Friday, June 26, 2015

“The power of the incomprehensible” – Massimo Bontempelli’s "realismo magico"

Invisible presences! My mind began wandering as I regained speed. I remembered that for a while, as a child, the phrase had appealed to me a great deal. It’s a pity they don’t teach even a little demonology in school.  
    – Massimo Bontempelli, “Nitta,” in The Faithful Lover

How perplexing that the initiator of one of the most recognizable 20th century literary movements remains largely unknown outside of Italy. Massimo Bontempelli (1878-1960), the Italian writer recognized as the first practitioner of “realismo magico” (magic realism, or, as later translated by a Venezuelan colleague of Bontempelli, the more familiar "magical realism") was in Italy a prominent figure for decades, winner of the country’s top literary award; co-founder, with Curzio Malaparte, of the influential European journal ‘900, the editorial board of which included James Joyce, Rainer Maria Rilke, and André Malraux; and later a leader, with Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, and Alberto Savinio, of a movement aimed at renewing Italian literature following the war, sharing with many of his generation a turn to the left after an early embrace of Fascism. For six decades Bontempelli produced a steady stream of novels, stories, plays and essays.

I took a look at two volumes available in English: Separations: Two Novels of Mothers and Children (Due Storie di Madre é Figlie) then at The Faithful Lover (L’amante fedele), the late collection of stories that won Bontempelli the Strega Prize in 1954.

The Boy With Two Mothers (1929) and The Life and Death of Adria and Her Children (1930) could have been written last week. Though these short novels borrow from surrealism, their freshness both in style and subject resembles little else of the period. A work they do resemble – quite to my astonishment in that I’d never come across anything quite like it – is Jane Bowles’ singular novel Two Serious Ladies. The similarities in atmosphere, meandering narrative structure and depiction of idiosyncratically independent women lead me to believe Bowles must have read Bontempelli. There is also a strong resemblance between a long passage in The Boy With Two Mothers and Leonora Carrington’s charming 1976 novel, The Hearing Trumpet, which contains a notably similar depiction of a rural psychiatric sanitarium for women.

In the first of these works, Bontempelli takes the theme of Solomon’s judgment in deciding the real mother of a child claimed by two women and complicates it by giving the child two mothers in actuality. In the upper class household of the Parigi family in the fashionable Ludovisio Hill quarter of Rome, young Mario, on his 7th birthday, undergoes a transformative experience while playing in a park, suddenly demanding that he be called “Ramiro” and brought home to Trastevere, a neighborhood the boy has never visited. His mother Adrianna, frightened by the boy’s insistence, accedes and has the carriage deliver them across town. A caretaker at the Trastevere apartment indulges Adrianna in letting the boy look around. He appears to know the apartment intimately, even the familiar toys in their familiar hiding places. Turning to a photograph on a dresser, he points out his “real” mother, “Luciana,” and, in the same picture, himself. Adrianna faints.

We learn that Luciana’s son Ramiro died seven years before, at the exact moment Mario was born. The story follows the entwined tales of the two mothers as they attempt, with comic consequences but mutual respect, to negotiate this strange reincarnation that has overturned their lives. As the news spreads across Rome, their efforts to remain level-headed contrast sharply with the responses of those around them, particularly men, who prefer expedient answers. Balancing the magical and comic elements, Bontempelli conveys a moving and profound sense of loss.

In The Life and Death of Adria and Her Children, Adria, a woman of class and beauty, has decided, upon the birth of her second child, that she will devote her life to being the most beautiful woman on earth. To do this, she insists on controlling every moment so as to not suffer any emotional interference that might create a ripple in her beauty, even forbidding her children direct contact. They instead observe Adria once weekly through slits cut into a wall at the height of their eyes, allowing them to gaze in wonder at their mother’s radiance. Bontempelli beautifully captures the strange distances that can exist within families as he traces the children’s growth into independent adults and their relationship with an aloof, headstrong mother.

The Faithful Lover consists of curious, enchanting stories and a novella-length suite entitled “Water.” They call to mind the inventive subjects of the novellas of César Aira, though often turn on a single peculiar event and possess a minimalism that contrasts with Aira’s rapid-fire, baroque piling up of conceits. In one, a cat burglar must decide to flee or save the policeman who, having caught him in the act, has slipped off the roof and is dangling from the eaves. In another, a man goes for a long nighttime walk that seems determined by the paths that appear on his way and the stars he follows, until the stars begin to behave strangely. In “Nitta,” a man driving home hears a strange sound in the backseat and discovers a disheveled young girl. In “Empress,” a child is sent to an asylum after slipping into a delirious fantasy that she is the Empress Theodora. Her mother, after visiting the deranged girl, begs the doctors not to cure her. “Encounter” finds an insomniac alone at night in his apartment when a “diffuse presence” gathers itself by the stove and begins speaking to another. These emanations appear to be two dead lovers finding themselves after two millennia of searching the void, their reunion interrupted when they become of aware of the man observing them. An especially evocative story is “Moonwort,” in which a timid 11-year-old boy travelling home alone on a train curses himself for having neglected his promise to bring his mother a branch of moonwort. Seated across from him is a troubled young woman who happens to pull from a bag a branch exactly like that he seeks – a story that beautifully captures the emotions of youth.  

Massimo Bontempelli (source: Wikipedia Italia)

There’s a light touch to Bontempelli’s stories that stands in contrast to the exploitation of magical elements one finds in Garcia Marquez, Alejo Carpentier or other names associated with magical realism, a gentle tweak to reality, not applied torque. Bontempelli stressed that his realismo magico “has nothing to do with a thousand and one nights. More than fairy tales, we have a thirst for adventure. We want to see the most ordinary daily life as an exciting miracle, an unending risk.” The stories seem both newly-minted and suspended in time. Though some are set in specifically Italian locales – Rome and the seaside town of San Felice Circeo in The Boy With Two Mothers, for example – particularities of place often seem more incidental than integral.

Bontempelli’s narratives are characterized by frequent use of interior monologue; isolated, idiosyncratic individuals usually on some quest; and repetition of images of stars, night, woods, moon, water. This tendency towards romantic elements is checked by the occasional reminder that Bontempelli has a foot on terra firma. In The Life and Death of Adria and Her Children, the oldest child, Tullia, becomes a brave spy working against the Germans in World War I. In others, references are made to Italian politics and issues of class. The Boy With Two Mothers comically treats the collision between the superstitious inhabitants of popular Trastevere with the snooty, dismissively rational close-mindedness of the upper classes. Occasionally, Bontempelli’s narrators become playfully self-referential, as when, during a scene in which the entire city eagerly awaits Adria’s annual appearance at the Society ball, the narrator suddenly asserts his power as narrator:

They’re all impatient and will have to wait two more days. But we don’t have to. It is our prerogative as a writer (and we permit our readers to share in this) to skip those two days and find ourselves walking through the Society’s rooms on Friday evening before midnight, just as Adria is about to appear.

The women in Bontempelli’s work are especially full of character and fiercely independent, embracing their peculiarities and rejecting conformity and any effort to rein in their freedom. In “Octagenarian,” the matriarch of a family, on her deathbed, delivers a speech she has held inside for more than thirty years, lambasting her children for the criminal waste of their conformist, banal lives, stating that “A man who can’t do anything crazy is some kind of dumb animal,” and telling her daughter that she could have been great, “that phenomenon, a woman who breaks barriers, escapes from wells, sets precedents and gives her name to streets.” Chastising her daughter’s bourgeois existence, she tells her,

…just to give you a laugh, I was going to sedate you heavily one night, cut your hair, dress you as  a sailor, and find a way to deposit you on board a departing ship, having timed things so that you wouldn’t wake until you were already on the high seas. I wouldn‘t have left a penny in your pockets. To awaken at sea and have to stay there at least twenty days, disguised and among strangers, then to be put ashore someplace without money or friends, and in some way to have to get yourself out of it! Your life would have been transformed.

In “Water,” the 15 year old Madina, escaping from the house in which she’s been essentially a prisoner her whole young life, revels in discovering the woods, the stars, the water in a stream. She rejects various men obsessed with her innocence, men oblivious to the glories of living. In a casino one night, she repeats aloud the various confidences others have made to her regarding everyone else, then castigates them all when havoc results from her candid revelations:

What I care about is that none of you know what the woods are like when all the leaves are fluttering, how worms live in the ground, the sound that water makes running over stones; how smoke whistles when it sets a tree on fire; and you’re locked up in here, when outside all the stars are blazing. That’s why I was yawning here. I want air, water, earth. I’m in prison when I’m with you.

This fierce appreciation for the “magic” of living shows itself in all of the works in these two volumes. Far from merely injecting mysticism into his work to create a fantasy world, Bontempelli attempts to unveil everyday wonder, rejecting all those who would remain closed off to it. It’s especially intriguing that Bontempelli’s most courageous, vibrant characters are women, who oppose bourgeois conformity and the paternalistic systems that aim at control and order. Between this singular author and his Italian contemporaries who initially seem to differ so radically - Malaparte, Moravia, Morante - there actually may be no small amount of common ground. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Neapolitan Quintet: Matilde Serao's Unmarried Women

Readers who know the women of Naples as portrayed in Elena Ferrante’s recent “Neapolitan Quartet” may well appreciate the work of journalist, publisher and fiction writer Matilde Serao (1856-1927). One can hardly imagine Ferrante without Serao, who preceded her by more than 100 years. A celebrated heroine of Naples, Serao attempted to capture the city in prose, with a particular focus on the range of experiences of its young women.

Unmarried Women (Il Romanza della fanciulla, 1885), an early suite of five stories, functions in a manner similar to James Joyce’s Dubliners in attempting to use different stories to convey the ambiance and character of a city. Serao delves into particularities of Naples with remarkable granularity – its squares, churches, cafés, homes, fashions, popular songs and plays, games and forms of leisure, manners, colloquialisms. Ever present and looming above the city is the “usual small eruption of Vesuvius, which no one in Naples notices.”

There’s an encouraging, even adoring attitude towards Naples in these stories: a rapt appreciation of sea and light, of warm evenings, of the city’s romantic qualities, “the beautiful, simple, ardent, good-natured, and poetic love of Naples that takes place among the flowers and trees, overlooking the sea, beneath the stars, during the unforgettable evenings created for this love.”  Yet Serao is also a sharp social critic, attuned to the vicissitudes of the lives of the young women she depicts, from poor girls barely scraping by to rich wives trapped in dead marriages. A strong sociological element works to present her characters beyond the roles Neapolitan society expects of them as workers, teachers, daughters, girlfriends, wives, mothers. That the stories aim principally at illuminating the texture and conditions of these lives appears evident in their slightly leaden, moralistic endings. For example, in “Girls’ Normal School,” Serao concludes her sketch of exactly what’s promised by the title by flash-forwarding three years from the schoolgirls’ exit exam to catalog what’s become of them - a rather depressing account. In “In the Lava” (the title again giving away the subject), an eruption of Vesuvius fatalistically brings to a close the rare and glorious moments of leisure captured in the preceding pages. The weightiness of these endings is a minor quibble; Serao’s careful construction, rich observations, exacting detail and manifestly personal interest in her subjects raise her stories well above mere urban ethnography.

In terms of style, Serao belongs to the verismo school of 19th century southern Italian naturalism inaugurated by Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana. The concern of the veristi with transmitting a faithful picture of society, through realistic detail and a focus on common people, shows itself in Serao’s concentration on the downtrodden as well as in the Verga-like economy of her language, which can pack a good deal into a few phrases, as in a passage from “The State Telegraph Office (Women’s Section)”:

All at once, over the angry, complaining voices, drawled in boredom, over the explosions of amorous complaints and office jealousy, a hiss was heard: the director was coming in Immediately, in a chorus of voices that ranged from soft to loud, sharp, slow, quick, and tardy, these words were heard: “Good morning, Director.”

Though Serao’s male literary models may have felt that women had no business writing - Mary Ann McDonald Carolan, in her foreward, notes that Serao’s work was ridiculed by prominent male critics and that Verga reportedly referred to her dismissively as a “hermaphrodite” - Unmarried Women makes clear the blind spots of the male veristi in giving depth to women’s experiences. Many of Serao’s women meet terrible ends: in thankless, wretched jobs; oppressive family structures; poverty and lack of opportunity; intolerable situations impossible to maintain without going mad or committing suicide, which many do. Serao’s dismissive attitude towards marriage is thus hardly surprising. In “In the Lava,” three mothers agree that “if they were to live their lives over again, with the experience of existence that they had, they would never have gotten married, they told their daughters so – but they were such obstinate creatures...” Serao uses precise detail as a tool to underscore the difficulty of these lives, as when the narrator matter-of-factly mentions that a nursery school teacher has responsibility for “134 pupils,” or tells of another who, having no one with whom to share her problems, takes her life by swallowing capsules of Spanish Fly and leaves behind a journal addressed to an imaginary being: “The journal was sent to her older sister; it was horrifying.”

But Serao’s women are also brave, funny, determined, proud, defiant against the enormous odds stacked against them in a culture where women’s financial independence was not only scorned, but also prohibited by law. A strong anti-authoritarian, rooting-for-the-underdog element pervades these stories, which are full of solidarity, stolen moments of happiness, and risks, small and large, taken to escape boredom, paternalistic rules, and fates all too often prescribed.

Like Naples itself, Serao’s stories are remarkably crowded, packed with scores of characters. Each story essentially forms a series of crowd scenes, among them a high school classroom, an evening in a piazza along the seaside, a gathering around a young mother and her new baby, an office, a ceremony in a church, a mob escaping the volcano’s eruption. To draw her characters out from these crowds, Serao employs a technique mirrored by her use of light in some stories: in one, fireworks illuminate the characters, while in “The Novice” a spotlight on shore shines upon them one by one as they stand on a ship’s bridge during a festival in the bay. Similarly, like the sweep of a lighthouse torch, the narrative highlights individuals, relegates them to the background, then brings them around again such that the reader gets to know them through such intermittent flashes. After the first couple of stories, I made something of a game of trying to figure out who, when this sweeping light came to a halt, would be left as the “principal” character, if the stories could be said to have one at all.

A charming device linking four of the stories is a recurring character modeled on Serao herself. Caterina Borelli is depicted in a humorous and self-deprecating manner: a bit overweight, “nasty as a fat monkey,” “a shameless sleepyhead,” glasses slipping down her pug nose, given to too much reading: in short, a nerd. In “The State Telegraph Office (Women’s Section)” we learn of Caterina’s “inseparable” friend, Annanina Pescara, who complements Caterina in a way that could almost have served as a template for the two main characters of Ferrante’s Neapolitan books.

With depressing familiarity, this story depicts the bureaucratic work environment of young office women in exacting detail: how the women are distinguished in manner, affectation and ethnicity; the range of their attitudes towards work; what they wear and consider fashionable; how they manage job and family and love – or don’t; how the telegraph office functions, down to the brand names of equipment and the separate slots for telegrams for men and women. But what an ingenious setting for a literary work! Communications from all over Italy, the important and trivial life of the nation – banal business transactions, schmaltzy love notes, fervent political opinions, even a state decree to seize copies of a revolutionary magazine carrying a dangerous article (brilliantly given a universal quality by Serao’s narrator:  “’it began with the word ‘Until’ and ended with the words ‘in a pool of blood’”) - get relayed through a weary work force of girls whose lives are passing them by. Serao breaks her sketch into glimpses of variations in this drudgery, including a wasted Christmas eve of overtime, when the girls are “brought together to do nothing, in a big room in the semi-darkness, in front of a silent machine,” and the insanely busy day of a national election. Though Serao’s sympathies clearly lie with the lowest level employees, she spares a thought for their female director, who, in the privacy of her office, writes a melancholy holiday letter to a relative about her position in the big city. Serao has an acute awareness of these girls, their envy and compassion for one another; their humor; the coded language they use to relive the repetitious work; the risk to their jobs in conversing with operators in other cities, especially young men; the way in which even the door opening to the men’s section offers a momentary portal to another world. At the same time, Serao is starkly unsentimental regarding the future awaiting them; by age 40, most will be put out “on the street, old, dazed, unable to do anything else, in poor health and penniless.”

In the final story, “The Novice,” Serao’s indignation reaches its most acid level. Portraying a group of young women speculating about their possibilities for marriage, she hones her spotlight on Eva, who, having lost to another girl the young man she expected to wed, “marries” the church. The description of the girl’s entry into the cloister is nothing short of chilling, with all the ritual ornamentation of an actual marriage. Witnessing the ceremony (where Serao’s characters do not speak for themselves, their actions are often filtered through their peers), her friend Anna Doria is “stricken by a nervous fit of melancholy” as she watches

Eva’s renunciation of life, that separation from all things human, persons and feelings, that voluntary death of the Christian heart that abhors suicide, abhors the world, and turns only to God…[It] seemed to her the end of her own life; it seemed to her that she herself, Anna Doria, at the age of thirty-five, without affection, without a future, had no other choice but to go shut herself up in a convent.

Despite the grim realities of the stories in Unmarried Women, Serao’s compassion, indignation, and insistence on the verismo of the lives of women make for rich, moving portraits that affirm Colette’s assertion that “Among all forms of absurd courage, the courage of girls is outstanding.” Elena Ferrante’s own insistent account of the lives of girls and women in Naples, one that similarly catalogs their experiences and places faith in their “outstanding” courage, owes an enormous debt to Matilde Serao. 

Engravings from Napoli e i Napoletani: Opera illustrata da Armenise, Dalbone e Matania, Carlo del Balzo, Fratelli Treves, Milano, 1885, republished 2003 by Edizione dell'Anticaglia

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Alberto Moravia: Contempt

"…those great sea spaces" - Villa Malaparte, Capri

In Alberto Moravia’s Contempt (Il Disprezzo, 1954), a young screenwriter, Riccardo Molteni, narrates the dissolution of his marriage to Emelia against the backdrop of his having been hired to write a film adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Moravia takes Homer’s characterization of Ulysses’ twin hungers “for home and wife” and literalizes them into a disturbingly bleak yet acidly comic depiction of a modern man trying to comprehend his wife’s contempt for him.

In the first sentence, the word “perfect,” used retrospectively by Molteni to describe the first two years of his marriage, informs the reader that, as a narrator, Molteni is unreliable even to himself. In trying to understand what happened to the “perfection” of his marriage, Molteni conducts a purely intellectual, existential self-interrogation akin to that of Beckett’s Molloy but as coldly analytical, obsessive and solipsistic as that of the badger-like narrator of Kafka’s “The Burrow.” The frequency of words like “bored, ““ordinary” and “monotonous” underscores Molteni’s dissatisfied state as he tries to uncover the origins of Emelia’s contempt, a response understandable to the reader given Molteni’s navel-gazing inability to decide or act. Molteni attempts first to frame Emelia’s coldness in terms of the institutional marital roles he expects her to play as “a born housewife, with, “in her love of home…more than the natural inclination common to all women,” and as sexual serveuse. The couple’s sexual relations become reduced to pure mechanics, stripped of any human intimacy. When Molteni justifies the acquisition of a new apartment as an effort to satisfy his wife’s alleged domestic inclinations, he ponders Emelia’s motives at the very moment the couple have sex on the empty apartment’s dirty floor, interpreting her temporary ardor as a functional expression of her love of home – a scene at once appalling and absurdly comical.

All of this would be rich fodder for depicting a failed modern marriage, but Moravia also turns Contempt into a meditation on art, materialism and the alienated, disaffected state of post-war Italy. The title fits a pattern in Moravia’s other novels of the period: Boredom, The Conformist, Bitter Honeymoon. Unable to tease apart boredom from happiness or to see his relations with Emelia as any kind of partnership, Molteni fears his marriage to this “uncultivated, simple typist” from a class lower than his own imperils his “precious literary ambitions.” Though he aspires to write for the theatre, he lacks courage to pursue his own art. In a lengthy passage on the economics of cinema (among other things, Contempt offers stimulating observations about the film business and the intersection of art and commerce), Molteni describes himself as essentially a cog in a system of production run by the producer and director, voicing a complaint that might issue from any worker in a bureaucracy: “he is himself chosen, he does not choose.” He justifies writing for money using the same rationale used for acquiring the new apartment: an effort to provide for Emelia’s domestic, material desires. Despite his complaints, it’s telling that we learn little of what Molteni’s serious art might be.

The tenuousness of both the marriage and Molteni’s commitment to art is amplified when the film’s producer, Battista, with a leering interest in Emelia more evident to the reader than to Molteni, invites the couple to his villa on Capri where they’ll work on The Odyssey with the German director, Rheingold. With this shift in setting, three visions of how The Odyssey might be filmed are respectively put forth by Battista, Rheingold, and Molteni. The “great ape” Battista, whose pronouncements on cinema echo Mussolini’s call for a renewed Italian film industry to produce uplifting spectacles, wants a Hollywood-style action film. Rheingold demands a focus on Ulysses’ relationship with Penelope that will delve into its Freudian aspects:  “a film about a man who loves his wife and is not loved in return.” The descriptions of these proposals – including a catalog of kitsch elements by Battista and a lacerating rant by Rheingold against James Joyce’s treatment of The Odyssey in Ulysses - make for among the high points of Contempt’s comedy. Squeezed between the Scylla and Charybdis of these proposals, the purist Molteni rejects any approach that would eviscerate the presence of the gods and not take the poem on its own terms, asserting a “belief in reality as it is and as it presents itself objectively.” In this vision one can see echoes of his relationship to Emelia, a passive craving for things to be simply as they’re supposed to be, emphasized by Molteni’s frequent and unsurprising praise of disinterestedness and “purity,” equated at times with a desire for self-extermination. Although Molteni dismisses Rhinegold’s desire to put The Odyssey “on the dissecting table” to reveal its “internal mechanisms,” Molteni’s approach to understanding his own marriage suggests “…the particular gloom, entirely mechanical and abstract in quality, of psychoanalysis”:

I must have an explanation with her, I must seek out and examine, I must plunge the thin, ruthless blade of investigation into the wound which, hitherto, I had exerted myself to ignore.

Though Molteni is oblivious, odious even, he retains the murmur of a sympathetic aspect, for example, in his rejection of the ugliness of Battista and Rheingold s visions of art and in occasional astute glimpses of himself as “an unfortunate creature…torn between egotism and affection, incapable of choice or decision.” He is at perhaps his most sympathetic when, rowing into Capri’s Red Grotto after Emelia has left him, he hallucinates her return, a moving depiction of loss and one of the few times Molteni abandons the rigidity of his purely intellectual ruminations, drifting instead into poetry and dreams in an underworld setting right out of The Odyssey. But if Molteni is a Ulysses figure, it’s in his being lost at sea in his relationship to his wife; the perils he battles in trying to reach her are largely of his own making. A weak, ineffective man who can only rationalize, Molteni is incapable of heroic action or of transcending the psychological, economic and social conditions of his time. Seeking explanation, he is blind to the origin of his wife’s contempt, even when she ascribes the destruction of their love to his “character.”

When at the novel’s end Molteni returns to Capri after his wife’s symbolically absurd death - her neck broken when Battista swerves his red sports car to avoid an ox-drawn cart - he appears scarcely more enlightened than on the novel’s first page. Enshrining the memory of his wife in Capri’s “great sea spaces,” that abstract blue haze of sea and sky from which Ulysses sailed past this island purported by some to be the home of the sirens, Molteni’s relation towards Emelia in death holds the same distance it held for her in life, as though he’s remained tied to the mast, ears plugged, alone with himself – or more comically, as though he’s become like the isolated indigenous blue lizard of the Faraglioni rock towers just off Capri’s shore. He finishes writing “these memories,” hoping for an “an image of consolation and beauty” to free him. If consolation and beauty are to be found amid the deep existential unease conveyed in Contempt, they are almost exclusively those of art, of encountering a masterfully achieved and compelling novel that refuses easy answers and strips away illusions. Comfort reading? Hardly. 

Other posts from the Contempt group read to which this belated post belongs may be found at the links below: