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Posts Tagged ‘Italian Writers’

Luigi Pirandello (28 June 1867 – 10 December 1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Is Teresina here?”
The servant – still in his shirt-sleeves, but with his neck already squeezed into an extremely high collar and with his sparse hair carefully dressed and arranged on his cranium  – raised his thick, joined eyebrows, which resembled a displaced mustache that had been shaved off his lips and pasted up there so he wouldn’t lose it, and examined from head to foot the young man stranding in front of him on the staircase landing: a rustic from the look of him, with the collar of his rough overcoat raised up to his ears and his hands-purple, numbed with cold – holding a dirty little sack on one side and a small old suitcase on the other, as a counterweight.
“Who is Teresina?”
The young man first shook his head to get rid of a little water drop on the tip of his nose, then replied:
“Teresina, the singer.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the servant with a smile of ironic amazement.
“That’s her name, just plain Teresina? And who are you?”
“Is she here or isn’t she?” asked the young man, knitting his brows and sniffling. “Tell her that Micuccio is here, and let me in.”
“But there’s no one here,” continued the servant with his smile congealed on his lips. “Madame Sina Marnis is still at the theater and. . .”
“Aunt Marta, too?” Micuccio interrupted him.
“Ah, you’re a relative, sir? In that case, step right in, step right in . . . No one’s at home. She’s at the theater, too, your aunt. They won’t be back before one. This is the benefit night of your . . . what is she to you, the lady? Your cousin, perhaps?”
Micuccio stood there embarrassed for a moment.
“I’m not a relative . . . I’m Micuccio Bonavino, she knows . . . I’ve come on purpose from our hometown.”
Upon receiving this reply, the servant deemed it suitable above all else to take back the more polite ‘lei’ form of address and go back to the ordinary ‘voi.’ He led Micuccio into a small unlighted room near the kitchen, where someone was snoring noisily, and said to him:
“Sit here. I’ll go and get a lamp.”
Micuccio first looked in the direction from which the snoring was coming, but couldn’t make out anything then he looked into the kitchen, where the cook, aided by a scullery boy, was preparing a supper. The mingled aromas of the dishes being prepared overpowered him; their effect on him was like a heady intoxication; he had hardly eaten a thing since that morning; he had traveled from Reggio di Calabria, a night and a full day on the train.
The servant brought the lamp, and the person who was snoring in the room, behind a curtain hung from a cord between two walls, muttered sleepily:
“Who is it?”
“Hey, Dorina, get up!” the servant called. “Look, Mr. Bonvicino is here. . .”
“Bonavino,” Micuccio corrected him, as he blew on his fingers.
“Bonavino, Bonavino . . . an acquaintance of the mistress. You really sleep soundly: they ring at the door and you don’t hear it.  I have to set the table; I can’t do everything myself, understand – keep an eye on the cook, who doesn’t know the ropes – watch for people who come to call . . .”
A big, loud yawn from the maid, prolonged while she stretched and ending in a whinny caused by a sudden shiver, was her reply to the complaint of the man servant, who walked away exclaiming:
“All right”
Micuccio smiled and watched him depart across another room in semidarkness until he reached the vast, well-lit ‘salon’ at the far end, where the splendid supper table towered; he kept on gazing in amazement until the snoring made him turn once more and look at the curtain.
The servant, with his napkin under his arm, passed back and forth, muttering now about Dorina, who went on sleeping, now about the cook, who was most likely a new man, called in for that evening’s event, and who was annoying him by constantly asking for explanations. Micuccio, to avoid annoying him further, deemed it prudent to repress all the questions  that he thought of asking him. He really ought to have told him or given him to understand that he was Teresina’s fiancé, but he didn’t want to, though he himself didn’t know why, unless perhaps it was because the servant would then have had to treat him, Micuccio, as his master, and he, seeing him so jaunty and elegant, although still without his tailcoat, couldn’t manage to overcome the embarrassment he felt at the very thought of it. At a certain point, however, seeing him pass by again, he couldn’t refrain from asking him:
“Excuse me . . . whose house is this?”
“Ours, as long as we’re in it,” the servant answered, hurriedly.
And Micuccio sat there shaking his head.
By heaven, so it was true! Opportunity seized by the forelock.
Good business. That servant who resembled a great nobleman, the cook and the scullery boy, that Dorina snoring over there: all servants at Teresina’s beck and call. . .  Who would have thought so?
In his mind he saw once again, the dreary garret, way down in Messina, where Teresa used to live with her mother . . . Five years earlier, in that faraway garret, if it hadn’t been for him, mother and daughter would have died of hunger. And he, he had discovered that treasure in Teresa’s throat. She was always singing, then, like a sparrow on the rooftops , unaware of her own treasure was always singing, then, like a sparrow on the roof-tops. unaware of her own treasure: he would sing to annoy, she would sing to keep from thinking of her poverty, which he would try to alleviate as best he could, in spite of the war his parents waged with him at home, his mother especially. But could he abandon Teresina in those circumstances, after her father’s death? – abandon her because she had nothing, while he, for better or worse, did have a modest employment, as flute player in the local orchestra? Fine reasoning – and what about his heart –  Ah, it had been a true inspiration from heaven, a prompting of fortune, when he had paid attention to that voice of hers, when no one one was giving it heed, on that very beautiful April day, near the garret window that framed the vivid blue of the sky. Teresina was singing softly an impassioned sicilian arietta, the tender words of which Micuccio still remembered. Teresina was sad, that day, over the recent death of her father and over his family’s stubborn opposition; and he too – he recalled – was sad, so much so that tears had come to his eyes when he heard her sing. And yet he had heard that arietta many other times; but sung that way, never. He had been so struck by it that the following day, without informing her or her mother, he had brought with him his friend, the orchestra conductor, up to the garret. And in that way the first singing lessons had begun; and for two years running he had spent almost all of his small salary on her; he had rented a piano for her, had purchased her sheet music and had also given the teacher some friendly remuneration. Beautiful  faraway days! Teresina burned intensely with the desire to take flight, to hurl herself into the future that her teacher promised her could be a brilliant one; and, in the meantime, what impassioned caresses for him to prove to him all her gratitude, and what dreams of happiness together!
Aunt Marta, on the other hand, would shake her head bitterly: she had seen so many ups and downs in her life, poor old lady, that by now she had no more trust left in the future; she feared for her daughter and didn’t want her ever to think about the possibility of escaping that poverty to which they were resigned and, besides, she knew, she knew how much the madness of that dangerous dream was costing him.
But neither he nor Teresina would listen to her, and she protested in vain when a young composer, having heard Teresina at a concert, declared that it would be a real crime not to give her better teachers and thorough artistic instruction: in Naples, it was essential to send her to the Naples conservatory, cost what it might.
And then he, Micuccio, breaking off with his parents altogether, had sold a little farm of his that had been bequeathed to him by his uncle the priest, and in that way Teresina had gone to Naples to perfect her studies.
He hadn’t seen her again since then; but he had received her letters from the conservatory and afterwards those of Aunt Marta, when Teresina was already launched on her artistic life, eagerly sought by the major theaters after her sensational debut at the San Carlo. At the foot of those shaky and hesitant letters, which the poor old lady scratched onto the paper as best she could, there were always a few words from her, from Teresina, who never had time to write: “Dear Micuccio, I go along with everything Mother is telling you. Stay healthy and keep caring for me.” They had agreed that he would leave her five or six years, time to pursue her career without impediment: they were both young and could wait.
And in the five years that had already elapsed, he had always shown those letters to anyone who wanted to see them, to combat the slanderous remarks his family would hurl at Teresina and her mother. Then he had fallen sick; he had been on the point of dying; and on that occasion, without his knowledge, Aunt Marta and Teresina had sent to his address a large sum of money; part had been spent during his illness. but the rest he had violently torn out of  his family’s hands, and now  precisely he was coming lo return it to Teresina. Because money – no! He didn’t want any.  Not because it seemed like a hand-out, seeing he had already spent so much on her; but . . . no!  He himself was unable to say why, and now,  more than ever, there in that house. . .  money, no!  Just  as he had waited all those years, he could wait some more. . .  Because if Teresina  actually had money to spare, it was a sign that the future was open to her, and therefore it was time for the old promise to be kept, in spite of anyone who refused to believe it.
Micuccio stood up with his brows knitted, so as to reassure himself about that conclusion:  once again he blew on his ice-cold hands and stamped on the floor.
“Cold?” the servant said to him passing by. It won’t be long now. Come here into the kitchen. You’ll be more comfortable.”
Micuccio did not want to follow the advice of the servant, who confused and irritated him with that lordly air. He sat down again and resumed thinking in dismay Shortly afterward a loud ring roused him.
“Dorina, the mistress!” screamed the servant, hurriedly slipping on his tailcoat as he ran to open the door; but seeing that Minuccio was about to follow him, he stopped short and issued an order:
“You stay here, let me notify her first.”
“Ohi, ohi, ohi . . . ,” lamented a sleepy voice behind the curtain; and after a moment there appeared a large, stocky, carelessly dressed woman who trailed one leg on the ground and was still unable to keep her eyes open; she had her woolen shawl pulled up over her nose, and her hair was dyed gold.
Micuccio kept looking at her foolishly. She too, in her surprise, opened her eyes wide when confronted by the outsider.
“The mistress, ” Micuccio repeated.
Then Dorina suddenly returned to consciousness:
“Here I am, here I am. . . .” she said, taking off her shawl and flinging it behind the curtain, and exerting her whole heavy body to run toward the entrance.
The apparition of that dyed witch, and the order given by the servant, suddenly gave Micuccio, in his dejection, an anguished presentiment. He heard Aunt Marta’s shrill voice:
“Over there, into the salon, into the salon. Dorina!”
And the servant and Dorina passed by him, carrying magnificent baskets of flowers. He leaned his head forward so he could observe the illuminated room at the far end, and he saw a great number of gentlemen in tailcoats talking confusedly. His sight grew dim; his amazement and agitation were so great that he himself didn’t realize that his eyes had filled with tears; he closed them, and he shut himself up completely in that darkness, as if to resist the torment that a long, ringing laugh was causing him. It was Teresina laughing like that, in the other room.
A muffled cry made him open his eyes again, and he saw before him – unrecognizable – Aunt Marta, with her hat on her head. poor thing! and laden down by a costly and splendid velvet mantilla.
“What! Micuccio . . . you here?”
“Aunt Marta . . . ,” exclaimed Micuccio, almost frightened, pausing to examine her closely.
“Whatever for?” continued the old lady, who was upset. “Without letting us know? What happened? When did you get here?
Tonight of all nights . . . Oh, God, God . . .”
“I’ve come to . . . ,” Micuccio stammered, not knowing what more to say.
“Wait!” Aunt Marta interrupted him. “What’s to be done? What’s to be done? See all those people, son? It’s Teresina’s celebration . . . her night . . . Wait, wait here for a bit. . . ”
“If you,” Micuccio attempted to say, as anxiety tightened his throat, “if you think I ought to go . . .”
“No, wait a bit, I say,” the kind old lady hastened to reply, all embarrassed.
“But,” Micuccio responded, “I have no idea where to go in this town. . . at this hour. . . ”
Aunt Marta left him, signaling to him with one of her gloved hands to wait, and entered the salon, in which a moment later Micuccio thought an abyss had opened; silence had suddenly fallen there. Then he heard, clear and distinct, these words of Teresina:
“One moment, gentlemen.”
Again his sight grew dim with the imminence of her appearance.
But Teresina did not come, and the conversation resumed in the salon. Instead, after a few minutes, which seemed an eternity to him, Aunt Marta came back, without her hat, without her mantilla, without her gloves, and less embarrassed.
“Let’s wait here for a while, would that be all right?” she said to him. “I’ll stay with you . . . Now they’re having supper . . . We’ll remain here. Dorina will set this little table for us, and we’ll have supper together, here; we’ll reminisce about the good old days, all right? . . . I can’t believe it’s true that I’m here with you, son, here, all by ourselves . . . In that room, you understand, all those gentlemen . . . She, poor girl, can’t avoid them . . . Her career, you get my meaning? Ah, what can you do!. . . Have you seen the newspapers? Big doings, son! As for me, I’m all at sea, all the time . . . I can’t believe I can really be here with you, tonight.”
And the kind old lady, who had gone on talking, instinctively, to keep Micuccio from having time to think, finally smiled and rubbed her hands together, looking at him compassionately.
Dorina came to set the table hastily, because there, in the salon, the meal had already begun.
“Will she come?” Micuccio asked gloomily, with a troubled voice. “I mean, at least to see her.”
“Of course she’ll come,” the old lady immediately replied, making an effort to get out of her awkward situation. “Just as soon as she has a minute free: she’s already told me so.”
They looked at each other and smiled at each other, as if they had finally  recognized each other.

Despite the embarrassment and the excitement, their souls had found the way to greet each other with that smile.
“You’re Aunt Marta,” Micuccio’s eyes said.
“And you’re Micuccio, my dear, good son, still the same, poor boy!” said Aunt Marta. But suddenly the kind old lady lowered her own eyes, so that Micuccio might not read anything else in them. Again she rubbed her hands together and said: “Let’s eat, all right?”
“I’m good and hungry!” exclaimed Micuccio, quite happy and reassured.
“Let’s cross ourselves first: Here, in front of you, I can do it,” added the old lady in a mischievous manner, winking an eye, and she made the sign of the cross.
The manservant came, bringing their first course. Micuccio observed with close attention the way that Aunt Marta transferred her helping from the serving platter. But when his turn came, as he raised his hands, it occurred to him that they were dirty from the long trip; he blushed, he got confused, he raised his eyes to steal a glance at the servant, who, now the height of good manners, nodded slightly to him and smiled, as if inviting him to serve himself. Fortunately Aunt Marta helped him out of his predicament.
“Here, here, Micuccio, I’ll serve you.”
He could have kissed her out of gratitude! Once he received his helping, as soon as the servant had withdrawn, he too crossed himself hurriedly.
“Good boy!” Aunt Marta said to him.
And he felt carefree, contented, and started eating as he had never eaten in his life, no longer thinking about his hands or the servant.
Nevertheless, each and every time the latter, entering or leaving the salon, opened the glass double door, and a sort of wave of mingled words or some burst of laughter came from that direction, he turned around uneasily and then looked at the old lady’s sorrowful, loving eyes, as if to read an explanation there. But what he read there instead was an urgent request to ask no more for the moment, to put off explanations till a later time. And again they both smiled at each other and resumed eating and talking about their far-off hometown, friends and acquaintances, concerning whom Aunt Marta asked him for news endlessly.
“Aren’t you drinking?”
Micuccio put out his hand to take the bottle; but, just at that moment, the double door to the ballroom opened again; a rustle of silk, amid hurried steps: a flash, as if the little room had all at once been violently illuminated, in order to blind him.
“Teresina . . .”
And his voice died away on his lips, out of amazement. Ah, what a queen!
With face flushed, eyes bulging and mouth open, he stopped to gaze at her, dumbfounded. How could she ever. . . like that! Her bosom bare, her shoulders bare, her arms bare . . . all ablaze with jewels and rich fabrics . . . He didn’t see her, he no longer saw her as a living, real person in front of him. . . What was she saying to him? . . . Not her voice, nor her eyes, nor her laugh: nothing, nothing of hers did he recognize any more in that dream apparition.
“How are things? Are you getting along all right now, Micuccio?
Good, good . . . You were sick if I’m not mistaken . . . We’ll get together again in a little while. In the meantime, you have Mother with you here. . . Is that a deal? . . .”
And Teresina ran off again into the salon, all a-rustle.
“You’re not eating any more?” Aunt Marta asked timorously after a brief pause, to cut short Micuccio’s silent astonishment.
He looked at her in bewilderment.
“Eat,” the old lady insisted, showing him his plate.
Micuccio raised two fingers to his smoke-blackened, crumpled collar and tugged at it, trying to draw a deep breath.
“Eat?”
And several times he wiggled his fingers near his chin as if waving goodbye, to indicate: ‘I don’t feel like it anymore, I can’t.’ For another while he remained silent, dejected, absorbed in the vision he had just seen, then he murmured:
“How she’s turned out . . .”
And he saw that Aunt Marta was shaking her head bitterly and that she too had stopped eating, as if in expectation.
“It’s not even to be thought of . . . ,” he then added, as if to himself, closing his eyes.
Now he saw, in that darkness of his, the gulf that had opened between the two of them. No, she – that woman – was no longer his Teresina. It was all over . . .   for some time, for some time, and he, the fool,  the imbecile, was realizing it only now. They had told him so back home, and he had stubbornly refused to believe it . . . And now, how would he look staying on in that house? If all those gentlemen, if even that servant. had known that he, Micuccio Bonavino, had worn himself out coming such a distance, thirty-six hours by train, seriously believing that he was still the fiancé of that queen, what laughs they would raise, those gentlemen and that servant and that cook and the scullery boy and Dorina! What laughs, if Teresina had dragged him into their presence, in the salon there,saying: “Look, this pauper, this flute player, says he wants to become my husband!” She, yes, she had promised him this; but how could she herself suppose at that time that one day, she would become what  she now was? And it was also true, yes, that he had opened the path for her and had given her the means to travel it; but, there!  by this time she had come so very far, how could he, who had stayed where he was, always the same, playing his flute on Sundays in the town square, catch up to her anymore?  It wasn’t even to be thought of ! And, then, what were those few paltry cents spent on her back then, now that she had become a great lady? He was ashamed merely to think that. Someone might suspect that he, with his coming, wanted to assert some rights in exchange for those few miserable pennies . . . – But at that moment he remembered he had in his pocket the money sent him by Teresina during his illness. He blushed: he felt a twinge of shame, and he plunged one hand into the breast pocket of his jacket, where his wallet was.
“I’ve come, Aunt Marta,” he said hastily, “also to return to you this money you sent me. Is it meant as a payment? As repayment of a loan? What would that have to do with anything? I see that Teresina has become a . . . she looks like a queen to me! I see that . . . never mind.  It’s not even to be thought of any longer! But as for this money, no: I didn’t deserve such treatment from her . . . Where does that come in? It’s all over, and we won’t talk about it any more . . . but money, no way! I’m only sorry that it’s not all here . . .”
“What are you saying, son?” Aunt Marta tried to interrupt him, trembling, pained and with tears in her eyes.
Micuccio signaled to her to be silent.
“It wasn’t I who spent it: my family spent it, during my illness, without my knowledge. But let’s say it makes up for that trifle I spent back then . . . you remember? It doesn’t matter . . . Let’s think no more about it. Here is the difference. And I’m leaving.”
“What! Like that, all of a sudden?” exclaimed Aunt Marta, trying to hold him back. “At least wait until I tell Teresina. Didn’t you hear that she wanted to see you again? I’m going over to tell her. . .”

“No, it’s no use,” Micuccio replied, with determination. “Let her stay there with those gentlemen; it suits her there, she belongs there. I, poor fool . . . I got to see her; that was enough for me . . .No, now that I think of it, do go over there . . . you go there, too . . . Do you hear how they’re laughing? I don’t want the laugh to be on me . . . I’m leaving.”

Aunt Marta interpreted that sudden determination of Micuccio’s in the worst possible light: as an act of anger, a jealous reaction.
By now it seemed to her, the poor woman, as if everybody – seeing her daughter – ought immediately to conceive the meanest of suspicions, that very one which caused her to weep inconsolably as, without a moment’s rest, she bore the burden of her secret heart-break amid the hubbub of that life of detestable luxury which ignominiously dishonored her old age.
“But I,” the words escaped her, “by this time there’s no way for me to stand guard over her, son . . .”
“Why?” asked Micuccio, suddenly reading in her eyes the suspicion he had not yet formulated; and his face turned dark.
The old lady became bewildered in her sorrow and hid her face in her trembling hands, but failed to check the onrush of the tears that now gushed forth.
“Yes, yes, go, son, go . . .,” she said , strangled by sobs. “She’s not for you anymore, you’re right. . .  If the two of you had listened to me. . . ”
“And so,” Micuccio  burst out bending over her and violently pulling one hand away from her face. But so afflicted and wretched was the look with which she begged him for mercy as she put a finger to her lips, that he restrained himself and added in a different tone of voice, making an extra effort to speak softly: ”

“And so,” Micuccio  burst out bending over her and violently pulling one hand away from her face. But so afflicted and wretched was the look with which she begged him for mercy as she put a finger to her lips, that he restrained himself and added in a different tone of voice, making an extra effort to speak softly: “And so she, she. . .  she is no longer worthy of me. … Enough, enough, I’m leaving just the same . . . in fact, all the more, now. . .  What a dumbbell, Aunt Marta: I hadn’t understood!  Don’t cry. . . . Anyway, what  does it matter? Fate . . . fate . . .”
He took his little suitcase and little sack from under the table and was  on his way out when he recalled that there, in the sack were the beautiful citrons he had brought for Teresina from their hometown.
“Oh, look,  Aunt Marta,” he continued. He opened the top of the sack and, creating a barrier with one arm, he emptied that fresh, aromatic fruit onto the table. “And what if  I started tossing all these citrons I brought for her at the heads of those honorable gentlemen?”
“For mercy’s sake,” the old lady groaned amid her tears. once more making a beseeching sign to him to be silent.
”No, of course I won’t,” added Micuccio, smiling sourly and putting the empty sack in his pocket. “I’m leaving them for you alone, Aunt Marta. And to think that I even paid duty on them. . . Enough. For you alone, mind me now. As for her, tell her ‘Good luck!’ from me.”
He picked up the valise again and left. But on the stairs, a sense of anguished bewilderment overpowered him: alone, deserted, at night, in a big city he didn’t know, far from his home: disappointed dejected, put to shame. He made it to the street door, saw that there was a downpour of rain. He didn’t have the courage to venture onto those unfamiliar streets in a rain like that. He went back in very quietly, walked back back one flight of stairs, then sat down on the first step and, leaning his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, began to weep silently.
When the supper was finished, Sina Marnis made another appearance in the little room, but she found her mother alone crying while back there the gentlemen were clamoring and laughing.
“He left?” she asked in surprise.
Aunt Marta nodded affirmatively, without looking at her. Sina stared into space, lost in thoughts, then sighed:
“Poor guy. . .”
“Look,” her mother said to her, no longer stemming her tears with the tablecloth. “He had brought citrons for you . . . “Oh, what beauties!” exclaimed Sina, cheering up. She clutched one arm to her waist and with the other hand gathered up as many as she could carry.
“No, not in there!” her mother vigorously protested.
But Sina shrugged her bare shoulders and ran into the salon shouting:
“Citrons from Sicily! Citrons from Sicily!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had so many thoughts whirling around in my head when I read this story that it took me hours to simply watch them  pass by. Since there is no chance at all  of my being able to organise them I will just let them appear in their own disorderly fashion.

My first encounter with Pirandello was about thirty years ago, when I saw the movie Kaos (meaning Chaos, and named for the village of Pirandello’s birth). I think it was in a run-down art deco theatre on Broadway called The Mayan, here in Denver.  The movie was based on five stories by this brilliant writer and dramatist, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934.  One story in particular stuck in my my mind and that was “Moon Sickness”. “Citrons from Sicily” was not one of the five stories told in Kaos, which centred around rural life, but I wish someday a movie will be made of Pirandello’s ‘bourgeois’  stories, including this one. Pirandello did adapt “Citrons from Sicily” for the stage, (and “Citrons from Sicily” clearly displays his flair for stage drama) but the compromises which had to be made in order to flesh-out Micuccio’s past, did not allow for effective stage direction, whereas in a movie, well-spliced narrative, or even a back-story, would serve the purpose very well.

Pirandello was born in a part of Sicily which had deep Greek roots. The city closest to his village, Kaos, is now called Agrigento, but it used to be called Grigenti. It figures prominently in Tomasso Lampedusa’s classic, posthumously published novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) set in the period of Italy’s risorgimento Italy, which was Italy in its previous incarnation of separate semi-autonomous states. This was when the Bourbons ruled both Naples and Sicily as a single entity, called “The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Pirandello’s life bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and while his literary contemporaries  were experimenting with new forms and ideas, he stuck steadfastly to an older and more balanced and perhaps more effective form of storytelling in which sympathy and irony were put to excellent use in fleshing out the characters. Pirandello created characters who are are fundamentally enigmatic, and whom we can never truly know. So when a character grabs hold of our imaginations, she or he tends to retain an obsessive hold on us, which is never quite relinquished.

I sense in “Citrons from Sicily” a veiled mockery of Dumas and Verdi, or rather their works  – La Dame aux Camélias and La Traviata. Pirandello published “Citrons from Sicily” in two installments in the Italian periodical Il Marzocco in May of 1900. I feel certain that Verdi’s La Traviata (first produced in 1883) and La Dame aux Camèlias (published in 1848) were lurking in the shadows of his mind when he wrote it. But Pirandello’s Teresina is no Camile, and certainly no Violetta. Courtesan she may be, but she possesses the particular weapon that sets her apart from those women – a voice.  She is unwilling to be exploited by the middle-class values – and proscriptions –  from which she could hope to derive no possible benefit. Her voice is her fortune, and in the few fords she has for Micuccio, it would seem that she takes care to not lavish it on him.

Pirandello makes a strong, and I think a very successful bid to divert sympathy form a female role and redirect it towards a male one, when he decides to turn the tables on the conceit of the self-sacrificing heroine, who gives up all for love, and presents us with Micuccio, the man behind Teresina’s unbounded success. Now risen well above her impoverished and seemingly hopeless beginnings as a village girl, who with her widowed mother lives on the very brink of destitution, she is the head of a household, the employer of several servants, and a cynosure of Neapolitan salon society. Her career as a singer has taken off, and she has shed her virtuous antecedents as easily as an old worn-out dress.

Divas in literature (and sometimes in real life) have tended to serve as symbols of a kind of demonic femininity. They disdain marriage because they dedicate themselves first and foremost to their voices and their art rather than to husband and children, and for this reason they are envied and reviled, even as they are venerated. On the stage, and sometimes off, they embody the mythical aspects of womanhood, of virgin, enchantress and whore. They are powerful, profligate, ruthless, solipsistic, superficial, brilliant and destructive They are arrogant, narcissistic, and careless of everyone’s feelings but their own. They are financially independent, beholden to none, beautiful, talented and unstoppable. None of these things endear them to a society in which conventional values are admired and aspired to, hence the powerful feeling of ambivalence divas inspire.

Aunt Marta is the female foil to Teresina. A virtuous widow who is appalled by her daughter’s new-found fame and the anticipated damage to her reputation. Aunt Marta is a fish out of water in the world in which she now finds herself. One might suppose that despite its bitter lessons of destitution and widowhood, she longs for her uncomplicated past, where her station in life was respectable and beyond reproach. Her life has been one of perennial dependence, first presumably, on her father, then her husband, and now her daughter. Her needs, we can safely deduce, have never been anyone’s priority, nor does it occur to her that they should be otherwise – which is to say, she is a ‘good woman.’

Divas are truly freaks of nature. Perhaps this is no longer seen as such in the world today where women are entitled to claim their legitimate position and wield their exceptional talent as they wish, but this was not so in the past.  To claim her own voice, to become the object of public adoration, to acquire and spend her own wealth, and revel in her own power to enthrall the public, were behaviours that ran counter to those approved by convention.  A diva’s voice was a highly sexualised  phenomenon, and the lives of the women who possessed these voices carried with them the whiff of scandal and sulphur. They were reputed to have and loose morals, to be promiscuous, and self-serving. The reversal of male and female roles in a story has the tendency to make us uneasy, and if we are to regain our composure as readers, the abandoning of female virtue cannot be permitted to go unpunished.

Micuccio, despite his strongly masculine character, plays a strangely feminised role in this story. He is really the spurned sweetheart, and young wife, who sacrifices herself to the ambitions of her spouse. He immediately wins our sympathy (as Teresina our contempt) for his faithful love and loyalty in the face of familial and social opposition. His more modest musical talents go unrewarded, and now even his masculinity is threatened by the unnatural diva status of his Teresina. She has usurped the well-established male prerogative of deserting a lover.  We ache to think of Micuccio being condemned to a shredded existence, as in our mind’s eye we watch him fade away into the distance to play his flute in the town square, for the pennies that must sustain him in his landless state for the rest of his bitter life. A ‘real’ Sicilian man might have slit Teresina’s throat – the symbol of her power and of her corruption –  then and there, and society would have thought well of him for it, but instead he sneaks back up the steps in the pouring rain, stranded in a strange city at night, to cry his eyes out in  bitter dejection.

The Citrons, in the story, stand for purity and unsullied virtue, and the values embodied by Micuccio but spurned by Teresina. She has gotten away with usurping the male prerogatives of power and ambition, and is now famous and wealthy. Though there is no explicit mention of her beauty, we can safely surmise that she is a beautiful woman. She is the object of male adoration and desire, and her professional success entitles her to both. In Pirandello’s story, her talent has made her into a monster – an ‘unnatural woman’, whose meteoric rise has commenced.

Pirandello’s Greek roots dispose him to have a predilection for tragedy, and there is a dark hint of a fall in the future in Micuccio’s question “whose house is this?” and the servant’s off-hand answer “Ours, as long as we’re in it.”  Pirandello expects us his readers to take note of this hint. We are unwillingly led to imagine what the future holds for Teresina.  Now we see her in her glittering salon, like the woman in a John Singer Sargent painting, What will happen when her beauty fades and her voice deserts her? The throat with its beauty emphasised and enhanced with jewels and rich fabrics will be emptied and abandoned, and her voice made dumb. Her wealth will be gone, and with it her fickle admirers and her chance of happiness. These are the misgivings that come to disturb us, even though we know that in terms of a literary symmetry we wish it as a counterbalance to allay our unease.

And when it comes to tragedy, Micuccio also must be given a fatal flaw. In his case it is a certain obdurate idealism which makes him ignore the crass suspicions of his more realistic family. He ignores their pragmatic warnings, and brushes aside all the evidence of Teresina’s lack of reciprocity for his love. He barely notices that her communications with him are trivial and impersonal, and her professions of affection vague, dilute and insincere. He believes implicitly in the promises he received, and expects that they will be kept, despite the inducements to Teresina (which he should have at least suspected) of money, success and vastly elevated social standing. He expects that despite being surrounded and immersed in change, Teresina will stay the same in relation to him. But Micuccio’s flaw is that of loyalty, trust and idealism and not blindness, and it is for this reason that he gains our sympathy. His loyalty and devotion and all the sacrifices he makes, despite the fact that he can ill-afford them, the purity of his male pride in not accepting money from a woman even when it is to save his life, endears him to us in way that makes us want to ignore or deny the implications that could show Teresina to us in a sympathetic light. In this sense Pirandello (who joined, and then repudiated the Fascist party a few decades after this story was written) is a revisionist and a reactionary.

At some point in my ruminations, I asked myself what other choice Teresina  could have made. What would have happened if she had married Micuccio instead of devoting herself to her talent? She might have been a typical Sicilian wife, living a meagre existence on a small stony piece of land, and her voice restricted  merely to sing lullabies to the children she would unavoidably have to bear. If Micuccio was fated to fall ill, (as he did) and there was no money to secure his care, he would have died, and Teresina would have been left a widow with no means of support, as her mother was when her own father died. She would have been a prisoner of dire circumstances, in that most patriarchal of cultures, and she would never have been able to contend with the oppressiveness it exerted in all that was rural as well as all that was Sicilian.  And what a reservoir of resentment and anger would have then accumulated. Sina might have to pay for her choices, but at least they would first pay her, but more importantly they would be her own choices.

Had she not received her musical training and instead become Micuccio’s wife, Teresina could never have realised her own potential. Now she seems willing to have repudiated marriage with him – or for that matter marriage with anyone –  in order to be her own woman. That she also seems to have lost some of her humanity in the process seems to have been an unfortunate collateral, but, at the time of the story she is still a young girl, and it is possible that some balance might be restored as her life continued to unfold.  Though she revels in being treated in society like a lady, she is not. She is a performer and a courtesan, two roles  associated with female promiscuity that the society of her time delighted to deride, and retribution is bound to follow as the price she must pay in the future for her present autonomy. She must conceal her mean provincial beginnings, and the sense of inferiority implicit in them. Beauty and talent even the odds, but only for the present. Seen in this sympathetic light, her subversion in defying social convention would appear to be amply justified,but at the same time we might feel pity or compassion for her, because we know what it will lead to.

But there is sufficient fateful condemnation for all in this story. Life is a punishing business, and none is exempt, and the piper must be paid in full. Now it is Micuccio’s turn to pay (there is the small irony that he is a flute-player). Aunt Marta,  despite her incongruous finery and new-found opulence, still continues to pay. She is a fish out of water, and is uneasy with the changes in her life .  Teresina pays as well, though she is oblivious to the fact, and she will pay still more in the future. Though Aunt Marta could not possible have foreseen the brilliant change in Sina’s and her fortunes which was to come, she had some presentiment that her daughter’s ambitions would have a dark side. She shares with Micuccio the feeling that despite appearances, all is not well, and that all will not be well in the future either.

Three poems I posted elsewhere in this blog, seem to me to express the rancour of rejected men, who perhaps incurred losses similar to Micuccio’s.  They are by Propertius, Francisco de Medrano and the other by Giacomo Leopardi, whose “Sopra il ritratto di una bella donna” unfolds such a scene as might exactly have played itself out in Sina’s salon.  I wonder that Micuccio too, will not later succumb to even an greater bitterness than he is now experiencing. Neither was the subject of ruin ever far from Pirandello’s life. His family wealth was lost when their sulphur mines flooded, and his wife’s dowry, which was invested in them, was lost as well. Her health was ruined, and her sanity forfeit, and Pirandello was compelled to commit her to an asylum. Though it is to our benefit that he was forced to earn his living by his pen, he could not have relished his lot in life.

In  Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, the hero Hoffmann falls in love with a diva who is a mechanical doll. He discovers the reality behind her appearance only when her squabbling creators smash her to bits. The siren-like soul-stealing spell of the diva can only be broken by a similar act of destruction. Micuccio’s suffering has only begun. We leave Sina as she is still wearing her crown. The village lass Micuccio loved is lost, gone forever, never to return, but this is not his loss alone. Sina’s dual personality consists of two halves which can never come together on their own. Only a third, larger self could ever integrate them. We have no way of knowing if that will happen, and she has only her art to redeem her. Will she go on to have a brilliant career, to break the rules of the stage as Maria Malibran did when she sang the role of  Otello? Or will she be like Olimpia the loftily named mechanical doll-diva in whose artificially brilliant voice was found the perfect exaggerated mingling of the natural and unnatural?  Will she too be a plaything of male passions, then to be cast down from her lofty height?

“He went back in very quietly, walked back back one flight of stairs, then sat down on the first step and, leaning his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, began to weep silently.”
Micuccio’s female ‘virtue’ is in stark contrast to Sina’s male ‘vice’. He went back in. Did he re-enter the house?  And did he then overhear the humiliating exchange in Sina’s conversation? What happened the next day? Did he wander abjectly through the rain-drenched city and find his way back to the train station to go back home?He must have choked to swallow the bitter dose of reality which must have extinguished forever his youthful idealism. He was severely punished for his foolishness, his, naivety, his passivity and his love. He has only his pride left, and we hope he will succeed in retaining it in the days to come. I remember an old aunt repeating the axiom that “love and pride don’t mix” – so when love is forfeit pride must step in to serve as redemption, however false it might be.

This is, in a way, a story that sticks in the craw, as I am certain Pirandello intended it to be. I fantasize a sequel, which combines elements from Lampedusa’s  Il Gattopardo,  Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover and parts taken form the time Leopardi spent in Bologna and his ill-fated ‘romance’ with Fanny Targioni. I persist in hoping that there is an alternative to ruin, that is neither simple nor moralistic and which can satisfy the rigorous requirements of a good story. Pirandello has supplied us with sufficient grist for the mill, and were I a competent writer of fiction and a good researcher, I would be tempted to try.

The period of transition and dissolution of “The kingdom of the two Sicilies” is as Lampedusa has shown, a particularly fertile setting for a story in which change pervades everything, and past and present overlap in a dense cloud. Despite Pirandello’s apparent reservations, (in this story) the empowerment of women is not an intrinsically evil thing – far from it. The re-writing of a new script for old social roles  in the context of historical change can be the subject of fascinating drama. There is no need to stay stuck in the moribund dictates of social stratification and expectation, and above all, there is no need for every tale to always be either overtly or covertly cautionary. And this perfect story need not always be the only perfect kind of story.

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Amadeo Modiglliani 'Head of a Young Girl (detail).

The mother was small and thin, with shoulders, which were a bit bent. She always wore a blue smock and a pink wool blouse. She had short curly hair, which she always smoothed with oil in order to keep it from puffing out. Each day she plucked her eyebrows and drew two wavy black lines like two little fishes  squiggling up to her temples. She powdered her face with yellow face powder. She was very young. They did not know how old she was, but she appeared much younger than the mothers of their schoolmates, The children were always surprised to see how fat and old the mothers of their companions at school were. She smoked a lot, and her fingers were stained yellow from the smoke. She also smoked in bed in the evening before going to sleep. They all three slept together in the large double bed, with the yellow coverlet. The mother stayed on the side by the door, and the little bedside table had a lampshade covered with a pink rag because she read and smoked at night, and sometimes returned home very late, and the children would wake up and ask her where she had been, but she almost always answered “ At the cinema” or else “With a girl friend”, but they did not know this friend because no friend ever visited their home to find her. She told them that they had to turn the other way while she undressed. They heard the quick rustle of her clothes and the shadows danced on the wall as she climbed into bed next to them, her thin body cold in the silk nightgown. They left some space between her and themselves because she always complained that they kicked her in their sleep.  Sometimes she would turn down the light and lie down and smoke silently in the dark.

The mother was not important.  The ones who were important were the grandmother, the grandfather, and their Aunt Clementina who lived in the country.

Aunt Clementina who lived in the country

Also important was the servant Diomira and Giovanni the doorman who had TB, and who made chairs with seats of straw. All these people were very important; they were very important to the two children because they were strong people they could trust, people who could permit and forbid, very competent in all they undertook, and always full of wisdom and force; people who could defend them from storms and thieves.

Also important was the servant Diomira

But when they were alone at home with their mother, the children were just as afraid as if they had been by themselves.  As much as she tried to permit or prohibit, she could not permit or prohibit anything. At best she complained in a tired voice that they should not make so much noise because she had a headache, and when they asked her permission to do something, she always responded by telling them to ask their grandmother. Or else she first said “yes” and then “no” which left them in complete confusion.  When they went out alone with their mother they felt uncertain and insecure because she always lost her way in the street, and had to ask the policeman for directions, and thus she had a manner always timid and foolish of going into the markets and asking about the things to buy, and she always forgot something – her gloves or her purse, and had to return to search for them, and the boys were ashamed of this.

And Giovanni the doorman who had TB

The mother left her drawers in complete disorder, and left her things scattered about, and when she arranged the room in the morning, Diomira grumbled about her. She summoned the grandmother to see, and together they would pick up the socks and clothes and sweep the ashes, which were scattered everywhere. The mother went out to do the shopping in the morning.  She banged the string bag on the marble table in the kitchen, and flung herself on her bicycle, and ran off to the office where she was a clerk. Diomira looked at everything that was in the bag, and touched the oranges one by one and grumbled and called the grandmother to see how bad the meat was. The mother came back home around two when they all had already eaten, and ate in a hurry with the newspaper leaned against her glass and rushed off again to the office on her bicycle and returned home for a little bit at dinner, but almost always she rushed away again.  The boys did their homework in the bedroom. There was a large portrait of their father at the head of the bed, with a square black beard and a bald head and wearing glasses with tortoise shell frames, and also another on the table with the younger child with his arms wrapped around his neck. The father had died when they were very small, and they did not remember anything about him. The older boy remembered a little better the shade of a distant afternoon in the country, at the house of their Aunt Clementina, when he pushed him around the meadow in a little green cart.

They did not know much about this father...

He had found some pieces of this carriage, the handle and the wheels, in the attic of his Aunt Clementina. It was a beautiful little cart when it was new, and he was happy to have it. The father pushed him in it, running with his beard swaying in the breeze. They did not know much about this father, but thought that he must have been one of those strong people, with the power to permit and forbid.  When the grandfather or Diomira became angry at the mother, the grandmother, said they must have pity on her because she was very unfortunate, and if Eugenio the father of the children had been around she might have been completely another woman, but instead, she had had this misfortune to lose her husband whilst she was still such a young girl.  There was also for a while their paternal grandmother, whom they never saw because she lived in France, but she wrote and sent little gifts at Christmas, but in the end she died, because she was very old.

if Eugenio the father of the children had been around she might have been completely another woman,

At snack time they ate chestnuts, or bread with olive oil. When they had done their homework they could go down to play in the little square by the ruins of the public baths which had been blown up in the bombing.  In the little square there were many pigeons, and they brought some bread or made Diomira give them a little box of leftover rice. There they met all the children of the neighbourhood, their schoolmates and the others who came back from the Sunday recreation center, and they played ball with don Vigliani who drew his black soutane over his knees and kicked the ball. Also in the square they sometimes played at cops and robbers. Their grandmother from time to time leaned over the balcony and called out to them to not hurt themselves. It was lovely to see in the dark piazza the lighted windows of the house there on the third floor, and know that they could return there to warm themselves by the heater and be safe from the night.

The grandmother sat in the kitchen with Diomira and darned the sheets. The grandfather stayed in the dining room and smoked his pipe, with a beret on his head. The old lady was very fat, dressed all in black, and she wore on her chest a large medallion with a portrait of uncle Oreste who died in the war. She was very good at cooking pizzas and other things. The grandmother sometimes took them on her knees, which were also pretty big. She was fat, and had a large chest, which was altogether soft. They could see beneath the neckline of her black dress a large white wool sweater with a border she had decorated herself. She took them on her knees, and spoke to them in her dialect, words which were tender and a little piteous. Then she drew out of the coil of her hair a metal hairpin, and cleaned their ears, and they ran screaming fleeing to escape and the grandfather would come to the doorway with his pipe.

The grandfather used to be a teacher of Latin and Greek at the Lyceum.  Now he was retired, and had written a Greek grammar, and every so often, many of his old students would come in search of him.  Then Diomira had to make coffee; there were found in the john pages of notebooks with versions of Latin and Greek, and his corrections in red and blue. The grandfather had a white beard a little like a goat’s, and they durst not make a noise because his nerves were frayed from many years of teaching in school. He was always a little startled at the increasing prices, and the grandmother always had to argue with him a little in the morning. Because he was always a little shocked at how much money she wanted. He said that perhaps Diomira was pilfering the sugar, and hid the coffee, and Diomira would hear it and run to him crying out that the coffee was used on the students who always dropped by, but these were minor incidents, that quieted down immediately, and the children were not scared of them. They were frightened when there was a fight between the mother and the grandfather.

And she said "I don't care"....

When it happened sometimes that the mother returned very late at night, he always came out of his room with his overcoat over his pyjamas and sandals on his feet, and shouted at the mother. He cried, “ I know where you have been, I know where you have been. I know what you are.” And she said “ I don’t care: there, you have woken up the children”. He said, “ Is this how you care for your children? Don’t talk because I know what you are. You are a bitch, and you run around at night with other bitches who are crazy like you.”  Then the grandmother would come out, and Diomira in her nightdress, and they would push the grandfather in his room and make him hush, and the mother would rush into the room and sob beneath the sheets, and her loud sobs would ring in the dark room. The children thought that the grandfather was certainly correct. They thought that it was wrong of the mother to go to the cinema and to her friend’s house at night. They felt very unhappy, and scared and unhappy, and they curled up close in the warm bed, soft and deep. The older child clenched himself on his side of the bed to not be touching his mother’s body. It seemed perhaps that that there was something shameful in his mothers crying into the wet pillow. A boy is ashamed of his mother when she cries. They never spoke among themselves of these fights between the mother and grandfather. They carefully avoided speaking of them. But they wanted to embrace each other tightly during the night, when the mother cried. They were a little ashamed of themselves in the morning, because they embraced each other so tightly, to be safe, and it was about this that they were ashamed to speak. However, they soon forgot to stay unhappy, the day would begin and they would go to school, and along the way they would find their friends and play for some moments outside the school gates.

The mother rose in the greyness of the morning. With her chemise rolled down to her waist, she soaped herself – her neck and arms, standing bent over the wash basin, They tried not to look at her while she did this, but they noticed in the mirror her skinny tanned shoulders and her small naked breasts.  Her dark nipples hardened and stood out in the cold, She raised her arms and powdered the thick curly hair of her armpits.

When she was completely dressed she began plucking her eyebrows and defined them precisely, leaning close to the mirror and compressing her lips. She then smeared her face with cream, and firmly shook the bright pink swans feather powder puff and powdered herself. Then her face turned completely yellow.

Sometimes she was pretty happy in the morning, and she would like to talk with the children. She would question them about school, and their companions, and chat about the time when she was in school herself, when she had a teacher who was called Miss. Dirce who was an old spinster who tried to act like a young girl.

Then she would fling on her overcoat and seize the mesh shopping bag, and bend down to kiss the boys, and she would dash away with her scarf sometimes wrapped around her head and her face perfumed and completely covered with the yellow powder.

The children thought it strange that they were born to her.  They felt it would have been much less strange if they had been born to their grandmother or to Diomira, with their large warm bodies, which could shield them from fear and protect them from storms and robbers. It was very strange to think of their mother this way, that she could have contained them at one time in her small belly, when they found out that children were in the stomachs of their mothers before they were born. They felt amazement, and were slightly ashamed that at one time this belly had contained them.  And also that she had given them milk from her breasts, and this seemed even more unreal. But then, she no longer had any babies to nurse and rock, and every morning after the shopping, they would see her leave to go away on her bicycle, released and free, with a physical happiness… She certainly did not belong to them, nor could they count on her.  They could not ask her anything.  It was clear that their companions could ask their mothers about a world of things.  They would run to their mothers after school and ask them a world of things.  They would have their noses wiped, and their overcoats buttoned, and they would show them their homework and their little magazines. These mothers were pretty old, with their hair, and their collars of velvet or fur, and almost every day they came to talk with the teachers. They were people like their grandmother or Diomira, with the large mild bodies of imperious people who did not make mistakes: People who did not lose things, or leave their drawers in disorder, and who did not return late at night. But then their mother left to go away free after the shopping, and figured out the change incorrectly if she was taken advantage of by the butcher, and many times she would bring the wrong change. She went away, and it wasn’t possible to reach her where she went. In fact, they very much admired where she went, when she was there in that office where they did not talk about shopping, and where she typed on a machine and wrote letters in French and English, and maybe she was pretty smart.

One day they went for a walk with don Vigliani and the other kids from the recreation, and on their way back, they saw the mother in a café at the outskirts of the city. She was seated in the café, and they saw her in the window, and a man was seated with her. The mother had laid her tartan scarf and old alligator purse they knew so well on the table.

The man had on a large light coloured overcoat, and a brown moustache

The man had on a large light coloured overcoat, and a brown moustache, and was laughing and talking with her. The mother was relaxed and happy, as they had never seen her at home. She looked at the man, as they held hands, and she did not see the children. The children continued walking beside don Vigliani, who told them they should hurry up to catch the tram,. When they were in the tram, the smaller of the children came close to his brother and said, “Did you see Mama”? and his brother said “No I did not see her”. The younger one laughed softly and said,   “Yes you saw her.  She was our mother, and there was a gentleman with her. The older child turned around. He was a big boy, almost thirteen years of age. The younger boy irritated him, and he pitied him, and it troubled him that he did not understand why it was that he felt pity, and he himself did not want to think about what he had seen. He wanted to make it seem that he had not seen anything.

They did not say anything to the grandmother. The next morning, while the mother was getting dressed, the little one said “ Yesterday when we were taking a walk with don Vigliani we saw you and the man who was with you. The mother turned around as she was leaving. Her face became ugly. The thin, fish-like black lines on her forehead twisted and came together. She said:  “ It wasn’t me.  Think about it: You know that I have to stay in the office until the end of the evening. You can see that you are mistaken. The older boy then spoke in a voice that was tired and calm – “ No it wasn’t you – it was someone resembling you”.  And both children then understood that this memory had to be made to disappear. They both inhaled deeply and blew it away.

.... and they blew it away.

But one time the man with the light overcoat came to the house. He was not wearing the coat because it was summer. He had blue eyes, and wore a suit of light material. He asked permission to remove his jacket, and they prepared to have lunch. The grandfather and grandmother had gone to Milano to meet some relatives, and Diomira had returned to her village.  Therefore they were alone with the mother. Then the man came. There was a pretty good lunch. The mother had bought almost all of it from the rosticceria. There was chicken and fried potatoes. The mother had prepared pasta and tomato sauce and it was good. Only the sauce was a little burned. There was also wine. The mother was nervous and gay. She wanted to say many things at once. She wanted to speak to the children and to the man, and she wanted him to speak with them. The man was called Max, and he lived in Africa. He had lots of photographs of Africa, which he showed them. There was a photograph of his monkey. The children asked him a lot about the monkey.  He was so smart, and he acted funny and cute.  But he had left it behind in Africa because it was sick and he was afraid it would die on the steamer.  The children made friends with this Max. He promised he would take them to the cinema sometime. They showed him their books, of which they did not have many. He asked if they had read Saturnino Farandola and they said no they had not, and he said that he would make them a gift of them, and also of ‘Robinson of the prairies’ because it was very beautiful. After lunch the mother said they should go to the recreation center to play, though they would have wanted to stay a bit longer with Max. They protested a bit, but the mother and also Max said they should go. When they returned home in the evening Max was no longer there. The mother hurriedly prepared dinner, coffee with milk and potato salad: they were happy and wanted to talk more about Africa and about the monkey. They were extraordinarily happy, though they did not understand exactly why, and also the mother appeared happy, and recounted that she had once seen an organ grinder’s monkey dancing.  She told them to go lie down and she said she was leaving for a little while, and that they should not be afraid because there was no reason to be. She bent down and kissed them and told them that it was not necessary to tell the grandfather and grandmother about Max, because they would not be pleased that she had invited people to the house.

Therefore they remained alone with their mother for some days. Because their mother did not want to cook they ate prosciutto and jam and coffee with milk, and some fried food from the rosticceria. Then they washed their plates together. But when the grandfather and grandmother returned, they felt their spirits lift, There was a new tablecloth on the table at lunch, and glasses, and everything was as they wished. The grandmother was seated once more on the armchair, and they were dandled on her lap, close to her mild body and the scent of her body. The grandmother could not escape and go away. She was too old and fat to escape and go away.

The children did not say anything to the grandmother about Max. They waited for the books by Saturnino Farrandola and waited for Max to take them to the cinema, and to show them other photographs of the monkey. Once or twice they asked the mother when they would go to the cinema with Mr Max.  But the mother responded harshly that Mr Max had now left.  The younger boy asked if perhaps he had left for Africa. The mother made no reply, but he thought that for sure he had returned to Africa to rejoin his monkey. He imagined that one day or another he would come and take him to school with a black servant with a monkey on his shoulder. They began school again, and Aunt Clementina came to stay with them awhile. She had brought a sack of pears, which she baked in the oven with sweet red wine and sugar.  The mother was in a very bad mood, and fought continually with the grandfather. She came home very late, and stayed awake smoking. She grew even thinner and didn’t eat anything.  Her face seemed even smaller and more yellow, and now she also put black on her lashes.  She spat into a small box, and drew the lines with what she had spat. She put on a great deal of powder, so that the grandmother raised her handkerchief to wipe it away, but she averted her face. She almost never spoke, and when she spoke she appeared to be very tired, and her voice came weakly.

her voice came weakly....

One day she came home around six one afternoon.  She entered the bedroom very late, and shut herself in the bedroom, turning the key. The smaller boy went to knock on the door because he needed a notebook. The mother replied in an angry voice that she wished to sleep, and that they should leave her there in peace.  The little one asked timidly if he could have his notebook. Then when she came to open the door he saw that her face was swollen and wet. The boy understood that she had been crying, and he went back to the grandmother and said the mother was crying, and the grandmother and Aunt Clementina spoke softly for a long time about the mother, but one could not understand what they said.

The boy understood that she had been crying.

One night the mother did not come back home. The grandfather went many times in his sandals, and in his pyjamas and housecoat to look, as did the grandmother, and the children slept badly. They listened to the grandmother and grandfather walking through the house and opening and closing the window. The children were very afraid. In the morning they telephoned the police headquarters. They had found the mother dead in a hotel. She had taken poison, and had left a letter addressed to the grandfather and Aunt Clementina. The grandmother cried aloud. The children were sent to the old lady who lived on the floor below them who continually repeated how heartless it was to leave these two creatures in this way.  They brought the mother back to the house. The children went to see her laid out on the bed. Diomira had dressed her in shiny shoes and the suit of red silk in which she was married. She was small – a little dead doll.

It seemed strange to see flowers and candles in the familiar room.  Diomira and Aunt Clementina and the grandmother were on their knees praying. They made it known that she had taken poison by mistake, otherwise the priest would not come to give the blessing if he knew she had taken it on purpose. Diomira told the children that they should kiss her.  They were terribly ashamed. And the kissed her one after the other on her cold cheek. After the funeral it was very hard walking through the city, and they felt very tired. Also present were don Vigliani and many children from the school and recreation center.  The weather turned cold. A strong wind sprang up at the cemetery. When they returned home the grandmother commenced to weep and moan at the bicycle in the corridor, and they all seemed to see her when she rushed away, with her free body and her scarf fluttering in the wind. Don Vigliani said she was now in paradise, but he did not know what she had done on purpose – or if he did he pretended that he knew nothing.  But the children did not know for certain if indeed there was a paradise, because the grandfather said there was not and the grandmother said there was, and the mother had once said that there was no paradise, with little angels and beautiful music, and that once you die you go to a place where there is no good and no bad, and where you desire nothing, and because you desire nothing there is great peace.

Don Vigliani said she was now in paradise.

The children went to spend some time in the country with Aunt Clementina. Everyone was very kind to them. They kissed them and caressed them, and they felt very shy. The never spoke about the mother among themselves, and neither of Mr. Max. In the attic at Aunt Clementina’s they found a book by Saturnino Farrandola, and the read it and found it very beautiful. But the older boy thought many times about the mother, as he had seen her that day in the cafe with Max when they held hands and her face was relaxed and happy.

The older boy thought many times about the mother...

He thought then that the mother had taken the poison because of Max and perhaps because he was returning to Africa forever. The children played with Aunt Clementina’s dog, a beautiful dog called Bubi, and they learned to climb trees, which at first they were not able to do. They also went to bathe in the river, and it was lovely to come back in the evening and do crosswords together with Aunt Clementina. The children were very happy to be with Aunt Clementina.  Then they were happy when they returned home to the grandmother. The grandmother sat in the armchair and dandled them on her knee, and cleaned their ears with her hairpin. On Sunday they went to the cemetery, and Diomira came too. They bought flowers, and on their return they stopped at the bar and had a hot punch. When they were in the cemetery in front of the tomb, the grandmother prayed and cried, and it was very difficult to think that the grave and the cross and the cemetery was a place which when they entered it was where they were with their mother, who argued with the butcher and rushed away on her bicycle, and smoked and lost her way in the street, and sobbed at night. The bed was now very big for them and they each had a pillow. They did not think often of the mother, because it made them feel hurt, and a little shy.  They tried one time to remember how she used to be, each one in his own way, and they both laboriously tried together more and more to recreate the short curly hair and the little black lines on the forehead, and the lips. This they remembered well:  that she put on a lot of yellow powder. Little by little she became a little yellow spot, and it was impossible to recall the cheek, and the face. They came to think that they did not love her very much, because neither had she loved them very much, because if she had she would not have taken the poison. This they had heard from Diomira and the doorkeeper and the lady on the floor below them, and from several other people.  The years went by and the children grew up and many more things happened and this face that they did not love very much disappeared forever.

and this face that they did not love very much disappeared forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung.

Natalia Ginsberg (July 14 1 916 Palermo - October 7 1991 Rome.)

There is a poem by Giovanni  Pascoli,  (December 3, 1855 –  April 6, 1912),  called The Two Children’  about two little brothers whose pleasant play ends unexpectedly in fisticuffs.
When they are disciplined and sent to bed by their mother, their mutual fear of the shadowy darkness that surrounds them prompts each to seek the comfort and security of his brother.
When the mother enters the room with lamp in hand in order to tuck them in, she sees the little boys, their quarrel now forgotten, sleeping peacefully side by side.
This is Pascoli’s warning to men that they must set aside their quarrels, and instead turn to each other for support,  because unless they do so death with its ‘lamp’ will come upon them unexpectedly, to find each individual ending his life in loneliness and alienation.
For her part Natalia Ginsburg uses the same props – two  little boys,  their mother, the darkness of a bedroom, a lamp, and the shadow of death to tell a rather more nuanced and complex story.  Hers is not a cautionary tale: It is much more ambiguous, and one might say even stark – because she casts an unwavering and unsentimental light on the subjects of childhood, human nature and human relationships which other writers (such as Pascoli)  seek to simplify and even neaten-up, in order to derive from them a lesson,  a moral or a shred of comfort.  In ‘La Madre’, all of these easy reassurances are denied to us by the unflinching honesty of this wonderful writer.

 

 

Ginsburg in her own words….

Natalia Ginsburg

“When I write stories I am like someone who is in her own country, walking along streets that she has known since she was a child, between walls and trees that are hers.”

“As soon as we see our dreams betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality, and we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.”

 

 

 

 

The illustrations in this post are all by Amadeo Modigliani, one of Europe’s greatest modern painters, and like Natalia Ginsburg an Italian Jew.

Amadeo Modigliani

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