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Paola Masino: from classic to modern fantastic.


Recent studies aimed at rediscovering and redefining Italian fantastico novecentesco have unjustly ignored the work of Paola Masino. In this article, I demonstrate how Masino draws upon the tropes of fantastic literature in two of her novels to investigate female selfhood and the conflict with imposed definitions of womanhood. Masino's treatment of the topic, however, changes radically in the few years (1931-1938) which separate the two works. From a more traditional fantastic in her first novel Monte Ignoso--rich in conventional fantastic topoi such as ghosts, animated paintings, and dramatic deaths Masino switches to a more ironic and psychological fantastic in her last work Nascita e morte della massaia. The difference not only marks a shift in personal style but is also a testament to the transition between the 19th century Romantic fantastic and the 'modern' 20th-century fantastic or fantastico novecentesco that will mostly develop in the post-war decades.


fascism, Italian fantastic literature, Paola Masino, women writers


Since the early 19th century and the first translations of major fantastic works in Italian, fantastic literature has been considered a marginal trend within Italian literature, a 'foreign fashion' descending from Northern Europe and as such unsuitable to the rational Italian spirit (Croce, 1956). (1) In his 1823 letter to D'Azeglio, Manzoni (1990) refers to ghost stories as a 'guazzabuglio di streghe e di spettri' and Leopardi (2004) notes in the fourth of his Pensieri that 'e noto che nessuna delle tre grandi nazioni che, come dicono i giornali, marchent a la tete de la civilisation, crede agli spiriti meno dell'italiana.' In the 20th century, the importance of historical truth and social commitment in literature marginalized fantastic narratives as the result of either youthful experimentations (Ghidetti and Lattarulo, 1984) (2) or authors' eccentricities (Lazzarin, 2001). (3) Indeed, writers such as Landolfi, Buzzati, Tabucchi, and Manganelli have not only produced valuable and noteworthy works when taken individually but, if considered together, they suggest the presence of a generalized interest for the fantastic. Thus, the idea of a tradition of Italian fantastic literature with its peculiar and original traits has gradually gained ground and has drawn attention in several recent studies (Amigoni, 2004; Bellotto, 2003; Farnetti, 1988; Galletti, 1996; Ghidetti 1987; Ihring and Wolfzettel, 2003; Lazzarin, 2004; Roda, 1996) and anthologies (D'Arcangelo, 1993; Farnetti, 1990; Ghidetti and Lattarulo, 1984). However, with the exception of a few very current critical works (Alpini, 2009; Billiani and Sulis (2007); Chiti et al., 2003; Hipkins, 2007), most studies focus exclusively on male writers and ignore female contributions to the genre. (4)

In this article I argue that Paola Masino's work could be aptly included into a tradition of Italian fantastic literature. In particular, her two novels Monte Ignoso (1931) and Nascita e morte della massaia (1946) testify to the shifts occurring in the early 20th century from the forms and tropes of romantic or classic fantastic to new traits and themes which characterize the modern Italian fantastic. I first suggest a definition for the fantastic as relevant to the work of Masino and propose a distinction between classic and modern Italian fantastic literature. I then introduce Paola Masino's two major works as examples of the different forms of Italian fantastic literature, and argue how the choice for a non-realistic literature is consonant with Masino's endeavor to explore and question contemporary definitions of womanhood.

Fantastic literature

Several scholars have aimed to provide a definition of fantastic literature (Bonifazi, 1982; Caillois, 1991; Ceserani, 1996; Todorov, 1975). Yet the fantastic seems still to defy any definition (Albertazzi, 1993). Some definitions appear too restrictive, such as Tzvetan Todorov's (1975: 25) assertion that 'the fantastic occupies the duration of uncertainty'; others are vague and generic, as Borges et al.'s (2007) provocative assumption that all literature is fantastic. (5) Most scholars and writers, however, agree on the origin of the genre: the specific socio-historical and cultural conditions between the 18th and 19th centuries that would engender the masterpieces of realistic literature (Ceserani, 1996; Jackson, 1981). Along with realism, fantastic literature was the result of new psychological, epistemological, and scientific knowledge and the consequent questioning of traditional gnoseological convictions about nature and mankind (Ceserani, 1996). Fantastic would then include everything realism excluded from the category of the 'real,' namely 'the im-possible, the un-real, the nameless, formless, shapeless, un-known, in-visible' (Jackson, 1981: 26). Yet, the laws of reality are still in place in the fantastic world. As Umberto Eco (1994: 83) has stressed, the real world is the necessary background for any work of fiction as '[everything that the text doesn't name or describe explicitly as different from what exists in the real world must be understood as corresponding to the laws and conditions of the real world.' This is applicable also to the fantastic. The fantastic discards an alternative reality, distinct from the factual one, which would allow flying carpets, talking animals, fairies, and dragons to roam freely and unquestioned in the narrative. Some scholars favor the terms fantasy or marvelous to distinguish those narratives from the fantastic genre (Caillois, 1991; Todorov, 1975). Indeed fantastic literature requires reality for its own existence, as Jackson (1981:36) claims, '[it] enters a dialogue with the 'real' and incorporates that dialogue as part of its essential structure' (italics in original). The fantastic implies a rupture, an unexpected and unpredictable deviation from such reality which cannot be explained within the boundaries of reality and thus generates destabilization, bewilderment, and alienation. (6) For the purpose of this article I consider fantastic any story in which within a narrative setting perceived as verisimilar to the factual reality, an event out of the ordinary, or supernatural, occurs that destabilizes the protagonist's (and the reader's) (7) perception of that same reality, creating what Freud (1997) has defined 'das unheimliche,' the uncanny. In his 1919 essay on Hoffmann's short story 'Der Sandmann,' Freud argued that the unheimliche is the feeling that results when a familiar yet disturbing and frightening element alters the status quo. By considering the evolution of the word unheimliche, which developed to signify both familiar and agreeable, and what is concealed and kept out of sight, and looking at the specifics of Hoffmann's short story, Freud (1997: 217) defines the uncanny as the emotions that arise when 'something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression' appears. Freud (1994: 224) mentions also another typology of the uncanny, which he defines as the reoccurrence of 'surmounted' modes of thoughts; yet, he adds, this kind is not particularly frequent in literature.

A variety of themes and motifs have proved effective in creating that sense of destabilization and estrangement, responding to different cultural and sociological contexts (Lugnani, 1993). (8) In the late 18th century and through the 19th century, when rationalist philosophy and bourgeois values attempted to establish a society of rational order and moral control, the disturbing elements found embodiment in creatures that were seen as alien to those categories and in themes that conveyed uncertainty and uneasiness. Among these were 'ghosts, shadows, vampires, werewolves, doubles, partial selves, reflections (mirrors), enclosures, monsters, beasts, cannibals' (Jackson, 1981: 49). Transgressive impulses towards incest, necrophilia, androgyny, and cannibalism were also adopted to create disquiet. Finally, Jackson concludes, the subversion of gender differences and the blurring of generic distinctions between animal, vegetable, and mineral appear frequently in the narratives.

In the 20th century, cultural and social changes made traditional forms and themes of fantastic narrative sound repetitive and obsolete; most elements associated with the super-human are abandoned and new themes become prevalent. The popularization of scientific findings on radioactivity and subatomic particles, the reproducibility of art, and the advent of psychoanalytic theories of the 'unconscious' changed the perception of earthly reality, questioned the category of the 'real,' and severed the established link between signifier and signified. Thus, it was no longer the otherworldly that conveyed the uncanny. As Albertazzi (1993: 18) has argued, 'l'esasperazione degli elementi inquietanti reperibili nel quotidiano conduce a un capovolgimento di prospettiva secondo cui la norma e l'ossessione, l'estraneita, e cio che spaventa, la banalita, il conosciuto.' The clash between two worlds (natural and supernatural) becomes less relevant, and it is in the ordinariness of everyday life that one experiences a sense of discomfort and alienation.

Some scholars have therefore suggested a distinction between 'classic' or 'traditional' fantastic and 'modern' fantastic to underline the change occurring in the new century. According to Italo Calvino (1995) for instance, in the 'modern' fantastic the individual has internalized the supernatural, and destabilizing factors are 'psychological' rather than 'visionary.' As waking up from a dream, one sees the old anew rather than seeing what is not there (Hipkins, 2007). This tendency was already present in the previous century, Calvino continues, even if it was secondary to the main trend. The new century created the environment for its development and thus a psychological fantastic becomes prevalent in which 'il soprannaturale rimane invisibile, "si sente" piu di quanto non "si veda," entra a far parte di una dimensione interiore, come stato d'animo e come congettura' (Calvino, 1995: 1660). (9)

Modernist literature already reflects these changes in the perception of reality by presenting multifaceted characters no longer in positivist harmony with their environment. Yet modern fantastic literature elaborates the rupture by accentuating the inexplicable and irrational sides, 'mocking and parodying a blind faith in psychological coherence and in the value of sublimation as a "civilizing" activity' (Jackson, 1981: 176). Modern fantastic finds even more fertile ground in postmodernist literature, as it draws upon similar stylistic features (Ceserani, 2008). Indeed, in the second half of the century, modern fantastic brings 'rupture' also into its own narrative forms, as it resorts to polymorphic narratives, meta-narrative comments, and a language that accentuates the gap between signifier and signified to accentuate the sense of bewilderment (Jackson, 1981).

Italian fantastic literature

In Italy, belated interest in fantastic literature and excessive reliance on foreign models ranging from indirect allusions to indiscriminate translations and rewritings initially prevented the creation of an authentic tradition of the fantastic (Lazzarin, 2001). Yet, in the new century and particularly in the post-First World War years a growing interest for non-realistic literature developed, which generated a great number of valuable and diverse categories of the fantastic. As Enrico Cesaretti (2001: 103) pointed out:
   nei primi anni del Novecento, sicuramente in seguito alle tendenze
   irrazionalizzanti in filosofia e agli sviluppi della psicoanalisi,
   si intensific[a] in numerosi scrittori, una volta constatata
   l'assurdita e la frammentarieta del reale, un multiforme interesse
   per Yunheimlich, per cio che sta 'oltre' il reale, per il suo lato
   oscuro, ignoto.

Starting with Papini's collections of short stories--Il tragico quotidiano (1904) and Il pilota cieco (1907) (10)--and continuing with Savinio's, Buzzati's, Landolfi's, and Bontempelli's work, a growing number of remarkable and original short stories and novels were written according to paradigms that would later be recognized as defining the modern fantastic or fantastico novecentesco. Gianfranco Contini (1988) coined the label 'Italia magica' to identify this literary trend which refers and pays homage to Bontempelli's own realismo magico and distinguishes a third line in Italian literary tradition between the dominant realism and the subversive experiments of the avant-gardes. (11) According to Contini (1988: 235), Bontempelli's realismo magico had the merits of defining an authentic Italian tradition of the fantastic, distinct from the Romantic Northern literature: 'Il suo canone di "realismo magico" definisce felicemente la mescolanza d'un gusto rapido e penetrante dell'osservazione e d'un'inclinazione quanto mai intellettuale verso l'assurdo, il sogno, i regni proibiti e insalubri (dalla buccia feriale e rassicurante).' Bontempelli's realismo magico, as well as the works of the other authors in Contini's anthology, offered examples of a literature that looked at reality with the intent of discovering the mystery in it through the tool of imagination and the control of the intellect. Later, Calvino, similar to Contini, praised the 20th-century Italian fantastic for its originality and refusal to be a mere imitation of Romantic models, and identified in intellectual irony its most distinctive and valuable feature. (12)

Both Calvino and Contini, however, failed to recognize the contribution and impact of female authors to the tradition of the Italian modern fantastic. For women writers who were still struggling to be recognized as authors equals to their male counterparts, embracing the fantastic meant adding derogation to marginalization. Therefore, as Hipkins (2007: 29) has aptly stated: 'recovery traces of a female fantastic in Italy means revising old categorization of high and low literature.' Moreover, the 'feminine fantastic,' as Monica Farnetti (2007) has defined the fantastic literature written by women authors, often goes beyond the mere gender difference in the writer. It embodies a distinctive approach to Otherness, for which the Other is no longer disquieting and unfamiliar but rather is domestic and intimate. Thus, a feeling of pity and empathy often replaces the fear and anxiety generated by the uncanny event or experience. Farnetti calls it the 'empathic variant' of fantastic. However, she continues, even when the 'anxious variant' is still in place, a change is apparent as the female heroine leaves the uncanny experience empowered as a subject rather than annihilated.

It is in the moment of transition between emulation and rewriting of foreign models and the delineation of an Italian original tradition of the fantastic, with the addendum of the female fantastic variants, that the work of Paola Masino should be included and considered.

Paola Masino

In the two decades in which she was the most creative (1930s and 1940s), Masino published three novels and two collections of short stories that show an intense degree of experimentation (Re, 1995) and a poetical predilection for the nonrealistic. (13) Since her first writings in Decadenza della morte (1931), a preference for the extra-ordinary and the other-worldly emerges, and the suggestions from her favorite readings--the Bible, Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan dramaturges, the German and French fabulists, and Dostoyevsky (Manetti, 2001a)--converge to inspire narratives where the boundaries of reality blur and opposites coexist (sleep and wakefulness, real and imaginary, visible and invisible). Undoubtedly also the collaboration with her lifelong partner Bontempelli played a role in her literary style. Yet Masino's work transcends a mere imitation of Bontempelli's poetics, and expresses a more personal and original language (Manetti, 2001b).

The two novels I focus upon in this article, Monte Ignoso and Nascita e morte della massaia, are exemplary of her preference for the juxtaposition of opposites and are particularly noteworthy inasmuch as Masino employs narrative strategies and themes belonging to the fantastic to investigate femaleness and to challenge the ideas of womanhood imposed by society. As Lucie Armitte has suggested, the fantastic text 'pose(s) a dangerous threat to established notions of fixity and conformity, a characteristic that obviously makes the fantastic a particularly appealing form for the exploration of socio-political marginality and ex-centricity' (quoted in Hipkins, 2007: 17) Moreover, these two novels reveal a shift in Masino's style that mirrors the changes in the Italian approach to the fantastic occurring in the first decades of the 20th century. Whereas in Monte Ignoso tropes and forms are patently inspired by the traditional fantastic, in Nascita Masino adopts a formal and verbal fantastic rather than a visual one, as she employs a polymorphic narrative structure and infuses her pages with irony and sarcasm.

Monte Ignoso

Set in an unspecified time and in an indefinite location, Monte Ignoso is the story of a family inhabiting a mysterious red house on a country hill. The novel is structured in three parts, each one evolving around one of the three main characters. The first part is dedicated to the wife and mother, Emma, and introduces her background, her affair with the stableman Marco, and his death. The second part dwells on Emma's daughter, Barbara: her hallucinations, the perverse attachment her father has developed for her (he calls her 'mother'), and her sudden and premature death. The last part focuses on Emma's husband, Giovanni, his reaction at Emma's confession of adultery, and her murder by his hands.

As in a conventional fantastic story, the device that initiates the narration is a supernatural event: one morning Barbara is eating her breakfast under the vigilant eye of her mother when her odd behavior attracts Emma's attention. Questioned on her actions, Barbara explains she was giving directions to an old priest who had asked the way to her father's office. To Emma's great discomfort nobody, however, has actually entered the room. Yet the description of the old prelate is familiar to Emma who realizes he is Abbot Federico Vaira, an ancestor whose portrait hangs on the wall on the first floor landing. In Emma's view, therefore, Barbara's vision is not a mere hallucination or daydream, but an encounter with one of the paintings in the house that has come to life.

The theme of the animated painting is a frequent trope in fantastic literature (Ceserani, 1996). It embodies the transgression of reality and the rupture of the factual laws since an inanimate object is unexpectedly and inexplicably endowed with life. As Pierluigi Pellini (2001) has extensively analyzed in his book Il quadro animato, the topos is developed in a range of forms which can mostly be traced back to three typologies: the Romantic reinterpretation of the classical Pygmalion myth, the gothic theme of the double--as in Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and what Theodore Ziolkowski (1977) terms the genius loci, for which the past returns to expel a perceived usurper, as in Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. For Masino, the trope is instrumental in introducing the duality in Emma's personality and the conflict between desire and maternal purity.

In Monte Ignoso, all paintings adorning the walls of the house are endowed with life. Yet, before Barbara's vision, Emma was their exclusive interlocutor. Several of the canvases portray biblical scenes of violence and sexual cruelty: Ammon raping his half-sister, Judith beheading Holofernes, Potiphar's wife seducing Joseph, the sodomites chasing the angels in Lot's house. The depraved and violent sexuality shown in the canvases extends to Emma's own sexuality which she sees as unnatural and dissolute. Rather than embracing her own erotic desire, Emma has internalized the societal condemnation of female sexuality and, unable to accept it as her own, has projected its agency onto the paintings. Emma indeed believes that the tableaux has gained mastery over her will, '[si sentiva] una emanazione dei quadri misteriosi, una materia in loro potere, non piu una vita libera,' and induced her to indulge in sexual pleasure both in the adulterous relationship with Marco and in actions of self-gratification (Masino, 1994: 35). As Flora Ghezzo (2003) has efficiently pointed out, Emma sees erotic pleasure as an uncontrollable force, a destructive power causing chaos and disharmony, thus she finds gratification solely outside society in the non-historic dimension of nature as represented by the choice of a stableman as her lover and the stables as location for their affair (p. 51).

In opposition to a sexual desire she despises as unnatural and otherworldly, Emma exalts the 'purity' of her maternal love and the 'naturalness' of Barbara's conception, 'concepita semplicemente, secondo natura, come certo Dio vuole che si faccia' (p. 41). Emma fully embraces her socially recognized identity as a mother and equates herself to the ideal mother, the Virgin Mary. (14) Other models of motherhood are presented in the novel (Marco's God-fearing mother and Giovanni's heartless and castrating mother), (15) yet they lack the intense and absolute maternal love Emma believes is her exclusive domain (Rozier, 2011).

Masino strengthens the dichotomy between desire and maternity by associating them with another Manichean duality: darkness and light, night and day. Whereas Emma's diurnal self is maternal, familiar, and remissive, the nocturnal one is erotic, sinful, and corrupted. Only at night, when societal constraints recede and natural instincts take over, (16) does Emma free her desire, 'converse' with the paintings, and encounter her lover. Therefore, by appearing to Barbara the priest has not only threatened the girl's innocence but has also connected the diurnal and the nocturnal Emmas; he has forced the maternal Emma and her family to come to terms with her dark side. As motherhood and desire are perceived as mutually exclusive, the encounter of the two identities leads to an unavoidable collapse which terminates with the destruction of the family and the death of all protagonists.

In associating sexuality with death, Masino is drawing upon tropes common in fantastic literature that Todorov (1975: 124) has categorized under 'themes of the other'--namely those themes based on sexual desire. The pattern Todorov identifies, which starts with desire, leads through cruelty, and ends with death, is indeed replicated in Monte Ignoso. The centrality of the female character, however, adds a further layer of significance to the storyline. As Farnetti (2007) has pointed out about the feminine fantastic, the appearance of the supernatural does not weaken the female protagonist. Masino's Emma actively responds to the manifestation of the animated paintings and the threat she perceives it entails. Although ultimately defeated, Emma shows agency and power through the whole experience. She does indeed fulfill her sexual desire in the affair with Marco and at the same time she complies with her socially imposed role of submissive wife and chaste mother. Her final defeat is less a result of her weakness than of her husband's (and society's) incapacity to acknowledge and accept female desire.

In conclusion, fantastic motifs are instrumental to Masino's denunciation of the internal conflict the protagonist experiences between womanhood and motherhood. By employing the fantastic tropes, Masino intensifies the disruptive results of the clash between a denied female desire and conventional ideals of motherhood. She finds the subversive and unsettling power of the fantastic suitable for challenging the traditional mother figure and fully espouses the genre to convey her deep criticism of societal norms.

Nascita e morte della massaia

In Nascita e morte della massaia Masino dwells again on the notion of femaleness and the conflict with socially imposed gender roles. Whereas in Monte Ignoso Masino focused on the opposition between female sexuality and a sexless maternal mystique, in Nascita she expands her spectrum by criticizing and condemning the patriarchal definition of femininity as well as the specifics of fascist propaganda.

Although published only in 1946, (17) Nascita was originally written in 1938 at a time when the Fascist regime had tirelessly worked to promote the image of the Donna Nuova, a specific model of womanhood that would fulfill its demographic campaign (De Grazia, 1992). The 'New Woman' had to be shapely and prolific, and her devotion to the family was her civic duty. As a stay-at-home mother, she was responsible for the education of children in patriotic values and the efficient administration of domestic economics. Only in this way could she be considered a real and moral Fascist woman (Graziosi, 1995). Furthermore, upper-class women, organized in the Fasci Femminili, had the patriotic responsibility to spread nationwide their 'rational' managerial practices. They held workshops and meetings, particularly in the rural areas, to educate all women in the Fascist values of the New Woman, in what became known as the household management movement, or massaismo (Wilson, 2002). Therefore, in the Fascist social system the 'massaia' plays a key role. Instead, Masino empties the term of its significance by presenting a 'massaia' who is obsessive and maniacal, inconsistent and unreliable (Re, 1995). Masino's massaia constantly questions her role in society and persistently rebels against her supposedly natural vocation.

Unsurprisingly the novel was subjected to several levels of censorship before publication, which led to the elimination of all references to Italy and the contemporary history. (18) Therefore one could wonder, as Lucia Re (2005a) does, whether the vagueness and indeterminateness in the novel is the result of Masino's literary choice or the product of censors' skimming process. Nonetheless, from the censors' own notes it becomes apparent that Masino's preference for the non-realistic was inscribed in the novel since its first draft: 'This is another "surrealistic" book by Paola Masino ... Ideas and concepts navigate in the absurd, in the fantastic and fabulous, bordering at times on hallucination. One has the impression of reading through a distorting lens' (Re, 2005b: 73).

Indeed, from the opening of the novel the reader realizes that the story defies conventional norms of storytelling both in the paradoxical situations described and in the hybridity of genres. The young Massaia--the protagonist lacks a proper name for the entire novel--spends her days in the self-imposed seclusion of a trunk, symbol both of a cradle and a coffin (Blelloch, 1990; Rozier, 2011). Disinterested in her physical appearance and oblivious to social interactions, she occupies her time reading, meditating, and feeding on pieces of old bread: 'pensava e si mangiava le unghie; finite le unghie e i pensieri, masticava tozzi di pane e sfogliava i libri in cerca di altro nutrimento ... Aveva una idea di necessita superiore e indiscutibile' (Masino, 1970: 13-14). From this enclosed and protected environment, she explores the world within and outside her, meditates on death, and wonders about the reasons of things: 'Tutto ha una ragione e io devo scoprirla' (p. 20). Her inquisitive mind and unconventional behavior inspires either suspicion or indifference in her family, with the exception of her mother whose sole desire is for her daughter to abide by the social norms and be accepted in the 'consorzio umano' (p. 27). When the young Massaia resolves to leave her trunk and her meditative life, she is seeking to please her mother and fulfill her expectations. It is a voluntary choice, made nonetheless with hesitation and uncertainty. Massaia is aware she is renouncing her own identity in order to adopt a mask:

Sei sicura che esiste, per me, un'altra forma migliore? e vuoi che io mi sforzi di raggiungerla? Non temi che il ricordo del pensiero che io abbandono mi si insinui poi nella vita e mi sconvolga tutta l'esistenza se io scelgo una via normale? Mentre se io continuo in quello, benche con sacrificio, saro nella mia verita? (p. 28)

Massaia already foresees the conflict between her authentic self and the 'normal life' imposed by society. She calls the latter a 'form,' a superficial appearance imposed on her existing essence. Massaia will assume several other masks or roles in her life, namely the submissive wife, the highly efficient house-manager, the successful socialite, and the philanthropic lady. In outlining such a destiny for Massaia, Masino is unquestionably inspired by Pirandello's views on masks and the multiplicity of each individual's appearances (Puppa, 2006). Yet, these exterior forms are made here even more suffocating and debilitating since they are explicitly gender-dictated. These roles are, indeed, merely external impositions, social conventions the patriarchal society has dictated for her gender. Thus Massaia will experience an ever-growing sense of alienation from her exterior life, which bestows on her a higher awareness of the vacuous theatricality necessary for social existence. Sarcastic comments on hers and the other characters' performances are spread throughout the novel. The metatextuality is particularly apparent in Chapter 5, where the dinner episode is entirely structured as a play script, with cues and stage directions. The scene ridicules the bourgeois practice of grandiose dinners with meaningless conversations and nameless guests identified exclusively by their social roles. The reference is again to Pirandello and in general to teatro grottesco and its critique of teatro borghese, the theatrical genre which replicates on stage the social conventions and cultural customs (including well-defined gender roles) of the bourgeois society (Farrell, 2006). In mocking teatro borghese, Massaia is showing her contempt for a social system which relegates women to performing meaningless roles (Garbin, forthcoming).

Masino again alters narrative uniformity and disrupts literary conventions by interpolating in Chapter 6 the full transcription of Massaia's journals, Memorie prime and Memorie seconde. In attempting to find a way to cope with the new identity she has adopted, Massaia temporarily abandons her husband's house and finds an occupation in the capital city. Realizing that her house managing duties have not abandoned her--her maid still needs constant supervision--she resolves to write a journal in an attempt to grasp the significance of life as a housewife. Her endeavor proves unsuccessful, as Massaia is still unable to find a valuable reason to accept such a destiny: 'Non riesco ancora a capire come si fa ad adattarsi, e come faccio io tuttavia a seguire con scrupolo il mio dovere, senza avere ancora accettato che questo sia il mio dovere' (p. 144).

The cognitive failure of the diaristic recollection of events introduces a moment of literary self-reflectivity that provides a further critical layer of conventional expectations for women. In the first place, it denounces the false assumption that women find gratification in concerning themselves with the petty aspects of everyday life; secondly, it condemns the belief that women's writing aspirations should be confined to autobiographical and oftentimes diaristic forms of narration. Indirectly, Masino is claiming her right to experiment with non-conventional literary forms, in particular with non-mimetic narratives that lie outside the traditional realm of so-called female literature. It seems then properly fitting that the part immediately following the failed diaristic attempt is the most 'unrealistic' of the entire novel. Massaia's physical journey back from the city to her husband's countryside mansion soon becomes an excursion through time and space, as the protagonist passes the threshold between a familiar space and a 'black' one where distinctions vanish (Goggi in Hipkins, 2007). (19) It is a space in which recognizable and familiar objects are juxtaposed in apparently meaningless ways:
   Inoltrarono in una valle piena di statue. Sembrano ritratti benche
   alcune siano altissime e non se ne arrivi a indovinare la forma;
   altre, piu basse, rappresentano si figure umane, ma con raggi ali
   aureole intorno al capo e alle spalle, e certe sono ammali che
   piangono o sorridono, poi vi sono blocchi di quarzo a catena come
   le onde del mare, lastre sottilissime che tentano riprodurre il
   cielo, e i sassi della via hanno apparenza di stelle, soli, lune.
   (pp. 153-154)

Massaia is bewildered in this new world, as the persistent recurrence of the verb 'sembrare' indicates. She attempts a sensible explanation by suggesting that it is solely a dream, 'Com'e possibile? Sto forse sognando?' (p. 156); yet this option proves unsatisfactory. Already in the dinner scene the boundaries between oneiric and factual were put into question as the play within the novel seems at first to be Massaia's dream. Yet, comments and events in the following chapter lead one to assume that the dinner had actually occurred, thus leaving the reader disoriented on the level of authenticity of events. Here, in this mysterious land, the distinction between wakefulness and sleep blurs again, since sunsets immediately follow dawns and days cannot be counted.

The sites Massaia encounters evoke rather patently the enigmatic and secretive sceneries of de Chirico's and Savinio's metaphysical paintings. (20) In alluding to metaphysical art, Masino seems to desire to translate onto the page the sense of alienation in the ordinary that is peculiar to the artists' work (Holzhey, 2005). Indeed, rather than introducing the magical and mythical in everyday life as Bontempelli had theorized in his realismo magico, Masino seems here to denounce the way that everyday life can doom any desire for the magical and become threatening and alienating once imposed on the individual's will (Manetti, 2008). In showing how familiar things can become completely unfamiliar, Masino is challenging the alleged 'naturalness' of female vocation to domesticity and enquiring into alternative opportunities for women: what happens if a woman lacks the desire to be a mother and a housewife? Can she be free to assert her will away from societal demands? These unspoken questions which trouble Massaia since she abandoned her trunk find an ultimate negative response in the vicissitudes of Massaia's doppelganger, another nameless young woman whose dreams for freedom and self-determination are crushed by societal constraints.

Massaia first encounters her double in the mysterious land she crosses on her journey home. The young woman shows numerous physical as well as emotional resemblances to Massaia in her youth. She is equally naive and unconventional, yet willing to conform in order to be accepted. In an unexpected twist, Massaia will voluntarily assume the role played by her own mother and undertake the endeavor to normalize the young woman. However, contrary to Massaia the girl refuses normalization after an initial acceptance, and escapes the older woman's house. Yet, when Massaia re-encounters the woman several years later she sadly realizes how her double has succumbed to the requests imposed by society. Despite marrying for love and not following society expectations, the 'young woman' is still unfulfilled as an individual and physically oppressed by the role imposed on her. Indeed, the petite woman is exhausted and emaciated by the 12 children she is rearing and the two she is still nursing. Barely a shadow of herself, Massaia's alter-ego embodies the falsity of the myth of maternity as the happy fulfillment of a woman's destiny that the Fascist regime had so tenaciously tried to portray (Re, 2005b). Equally exhausted is Massaia at the end of her brief life. When she dies she seems indeed consumed not only by her dedication to those in need while performing her philanthropic duties but also drained by the burden of the many identities she has taken upon herself through her existence.

In the end, by employing the stylistic and narrative tools of modern fantastic literature which dismantle the orderly structure of the novel as well as of the perception of reality, Masino found a congenial instrument to denounce the oppression of patriarchal society and the Fascist regime. In demolishing the idea of a fixed self and an unchangeable reality, Masino was not only asserting an existential belief but also overtly opposing the Fascist political strategy. Whereas the regime's propaganda was demanding a standardized way of thinking and behaving in accordance with the paradigms of the ideal Fascist citizen, Masino was denouncing these politics as a masquerade and condemning the limitations imposed on women's self-determination.


Masino's two novels discussed in this article show two different approaches to the exploration of womanhood, both of which rely on fantastic tropes to enhance the author's critical message.

In Monte Ignoso, Masino employs the visually intensive topoi of the traditional fantastic to express the internal clash between two elements deemed mutually exclusive in women: sexual desire and maternal dedication. In the first place, the supernatural element is evocative of the otherness embodied in women's sexuality; in the second place, the spiral of violence and death that the revelation of female desire causes efficiently communicates the destructive consequences on women's self-awareness that such a dualistic vision entails.

In Nascita, instead, several elements characterizing modern fantastic convey the sense of alienation experienced by the protagonist in roles externally imposed on her gender. First the blurring of boundaries between opposing spaces--dream and wakefulness, real and imaginary--and the fluctuation between them highlight the arbitrariness of categorizations and definitions. Second, the choice of unnamed characters and the stress on theatricality unveil the artificiality of social impositions. Finally, the alteration of conventional narrative forms (hybridization of texts, literary self-reflexivity, and ironic commentary) contributes formally to the subversion of established notions of reality, which include standardized models of womanhood.

In conclusion, in her two novels Masino not only exemplifies the differences between classic and modern fantastic literature but also shows how the genre was conducive to a profound discussion of concepts of femininity and a critique of imposed models of womanhood.

DOI: 10.1177/0014585813497464


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Barbara Garbin

Skidmore College, USA

Corresponding author:

Barbara Garbin, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Palamountain 408, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY 12886, USA.



(1.) In his 1904 essay on Arrigo Boito, Croce writes: 'invase e corse l'Italia, dopo il 1815, una nordica cavalcata di spettri, di vergini morenti, di angeli-demoni, di disperati e cupi bestemmiatori, e si udirono scricchiolii di scheletri, e sospiri e pianti e sghignazzate di folli e deliri di febbricitanti. Ma tutto cio fu moda e non poesia; agito la superficie e non le profondita, e lascio sgombre le menti e vigorosi gli animi, che si rivolgevano, allora alla lotta politica e nazionale. Quella moda non incontro nessuna tempra originale di poeta pronto ad accoglierla e a farla propria, mutandola da atteggiamento in sentimento, da reminescenza letteraria in effettiva opera della fantasia' (Croce, 1956: 253-254).

(2.) According to Ghidetti and Lattarulo (1984: xii) 'quasi tutti gli scrittori italiani del '900 hanno almeno uno scheletro nell'armadio,' referring to their experimentation with fantastic literature. For some authors, such as Svevo, Tozzi and Tornasi di Lampedusa, this translates into one single fantastic story; for others, such as Moravia (1940), it means one collection of stories. For still other writers, experimentation with the fantastic is limited to the early stage of their career, for instance Parise's fantastic works are his first two novels, Il ragazzo morto e le comete (1951) and La grande vacanza (1953). See also Lazzarin (2001).

(3.) Lazzarin (2001) summarizes it as 'vocazione alla marginalita' since, he claims, the authors of the fantastic are often isolated both because they generally do not create a 'school' and because they are marginalized by the literary critics who see them as 'exceptions.'

(4.) Ghidetti and Lattarulo's (1984) anthology of Italian fantastic in the 20th century includes only one short story by a female author, namely Ortese; Lucio D'Arcangelo in his Enciclopedia fantastica italiana (1993) includes stories by Grazia Deledda, Matilde Serao and Ada Negri for the 19th century and by Gianna Manzini for the 20th century.

(5.) 'Bisognerebbe dire che tutta la letteratura e fantastica. Nessuno crede veramente che in un paese della Mancia il cui nome non volle ricordare l'autore visse un cavaliere che per l'abuso di libri di cavalleria si lancio per le vie della Castiglia con armature, spada e lancia. Cosi nessuno crede che in un'estate di Pietroburgo uno studente assasino un'usuraia per emulare Napoleone' (Borges, 2007: ix).

(6.) Todorov (1975: 25) argues that the fantastic is the 'hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.' Roger Caillois (1984: 92) defines it as 'rottura dell'ordine riconosciuto, irruzione dell'innamissibile all'interno della inalterabile legalita quotidiana,' and Neuro Bonifazi (1982:23) writes: 'Intendiamo comunemente per fantastico il luogo spettacolare dello stupore e del turbamento di fronte a fatti inspiegabili e inquietanti [...], lo spazio libero dell'invenzione, l'estremo limite della fantasia e del senso, il mondo illogico del caso e delle coincidenze fatali, il regno dell'impossibile, che si discosta dall' esperienza consueta dalla norma.'

(7.) The role of the reader is pivotal. The reader in approaching the reading of the text has stipulated an agreement with the author, he/she accepts what the narrator/author presents according to a set of conventional/generic (in terms of genre) signals (i.e. standard phrases, elements of setting, or linguistic habits, etc). If the narration begins with 'Once upon a time' the reader knows to expect a fable or a fairy tale with talking animals and so forth and s/he won't be surprised when they appear. But if the text has a very precise, meticulous description of a neighborhood in Rome or of the Como Lake, the reader expects a verisimilar 'realist' type of narration. See Eco (1994).

(8.) Lucio Lugnani (1993) has aptly argued that the fantastic relies on the 'paradigm of reality' for its existence, that is the set of norms and axioms one employs to understand reality in a given time and space. Thus, fantastic changes through time as the perception of what is real varies through the centuries: 'L'uomo domina (o per meglio dire percepisce e interpreta, cioe conosce) la realta attraverso la scienza delle leggi che la regolano e la causalita che la determina, ed anche attraverso una griglia assiologica di valori distribuita ad abbracciare il reale e ad ordinare e giustificare i comportamenti umani in rapporto alla realta e agli altri uomini. Scienza (come insieme di cognizioni) e assiologia mutano evidentemente nel tempo e nello spazio. Il loro insieme determinato nel tempo e nello spazio costituisce cio che si puo chiamare paradigma di realta' (Lugnani, 1993: 54).

(9.) Calvino (1995) denies a neat chronological separation between the two kinds of fantastic, and actually points out that stories from the same writer may be either visionary or psychological. It is however undeniable, he believes, that the visionary supernatural becomes less and less relevant in the new century.

(10.) Papini himself is aware of the changes and in the Introduction to his collection Tragico quotidiano (1904) underlines the differences between 'his' new fantastic and the traditional form: 'Io ho voluto far scaturire il fantastico dall'anima stessa degli uomini, ho immaginato di farli pensare e sentire in modo eccezionale dinanzi a fatti ordinari. Invece di condurli in mezzo a peripezie bizzarre, in mondi non mai veduti, in mezzo ad avvenimenti incredibili, li ho posti davanti ai fatti della loro vita ordinaria, quotidiana, comune ed ho fatto scoprire a loro stessi, tutto quello che c'e' in essa di misterioso, di grottesco, di terribile. [...] Io credo fermamente alla superiorita di questo fantastico interno sul fantastico esterno degli altri novellieri' (Papini, 1992: 14).

(11.) With his anthology Italie magique (published first in French in only 150 copies in 1946), Contini provided the first study and first homage to the non-realistic, yet nonavant-garde, literature of the decades between the wars. The intent of the collection was twofold, the scholar explained in the 'Postfazione' in the 1988 Italian edition: to provide non-Italian readers with an idea of contemporary Italian writers, and to subtract from French and in general foreign literature 'il monopolio della sensibilita magica in letteratura' (1988: 248). Contini's anthology could indeed be seen as a response to the 1940 collection of fantastic stories Anthologie de l'humour noir edited by Andre Breton. See Scarsella (2001).

(12.) 'E soprattutto nel nostro secolo, quando la letteratura fantastica, perduta ogni nebulosita romantica, s'afferma come una lucida costruzione della mente, che puo nascere un fantastico italiano, e questo avviene proprio quando la letteratura italiana si riconosce soprattutto nell'eredita di Leopardi, cioe in una limpidezza di sguardo disincantata, amara, ironica' (Calvino, 1995: 1679).

(13.) In 1931, Masino published both Monte Ignoso and the collection of short stories Decadenza della morte. In 1933 her second novel, Periferia, was published and short stories appeared regularly in magazines and newspapers. Many were then collected in Racconto grosso e altri (1941).

(14.) In one case the Virgin herself suggests their affinity, speaking from one of the canvases: 'Tu sei madre, io sono madre' (p. 64). On another occasion the reference is more subtle when after Barbara's death Emma 'si sente trafitta da molteplici spade' (p. 91) like the 'Madre Addolorata,' a rendition of the Virgin Mary portrayed with a heart pierced by seven swords to represent her seven greatest sufferings: Simeon's prophecy, the flight into Egypt, Jesus in the temple at the age of 12, his journey to the Golgotha, the crucifixion, the deposition of the cross, and his burial.

(15.) Giovanni's mother, Signora Giulia, is tyrannical and castrating, and lacks any form of human love. She forces Giovanni to marry Emma for her wealth and encourages him to impregnate her immediately in the hope that she will die in childbirth. Marco's mother is blindly obsequious to religious norms; because her son has sinned by committing suicide she disavows him and denies him her love and devotion after life.

(16.) 'Nelle tenebre gli alberi sono falli ottusi, vulve gli abissi. La terra e questo sesso ibrido che in una sacra idiozia attende un segno divino che lo faccia vivere' (Masino, 1994: 43).

(17.) By the end of 1939, the novel was completed and was to be published in installments by Mondadori in the popular magazine Il Tempo Illustrato. Editor and censors, however, requested several changes that postponed the publication for two more years, finally to occur between October 1941 and January 1942. The novel was then to be published in volume but a bomb destroyed the warehouse where it was stored. In 1945, Masino rewrote the novel based on the press-proofs, attempting also to recreate the pre-censorship version. See Re (2005a).

(18.) In the postscript to the 1945 edition Masino recalls that all quotations from the Old Testament were to be left out. Even the novel's explicitly 'political' lexicon (terms such as 'maresciallo,' 'prefetto,' and 'patria') was to be suppressed and anything that made the imaginary country which serves as the novel's background identifiable with Italy (for instance words such as 'lira') had to be removed (Masino, 1970).

(19.) 'La donna usciva e entrava da una in altra zona con pressioni delle spalle e del capo, gesti larghi delle braccia, quasi nuotasse, e ora s'affrettava ora si abbandonava senza nessuna apparente ragione se non il peso dell'aria su lei.

La strada drittissima incontrava i piu vari paesaggi; in questo punto si fa largo nel greto di un fiume tra fili di acqua nera e sabbie celesti, piu avanti pare salire verso i groppi rocciosi che chiudono l'orizzonte, ma all'improvviso ti ha condotto sulla riva del mare e le rocce ti sono alle spalle.... Il panorama girava intorno alla strada ferma e alla donna, che pero non lo avvertiva accadendo tutto questo senza alcuno stridore, ne cigolare di cardini, ne scattare di molla o vibrazione del suolo. Il silenzio stava sulle cose come un velo dietro cui tutto si amalgamava e si faceva un'unica sostanza' (Masino, 1970: 146-147).

(20.) Masino lived in Paris from 1929 to 1930 after the scandal of her relationship with Bontempelli. During this time she worked at the journal L'Europe Nouvelle and at the Bureau International de Cooperation Intellectuelle. She was familiar with the Italian intellectual community in the city, which at the time counted Pirandello, Arturo Loria, Filippo de Pisis, de Chirico, and Savinio amongst its ranks (see Manetti, 2001a). For the importance the de Chirico brothers played for Bontempelli, see Lazzarin (2010).
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Author:Garbin, Barbara
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Article Type:Critical essay
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Date:Nov 1, 2013
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