimes, both, by choice.
In English, we mostly don’t use fatigue to refer to things that cause fatigue, though in the past it was an available sense. The modern exception is in military usage, where non-soldierly grunt work, often assigned for punishment, is called fatigue (and the kind of clothing one wears to perform such work is called fatigues). Otherwise, it refers to a weariness that comes from sustained exertion.
Indeed, it almost seems a word made to be said when fatigued. It starts with the puff of /f/, and then a reduced vowel in an unstressed syllable; after that is the /t/, which may be crisp but comes with a puff of air after it that, in a fatigued condition, may become an escaping sigh. The main vowel is that /i/ that we hear in please, gee, yeesh – the tongue still able to tense, but the incipient exhaustion and perhaps exasperation is forcing its way through. And then it ends with that back-of-the-mouth stop /g/, as in words of tossing up one’s hands as with ag! or just trying and failing to swallow. Put all together, it moves from the front to the back in a sort of fading away, evanescing.
The written shape has a certain something that way too, if you wish. The f is already bent over; the t is shorter; the i is more reduced again; and after that nothing stands up, and in fact it sinks in a slump into g. The last two letters aren’t even pronounced. (That’s because we got the word from French, but I will not tire you with a history of French pronunciation and orthography.)
Of course something may be a labour of love without being laboursome or fatiguing – these word tastings are an example for me. But I have a hunch that Salvatore Quasimodo, in his poem, meant something deeper. The poem speaks of sadness and of naming a life that within, deep, has names of heavens and gardens (and Kaczmarek’s music repeats a lovely sequence on “di cieli e giardini”). But then it adds, “E fosse mia carne che il dono di male trasforma”: “And it would be my flesh that the gift of evil transformed.”
Evil? Well, or misfortune, harm, pain, ache… just like French mal. Heavens, gardens (to labour in?), flesh transformed by a gift of hurt… indeed, the fatigue of love. And, not incidentally, quite apposite to Washington Square.