Tuesday, November 3, 2015

as though she were fed up with so much foolishness - Unmarried Women in Naples

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.


  1. I'm delighted to see someone else spreading the word on Matilde Serao, who dearly deserves to have her work better known - perhaps especially in this period of "Ferrante Fever." Thanks for connecting to my post about her.

    It's a shame more of Serao's work isn't available in translation. I'd be especially interested to read her Zola-inspired The Belly of Naples, which apparently had a significant impact on improving living conditions in the city. And I don't know that I've read another writer who manages crowds so well; I haven't looked it up, but I suspect Serao must have been a school-teacher at some point. It's true that many of her "unmarried women" have dire lives, but at the same time Serao's respect for their courage is tremendous, as is her sympathy for them.

    By the way, the "relevant illustrations" come from a marvelous and copiously illustrated book on Naples dating from nearly the same time as Serao's. It's in Italian (I've noted the title/author/publisher at the bottom of my post), but well worth a look even if you don't read Italian - assuming you can manage to locate a copy.

    As for the late 19th century Neapolitan telegraph office TV series, I am fully on board. Next time I'm in Los Angeles, I'll pitch the idea to the sole producer contact I have there. Wish me luck. A lot of luck.

  2. Yes, The Belly of Naples; I would like to read that.

    Move the setting of the show from Naples to New York City or London. They must have had big telegraph offices, right? Pitch it as "Girls" meets "Downton Abbey."

  3. Would you mind listing the stories in this?

  4. "Girls' Normal School," "In the Lava," "Nevermore," "The State Telegraph Office (Women's Section)," "The Novice."

    Here is the table of contents, if it works. Each "story" actually contains several stories with an overall arc - that is what really reminded me of TV drama. That last story takes an interesting swerve.

  5. ok thanks. I see some stories available on the kindle.
    Wonder where they send the 'abnormal' ones?

  6. Yes, I see; I wonder what those stories are like.

    I had never looked up why normal schools were called normal schools. M. Wiki says it is because they teach norms. Okay.