Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Such, however, are the lives of all wives - a grim feminist Sicilian novel from Maria Messina

I’ll follow Serao’s Neapolitan unmarried women with a Sicilian example from Maria Messina’s little novel A House in the Shadows (1921), one kind of feminist fiction with another.   Serao’s stories almost suffer from their abundance of characters and movement.  Messina’s book is in places almost static.  Serao’s women worry about the ways they are trapped by circumstances, but poor Nicolina can barely leave the house.

Nicolina’s sister makes what seems like a good match with an estate manager.  Nicolina goes along help establish the household and keep her sister company.  Soon enough they discover that Don Lucio is a petty tyrant – sometimes worse than petty – using everything, for example his health problems or his obsessive compulsive disorder, as a weapon:

Peeling fruit was the most delicate task…  Pears and apples, carefully peeled and cut in pieces, one piece already stuck on the little silver fork…  (31)

Neither the wife nor her sister do anything except serve this husband.  The house is a prison.  The title, even aside from the symbolism, is accurate.  A “narrow little street,” a view of nothing but “reddish, moss-covered roofs,” no neighbors, no family.  Serao’s book was of high interest just because of all of the detail about life in Naples.  A House in the Shadows is almost free of local color, or much color of any kind.

The novel begins with a young boy on his sickbed, with Nicolina doing everything she can to accommodate the father.  It is a relief when the son becomes old enough to become a character in his own right.  At least he can leave the house!  This is a grim novel.  “Such, however, are the lives of all wives” (29).  In this novel, actually, all women.

I hope it does not sound like I am complaining.  I can handle 125 pages of this stuff, and it should be clear enough how the tone of the novel is necessary for its argument.  But Messina does sacrifice some novelistic pleasures in the process.  I suppose I found the greater concentration of her short stories to be more artful.

Messina’s novel ends with, I was shocked to find, an element of hope.  For all of their suffering, Nicolina and her sister have perhaps succeeded in one way – they have protected the sister’s two daughters from their abusive father, Don Lucio.  Or so I understand the ending:

They listen.  A footstep, a voice in the street.  An impetuous exuberance surges in their young bosoms.  They are growing up like certain odd delicate flowers that appear between the cracks in old walls and that the rain will soon spoil.  Don Lucio clears his throat.  The two girls are startled, but then laugh for having been startled, and then they are silent, once again waiting, anxious and moved, while the heavy, silent hours pass across the starry sky.  (125)

The father is still there, in the middle of the daughters’ reverie.  But they are young and he is now old.  They can outwait him.

John Shepley is the translator.


  1. You and Scott are certainly venturing far and wide as far as your forays into Italian and Sicilian literature this year. How did you come across Messina in the first place?

  2. A reader who used to teach Italian sent me some recommendations, Messina among them. I will not be able to do justice to that list. Thanks, Jane!

  3. Never heard of this author Tom and I see the comment you made above. It's hard to 'break' into literature from a foreign country beyond the big names, so tips are wonderful.

  4. Very true. What exists, what exists in English, what is actually worth reading.

  5. Thanks for this. I've added Messina to the list, and expect to head back to Sicily soon in my literary explorations.

    To echo your response to Guy's comment, I've actually been impressed with the volume of what's available - though not always easy to obtain - in Italian-to-English translation. Certainly there needs to be more, and more ease in finding what already exists, and more "tips" like yours above, but at least for getting a start on Italy there's no shortage of great choices.

  6. Italian literature is well enough represented in English (given access to a university library) that that last question - "is it worth reading?" - for the non-specialist, I mean - becomes really important.

    Of course the answer, almost always, is Yes.