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Giancarlo Lombardi. Rooms with a View: Feminist Diary Fiction, 1952-1999.

Giancarlo Lombardi. Rooms with a View: Feminist Diary Fiction, 1952-1999. Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.

The title of Lombardi's study, Rooms with a View: Feminist Diary Fiction, 1952-1999, may suggest to the reader an analysis guided by solely a formal approach to genre criticism. From the outset of the study, however, Lombardi distances himself from such formalistic constraints by constructing an engaging comparative study of the genre that explores the evolution and involution of feminist themes in a variety of national contexts. In his preface Lombardi explicitly differentiates his work from previous structuralist scholarship on diary fiction and likens his study, with its overriding attention to the influence of ideological discourses on diary fiction, to Hassam's Writing and Reality: A Study of Modern British Diary Fiction (28). Lombardi's diachronic study moves from the preistoria of the feminist movement to late 20th-century backlash against progress attained by that movement. The book thus spans four decades of feminist diary fiction and addresses the works of authors representative of four national contexts: Italy (De Cespedes, Maraini, Tamaro), France (Beauvoir), England (Lessing), and Canada (Atwood). The critical orientation is motivated and varied; psychoanalytic criticism, Derridean observations on the economy of the family, and Foucault's analysis of systems of social surveillance converge in an argument that effectively demonstrates how feminist diary fiction portrays a patriarchally engineered "universe of female protagonists in seclusion" (15). Each chapter explores this subtending theme as it discusses a variety of possible reactions by the female protagonist to this oppressive condition: resignation, rebellion, retreat into insanity, and conformity to socially prescribed roles.

Chapter One ("Time Given, Time Taken, Time Lost: De Cespedes's Bleak Tale of the Fifties") explores the internalization of patriarchal imperatives regarding femininity. Lombardi highlights those transgressive moments in De Cespedes's text where the act of secretive diary writing is described as sinful and subversive, an activity that does not contribute to the economy of the foyer. De Cespedes's resisting narrative and the protagonist's ultimate destruction of it become, in Lombardi's persuasive analysis, a burnt offering consecrated upon a symbolic altar to female interiority. Through an analysis of the religious and economic discourses with which the protagonist chooses to describe her transgression, Lombardi traces the uneven process of the protagonist's awakening and final return to silence. Diary keeping, explored by Lombardi in Derridean terms, is a gift of time given to oneself, time taken, but also time lost. Its status as a selfish and "an-economic" activity undermines the mother's contributory and sacrificial role within the family economy. The protagonist Valeria's secluded condition--apropos of which Lombardi focuses on spatial considerations and images of mirroring in the novel--emphasizes how phallogocentrism silences those whose writing is not sanctioned by patriarchal consent.

Chapter Two ("Neurotic Cassandras: Lessing, Maraini, Beauvoir, and Their 'Crazy' Diaries From the Sixties") attempts to demonstrate how this decade witnessed slightly different stages of feminist struggle in Western Europe. These "site-specific" realities, as Lombardi defines them (19), are exemplified by Beauvoir's La femme rompue, Maraini's A memoria, and Lessing's The Golden Notebook. In each work Lombardi painstakingly explores the "symbolic depiction of different aspects of female neurosis" (55). The golden notebook of Lessing's novel narrates the protagonist Anna's journey through crisis and madness. Lombardi examines with great textual detail each of the four colored notebooks that Anna keeps to compartmentalize her life, and offers convincing readings of each informed by psychoanalytic criticism (the castrating female gaze, das Unheimliche), Lacan (linguistic slippage and the phallus), and Bentham's panopticon via Foucault. Lombardi observes that themes in this text such as breakdown and separation (race, class, and gender) overdetermine the subtending theme of the divided self.

Lombardi then turns to an analysis of the formal and thematic subversion which characterizes Maraini's A memoria. The avant-garde work, which he likens stylistically to the nouveau roman in its alienating representation of disorder and fragmentation, is complemented by a female protagonist whose sexual promiscuity presents a threat to patriarchal order. The protagonist suffers from lack of social memory, and this condition, Lombardi argues, mirrors the condition of women's preistoria, which Maraini defines as unconsciousness, a lack of reflection upon one's life or actions (70). In support of the symbolic status of the protagonist, Lombardi shows in exhaustive detail how the text differentiates between women as body, instinct, appetite, and men as reason, intellect, speculation. This patriarchally imposed segregation to the body inscribed within a profound existential despair, a failure to communicate, and an alienation from history make of A memoria "a bleak fairy tale, a mythic fable on the war of the sexes in prefeminist Italy" (78).

The penultimate section of this chapter treats the unreliable narrator of La femme rompue (1967), a housewife abandoned by her adulterous husband, forced to embark upon an undesired emancipation. Monique's six-month diary details her "slow descente en enfer" (80) in which Lombardi draws comparisons to the bleakness of Poe's short stories and focuses on the darkness and angst enveloping the protagonist. Lombardi's critical point is that the ambiguity of Monique's statements, her forgetfulness, confusion, and distortion of the truth make her an unreliable narrator, one motivated by intentional misrepresentation. He concludes that this ambiguous novella, "disguised as a desperate plea for human sympathy, actually undermines its most evident meaning through subtle rhetorical and structural devices" (90). The chapter closes with Kristevan observations on female castration and the link between depression and language (Le soleil noir); Lombardi concludes that the characters' "neuroses signify their inability to adjust to patriarchal societies that are faced with the threat represented by the possibility of female emancipation" (93).

Chapter III ("The War Years: Maraini's Angry Look at the Seventies") follows the protagonist of Maraini's Donna in guerra, Vannina, as she undergoes a transformation from a condition of socially prescribed subjugation to rebellious emancipation. Lombardi explores the public-private dichotomy through a sensitive and nuanced analysis of the protagonist's areas of action: the apartment, lavanderia, garden courtyard, and the piazza. By highlighting the religious overtones and ritualistic qualities of certain descriptions and conversations in the novel, Lombardi provides convincing textual evidence of his reading of two other female figures in the novel, Tota and Giottina, as "voices from the netherworld, from the dark caves of the earth, [...] the voices of female atavistic revolt" (103). Although theirs is ultimately a doomed rebellion, another female figure, Suna, features in Vannina's eventual emancipation. The most suggestive argument in this chapter is the analysis of the symbolic role of hunting and fishing in which Lombardi relates these two activities to possession and abuse of women.

Lombardi's analysis in Chapter IV ("Fall From Grace: Lessing, Atwood, and the Years of the Backlash") of The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984) and The Handmaid's Tale (1986) posits these texts as representative of the backlash against feminism. Regret, fear of aging, the body, and decay haunt the protagonist of Lessing's work. Although a career woman, Jane Somers edits a glossy women's magazine, Lilith, which betrays its feminist title through a subtle promotion and reinforcement of patriarchal propaganda. Lombardi demonstrates, through a close analysis of Jane's relationships with other characters, how the protagonist has had to prioritize work over family in order to project a stylized image of a successful, liberated woman. Lombardi sees courage in the character's abandonment of her position at the pseudo-feminist magazine, but concludes that "her more drastic connection from the world of the emotions ends the diaries on an extremely bleak note" (138). Drawing upon the publication circumstances of this work (Lessing's use of a pseudonym to publish the novel and the critics' resulting inability to recognize her literary signature), Lombardi makes some concluding remarks on signature and style in which both the text itself and the body of the protagonist as text are dressed for an audience. In the following section on Atwood's novel, Lombardi shows how Atwood's dystopian future world fully realizes the latent backlash which Lessing's novel hinted at in its conclusion. The chapter presents a thorough summary of the work and discusses the symbolism of dress, colors, and the protagonist's name. After this discussion of symbolism, Lombardi explores the role of language. In its status as the transcription of Offred's oral narrative, the diary is the objective correlative of the female character's exile from the written word.

In the study's conclusion ("A Grandmother's Legacy"), Lombardi addresses the best-selling novel by Susanna Tamaro, Va' dove ti porta il cuore and teases out the contradictory ideological discourses inscribed in the narration. In the grandmother's message to her absent granddaughter to "forget her own rationality, dismiss the subversive power of her voice, and let her emotions take over her life" (158), Lombardi sees an echo of Italy's reawakened Conservatism and patriarchally informed ideologies. In conclusion, Rooms with a View: Feminist Diary Fiction is a study rich with close readings of primary texts and theoretically acute analyses of characters, themes, and situations. The lucidity and concision of the textual analysis is, however, sometimes marred by semantic and grammatical errors. A complete bibliography and an index of concepts, authors, and titles ensure effective consultation of the study. While Lombardi convincingly dissects each character's fictional world and identifies the telltale traces of ideologies in that world (Catholicism, Feminism, Marxism, Neo-Conservatism, et al), at the end of chapters the transitional leap between these texts and the sociopolitical history of the women's movement is often brusque and/or vague. As Lombardi states in his preface, the view, circumscribed by windows and mirrors and readily available to female diarists, weaves together two discourses. The diaries "bear witness to their internal struggles while reflecting, at the same time, (on) the external world, whose sociopolitical turmoil will be observed, however, from afar" (15). The preface's survey of post-WWII Western women's history and feminist politics is a concession, I think, to the proposition that if each text chosen by Lombardi reflects the evolution of the women's movement across time (resignation, rebellion and backlash), then text and history need to be mutually present on the page. The sociopolitical turmoil cannot, in the end, be observed from afar.

Lori J. Ultsch, Hofstra University
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Title Annotation:Italian Bookshelf
Author:Ultsch, Lori J.
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Words:1673
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