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.