Monday, September 20, 2010

The Wound: Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete

This is the worst book that I’ve ever loved.

Actually, it’s not the worst book – it’s a young man’s novel, madly uneven, spilling over with pain and a prose made hyper-precious by its burning need to testify.  It was first published to much critical acclaim in 1939 – it apparently beat out The Grapes of Wrath as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club – and it’s based so closely on the central wound of di Donato’s early life that, contrary to reigning opinion back then, I find it almost critic-proof.  Di Donato’s investment in telling the story of this wound was so all-consuming that the only way he could find to capture it was with a kind of bloated, “poetical,” quasi-biblical prose so weighted with its own portentousness that it becomes at times almost unreadable.  The book hasn’t dated well. 

Here is the wound, and horrible it is:  when di Donato was still a boy, his father, a bricklayer, was killed in a construction accident.  He was drowned in concrete.  Di Donato’s mother Annuziata was left with seven children, Pietro the oldest among them, and one more on the way.  Pietro – called Paul in the novel – has to quickly become the man of the house to keep the family from starving.  Planting himself at his father’s former job site, by sheer force of will he becomes a bricklayer at the age of twelve, a master bricklayer at fifteen.  His childhood is obliterated.  A sensitive, “good” boy, he suffers torments on every level – humiliation, physical exhaustion, guilt over his developing sexuality as he grows into young adulthood and, finally, a loss of religious faith. 

All the makings of the classic bildungsroman are there.  But the style of the prose, rather than drawing the reader in, is like a stiff arm keeping the reader away.  Maybe nothing dates more quickly or worse than “poetic” prose, particularly that of a young person (I think of such early Thomas Wolfe locutions as “Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?” – oh, brother).  Open Christ in Concrete at random and you’ll find sentences like: 
But she remained, belly full-bursting, and overworked breasts sprawled, showing dumbly with her ungraceful limbs. (42)
And hours were wings of fantasy to a mother and son. (157)
Morning-born senses bought vividly the solarized city into ken. (280)
Similar to Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep (1934), the foreign language spoken by the characters – Italian in di Donato’s case, Yiddish in Roth’s – is rendered in an English of formal, poetic cadences and idiosyncratic word choices (the idea being that it’s like a too-literal translation).  In the case of di Donato, this seems to have determined much of the narrative voice as well.  But the style, and thus the tone, changes throughout the book, sometimes almost paragraph by paragraph; di Donato sometimes uses a de-familiarizing dropped-article, “muscular” style that reminds me, of all things, of Henry Green’s Living (1929) – a ruling class author’s very successful attempt to capture the lives and speaking styles of working-class factory hands (there are probably other precedents for such a style among the many proletarian novels of the period but I’m just not familiar with them). It’s when di Donato writes past the mannerisms and uses comparatively “plain” prose that, for me, the book takes off. 

Because the story is all.  The death of the father, the squalor of the tenements, the harshness of immigrant life – they’re all so horrible they need no special stylistic flourishes to work on the reader’s mind and heart.  It’s often during the most extreme scenes that di Donato’s prose becomes “biblical” and overblown, as if to remind the reader what side the angels are on.  But we need no reminding.  The sense of injustice is huge throughout the book, in spite of the prose’s urgings, not because of it.  One of the most shocking moments is when Paul and his sister go to the police station to find out what happened to their father in the building collapse:

    The sergeant thought for a moment, and called to the next room: “Hey Alden, anything come in on a guy named – Geremio?”
    A second later, a live voice from the next room loudly answered: “What? – oh yeah – the wop is under the wrappin’ paper in the courtyard!”

    Oh yeah – that dead wop.

There’s also the painful scene of Paul wandering the streets in search of something for his family to eat, being rebuffed by the shopkeepers, and finally going to the parish priest, a well-fed, sanctimonious man sitting down to an enormous dinner.  When the priest insists he can’t help the boy, and ultimately sends him off with a slice of cake, you really do want to slap the man in his fat face.  There’s a scene in which Annuziata and her many children go before the workers’ compensation board, and it’s quickly apparent that the boss and the board are on the same side.  Though the accident was the fault of the cheap-assed boss, he places the blame on the dead man (“…I’ve always had the same difficulty with Eyetalian laborers…. I’ll be hanged if I can prevent them from hurting themselves!”) and the family, screwed and lacking the language or power to fight back, goes home with nothing.  Just like early scenes in Jane Eyre, these episodes do what they’re supposed to do – build up the reader’s indignation – but (unlike Jane Eyre) the effect is quickly squandered when the prose whips itself up into the inevitable tragic crescendo that comes next.   

A strange shadow of darkness hangs over the world of the book.  It’s almost as if it takes place in an enclosed, cramped space.  The unnamed city of the novel – a sort of nightmare New York City – is a cage.  The lack of place names and the self-directed scope of the narration give the city its dream-like air; it’s a kind of black-and-white cinematic or even comic-book quality (to the author’s credit).  And, despite “Job” (always rendered with a capital J and no article so that it almost becomes, if you will indulge me in a cliché, like another character in the novel) being the oppressive thing that kills the father and burdens the son, it’s also what makes Paul a man; thus, many of the descriptions of the work itself ring with vitality. 

There’s a strange, long scene in Part V of the book, “Fiesta,” in which the novel’s problems of tone really jump out.  (Inexplicably enough, just about every snippet of Italian in my 1939 edition of Christ In Concrete is a mess – “festa” is “fiesta,” “informazione” is “informatzione,” cafone is spelled wrong, as is biscotti – “biscuiti.”  This is, I guess, the legacy of illiterate immigrant parents and their English-language-schooled first-generation American children having to do a lot of guesswork to figure out the language – which was often dialect – but one wonders why the publisher couldn’t find a copy editor who could read this exotic language, Italian.)  The scene comes toward the end of the book, after the worst has passed, and Paul’s Uncle Luigi, who had lost a leg in a distractingly bathetic scene earlier in the book, is married to a neighborhood widow.  The wedding feast begins daintily; but as the guests drink their cordials and wine and eat the exhaustively described dishes (“Bitter green Sicilian olives and sweet Spanish olives, whitings and squid pickled in saffron, Genoese salami and mortadel, pickled eggplants, long pointed peppers and cherry peppers…” being only the beginning), the mood grows increasingly excited, then lusty, then sentimental…the mandolin comes out, they all sing, they reminisce about the old country.  This would all be fine and good, but after the endless meal has wound down, everyone sated to the point of exhaustion, in the middle of the night the guests get a kind of second wind and must have – spaghetti.  The men snap to action and prepare another enormous meal and, inexplicably, slather it right on the table-top, where they dive into it, “with only the face,” like pigs at a red-sauce trough.  What’s this scene doing here?  Acting as satire?  But there weren’t enough representations of Italian-Americans in existence at that time to provide the need for satire.  It’s an episode expressive for its own sake, something probably based on a memory – a moment of crazed over-indulgence given into by people for whom deprivation is the norm.    

Nonetheless, this distressing scene is, I’ll just posit here, the moment in literature when the Italian-American gavone, real and fictional, was born.  And every last cringe-inducing G from the loser guys in Saturday Night Fever to the depressing, self-advertising slobs, male and female, on Jersey Shore come out of its overcoat.  It’s as if they’ve retained the gavone way of being while having no clue why such an attitude might have come about. 

Di Donato was a Communist – he joined the party after Sacco and Vanzetti were executed – and, while one could probably have guessed this given the times and the themes of the book, it doesn’t read like propaganda. “I dramatized the economic struggle,” di Donato is quoted as saying in “A Visionary Speaks,” La Parola del Popolo, January-February 1980, by Michael Esposito (quoted in his excellent essay, “The Travail of Pietro di Donato" in MELUS, Summer 1980), “and let the reader add it up.”  There’s no rapturous ending as there is in Jews Without Money (like Call it Sleep, a spiritual brother of the book) with its paean to O Great Revolution.  Instead, Christ in Concrete ends with what appears to be the death of Annuziata, after Paul’s revelation of his loss of faith effectively breaks her heart.  The scene is kind of a terrible one, and not in a good way, with Annunziata cradling her teenage son and battily crooning as she slips away.  

And yet, for all its huge flaws, this book haunts me.  I’ve read it twice over the years and will probably read it again.  The sound of its prose is the sound of striving, of a tremendous moral burden, and the book reads like a broken heart.  Di Donato bled these pages.  

Pietro Di Donato. Photograph by Eve Arnold, 1960. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Women’s Work: Umbertina, by Helen Barolini – Part 2 of 2

I call these posts about Umbertina “women’s work” because women’s work is so often undervalued, taken for granted, or overlooked.  Or, as in the case of the fictional Umbertina, someone else is given the credit for it.  Recently I was at a jubilee celebration for my husband’s aunt, a Sister of St. Joseph, an order active in teaching and health care (as well as in opposing the death penalty, I was very happy to learn – Helen Prejean belongs to the same order).  It was my husband’s aunt’s 50th anniversary as a “religious.”  She is a lovely, fairly boisterous person in her big blue polyester skirt suit and, during the mass, I sat there trying to imagine her life.  I was also following the mass – presided over by a priest, of course – and wondering about the frustration of these women who have given over their lives to their faith and have so little power or status within the Catholic machine.  As the priest gave the homily, which talked about these women’s many years of service, I thought of something Simone Weil had written:  Catholicism is the religion of slaves.  (I slightly misremembered the quote, actually, which is from Waiting for God: “le christianisme est par excellence la religion des esclaves” – “Christianity is above all the religion of slaves.” In Weil’s belief system, this was of course a good thing – further evidence of what dangerous reading Weil can be for soulful young women with martyr complexes).  Later I was talking about this with a friend, and she said that the nuns she’s known reconcile themselves with their position within the church by seeing things this way:  I married God, bub, not the Pope.  Faith is the heart of the matter, “religion” maybe not so much.  (For similar reasons, Weil, born to non-practicing Jewish parents, was never baptized into the Catholic Church.)

So, yes – we’re talking about women’s work here.  

Umbertina’s middle section, “Marguerite, 1927 – 1973” is the nerve center of the book; of the three sections, its prose and tone also show the most variety, as if mirroring the turbulence and indecision of Marguerite’s life.  Chapter Sixteen is suddenly in the first person – and while such a change can be fun for the writer, it’s more often than not jarring for the reader (I think of a similar jump to first-person in Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, and what a big mushy drag that particular chapter is; I wish her editor had talked her out of it, as well as the endless-ravings-about-Mick-Jagger-by-the-crazy-sister section).  In the case of the first-person chapter in Umbertina, I suspect it originated as a diary entry.  There is no more pointless game than to play Is This Autobiographical? when reading a novel, and yet, much more than the other two sections, Marguerite’s has life’s uneven textures running through it, which makes it interesting as a kind of character study but somewhat unsatisfying as a shapely piece of prose.

Marguerite, as a girl, is the odd child out in the family; “Why aren’t you like everyone else?” her mother is constantly asking her.  She is intelligent and questioning, and part of her alienation seems to stem from her family’s lack of definition as Italian-Americans:

Marguerite learned that it was not nice to look too Italian and to speak bad English the way Uncle Nunzio did.  Italians were not a serious people, her father would say – look at Jimmy Durante and Al Capone; Sacco and Vanzetti.  Italians were buffoons, anarchists, and gangster, womanizers.  “What are we, Dad, aren’t we Italian?” she would ask. “We’re Americans,” he’d say firmly, making her wonder about all the people in the shadows who came before him.  Grandma Umbertina was exempt, even though she didn’t speak English, because she had made good. 

After college, a disastrous but short-term marriage that lands her back at home, and a general inability to be “normal,” Marguerite meets an Italian man from whom she takes language lessons; she decides to go to Italy:  “An unselected candidate for American happiness, a family failure, she sailed for England harboring the certainty that her destination was surely Italy.”

And her destiny is Italy, but not before some easy, acrobatic, and joyless-seeming sex along the way: 

Sex was the way to unpeel all those layers of lies that had been plastered on her consciousness.  Family, God, Money, Success, Marriage – all she had to do to strip these plastered-on slogans from her was to derobe [sic – the interesting Freudian-slip typo of a French speaker, dérobé meaning, among other things, to steal or, as a reflexive verb, to steal away] and screw them off.  Fucking is fucking Mother, Middle-Class Virtues, a College Education, and Marrying Well, with its square coitus and family life around the backyard picnic-table. 

This passage, like the one from the prologue quoted in the earlier post (“She had no uniform…”) illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Marguerite sections.  Interesting detail – and too much of it.  It wants to snap, like a Mary McCarthy observation – note I refrained from writing “gimlet-eyed” – but there’s not the economy to do so.  Too many words doing the same work, too much repetition. 

Once in England, Marguerite meets a handsome – tall, blond, etc. – Italian scholar named Gillo Gatti at the British Museum, and they begin an affair.  Eventually, Marguerite goes to Italy with the plan that her lover will join her; in the meantime Gatti’s friend, a poet named Alberto Morosini will meet her there.  Quickly upon their meeting, Morosini unknowingly drops the bomb:

“And Gillo?” he said in one of the lulls of their conversation.  “How is he? I saw his wife not long ago and she said his future plans were still uncertain.”

After the shock wears off, Morosini becomes Marguerite’s consolation prize – and in no time at all he is proposing to her on a temporary bridge over the Arno.  Marguerite never seems to get over his lack of physical appeal, and the description of him is pretty harsh:

Each time they re-met she was startled again by the splay-footed professor who snorted and blew through his nose and had small brown furtive eyes sunk in the hollows on either side of that huge nose.  In winter Alberto wore a thick brown loden coat and a hat whose brim turned up all the way around.  His walk, with that rocking toed-out gait, made him seem ludicrous like a performing Russian bear, but he was unaware of anything except being himself.  
The Ponte Santa Trinita, bombed by retreating Germans during World War II. 
The bridge was reconstructed in the 1950s, using much of the original stone dredged from the Arno. 

But he’s a poet, and older, and established, and can be her Pygmalion (needless to say, if Marguerite’s grandmother had never emigrated, such a class jump – granddaughter of Southern Italian peasant marrying scion of old Venetian family – would have been nearly impossible; it’s only possible because Marguerite is a moneyed American who re-imports herself, a point not lost on Marguerite).  Alberto also wins points with Marguerite because when she reveals her affair with Gatti, he is kind to her.  So she signs on for marriage with him – and the description of this marriage feels like real life:  full of ambivalence, highs and lows, and ever-shifting moods; unfortunately for Marguerite, unhappiness mostly wins out.  We are of course proceeding from the point of examination set forth in the prologue – the years of frustration with her life having piled up until she’s contemplating divorce – and so the description of the marriage is one of something problematized, its details evidentiary:  look at all the reasons for my unhappiness.  Sometimes Marguerite fantasizes about her husband’s death; sometimes, in a cartoony, day-dreamy way, about murdering him.  They have children, two girls and a boy; they live for a time in Washington, D.C..; their young son dies; they return to Italy.  Time is elastic in this section – years are compressed, small moments elongated.  Marguerite finally decides on a separation.

The first-person chapter (which is also present tense) that follows this decision is a whirlwind.  Marguerite visits her hometown in upstate New York, where we meet her teenaged daughter, Tina, who will be the subject of the last section – “a beautiful girl,” Marguerite says, “I love her.  She is what I wanted to be.” – there’s a trip to New York City, shopping, the revisiting of daughterly alienation – “‘You have to think of the children,’” says Dad. ‘You’ve got others to think of beside yourself.’  No, Great White Father, you’re wrong.  First me, this time.”  Then we’re thrown back to Florence, third-person and past-tense, with Marguerite trying to make a go of it alone.  She has a kind of flirtation with a slightly boozy Episcopal minister, realizes this relationship would be hollow, and lands back in Rome – and in the arms of her husband.  The separation is over.  Hurray, it’s all been worked out.  Except of course it hasn’t.

Because in the next chapter we plunge, in medias res, into an affair Marguerite is having with a writer named Massimo Bontelli.  In these chapters, the prose is both sort of breathless and exhaustive – the focus tightens and the writing contains rather more close observation, since we are talking about a short, specific span of time rather than the habits and rhythms of a long marriage (here’s a sharp observation:  “…Irene had the tense bright look of all women who arrive in their forties not yet ready”). 

Marguerite meets Bontelli at a literary party.  He is a writer but he stands out from the others:  “Bontelli was different not only in his youthfulness but also in the kind of wary self-consciousness that again set him off from the confidence and aplomb around them.”  This is appealing to Marguerite, who still feels like something of an outsider herself, and she offers to look at his work, perhaps translate it.  In short order they’re having an affair.  But in this case, they’re frank with each other – Massimo is, like Marguerite, married with children – and so they both know what they’re getting into.  

Complications and disappointments will of course ensue, and the root of them is the same as it had been with Marguerite’s marriage:  she still hasn’t found her own identity.  “Somewhere she has lost her footing from that safe hold she had reached with Alberto.  Somewhere the balance had tipped and made her no longer her own woman, but Massimo’s.”  She is disturbed by Massimo’s treatment of his wife (“His domestic, he called her.”) and the fact that he still sees other women, even if he insists they aren’t important to him.  At some point he says to her: “‘I don’t want to lose you; you’re what any man would desire – beautiful, elegant, cultured.  You’re everything ideal,’” and she feels defeated:  “He was weaving the abstraction of the ideal woman…”  She muses on the downside of actually living with him in the future:  “…his coming home at noon to the conventional Italian dinner, which would take up all her morning to prepare and mean sacrificing her freedom as she didn’t with Alberto, who was used to American ways; his going off in the evenings, leaving her alone while he developed his contacts….There was even the question of his shirts.  He had his shirts made to order.  Twelve to fifteen thousand lire each.”  She never quite says it, but he certainly reads like a spoiled, selfish, sulky guy – away, slight man!

Bontelli is obsessed with getting ahead in the Italian literary scene, and it’s through this that Marguerite decides she’ll cement their relationship:  “She had begun to play her own games, gambling on Massimo’s vanity and ambition; if she gave him the satisfaction of being published in America, this of itself would tie him to her.  He was driven by the need to succeed as a writer.  He gave her clues for helping him:  Alberto and Alberto’s friends were influential figures in the literary world.”  Bontelli has his heart set on winning the Premio Strega (perhaps Italy’s top literary prize), which his new novel has been nominated for – and, in fact, Marguerite somehow intuits that if he doesn’t win the prize, their affair will be over.

Much of this section, and all the parts touching on Italy’s literary elite, read like a roman a clef; some real names are used (Bassani, Barzini; at one cocktail party, we see the man himself, Ignazio Silone:  “…gloomy as Eeyore and predicting that this year would be worse than the last…”) while some invented names stand in for writers I’d probably recognize immediately if I knew more about the Italian literary scene at that time.  The favorite for the Strega is a book called Una Spirale de Bruma by one Tomaso Campo, and Marguerite has to force down feelings of nausea as she hears it praised. 

The texture of the Strega section especially is glittery and derisive and, hideous to report, the writers whom the narrator treats with the most scorn are pretty exclusively other women:

A huge female form loomed over their little table.  It was Clotilde Guarino – self-styled national monument of Italian letters.  One of a troupe of thick-skinned, aggressive, overpowering Italian women-cultivators of their own garden who manure with contacts their meager crops of literature.

Another lady poet, known as La Béchamel for the white-sauce blandness of her verses, had managed to get hold of Alberto.  The critic whose last name was the same as that of a laxative and whose slogan, they said, was “I work while you sleep” had come in.  And Maria de Maria, the wild beauty of three decades past who still thought, with dark hair streaming over her curving shoulders, she could pass for a girl-writer of promise. 

I found all this catty without being funny – it’s satirical writing making a weird incursion into what’s essentially a realistic novel (the great Dawn Powell, for one, must have seen the risks of such a combination, because she kept her satirical and naturalistic novels pretty well separate; they could almost have been written by two different people).  What this writing also sounds like is internalized sexism born out of a masculinist culture; or perhaps belated payback for a lack of support or understanding from these Italian Lady Writers to – just to go out on a limb here – the young, pretty, American-born wife of noted poet Antonio Barolini.  

Speaking of satire, and returning to something touched on above, I sense the spirit of Mary McCarthy running through so much of the Marguerite section.  The attitudes are similar, from a hook-up with a man while on a trip, with its go-on-girl-and-make-yourself-brave pose towards sex (“The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit”), to the agonized therapy sessions (“Ghostly Father, I Confess”), even to Marguerite’s premature end:  in an automobile smash-up on the way to meet her lover.  (McCarthy, ever piling the notion of futility on best-laid plans, has main character/personal stand-in Martha die in an automobile accident at the end of the chilly little book A Charmed Life – in this case, having just borrowed money to get an abortion after drunkenly sleeping with her ex-husband, chubby and fairly disgusting Edmund Wilson stand-in Miles Murphy; one would never guess Wilson was such a good writer going by McCarthy’s endless fun-making at his expense.)  However, such a texture doesn’t suit Umbertina – the book’s many small, clashing patterns detract from its cumulative effect.  It keeps changing direction, taking a different tack, trying something new – just as we may do in life.  

The Marys have so much to talk about.

Of the three sections of Umbertina, the final section “Tina 1950 –” is, for me, the least compelling.  It begins with the news of Marguerite’s death – Tina, a graduate student and Dante scholar at Columbia, is crushed by it; comforted by her boyfriend Duke, what she says to him fills in the reader on her life.  Among other things, Tina had known about her mother’s affair, and she also thinks her mother always had a kind of death wish:  “‘…I believe what Freud said – there are no accidents.’”  She goes to Rome for the funeral, and realizes that this also means, for some unspecified, intuitive reason, the end of her relationship with Duke. 

Despite her mother’s perception of her, Tina – named for her great-grandmother Umbertina – sees herself as high-strung, indecisive; of the three characters, she is torn between cultures the most, having been raised bilingual (unlike her mother or grandmother) and brought up in both Italy and the US.  Rome calls out to her but she also resents its “softness and languor…beneath which, she knew, there were deadly poisons of unrest and discontent.”  She is reunited with her younger sister Weezy – a grouchy little number who seemed to me at first little credit to the feminists or anarchists of that era – and together they go through their mother’s hidden cache of diaries.  Finding the last entry, they realize their mother was pregnant with Massimo’s child when she died.  This causes Tina to reveal to her sister that she too is pregnant. 

Time is passed in Rome, with Tina, unsure about what to do, ruminating about her place in the world.  She looks insultingly at the Italian-American tourists, with their awful accents, visiting the motherland:

Oblivious, friendly, expansive, the man went on. “My father was from Fudge.”
“Don’t you know where that is?  Down near Bari.”
“Oh,” Tina gasped, “Foggia!”
“Yah, Fudge.”

She is insistent that she is not of this tribe; she is not Italian-American.  She thinks:
I am part Italian and part American, not Italian-American.  It was a splitting of hairs that convinced no one, not even Tina.  But she felt obliged, each time, to put up her defense against being merged in the ethnic mess she saw and despised in the States.  She thought of a bumper sticker that disgusted her:  “Mafia Staff Car, Keepa You Hands Off.”

She runs into Jason Jowers, the brother of a former classmate, and they spend time together, hanging out in Rome and going to visit a former teacher together.  They take mescaline and watch Cabiria and wander the streets.  Suddenly it all turns sour – Tina blurts out that she’s pregnant and, feeling Jason’s disapproval, runs away.  At her mother’s funeral at the Protestant Cemetery they reconcile, and they’ll take a trip together, but not before Tina has to have the abortion. 

Bad judgment, and maybe some resentment of her sister’s leftier-than-thou attitude leads Tina to go through Marguerite’s friend Angela to get the abortion, rather than her sister’s feminist doctors.  Creepily, Angela brings a male friend with her to the doctor’s – she’s going on a date after seeing Tina through the procedure – and Tina’s thoughts run to the least comforting things as the operation is about to start (“…she hated the pope in his long unsullied skirts, or the pigs in the Parliament who daydreamed of women to fuck as they deliberated on laws that violated their bodies”).  The doctor shouts at her to be quiet as he’s performing the procedure and, afterwards, just as an exhausted and weeping Tina is being hustled into the car, a man hurls himself in and insists they chase a thief (!). 

In all, it’s a harrowing scene – not as harrowing as the nearly sick-making abortion scene in the late great James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and the Works, nor as gallows-humor-shocking as the one in Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (a book I read some years ago while staying with my oldest sister in a freezing cold house in shotgun country Wisconsin, shortly after we ran off the road in her pickup and landed, screaming all the way, in a creek bed) – but it’s powerful and affecting; and great agitprop.  At the end of the scene, as Tina is comforted by a now very kind Weezy, Tina says:

“…I’m one of the lucky ones who had the money.  The women who get it done on a kitchen table with knitting needles aren’t so lucky.”
“When we change things it won’t be like this anymore, Tina.”
“Change things, Weezy, change them.”

And as I read those words and found myself about to cry, I said to the author:  Yes, sister, you have earned that cliché. 

Tina and Jason take their trip after this, enjoying sunny days in southern Italy, with a goal of visiting Umbertina’s village, Castagna, together.  A little too conveniently, Yankee-born Jason also has a Castagna in his past – it’s the name of an Italian ship that ran aground off his family’s beach house in Cape Cod; his grandfather had been part of the rescue team.  The journey to Castagna takes on great meaning for them.  Meantime, staying at a villa loaned them by their teacher, they talk and eat and make love and have cute, insufferable nicknames for each other.  Just as everything’s going so well, they’re invited to a party at a count’s house nearby where, in short order, Tina slips away with a Rico Soave type named Ferruccio.  And it’s with this man, and in his Maserati, that Tina ends up going on the pilgrimage to Castagna.

Like so many who go back to the motherland and expect bells to ring for them, Tina’s experience there feels anticlimactic.  Tina and Ferruccio look at the ruins of the monastery of Corazzo, they go to a bar and have a coffee – there is no place to eat, and little to buy in the town, not even postcards or cigarettes; looking for a souvenir, Tina buys a packet of salt at the Sale e Tabacchi.  She yearns to feel connected with Castagna, “but more and more she seemed to herself an intruder in a place that was as much a ruin as the monastery below them.”  They run into a priest who recognizes Umbertina’s name, and when Tina tells him Umbertina and Serafino emigrated to America, the priest says yes, and they never came back:  “They left because of miseria and they forgot the others still here in miseria.”  (That this would have happened nearly a hundred years before this scene is taking place presented no suspension of disbelief issues for me – collective memory in small Italian towns runs very deep.)  Tina feels shamed by the priest’s words and, wanting to help in some way, she volunteers to send books to the town.  “How could that help?” the priest says and, when Ferruccio asks what the people in Castagna do, the priest says:

“They leave; there is no work here.”

Children crowd around the Maserati; Tina symbolically but messily drinks from the town fountain and then, her eyes filing “with tears that ran down her cheeks, merging with the water on her face,” it’s time to leave Castagna.  “And as she got into the car Tina knew that though she had physically located the where of Umbertina, the secret of why she was lost and Umbertina directed still eluded her.”  The rhythm of the Tina and Marguerite sections is all about revelation and quick change, but Castagna is not a nut to be cracked in one day.  Maybe more than anything, the Marguerite-Tina line is cursed by modernity and its expectations. 

From here the book just has to sew up the Tina plot – she returns to New York, resumes grad school at Columbia, befriends a nice gay man called Alan and, while waiting on line for Shakespeare in the Park tickets (an activity so many of us in NYC used to do, mostly replaced by the virtual line these days), she runs into Jason Jowers.  Of course they reconcile, he forgives her, and – hurray! – they’ll be married.  Sad to say, my interest shut off almost entirely at this point, as Tina and Jason go up to Ye Olde Yankee white clapboard grandparents’ house on the Cape and the last chapter disintegrates into a kind of WASP day-dream.  The house’s handsome interiors are lovingly described, a photo of the bark Castagna is meaningfully gazed upon, and Tina goes to sleep “…in her New England canopy bed, dreaming of the swallows sweeping down over a terrace in the stupendous twilight of a May night in Rome”:  and thus are her Italian and American halves finally united.  She plants a rosemary bush by the Jowers’ stout Yankee house in memory of her great-grandmother Umbertina, and also because “where it grows, the women of the house are its strength.”  As the book ends, Tina calls Jason by his old nickname (“darling Bear”), they plan a bright future together and, finally, tonstant weader fwows up. 

But, to go back to the unfortunate Is This Autobiography? question, if Marguerite is sort of the author’s alter-ego, then Marguerite’s daughter is sort of the author’s daughter:  so who can blame a mother for wanting to give her child a happily-ever-after ending?  The daughter finally gets the roots – literally represented by the rosemary plant – that Marguerite and even grandmother Umbertina never finally got in life.  What’s unfortunate to me is that Barolini chose to ground these roots in a tradition – Mayflower Yankeedom – that, even if the particular specimens of that tradition are the nicest people you’ll ever meet, nonetheless happens to represent the worst kind of cultural snobbery.  

Right after I finished Umbertina back in April and was thinking about what to say about it, I got my monthly e-newsletter from the NIAF.  Amid the sort of corny items about visiting Sorrento and seeing Frankie Valli in concert, there was something about an Italian studies conference.  Clicking on a link eventually brought me to an outline of the conference (which was entitled “For a Dangerous Pedagogy: A Manifesto for Italian and Italian American Studies”), and trolling through it I saw many familiar names (Stanislao Pugliese, for example, was an advisor).  My interest was piqued by a lecture called “Globalizing Dante” by a Dante scholar at Columbia named Teodolinda Barolini.  Who, once I googled her, turns out to be the daughter of Helen Barolini. 

Well, the internetz iz a strange place.  Further googling led me back to Antonio Barolini, father of Teodolinda and husband of Helen, who wrote charming and well-observed sketches for your father’s pre F-word New Yorker of the 1960s, and who died in 1971.  Umbertina was written in the 70s, and published in 1979.  Can some women’s work only begin when the husband is out of the picture? 

Something else made me go to the website for the Premio Strega.  Clicking on the Vincitori  ("winners") section, I saw that a book called
Una Spirale di Nebbia won in 1966, the same year that a book by a writer named Massimo Grillandi, which sounds a lot like fictional Marguerite's fictional lover Massimo Bontelli, was nominated.

Una Spirale de Bruma?
And then I just left it there.  I mean, should I have access to this knowledge?  And what’s the point, anyway?  I reminded myself of when I was in graduate school in what felt to me a lonely city and, working late at night at the writing center, I would suddenly pull up the internet and google my own last name.  Invariably, the website of a public relations and marketing firm in Seattle (!) and hundreds of mentions of soccer players would come up:  cold comfort for a lonely person.  What was I, relying on the outside world to tell me I existed?  I realized I hadn’t done this in years and, in this spirit, I recently googled my name again.  What did I find?  Some weird stuff.  Namely, that my old agent had recently donated his papers to NYU’s Fales Library and, among them, in Box 21, items 20 & 21, were the two parts of the manuscript of my old novel – a book unpublished/unpublishable because of its many inconsistent tone changes, its almost autistic level of detail, and its reliance on the vagaries of life to provide a coherent and believable story.   

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Women’s Work: Umbertina, by Helen Barolini – Part 1 of 2

This novel tells the story of three generations of women in one family, beginning with the Calabrese goatherd Umbertina, continuing with her American-born, unhappily deracinated granddaughter Marguerite, and concluding with Marguerite’s own daughter Tina, a young academic trying to find her way between two cultures. According to Edvige Giunta’s afterward in the Feminist Press edition, the book has had a troubled publishing history: first brought out in 1979, it went out of print after three years; a later paperback edition “misjudged the book to be a romance novel,” with a cover, as Helen Barolini told Giunta, showing “three women, hair streaming romantically” that “spoke of a work the book did not represent.” Over 100,000 copies of that edition were pulped: what a way to break a writer’s heart. Another paperback was brought out in 1988, “but it was so poorly produced,” Giunta writes, “that the author agreed to forgo royalties in order to have the rights revert back to her.”  

I am a firm believer that if the book-jacket designer knows what she’s doing, one should be able to be judge a book by its cover. The cover of the Feminist Press paperback does a reasonably good job of this, although the landscape image looks a lot more like agriculture-rich Toscana or Umbria than a hardscrabble area of Calabria, and the babe on the cover, with her wise, amused look, seems more like a silent film diva playing a peasant than an actual one.  

Francesca Bertini as sturdy peasant?

Each of the book’s three characters is given her own section, titled by name and birth and death dates, giving the novel the air of a biography. The sections are introduced by a prologue, where we meet Marguerite (the author’s alter-ego, to be reductive about it) in her analyst’s office in Rome. Marguerite is cool in the way of that era – “liberated,” smoking, neurotic, mini-skirted – and the era, the late 1960s, is announced in the form of a zebra-striped rug on the therapist’s floor. Marguerite is in crisis, contemplating divorce from her husband of eighteen years, an older Venice-born poet called Alberto Morosini, so that she can, as they say, find herself. Alberto is old-world, complacent, interior; he doesn’t understand his wife’s crisis of identity (“Useless to think of the years with Alberto – years of being anesthetized, of withdrawing while he emerged in his work, in his books of poetry and criticism…”) and her need to have a meaningful existence of her own:

She had no uniform; she had no official presence with which to impress people and help them recognize her. And yet she did: adult woman, longtime wife, past mistress, mother of two living daughters and one dead son, college grad, family flop, translator and sometime substitute teacher, forty-five typed words a minute, bella presenza, drives own car, Jungian analysand, job applicant, divorce applicant, life applicant. These were the buttons and stripes of her uniform and still no one saw her. She could no more exist alone than does a painting without viewers, or the Grand Canyon without tourists. Her existence depended on others. How could she get them to know, by Jesus, that she was here? 

In the midst of her crisis she thinks of her grandmother, Umbertina Longobardi (“Marguerite wondered if her own fears were worse now than those faced then by that Calabrian peasant…”), and a fairly tortuous plot contrivance involving a dream – which nonetheless has the flavor of tedious, uplotted real life – leads Marguerite back to the woman. “I always fantasized about my grandmother,” she tells her pipe-smoking analyst, Dr. Verdile. “I always thought I wanted to get back to her elementary kind of existence…her kind of primitive strength.” And, as in the distance the great wheels of plot creakingly turn, Dr. Verdile says to Marguerite: “Start with your grandmother.” 

The tone change in the section that follows (“Umbertina, 1860 – 1940”) is extreme, as it should be. We are now in the mountains of Calabria: gestures are big and clear, syntax is simplified, landscape is uncluttered, and social relations are more or less feudal. We are in the land of myth, which allows Barolini to write sentences such as “She was a Calabrian of the mountains and walked erect, unlike the Calabrians of the plains, who were listless and thin, bent by malaria,” or “And they suffered as well from nature’s heavy hand: from earthquakes, landslides, floods, and droughts against which their prayers and processions rarely prevailed.” This is the culture seen from the inside out, without irony or judgment (a long way from, for example, Carlo Levi’s memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli). Writing like this isn’t usually my cup of tea but in Barolini’s hands it’s a very adept conjuring act – believable, uncondescending, and mostly unsentimental; a “knowing” narrator would ruin it. 
Instead of marrying her local intended, Giosuè the charcoal maker, Umbertina is courted by an older man, Serafino, a distant relative who has come back from America to find a wife – one of many men who proves the truth of the charmless maxim Moglie e buoi dei paesi tuoi: Get your wives or oxen in your hometown. I have relatives who have done this very thing and, let’s just say, the woman usually makes out less well than the man – and probably less well than the ox. However, Serafino is a kind person – “an easygoing, gentle man whose movements were slow” – as well as a forward-thinker – in his own youth he had sold off his sheep and joined Garibaldi’s Redshirts – and Umbertina, in that peasant way, accepts “fate” and the couple are married. Hardship follows. Serafino, trying to make a go of it as a farmer, must take out loans at high interest; “Then there was a fall in the price of farm goods on the market, while the dread land tax, the catasto, stayed as high as ever. To that was added the tax on draft animals, and to these taxes that Rome took were added the supertaxes of the provinces and communes.” Things get even worse and so, with their three young sons, like so many Italians of that period, the family emigrates to the U.S.  

The story of their leaving, crossing, and arrival at Ellis Island is well-rendered; there is a bit of the feel of research in it, but Barolini chooses her details nimbly, using them to give the section a realistic texture. Despite all the hardship described, for me – and I would guess for many second- or third-generation Italian-Americans – this section has the charm of familiarity (my mother came in through Ellis Island in the early 1930s). Plus, despite the perils of arrival in a strange country, because of the nature of the book, the reader knows nothing too tragic is going to happen (unlike, say, the crushing section in Charles Reznikoff’s multi-volume poem Testimony – which was based on actual law reports – where a trusting young Italian couple lands in the new world only to become victimized by a thug who kills the husband and robs and rapes his wife). Serafino knows enough to hook up with a padrone – an immigrant boss who knows the American bosses – and the family is brought in a wagon up to Little Italy:  

When they crossed Prince Street the man in the bowler hat gestured around him and said, “Sicilians. The street of Sicilians.” At Mulberry he said scornfully, “This is the street of the napoletani, a bad street – full of fights and bandits.”  

(Neapolitans and Sicilians are, needless to say, perpetually getting a bad rap. A few years ago I had a conversation with a lovely older lady, a theatre person who looked like an elegant version of Betty Boop, who described being in the motherland – Palermo – back in the 1950s, with her new husband. They were high up on a hill, and he was busy taking a photograph with a complicated camera, his back to her, when all of a sudden a scooter zoomed up and the man on it grabbed the bag she had on her shoulder – a bag that held their money, passports, everything. She held on, and the man on the scooter dragged her all the way up to the top of the hill until, exhausted, he let go of her. I held onto that bag, honey, she said to me, even though I ruined my new corduroy velvet pantsuit – the knees were shredded to ribbons and one of the sleeves was ripped clean off. I complimented her on her tenacity and she waved this away. I love them dearly, my people, she said, it’s a shame they’re all thieves. The worst of the whole thing, she said, was that when she walked back down the hill her husband was so engrossed in his camera that he didn’t even realize she’d been gone.) 

Umbertina and her little family are brought to the section where the other Calabresi live:     

They came to Bleecker Street, and at the end of the block where the street terminated in the Bowery they could see the girders and the rails of the Elevated. The house they entered was one of the older ones, a narrow, three-story wooden structure of old New York, once the private home of some well-to-do merchant and his family. The broad brownstone steps were worn; the once-graceful columns alongside the front door were rotted, and the lunette above it the only sign of a once-fine residence. The house was now partitioned off and forty people were squeezed into its spaces.  

This is but a stone’s throw from where I live, and mere blocks away from the Merchant’s House Museum (which is almost identical to this description, except that it’s made of brick) and theoretically on the same block as what is today (and since 1973) the Yippie headquarters at 9 Bleecker Street.

(However, what’s confusing to me is that, according to that great site the New York Songlines, this building and several others on the block went up in the late 1800s, around the time of the fictional Umbertina’s arrival; their being built there – particularly by noted architects – suggests that this was still a fairly fancy address…but then again, just down the street at that same time [1883], the Florence Home for Fallen Women opened. I wonder if any NYC history/architecture head might have some insight on this?)  

 Umbertina’s block in 1934, compliments of the NYPL. The El is long gone, but the corner building still stands. 

Although they are more or less “mortgaged to a padrone,” the family makes its way; Umbertina is industrious, taking in washing and learning how to live in the new world. She is aided by a visiting nurse from the Board of Health, a sort of snooty type named Anna Giordani:  

Her family had arrived in the earlier, political immigration of 1848 when Garibaldi himself had arrived in America after defeat in the siege of Rome. The Giordanis were northern Italians of the Protestant Waldensian sect; they were educated and had some money. Anna Giordani was a middle-aged spinster who was devoting her life to work among the new Italian immigrants, the southerners, who were as removed from her experience as the Negroes of New York were from the whites.  

Umbertina comes to learn “the American story – money was the key to everything.” When Anna Giordani berates the Italians of the ghetto for putting up with the worst conditions – taking the worst jobs and sending the money home – Umbertina says her money won’t go back:  

“It’s to get us out of here. We are not like the napoletani on Mulberry Street. They came from the slums of Naples and are happy in the slums of New York. But we are country people. We don’t live like this.” 
It takes them two years but, despite setbacks – including the theft of their savings when the local Italian banker, Ranucci, runs off to Italy, and Umbertina’s being forced to sell her one prize possession, her coperto matrimonale, a beautiful bedspread she’d had woven back in Calabria – the family leaves the city for a hamlet in upstate New York called Cato, where other families from Castagna have settled. Umbertina is amazed by the richness of the land, as opposed to hardscrabble Calabria: “There farming had been plundering, sacking the dry earth beyond its endurance; here she saw such abundance of wild green that it put her soul at ease – it would never dry out and force them to be uprooted again.”  

From here the family’s fortunes go up, up, up, with Umbertina the author of this success. She starts out making sandwiches for the working men of the town, which leads to the family opening up a small grocery store, which leads to a larger one, and then an importer’s, a travel agency, and a bank. Umbertina and Serafino have many more children (I lost count at some point). Many details of this section in Cato, as in NYC, had me nodding my head, so emblematic of the Italian-American experience are they. For example, Umbertina finds that, to Americans, she’s become one of a solid mass of Italians – her family’s specific identity as Calabrese doesn’t signify. In Cato, the local Italian Catholic church is at first in the basement of the Irish Catholic one, and the Italians eventually get their own building, because the Irish don’t want to mix with the new immigrants (the case for my neighborhood: the Irish St. Brigid’s on Avenue B begot the Italian Mary Help of Christians on East 12th Street [sadly more or less closed now, it was named for a Salesian devotion and familiarly known as “Mary Help,” much to my delight]). There is the occasional lovely Italian-American made-up word like “giobba” and “groceria” (sometimes seen as “grosseria”) though I’m amazed “baccausa” did not come up. And finally there is the inevitable assimilation of the children of immigrants. And, though Umbertina rules the roost and the family is a success story, as her children grow American, Serafino dies, and she grows older, there’s a feeling of: Is that all there is? 

 “Mary Help,” no longer tended by the Salesians, but which still has two Sunday masses.  

Even though the family empire was masterminded by Umbertina, when Serafino dies, “as was customary, his obituary credited him with the business success and his wife only with having been his working companion.” The business is called “S. Longobardi & Sons,” after all. With Serafino’s death, Umbertina’s son Jake takes over, and Umbertina becomes “the grandmother in the kitchen”:

Sometimes in the kitchen she would sit still and think; she would think how strange it was that although Serafino hadn’t worked for years and all the early decisions and planning had been hers, it was his name which triumphed and it was his presence, as a man, which had been necessary to give her the standing from which to command. 

Despite all this, there’s never a question of her own daughters owning the business; all of it goes to the sons – just as it’s the sons who get the education, as well as the adoration of the mother. The daughters instead “would get the finest biancheria possible” – linens for their trousseaux. There is a beautifully written passage describing the wildly inappropriate, overly deluxe biancheria, which I realize is my favorite writing in the book – richly textured, visual, and totally absurd in its implications – which is also much commented on by Giunta in her afterward: “Umbertina’s concern with providing the finest linen for her daughters’ dowry captures her desire to endow her daughters with what they need to be strong, but also her own entrapment within, and collusion with, a world that she has always understood and accepted to be a man’s world.”  

(I’m also reminded of course of all the crazily elaborate linens my grandmothers had – especially my mom’s mom: antimacassars and enormous tablecloths and dresser scarves, one of which, much like the linens Umbertina chooses, has “long strands of flax fringe…[requiring] after laundering, the patient combing-out of fringe strands,” and currently hangs in a dry-cleaning bag in my closet, awaiting a use it will never get.)  

Umbertina’s daughters are mostly faceless in the book, quiescent and acted-upon – as Giunta writes: “Comfortably assimilated and unquestioning, Carla [the mother of Marguerite] is too removed from the central questions of the novel, according to Barolini, to even warrant a section of her own.” Thus we will jump to Marguerite in the next section, but not before Umbertina leaves this world.  

Nearly eighty, at the yearly family picnic which has become the only activity Umbertina looks forward to, she muses on her life, wondering who it is, among her complacent daughters and non-Italian-speaking grandchildren, she can tell her story to. And she realizes what the answer is: “No one.”  

Although she had never “gone around moaning the way the other women had done, and missing the old country,” there is the notion of a great loss, a wound that has never healed. On her deathbed, as her eyesight fails so that her family around her become “dim gray shadows,” there is a sudden bright vision:

…the lost coperta of her matrimonial bed with all the intensity of its colors and bright twining of leaves and flowers and archaic designs in its patterns. “Ah!” she gasped, at its beauty. 

As Jake leaned over to hear her better, she asked for a cup of water from the spring.  

“What spring, Mama?” he asked.  

“Castagna,” she whispered. Then she was gone. 

And she dies with the name of her village on her lips. Subtler folks than I might find this corny, but frankly it had me crying like a baby.  

(The Abbazia di Corazzo, compliments of Wikipedia.)

Since the length of this post has sprawled – against all my efforts to not blither on and on – I’ll split this in two, and return to Umbertina in my next post.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bitter Spring, Darina Laracy Silone, the caso Silone

Bitter Spring, with Susan Mitchell’s eye-catching nod-to-George-Salter cover
Bitter Spring is an excellent biography – agile, detailed, thoughtful and, while full of serious scholarship, a zip to read. (In January, it was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award.) Given Silone’s ultimate unknowableness – his wife Darina herself said that he “was – under certain aspects – a mystery even to me” – the fact that it doesn’t claim to be “the” biography but “a life” seems like the right approach to take. For me, some of the richest parts of the book come from Pugliese’s interviews with Darina who, lucky for us, lived until 2003. Pugliese was able to get amazing access to her, and some of her comments are almost embarrassing in their frankness. Reading the book, I somehow pictured Professor Pugliese buying armloads of fruit and flowers at the Campo de’ Fiori, in the shadow of the brooding statue of Giordano Bruno, to take across town to the widow Silone. (By the way, I’ve not met Professor Pugliese and I’d already read and enjoyed his book when he sent a comment to this blog.)

An amazing person and brilliant mind in her own right, Darina Laracy met Silone in Switzerland in 1941. Dublin-born, unhappily Catholic-school-educated – as a teenager she was busted by the mother superior for reading Pascal’s Pensées – ours is not to think – Laracy was seventeen years Silone’s junior, and in her mid-twenties when they met. She was a student of language, a seeker, a critic of “Irish parochialism,” and invariably described in terms such as “tall, handsome, auburn-haired and vivacious.” In Milan when Italy entered WWII, she was harassed by the Italian police and approached by the Gestapo and British military intelligence, both of which tried to press her into service as a spy. She was eventually expelled from Italy, and landed in Zurich, where Silone first saw her in a library.
Silone ends up inviting her to tea at the villa where he was staying; but when she shows up, instead of rushing down to meet her:

Silone made Darina wait for thirty minutes in the parlor; she passed time petting a large German shepherd guard dog. Silone, watching this scene, was entranced: the dog was usually ferocious around strangers. (Silone later confessed that he himself had at first been terrified of the dog.)

He sounds a little creepy, right? When he finally does show himself, in a blue velvet jacket (!), they have an awkward conversation and she volunteers her services for the Italian Resistance – which Silone really has no hook-up with at this point. He refuses her offer, conversation dies, and he gallantly asks her why she came if she has nothing to say. He ends up thinking she is a spy, while she ends up thinking Silone – whose book Fontamara she had “devoured in one sitting” as a seventeen-year-old back in Ireland – is a “frightful bore”:

“Better to read a writer,” she thought to herself as she left, “than to meet him.”
But something must have gone all right, because they end up marrying three years later. It’s abundantly clear that the marriage was not a very successful one:
Darina believed that Silone married her seeking happiness, but that, in the end, “he was not capable of finding happiness.” He was, she thought, suffering not only from depression but perhaps schizophrenia as well. At times, he could be “horrible,” even when not in a depression; “he had no talent at all for human relationships.” He could often be cruel, as when he would not permit her to renew her passport or when he was casual about his extramarital affairs. He sometimes told people, “I couldn’t leave the poor, mad thing.” With a frankness, and steely resolve in her voice, Darina admitted that her marriage to Silone was “difficult.”

Reading this was all very dispiriting to me; not only hearing how strange and cruel Silone was to his wife, but the chilling words, “he had no talent at all for human relationships” – human relationships being the thing the characters in his books so often seek. There is another particularly deflating couple of paragraphs in Pugliese’s chapter on Darina:

Silone and Darina had many differences. She had an innate love of animals. Silone, like many people from the countryside, had no particular love for animals, except donkeys, and refused her many requests for pets. It became a point of contention that Silone tried to defuse by sending her a photo of a teddy bear in March 1952 with the following on the reverse:

My dearest,
My best wishes for your birthday brought to you by this teddy bear. But, as you well know, he is mute, it’s only an image. If, though, you welcome him warmly and you look at him for a while, you will clearly feel that one ineffable thing [quell’unica cosa indicibile] that he is charged with making you understand.

Yours, I.S.

It must have been some pretty cold comfort, getting not a live pet, nor an actual teddy bear, but a photo of a teddy bear as a birthday gift from your husband, with a note signed “Yours, I.S.” (it reminded me of a scene in the squirm-inducing film The Squid and the Whale, when the hideous writer-dad signs a book for his own son: “Best wishes, Bernard Berkman (Dad)”). Reading Silone’s note, it’s hard not to think that Silone sees himself as the teddy bear in the photo: mute, needing attention; with something to communicate if only you will give him the time! Perhaps like the character in Margery Williams'
children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, he needs love to make him real. Unlike the Velveteen Rabbit, however, Silone did not seem to know how to deal with any sort of love.

Ignazio Silone?

Later in the chapter on Darina there is a jarring, tantalizing moment when Pugliese suddenly slips into the first person:

My first thought on entering the apartment on via Villa Ricotti to interview Darina Silone was that I was trespassing into Plato’s Cave. This feeling has haunted me for years as I sought to distinguish between “truth” and the shadows thrown upon the back wall of that cave. Not that I ever felt Darina Silone was insincere or seeking to hide embarrassing details of their life together: on the contrary, she was quite open in her remarks and willing to answer difficult questions. But I had a sense that memory here could be a tricky ally in writing a biography.
Certainly we should all know about the subjective nature of “truth” by now, having lived through post-modernism, but it’s refreshing to read these words in this era of dead certainties, where people seem increasingly allergic to ambiguity. More on this below, in talking about the caso Silone.

[On a sort of related note, right now I’m reading The Unredeemed Captive, John Demos’ account of an abduction in pre-Revolutionary America. This is a wonderful book – part adventure story, part scholar-detective document, part (do people still say this?) revisionist history. Demos writes delicious, compelling prose that rushes forth in highly textured detail; he can’t wait to tell you this story. (Also, he’s a big fan – like me, for better or worse – of the em dash.) The idea of hard-and-fast “fact” is destabilized right from the start, when Professor Demos leads off his preface with the question: “Where does the story begin?” and then answers this question with a series of sections starting “Perhaps it begins with…”, positing all the different factors that had a bearing on the French and Indian raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts that led to the abduction.

Similar, in a way, is Luc Sante’s memoir The Factory of Facts, which has a thrilling, bravura opening chapter called “Résumé” in which Sante introduces a simple paragraph about the circumstances of his birth and early childhood and then repeats it, with increasingly odd factual and stylistic mutations, nine times.

The Factory of Facts, with its thematically perfect touch-me/buy-me/read-me-now jacket by Barbara de Wilde

Sante, who gets the Susan Sontag prize for having his finger in the pie of everything cool, of course wrote Low Life, a book with the purplest of prose but one very close to my heart. Every last New York hipster read this book when it came out in the 1990s. A story here! A few years ago when my husband Damian and I were getting our wedding bands in one of the jewelry exchanges on the Bowery, I noticed there was an old photo of the place, taken before the El was torn down, hanging in the stall. I admired it aloud to the nice man selling us the rings, a man who reminded me somewhat of a younger version of my Uncle Mim – he of the oddly missing fingers – and the fellow told me the store had been owned by his family for several generations. He had a great old-school accent and it was with this accent, not the kind you might find in, for example, the Brown University Modern Culture & Media Department, that he told me there was a great book about old New York, called Low Life – had I heard of it? And I thought, if Luc Sante knew a guy like you – the real McCoy – read his book, I bet he’d jump for joy.]

God help me for posting this, but this is in fact my uncle.

Getting back to Bitter Spring, and the section that jumps to first-person narration:

Darina had invited me for an interview with warm words of praise for my first book. Our first meeting in the Silone apartment in Rome, though, was not an overwhelming success. Silone’s dark study remained off-limits, a sort of sanctuary where I was not invited to venture. A surreptitious peek revealed it decorated with memento mori: there were photos of Romolo, Benedetto Croco, Martin Buber, Gaetano Salvemini on his deathbed, Lazar Shatzkin (a Russian Jewish friend who had committed suicide), Simone Weil, and Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection. When Darina asked whether I spoke French and I answered truthfully that I did not, I caught a glimpse of disappointment in her eyes.

And suddenly we are in something approaching Aspern Papers-like territory, with the author confessing to actually opening a door that had been closed to him. This moment is brief, however, since Darina appears to begin confiding in the author pretty quickly.

She comes across as a complex, moody person in the book; she also seems like she has nursed many wounds for many years and has just been waiting for this moment to talk about them. On one hand, she positioned herself to be the “custodian of [Silone’s] work and memory” after his death; and she also helped translate that work. “Yet in interviews,” Pugliese writes, “she could be frank and even a bit mischievous. Once, when commenting – not for the first time – on Silone’s resistance to learning English and his difficulty with the language, she said, ‘He had trouble understanding and pronouncing certain English words; words like truth, for example.’” At some point in life Darina seems to have located her spiritual home as India, and she traveled there and became friends with Indira Gandhi. “It was only after Silone’s death, which she somehow sensed as a belated gift of liberation, that she then threw herself into various political and cultural movements and repeatedly visited India.” One wonders, given a mind like hers, if she’d wanted to do other things – perhaps even write fiction herself – and the unliberated life she led with Silone made such an idea impossible.

When people wonder in print why there are so few great women writers/artists/composers – besides wanting to counter this tired question with many others, one of them being just who’s keeping score here? – I find it amazing that so few talk about the obvious: that it’s (still) usually the woman who runs the household, cooks the meals and, perhaps most time-consuming, strokes the ego of the man in her life. I had a friend years back who was an editor at Harper’s; one of her writers, a famous dude, was late in delivering something and she called him up. His wife was out, Famous Dude shrieked at her, and he was all in a tizzy – how was he supposed to get anything done? He had to take care of the kids and make the food and the phone kept ringing – just what did they expect of him? On the flip side of this coin, in a 2008 New Yorker Festival interview with Deborah Treisman, Alice Munro – one of my all-time favorite writers, praise her to the skies! – Munro said that when she first started publishing, a local paper ran a story about her with this headline: “Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories.”

My husband Damian, grilling up the tofu.

Darina Silone actually finished Silone’s last novel for him, a work published posthumously as Severina. Iris Origo calls the book a “patchwork,” and writes about it at some length in her Silone essay in A Need to Testify. The book was pieced together, “partly in Silone’s own words, partly in those which Darina used, during his illness, to bind together disconnected or incomplete passages” (the process is described in “The History of a Manuscript,” an explanatory section Darina added to the end of Severina – which I don’t think has been translated into English). Silone was very ill, and:

...he wanted desperately to finish [the book] and fortunately did not realize in his nursing home that he was suffering from agrafia – a disease described in a medical dictionary consulted by Darina as ‘an incapacity to express one’s thoughts in writing… The patient retains or recovers the capacity to form single letters or words, but – though he is not aware of this – their combination is meaningless.’ ‘In his last afternoon,’ Darina wrote, ‘he began to write in a great hurry, looking very happy. When, later on, I gathered up my courage and looked at those last pages, I found that he had recovered his own handwriting and the words were all legible…It was almost possible to catch their meaning. Unfortunately, only almost.’

And what a sad way for a writer to go out of this world.

Origo tells us that Darina used some passages from the first Italian edition of The Seed Beneath the Snow to flesh out some of the chapters, while “For Chapter 11 she invented – perhaps unnecessarily – a whole scene.” I find those words pretty tantalizing. Was Darina just suturing up gaps in the narrative; or was she making some point, evening some score? The scent of frustration runs through so much of Darina’s life, from stories about how annoyed she was with Silone for not acknowledging that she had introduced him to the work of Charles de Foucauld and Simone Weil, to her description of the apartment in Rome where they lived out their life together as a “poky, horrible little flat where no sunlight ever comes.” (They had been offered a better apartment by a government entity Silone was working with at the time, but Silone was “horrified when Darina pointed out the fine print in the original contract: After twenty years of paying a mortgage, they could own the property outright. ‘No, it’s impossible!’ Silone raged. ‘Me, a capitalist? Never!’”)
I found myself so engaged by Darina, in fact, that I ended up feeling someone should write a biography about her. Or perhaps Francine Prose will write a second volume of The Lives of the Muses – a pretty profoundly depressing book about (just to be a bit reductive here) men sucking the life out of the women who inspire them – and devote a chapter to Darina, and her influence on Silone’s writing. About such inspiration, Pugliese writes:
One scholar has detected a maturation and fuller development of his female characters between the three “Abruzzo” novels written before 1944 and their subsequent revisions after the war. In the postwar rewrites, the female protagonists are more developed, are more central to the plot, and have their own dynamic function lacking in the earlier version. One cannot help thinking that the indomitable personality of Darina Laracy might have had something to do with this fuller development.

Darina in Davos, young and happy.

The Caso Silone

Bitter Spring also provides a very even-handed exploration of the infamous, and still raging caso Silone.
I well remember the moment in 2000 when I opened The New Yorker and saw a picture of Silone, slumped in a café chair and looking like a defeated Maytag repairman. The title of the accompanying essay was “The Spy Who Failed,” and it was written by the well-respected journalist Alexander Stille. What on earth was going on here? When I got to the second paragraph of the essay, I slumped in my own chair as I read:

In recent years, however, researchers have begun to turn up documents in police archives which strongly suggest that Silone, in the decade before he became a writer, acted as an informant for the Fascist police.
The essay went on to discuss the “incriminating documents,” published in L’Informatore, a book written by Italian historians Dario Biocca and Mauro Canali, and how supporters of Silone refused to even read the documents: “‘I wouldn’t believe in the truth of these documents even if Silone rose from the tomb and confirmed them,’ Indro Montanelli, the highly respected editorialist for the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera, has written.” By the end of the essay, however, I was convinced that Silone had been an informant, and I was too disgusted by my paisano hero being knocked off his pedestal to take in any of the nuances of Stille’s essay. I was even ticked off at Stille for writing the essay! (Among many other books, Stille wrote one of my all-time favorite books about Europe in the WWII era, Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism – an incredibly moving book that almost stops your heart at times, its chapters syncopating between families who had members who perished in the Holocaust, and families whose members had miraculous escapes.) Stille’s New Yorker essay, in an expanded form, provides the introduction for the Steerforth edition of the Abruzzo Trilogy, and so anyone who reads it will then read the books filtered through Stille’s conclusions about Silone’s guilt.

But after reading Bitter Spring, the issue seems much less easily put to bed. The spying charge is a questioning thread running through the entire book, and culminates in a final chapter, “Silvestri” (Silone’s apparent code name), which provides an exhaustive discussion of the caso Silone. It seems that for every incriminating “fact” there is its counteracting explanation. For one, Pugliese is not convinced that all the letters unearthed were written by Silone (or “Silvestri”); and the letters often have no addressee, and “might not be interpreted as spying reports.” Also, Biocca’s initial essay was published in a journal “founded by Renzo De Felice, the dean of historians of fascism, often accused of a ‘rehabilitation’ of Mussolini and his regime.” The central document, reproduced in full in Pugliese’s book and in a truncated form in the New Yorker essay, is heavy and strange. As Pugliese writes, for those convinced of Silone’s guilt it is the “smoking gun” while for those who believe in his innocence “it is proof of Silone’s moral crisis in attempting to mitigate [by acting as, or perhaps pretending to act as, a spy] the fate of his younger brother” – Romolo, who had been imprisoned for two years at the time the letter was written. In the letter, which was written to police official Guido Bellone, Silvestri is signing off; but signing off from exactly what is of course not clear. One of the most commented-upon sections is the following:
…I am writing this last letter so that you won’t prevent my plan, which will take place in two phases; first, eliminate from my life everything that is falsehood, duplicity, equivocation, mystery; second, begin a new life, on a new basis, in order to repair the wrongs that I have done, in order to redeem myself, to help the workers, the peasants (to whom I am tied with every fiber of my heart), and my country.

From here he would leave Italy for Switzerland, where he would go on to become Ignazio Silone, writer. The Silvestri chapter in Bitter Spring is fascinating and meticulous, and Pugliese leaves no stone unturned in trying to find answers. The play-by-play of reasons for and against is almost like watching a tennis match. He posits theories, unspools them, chases them down, ask questions; and ultimately leaves it to the reader to decide. In the end we are left with no definite answer, no final “truth.” The chapter ends:

Late in life, Silone intriguingly revealed in an interview that “there is a secret in my life; it is written between the lines of my novels.” Was he referring to his relationship with Bellone or something else entirely? With most of the protagonists in this most recent controversy long dead, we may never really untangle the mystery…. The answer – if there is one – lies, like Silone, somewhere in the no-man’s land between hagiography and the archives.

And so we finally leave my cugino del cuore, there in his grave on the hill of Pescina, just about an hour’s drive, if one takes the autostrada, from the place where my Abruzzese forebears hailed. (My favorite leg of the trip as provided by Yahoo Maps being: Make a Sharp Right Turn on STRADA FOSSO DELL'INFERNO.) Darina Laracy Silone is far away from the Ditch of Hell, however. At her request, after she died, Darina’s sisters scattered her ashes over the Irish Sea.