Tuesday, April 21, 2015

All the misfortunes - Maria Messina's feminist Sicilian stories

When I was casting around for Italian books in January, a friendly reader, a teacher of Italian literature, suggested some books that are were not quite the usual stuff, not in English discussions.  This will be the first of those suggestions that I have read.

The author is Maria Messina, a Sicilian writer active from 1909 to 1928.  She explicitly emulated Giovanni Verga, writing sad stories about ordinary Sicilians and their hard times.  Compared to Verga she: 1) writes about a more eventful period, when the mass emigration to the Americas was overthrowing the old order in Sicily, 2) seems to focus more on women, and 3) seems not to have written a story at the level of “Rosso Malpelo” or “Malaria,” although few have.

I say “seems” because I do not quite trust the collection available in English, Behind Closed Doors: Her Father’s House and Other Stories of Sicily (The Feminist Press of the City University of New York, 2007, tr. Elise Magistro).  The Preface, and the Introduction, and also the Afterword – thirty percent of the book is apparatus – make it clear that the assumed interest is historical and sociological, that Americans researching the Italian immigration will be interested in stories about the women – wives, mothers, sisters – who stayed behind.

The editors are right – this material is of really high interest.  What I mean is that if Messina did write a story as good as “Rosso Malpelo” but it was not about a woman constrained by her husband, etc. it would not be in this collection.  What is here is good enough.

A woman remembers:

the arbor at Licata, with its ripening grapes, her mother dressed in black, and she herself embroidering bunches of red roses with stems as stiff as sealing wax onto a bright yellow coverlet.  The coverlet, that took forever to finish, was destined for her corredo [trousseau]  (“Red Roses,” 127)

But the woman’s mother dies and she is sent to live with her married brother.  She is essentially imprisoned in their house.  They refuse to let her marry, even with a good offer in hand, because they would have to pay a dowry.  All of this is seen as entirely normal by everyone involved.

She buried her face in her hands but did not cry.  Filled with anguish, she saw with exacting clarity her gray life as an aging spinster, still in love.  (134)

The end.  These are sad stories. 

God, it seemed, wanted to test Grandmother Lidda with all the misfortunes he had sent her,  She was a widow and poor; her daughter-in-law had died, and her son had nothing but La Mèrica in his head.  (“Grandmother Lidda,” 58)

Yes, a Job story.  So poor granny is now raising an infant, her grandchild, a burden at first but eventually one more thing, the last thing, for God to take away from her, when the father sends extra money from America – for a ticket for his son, but not for Grandmother Lidda.  In “America 1911,” it is the wife who is left behind – she goes blind, then mad.  In “America 1918,” it is the man who is destroyed by emigrating, while his wife prospers.  “With her husband sick and in need of medical attention, she was free to do what she wanted” (76).  Messina’s technique is almost inherently ironic.

I am discovering that Messina’s stories are hard to pull apart for quotations.  Verga is the same way.  A lot of what these writers do is pretty plain, but full of little traps.

Maybe someday someone will translate more of these stories. There is also a short novel in English, A House in the Shadows (1921) that I might be able to find.

Many thanks to JS for suggesting Messina.


  1. Intriguing piece. And it's vaguely insulting to the author to think we might only be interested in her work as a historical record without giving us a chance of judging her artistically - the best classics can give us a wonderful storyline and characters as well as an insight into the mores of the time. I'll look out for her work!

  2. I agree - not too insulting. But a little bit insulting, at least for a writer this good.

    I should mention that used copies of Messina's books in English are widely available, and cheap.

  3. I've just finished the Verga collection you wrote about (The She-Wolf) and this seems right for following that up. Once out of the cities and princely estates, Sicilian literature seems hard put to escape the dire poverty and hardship of the countryside.

  4. Yes, it is a a good followup to Verga. Not that Messina would not be fine by herself, but after Verga it is immediately plain what she is doing.

    Messina is actually a bit more interested in Sicilian city life than Verga. In miserable city life.

    Sicily was so desperately poor, and then the men leave, and then they get the Mafia!