Scott at seraillon has been reading Italian literature this year, like I have, except more widely and deeply and etc. Today we cross paths with the 1885 Unmarried Women, an accurately titled collection of short story-like texts by prolific Neapolitan journalist, editor, publisher, etc. Matilde Serao.
I understand there has been some recent interest in fiction about women in Naples. People with such an interest should read Unmarried Women. Maybe there will be a Serao revival. Maybe two blog posts count as a revival.
Serao loves crowds. She fills her scenes with people, with those unmarried women, whether the setting is a girl’s school on exam day, a religious festival with fireworks, a line to enter the bathhouses at a public beach, or, in Serao’s greatest stroke, the State Telegraph Office (Women’s Section). Here the women are eavesdropping, so to speak, on a mushy love-telegram:
The girls all listened intently: Ida Torelli, the skeptic, snickered; Caterina Borelli, the wit, shrugged her shoulders, as though she were fed up with so much foolishness. But the others were rather moved by this incandescent telegraphic prose and were already whispering about their own loves, for better or for worse. Adelina Mark, the beauty, had two or three admirers she couldn’t stand, instead … Peppina Sanna thought about her handsome naval officer… Maria Morra, the amateur actress… Annina Pescara… (“The State Telegraph Office,” 145)
Those ellipses all hide interesting things, but I want to emphasize the bombardment by people. Serao can be a little hard to follow. Giovanni Verga did the same thing in The House by the Medlar Tree (1881), and he does it again in Mastro-Don Gesualdo (1889), all of the characters introduced at once. If you are thinking of doing this in your own fiction, I tell you, it is hard to follow.
However, Serao follows the characters from story to story. A number of the women working in the miserable telegraph office in the fourth story are able to work there because they passed their exams back in the first story. Serao shows the same characters at school, work, parties, and so on. The book is structured a lot like an ensemble television drama, with different “episodes” emphasizing the family or love life of different characters, with occasional pure ensemble pieces, like the zippy, exhausting episode about the telegraph office on election night. A TV series about the young women working in the Neapolitan telegraph office in 1880, how would that not be great?
So eventually I pulled the mass of characters apart, is what I am saying. One of them, the sassy bookworm, “the wit” up above, is, the introduction tells me, the author before she was an author, “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” – I am quoting Scott’s post.
The women are often, but not always, desperate and miserable. The depiction of Naples as a lived-in city is by itself valuable, a great contrast to the wealthy tourist cities I saw in The Portrait of a Lady. The telegraph office was of especially high interest, but I read it all with pleasure. How to make good fiction out of kids waiting in line to go the beach? Serao did it. A lot of people would like this book.
Paula Spurlin Paige is the translator. The translation is recent, from 2007, so it is not well known yet. Once again, I will point to seraillon, whose post is three times longer, has better quotations, and is decorated with relevant illustrations.