Visions of war: universality, dignity, and the emptiness of symbols in Paola Masino.
Born in 1908 in Pisa, Paola Masino moved to Rome with her family at an early age. Her adolescent years were spent reading voraciously: the Bible (from which she absorbed the notion of guilt), but also the sacred texts of other religions; Shakespeare; French novelists from the 19th century; Dostoyevsky and many others. By age sixteen she had already written a play, Le tre Marie ("The Three Marias," never published), and boldly asked none other than Luigi Pirandello to stage it, a daring gesture that marked the beginning of a long-lasting friendship between the two. Three years later, in 1927, Masino met the writer Massimo Bontempelli, and despite harsh resistance from her family (Bontempelli was separated and thirty years her senior), she became his lifelong companion. Her value as a writer has too often been overshadowed by all-too-easy comparisons to her more famous partner, to the point that Masino's style and influences tend to be judged in terms of how much or how little they resemble Bontempelli's and the literary trend he promoted, that is, magical realism. (2) It is commonly agreed that her writing is closer to Surrealism than to magical realism, as she is more drawn toward the unconscious and the realm of dreams than toward the acknowledgment of a magical element hidden in everyday things. (3) And yet, though not fully embracing magical realism, she certainly absorbed its main concept. Indeed, when asked (in 1982) what the literary journal 900 (where Bontempelli had first theorized magical realism, and to which she herself had contributed) had meant for her, she answered:
Chi lo sa? Forse fu l'accoglienza naturale a qualsiasi fantasia, riconoscendo nella fantasia la piu caratteristica realta umana. E al tempo stesso l'attitudine a mitizzare ogni usuale realta in modo da allargare i confini dell'uomo dandogli una statura leggendaria. Citta o paese--purche i loro limiti, al di la della barriera dei luoghi comuni e della retorica, fossero essenziali di ogni citta e di ogni paese. (Falqui 116) (4)
This is true for many of Masino's writings on war: in the short story "Lino" (1944), for example, the city torn up by the war is Rome, but it could be any city; the tragic universality of its portrayal blurs out all topographical details, and the ubiquity of death, personified in a Kafkian-type head clerk, erases time and space with its ever-present call:
Dopo qualche tempo la guerra, rotto il fronte, straripo di casa in casa e fu l'appello individuale a ogni creatura umana perche uscisse dalla vita, cosi senza ragione, come uno sente l'amico chiamarlo dalla strada e scende a parlargli. La morte, dalla strada infatti a quel modo chiamava l'intera citta ... Vivemmo ininterrotti giorni nelle case diventate tane, nelle cantine ridotte falansteri, asserragliati nelle soffitte e nelle rimesse ... Anche l'angoscia ti diventava un'abitudine fisica, l'attesa un impiego mal retribuito. -- Al muro! -- berciava la morte: -- Al muro! Al muro! Al muro! -- e ti pareva un capufficio che si ostinasse: -- La pratica deve essere evasa. (Colloquio di notte 71-72) (5)
Masino experienced the nine months of the Italian Resistance in Rome, where she and Bontempelli were forced to hide after the Fascist Regime issued a death warrant for him and a deportation sentence for her. (6) The fear and tension of those days emerge in several of her short stories, but even the most overtly autobiographical of them, entitled "Fear" ("Paura"), which recalls a personal event in Masino's life when she and other people were stopped and threatened by the Germans after a partisan attack, never indulges in the particular, never loses sight of the universal condition it intends to portray. As the Germans shove their machine guns against people's stomachs and push them into a doorway, Masino contemplates her possibly impending death:
La fine. Ora questa parola fine non faceva piu come ai tempi della mia infanzia quella crudele pauta, essenziale, che e il terrore dell'ignoto, faceva disperazione se mai, faceva ribrezzo, voleva dire sentirsi squarciare e rimanere chisse in quale sconcia posizione in mezzo alla strada e volonta di restare lucidi, cercare un atteggiamento, una difesa, e soprattutto voleva dire che questo, no, non poteva accadere. A tutti gli altri si, ma non a me. Stare sicura: questa non e la mia morte. E mentre lo pensavo, guardando come potevo, di traverso, i volti che avevo allato, vidi in alcuni di loro la mia stessa certezza, e in altri il violaceo pallore dell'angoscia e un poco quell'angoscia m'irritava quasi fosse sugli altri il palesarsi d'un mio ripostissimo segreto. (Colloquio di notte 107-8) (7)
Unhesitatingly, Masino dissects her own painful memories of the experience, and her voice captures the intensity of a moment that is no longer her own, but that of a whole community stricken by the horrors of war.
Universality is only one characteristic element of Masino's writings on war: another fundamental trait is represented by the attempt to preserve dignity in the midst of chaos and fear. To Masino, dignity can help the individual to survive, or at least to face death heroically. In the above-mentioned short story, "Paura," the protagonist manages to overcome her terror the moment in which she realizes that her own dignity as a human being is in no way diminished by the soldier who is pointing his gun against her: "Un uomo armato, alla fin fine. Non era che un uomo armato. E negli angoli altri uomini, come me, inermi, e altri uomini armati come lui. Ma tutti ben precisi, tutti entro le dimensioni umane; e il loro potere e la nostra debolezza non potevano togliere o aumentare ne a noi ne a loro un pollice della nostra propria statura." (Colloquio di notte 109). (8) In "Fame" ("Hunger"), a short story so controversial that it caused the literary magazine Le Grandi Firme, in which it was reprinted in 1938, to be suppressed by order of Mussolini, the child protagonists beg their father to kill them lest they starve to death. The magnitude of the tragedy in this story unfailingly calls to mind Count Ugolino and his children, but Gaddo's helpless imploration in Canto XXXIII, "Padre mio, che non m'aiuti?" (Inf., XXXIII, 69) (9) is replaced here by Chiara's resolute, almost dispassionate utterance: "Allora babbo, se puoi, sfacci pure. Ho tanta fame" (Colloquio di notte 43), (10) where the recurring reference to hunger becomes a metaphorical longing for death. A stoical, lucid dignity is all that is left for the characters, and the father's ultimate decision to grant the children their wish by feeding them death comes forth as a supreme, desperate act of love.
What emerges to some extent in the short stories and to a greater extent in the autobiography is that, for Masino, dignity is a spiritual quality that must find its expression in a person's appearance and countenance. In the largely autobiographical "Anniversario" ("Anniversary"), Luisa, an elderly woman (clearly an image of the writer's mother, whose name was in fact Luisa Sforza), decides to join the partisans and travel north during the harshest days of the Resistance in search of food that will support her family:
Ella monto su un loro camion che portava dinamite, accomodandosi con garbo sopra una cassa, il cappellino di feltro color tortora legato sul capo da una leziosa veletta. Anche i partigiani la chiamavano mamma benche lei fosse una piccola signora riserbata che, pur baciandoli in fronte o accettando il capo dei piu stanchi sul grembo perche potessero riposare, dava a tutti del lei. (Colloquio di notte 136) (11)
The detailed reference to Luisa's hat as a sign of her resolution to preserve her elegance and respectability in spite of the destruction and turmoil that surround her is hardly accidental. In the letters and personal reflections that make up Io, Massimo e gli altri, clothes constitute central elements. Indeed, Paola Masino was renowned in the literary and social circles for her unusual style, and for the boldness with which, while living almost penniless in France with Bontempelli, she would show up at gatherings wearing inexpensive but flattering clothes, adorned with flowers and shiny leaves in place of jewels. And yet, despite her fascination with clothes and accessories, Masino never took fashion too seriously, and in fact, the column on fashion she wrote weekly for the magazine Spazio between December 1945 and March 1946 is full of irony if not actual sarcasm. Feigning enthusiasm for a new model of women's shoes, she jumps at the opportunity to draw attention to the devastation left behind by the war:
... dobbiamo davvero rallegrarci con quella mente che, eludendo una logica troppo stringente, sempre repugnante all'organismo femminile, ha saputo rivestire di eleganza il piu pratico paio di scarpe che le donne europee possano oggi portare. Tacchi bassi per camminare tra le macerie, scollatura sul piede non troppo fonda che la cenere di tanti incendi non penetri nelle dita; e quell'interruzione sentimentale, specie di cuore sulla tomaia, e sul cuore posato un piccolo fiocco a farfalla. Per dar ali alla speranza? Forse. (Bernardini Napoletano and Mascia Galateria 96). (12)
Irony is instead replaced by stoical determination in one of the most touching episodes of Io Massimo e gli altri, where Masino recalls how hunger forced her to part with the only designer outfit she ever owned, a gift from Alberto Mondadori, the director of the magazine Tempo, where Nascita e morte della massaia had been published in installments between October 1941 and January 1942. The outfit, which Masino describes in detail as the symbol of her gaining access to the "piccola schiera dei privilegiati," ends up being sold by the author herself, despite her mother's protests, to a shady, repulsive woman in exchange for a suspicious-looking piece of meat. Once again, Masino's stern sense of dignity refuses to yield to self-pity as she observes: "Era un simbolo che usciva dalla mia vita, ma allora non pensavamo piu ai simboli, ne avevamo avuto abbastanza di simboli e volevamo soltanto sopravvivere. I simboli poi, se salvavamo la pelle, in qualche modo ce li saremmo rifatti" (Io, Massimo e gli altri 115). (13) As for the meat bought with this symbol, Masino describes it as "rosa giallastro" its taste "dolce nauseante" to the point that she suspects it might be human flesh; nevertheless, she forces herself to eat it, and concludes: "E per quel giorno mi ero nutrita" (Io, Massimo e gli altri 116). (14) Food for Masino provides nothing more than basic survival. It is associated neither with pleasure, nor with joyful sharing with other fellow beings. In an intense poem called "Compianto" ("Lament"), probably written between 1944 and 1946, "crudo cibo" (15) is forced into the mouths of war survivors who have been rejected by death and who, now deprived of the dignity they would have acquired as war victims, are kicked along through the "sepoltura viva nell'umana esistenza" (Poesie 93). (16) Here, the survival ensured by such unwanted food is equated to "death in life," because it is a shameful testament to failed heroism.
The treatment of the topos of food in Masino's writings on war is particularly fascinating: though Masino often speaks of hunger as a condition shared by most people in those days (and also as a metaphor for a desire for death, as we have seen), she rarely mentions specific foods aside from bread or, occasionally, milk. In part, this can be explained with the obvious reality of poverty, but what is curious is that food does not even appear in the form of fantasy, and that its absence is not limited to Masino's writings on war, but it extends to her production as a whole, with the understandable exception of her personal letters to her family, in which she sometimes details what she has been eating in order to reassure her mother about her good health. Food is for the most part treated with contempt by Masino, who was downright annoyed by talk of matters such as groceries and household chores, which she regarded as distractions from intellectual endeavors. (17) Masino's impatience with issues traditionally dealt with by women, and particularly housewives, explodes in a merry-go-round of frustration in Nascita e morte della massaia. (18) The protagonist of this novel fully embodies Masino's own ordeal during the years she spent in Venice from 1938 to 1943, burdened with the responsibilities of a house and forced to juggle between her work as a writer and her "slavery" as the perfect housewife. In the novel, war represents a possible liberation from the chains of her golden cage, as the Housewife (nameless, of course) writes in her journal:
Giovedi 9--Ci e stata dichiarata guerra. Le cause sono molte, le speranze nostre grandissime, le ragioni innumerevoli, gli strascichi imprevedibili, gli effetti discussi. Di sicuro non ci saranno che i morti. Per me spero che se bombe devono cadere su fabbriche civili, cadano sulla nosta villa e mi sbarazzino a un tempo della ricchezza e della responsabilita. (Nascita e morte della massaia 120) (19)
The disparity created by war between the possibility for heroism afforded to men and the marginal role left to women as servants invades even the unconscious of the Housewife, turning her and all other females into mere washerwomen for a countless number of paratroopers:
Voi volate, noi stiamo a terra. Ci portate appena, dei vostri voli, i paracadute rovinati, perche vi si rammendino, smacchino, pieghino, ripongano. Tuttavia sorridiamo. Ma ecco vi lamentate perche le nostre funi (per i vostri, i vostri bucati) vi intralciano, e ripartite a cercare nel cielo qualche angelella. (Nascita e morte della massaia 122-23) (20)
Despite their common plight, bourgeois women in Masino's works rarely bond, and when they do, their relationship remains superficial, or falsely idyllic. Conversely, intimes of war working-class women join forces to survive, help their men and protect their children. (21) In the above-mentioned passage from Nascita e morte della massaia, the real target of Masino's fierce criticism is the artificial community of well-off, idle women who put their insincere generosity on display to conform to the dictates of etiquette. To them, war is but an opportunity to stage a well-rehearsed play of exquisitely feminine, stay-at-home heroism. In answer to her husband, who asks her if she has performed all of her wartime duties, the Housewife gracefully recites:
Ma che cosa intendi per doveri di guerra? Preparare pacchi per i soldati? (Il marito annui). Fare indumenti di lana per le famiglie dei richiamati? (Il marito annui ancora). Visitare gli ospedali? (Terzo assenso). Fare l'infermiera? (Si, si). Dare balli, te, feste di beneficenza? (Bravissima). Radunare le signore amiche per parlare delle nostre benemerenze (no, no) facendo passamontagna per i soldati? (Allora si, certo). Scrivere lettere eroico-sentimentali a qualche tenentino senza moglie, fidanzata o amica? (Nascita e morte della massaia 218) (22)
Masino's dry humor does not spare Futurism and its enthusiasm for the war, either. With Marinettian fervor, the Housewife leads an army of servants in the theatrical preparation of a sumptuous dinner for the town authorities. Here, culinary lavishness goes hand in hand with the unscrupulous violence of history:
Servi e sguatteri corrono da ogni parte con padelle sporte vassoi in mano. Pentole bollono, cuoche impastano farina, pasticceri battono uova, il cuoco rompe mestoli sulle spalle dei garzoni che sbucciano patate a cataste, colline di piselli. Ortolani scelgono foglie di insalata, contadine spelano polli [...] MASSAIA [...] Cuoco se mi ascolti ti prometto il trionfo. Porta i daini sul girarrosto, la polenta nel paiolo, ele allodole a stormi come volassero ancora in cielo. Da' retta a me. Bisogna mettersi al passo dei tempi. I tempi sono grandiosi? E noi anche. L'epoca e memorabile? E allora anche il tuo pranzo. L'ora e storica? Storica sia anche la nostra polenta. La storia si fa grande di massacri? E dunque uccidi a schiera tutti gli animali della tenuta e assurgerai alla gloria." (Nascita e morte della massaia 88) (23)
Consistently, both in this novel and in the short stories, Masino associates food (especially when rich and elaborate) with the gluttony and hypocrisy of the upper class. Rejection of food, on the other hand, stands for a refusal to take part in the falseness and inane entertainments of its members. Indeed, the starving young girl in Nascita e morte della massaia, who represents the protagonist's double and who is still untouched by the pretentiousness that her adult self unwillingly embraced upon becoming a Housewife, initially turns down the "maccheroni, fagiano, fagiolini, purea, panna, crema, pesche, moscato e canditi" the Housewife offers her, and asks to be given instead "groncioli" (Nascita e morte della massaia 158). (24) Especially in rimes of war, preoccupation with any food that constitutes more than actual survival, or with any activity performed just for the sake of appearance, is condemned as vulgar and despicable by Masino, and her sarcasm is biting as she portrays the Housewife's irremediable decline into shallowness:
... la Massaia si trovo a volte tutta immersa nel pensiero che domani vengono dieci personaggi per una gata di scacchi o trenta celebrita per una partita di mosca cieca nel parco, o i bambini dell'orfanotrofio al caffellatte. In quel mentre le arrivava, poniamo, una lettera in cui le si annunciava che uno dei suoi fratelli e rimasto ferito nell'ultima battaglia ed ella con buona volonta si metteva subito a singhiozzare e a gemere: "Povero fratello, caro, tanto caro fratello mio" ma a un tratto, diritto come un sasso scagliato da una fionda ecco percuoterla in mezzo alla fronte questo sospetto: "Si dice al caffellatte, ma gli orfani non preferiranno la cioccolata?" (Nascita e morte della massaia 205) (25)
Hot chocolate and chess games reappear in a short story entitled "Rivoluzione" ("Revolution"), from the collection Racconto grosso e altri ("Big Tale and Other Stories"), published in 1941. Here, a series of grotesque members of the upper class casually discuss an incident in which a group of children were gunned down by revolutionaries, while the house mistress plays the perfect host, offering hot chocolate and proposing a game of chess to keep spirits light (and, Masino implies, oblivious to the tragedy surrounding them). Similarly, the loathsome guests in another short story, significantly called "Visita allo zoo" ("A Visit to the Zoo") from Colloquio di notte, gather in a highly respectable parlor to "examine" a Communist specimen, a young woman who is yet another projection of the writer. Again, the leitmotif of food is worth exploring, as it helps turn the tables and reveal the so-called refined class as the true beast. (26) Each guest but the young Communist (who doesn't eat anything) feasts on "trionfi di dolci." A grotesque lady "truccata in bianco e nero" mechanically helps herself to one sugared almond after another, gobbling each of them as if she had a metronome in her stomach. Conversation fluctuates indiscriminately and casually between "tartine al curry;" "bambini con la tubercolosi;" "partigiani;" and "bigne" (Colloquio di notte 168-69). (27) At the end of the story, the guests look on with contempt and indignation as the young woman takes the food in order to distribute it among the children of evacuees, then they promptly resume their pseudodignified pastimes once the house mistress invites them to have some Port wine and cheese pies.
One final example of the stern, unsentimental way in which Masino portrays war is the short story, "Una parola che vola" ("A Word in Flight"). In her introduction to the collection Colloquio di notte, to which the story belongs, Maria Vittoria Vittori calls "Una parola che vola" "un delicato racconto" (Colloquio di notte 30), (28) yet I am quite hesitant to share her judgment, for several reasons. First of all, the outset of the story depicts a scene of devastation in rather graphic detail:
Il paese era rimasto isolato, dopo tanti bombardamenti ... Una foschia sanguigna vi stagnava sopra e tutt'intorno la pianura fino all'orizzonte era sconvolta, arsa, nera, fumigante, irta di macigni, relitti di ferro, piedi stecchiti, carogne e baionette. A rarissimi intervalli tuttavia dalla catasta di macerie un flebile colpo partiva. E per quei colpi solitari, come sussulti di tosse di un moribondo, il nemico continuava ad avanzare in gran frastuono d'artiglieria. (Colloquio di notte 95) (29)
Looking up at the sky, the enemy soldiers are surprised to see a series of white shapes soaring, gathering together, spreading outward like a wreath, and coming toward them. It soon becomes clear that the white shapes are nothing more than doves (or to be precise, pigeons, which can be seen as more ordinary versions of doves), each of them carrying a leaf of laurel, ivy, basil or parsley, and a note with "Pace!" ("Peace!") written on it. The commander, pleased to see that the survivors lacked even a sheet to wave as a white flag, orders his soldiers to replace the notes with others requesting "resa incondizionata," and to send the pigeons back. After flying up again, however, the pigeons turn toward their town and, as if obeying a silent command, plunge downward and through the soldiers' bayonets in a sort of noble suicide. Hardly shaken, the commander orders: "Vada una staffetta a portare l'intimazione di resa. I colombi li mangeremo stasera" (Colloquio di notte 97). (30) The message of this story appears more profound than what Vittori calls "piccioni innocenti, con il loro messaggio di tenerezza, che scelgono di farsi trapassare dalle baionette dei vincitori" (Colloquio di notte 31), (31) and less liberating than the "rifiuto dell'assurdita della guerra e la liberta rappresentata dalla morte" (Rozier 160). (32) What the reader is forced to witness is the defeat of symbols: the universal call for peace is interpreted as a surrender, pigeons are regarded as the equivalent of a white flag, and their sacrifice fails to move the invaders, who completely miss this final cry for dignity, a dignity that refuses to bow down to the winners. Sacrifice turns these pigeons (and all they symbolize) into mere, vulgar food, and the little blood left on the bayonets by this powerful, but ultimately useless, gesture can be wiped off with one finger. So much for a delicate tale!
Here and in many other writings, Masino captures the abominations of war through defiant images that almost dare readers to avert their gaze. Dignity emerges once again as the writer's task, as the willingness to keep one's eyes open, to face the horror and refuse to share in the indifference or shallowness of those who fill up their mouths with empty words, or who feed on the sacrifice of others.
Airoldi Namer, Fulvia. "La terra e la discesa: l'immaginario di Paola Masino." Otto/novecento 24.3 (2000): 161-86.
Bernardini Napoletano, Francesca, and Marinella Mascia Galateria, eds. Paola Masino. Milan: Fondazione Arnoldo e Alberto Mondadori, 2001.
Falqui, Enrico. Il futurismo--Il novecentismo. Turin: ERI, 1953.
Gieri, Manuela. "Paola Masino." Italian Prose Writers, 1900-1945. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 264. Luca Somigli and Rocco Capozzi, eds. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2002.
Manetti, Beatrice. Una carriera a rebours: I quaderni d'appunti di Paola Masino. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2001.
Masino, Paola. Periferia. Milan: Bompiani, 1933.
--. Racconto grosso e altri. Milan: Bompiani, 1941.
--. Nascita e morte della massaia. Milan: Isbn Edizioni, 2009.
--. Poesie. Milano: Bompiani, 1947.
--. Colloquio di notte. Introd. Maria Vittoria Vittori. Palermo: La Luna, 1994.
--. Io, Massimo e gli altri: Autobiografia di una figlia del secolo. Ed. Maria Vittoria Vittori. Milano: Rusconi, 1995.
--. Birth and Death of the Housewife. Trans. Marella Feltrin-Morris. State University of New York Press, 2009.
Petrignani, Sandra. Le signore della scrittura. Milano: La Tartaruga, 1984.
Re, Lucia. "Fame, cibo e antifascismo nella Massaia di Paola Masino." Il cibo ele donne nella cultura e nella storia. Eds. Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli and Lucia Re. Bologna: CLUEB, 2005. 165-81.
Rozier, Louise. Il mito e l'allegoria nella narrativa di Paola Masino. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.
(1) ("Now I know why I moved away from it [the privileged class of the rich and famous]: because one has to really believe in that fame and in that privilege. One has to turn a blind eye on its injustice, falseness, and pettiness ... my flaw has always been seeing clearly; my crime, telling what I saw.") Most of Paola Masino's extensive production, which includes novels, short stories, poems, essays and newspaper articles, has yet to be translated. Unless otherwise noted, all translations in the present article are my own.
(2) Beatrice Manetti discusses the various possible reasons why Masino es sentially gave up her literary career at age 39. Masino herself ascribed this choice at times to a loss of creative inspiration caused by the overwhelming demands of everyday life (a theme she dissects with merciless sarcasm in Nascita e morte della massaia), at other times to her disillusionment with the book industry and with readers at large. See Beatrice Manetti, Una carriera a rebours: I quaderni d'appunti di Paola Masino (Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2001) 5. In the Introduction to the catalog, Paola Masino (Milan: Fondazione Arnoldo e Alberto Mondadori, 2001) Francesca Bernardini Napoletano observes that Masino is rarely mentioned in anthologies and histories of 20th century Italian literature. Her destiny is unfortunately shared by many women writers, and in her case, made worse by Bontempelli's notoriety, which outshined her own. On this point, see also Manuela Gieri, "Paola Masino." Italian Prose Writers, 1900-1945 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 264. Eds. Luca Somigli and Rocco Capozzi (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2002) 195. Masino, however, did not seem to resent it, and in fact, after assisting Bontempelli throughout his long illness, she continued her painstaking work of collecting and reorganizing his material with sincere devotion even after his death in 1960. In a 1984 interview with Sandra Petrignani, when asked whether she regretted having neglected her own work for the sake of Bontempelli's legacy, Masino answered: "Forse, se avessi avuto un maggior talento, questo si sarebbe imposto e avrei scritto malgrado tutto. Oppure avrei accettato che anche altri si occupassero di Massimo. Ma cosi non sarei riuscita a vivere. Percio non mi pento di nulla." ("If I had had more talent, this talent would have taken over and I would have continued to write despite everything. Or I would have let other people help me take care of Massimo. But if I had done that, I wouldn't have been able to live. Therefore, I don't regret anything.") Sandra Petrignani, Le signore della scrittura (Milan: La Tartaruga, 1984) 30. While there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the last two statements, the reference to her supposedly scarce talent appears, rather, like a feeble attempt to ignore the progressive stifling that her talent underwent because of the pressure of having to tend to daily house matters. As she wrote in a letter to her parents in 1939, "Ho rinunciato a una vita intelligente e basta [...] A meno di non essere milionari una donna non e che una serva, e quando e milionaria e impossibile che sia intelligente perche vive in mezzo a troppa distrazione; non va mai a fondo di niente." ("I have given up on an intelligent life, and that's all there is to it ... Unless, she is a millionaire, a woman is but a servant, and when she is a millionaire she cannot be intelligent because she lives among too many distractions: she never gets to the bottom of anything.") Io, Massimo e gli altri: Autobiografia di una figlia del secolo. Ed. Maria Vittoria Vittori. (Milan: Rusconi, 1995) 83.
(3) See Gieri 195 and Bernardini Napoletano 13. Fulvia Airoldi Namer main tains that "Paola Masino seppe coltivare e proteggere la propria individualita di narratrice postfuturista, magica e irrealista, surreale e espressionista." ("Paola Masino was able to cultivate and protect her individuality as a post-Futurist storyteller, magical and unrealistic, surreal and expressionist.") See "La terra e la discesa: Uimmaginario di Paola Masino." Otto/novecento 24.3 (2000): 161-86.
(4) ("Who knows? Perhaps it was a natural acceptance of any sort of imagination, an acknowledgment that imagination was the most distinctive human reality. At the same time, it was the tendency to mythicize every ordinary reality in order to expand man's horizons and give him a legendary stature.")
(5) ("After a while the war burst its banks and flooded one house after an other, beckoning every human creature to exit life, just like that, for no reason, as it happens when we hear a friend call us from the street and we walk down the stairs to talk to him. In the same way, from the street, death summoned the entire city ... For endless days we lived in houses that had become hideouts, in cellars turned into communes, barricaded in garrets and warehouses. Death hunted for some of us with particular tenacity ... Anxiety, too, became a physical habit, and waiting but a poorly-paid occupation. "Condemned!" death yelled out. "Condemned! Condemned! Condemned!" And it sounded like a boss who demanded: "The job must be done.")
(6) Massimo Bontempelli had initially supported the Fascist regime, a choice that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. As for Masino, she had been under close scrutiny from the Fascists ever since the publication of Periferia ("Suburbia," 1933). In this novel, Masino explores the universe of childhood,
but the image she offers of it is anything but idyllic: cruelty and masochism characterize the games of the twelve young protagonists, whose families are for the most part corrupt and violent. It was perhaps the dark perspective on the family as an institution that made Masino a suspicious figure in the eyes of the Fascist censorship, but throughout her career Masino never softened the intentionally ruthless and disturbing portrayals of the family so typical of her storytelling, as testified especially by the novel Monte Ignoso (1931) and the already mentioned Nascita e morte della massaia, as well as by many of her short stories. The deportation order for Masino was issued after her article, "Gioventu fra due guerre" ("Youth between Two Wars"), a lucid and disillusioned outlook on the condition of the younger generation between the two world wars, that was published in Il Popolo di Roma in 1943. Masino's stern and sincere belief that the mission of journalism is to unveil the truth hidden in every aspect of reality emerges repeatedly, as can be seen in one of her many notebooks written most likely between 1948 and 1952: "i giornalisti dovrebbero essere coloro che 'vedono, sentono, scoprono le cause piu vere e piu riposte degli avvenimenti' e che 'in politica, nella cronaca, nel cinema o nel teatro, nell'economia, nella cultura, sempre possono immergersi, per ragioni stesse del loro mestiere, fino alle pih fonde radici e denunciare la verita.'" ("journalists should be those who 'see, hear and discover the most authentic and secret causes of every event' and who 'in politics, in the news, in cinema, in theater, in the economy, in culture, are always capable, owing to the very nature of their job, of delving deep into the roots of matters and proclaim the truth.'") In Manetti, cit., 57.
(7) ("The end. Now, unlike in my childhood, this word, end, no longer stirred in me that cruel, basic fear that is the terror of the unknown; if anything, it stirred desperation and disgust, it was the sensation of being torn to pieces and remaining sprawled in who knows what indecent position in the middle of the street; it was the willingness to remain lucid, to find a demeanor, a defense, and above all it was its opposite, it was refusing to believe that this could happen. To anyone else, yes, but not to me. To feel certain: this is not my death. As I thought this, I tried to glance sideways at the faces next to me: I saw in some of them my same certainty, and in others the bluish pallor of anguish, and that anguish bothered me, as if it were the expression, in others, of my inmost secret.")
(8) ("An armed man, after all. He was but an armed man. And in the corners, others like me, unarmed, and others like him, armed. All of us well-defined, within human dimensions; their power and our weakness did not make an inch of difference in our standing.")
(9) ("Father, why do you not help me?") Dante Alighieri. Inferno. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. (New York: Bantam Books, 1982).
(10) ("Dad, if you can, undo us. I'm very hungry.")
(11) ("She got in a truck that carried dynamite, and sat down gracefully on a crate, her dove-colored felt hat tied to her head with a dainty veil. Even the partisans called her mamma, although she was a reserved little lady who, even when she kissed their foreheads or let the most tired of them lay their heads on her lap to rest, always addressed everyone formally.")
(12) ("... we should really compliment the brilliant mind of that designer who, avoiding an excessively binding logic that is always detestable to a female organism, has managed to bestow elegance upon the most practical pair of shoes that European women can wear today. Low heels to walk among the ruins, the upper cut higher so that the ashes from the many fires won't reach the toes; and on top, a sort of sentimental break, a heart with a small butterfly bow on it. To give wings to hope? Perhaps.")
(13) ("It was a symbol that left my life, but at that point we no longer thought about symbols, we had had enough of symbols, and we just wanted to survive. Somehow, if we managed to save our skin, we could always make more symbols for ourselves.")
(14) ("yellowish pink;" "nauseatingly sweet;" "and for that day, I had fed myself.")
(15) ("coarse food"), to be understood in a larger sense as indigestible.
(16) "Living burial in human existence."
(17) For this and other precious information on Masino's life and personality, I wish to thank Alvise Memmo, Paola Masino's nephew, who assisted her until her death in 1989, and whom I had the fortune to meet in Rome in 2003.
(18) The plot of Nascita e morte della massaia concentrates on the utterly surreal (and yet highly autobiographical) representation of a woman who succumbs to a role she has been forced to play. At a very young age, while living in a trunk full of bread crumbs, dust, spider webs, books and ragged funeral ornaments, the Housewife becomes aware that her fate is already sealed: she will have to conform to the image that society (epitomized first of all by her mother) has already molded for her as woman. Her wild imagination will have to be controlled, her intelligence kept at bay. In a sort of sacrificial ritual, she cleanses herself of all the creative "dirt" of her childhood, and emerges sadly purified, almost transparent, ready to be filled up with the notions of womanhood that she will have to embody. With the same dispassionate resignation, she gets married to an ordinary, socially "proper" man and, stifling her own sensual nature, she forces herself to play her role as housekeeper, but the task is extremely arduous: she becomes obsessed with cleanliness and the fear of being cheated by her servants, with whom she is unable to communicate. She seeks comfort in writing, but she has no "room of her own" in which to hide from the relentless menace of the house and its demands. During a bizarre journey in a valley full of statues (very reminiscent of De Chirico's metaphysical paintings), she meets her double, a child whom she tries to subject to the same process of "womanization" that she had to undergo. With the outbreak of the war, the Housewife expands the sphere of her responsibilities and becomes a model philanthropist, praised and imitated by many, but no less frustrated than before, stuck in a Pirandellian "form" which does not correspond to her desires. And her slavery to such form grotesquely continues even after her death: still complying, masochistically, with the dictates of their role, she and other deceased women regularly come out of their tombs at night to polish their headstones and to exchange cleaning tips.
(19) ("Thursday, March 9--War has been declared against us. The causes are many, our hopes are great, the reasons are countless, the aftermath unpredictable, the effects debatable. The only certainty will be the dead. For my part, I hope that if any bombs are to fall on private buildings, they'll fall on our villa and rid me at once of my wealth and responsibility.") Birth and Death of the Housewife 107. The obsession with the possibility of freedom afforded by the war reappears several times in the novel. When the Housewife discovers that her husband has graciously offered part of his land for the construction of an ammunition point, she begins to daydream: "Se la polveriera scoppia, addio villa, addio Araceli, addio Leonardo giardiniere, addio esercito di pallide larve in livrea che saltano in aria. Sono libera." Nascita e morte della massaia, cit., 179. ("If the ammunition point explodes, bye-bye, villa; bye-bye, Araceli [the butler]; bye-bye, Leonardo the gardener; bye-bye, army of pale liveried ghosts that will blow up in the air. I'll be free.") Birth and Death of the Housewife 146.
(20) ("You fly, and we remain on the ground. At the most, from your flights you bring us your torn parachutes to be mended, cleaned, folded, and put away. Still we smile. But then you complain that our ropes (the ropes that carry your laundry) hold you down, and so you're off again to look for some pretty angel in the sky.") Birth and Death of the Housewife 108.
(21) As happens in the already-mentioned short story, "Lino," but also in "Terzo anniversario" ("Third Anniversary') See Colloquio di notte 80 and 99-103.
(22) ("But what do you mean by wartime duties? Preparing care packages for the soldiers? (Her husband nodded.) Knitting woolen clothes for the families of those who've been drafted? (Her husband nodded again.) Visiting the hospitals? (Third nod.) Nursing the sick? (Yes, yes.) Hosting balls, tea parties, charity events? (Excellent.) Gathering lady friends to talk about our good deeds (no, no) while making balaclavas for the soldiers? (In that case, yes, of course.) Writing heroic-sentimental letters to some young lieutenant who has no wife, fiancee or girlfriend?") Birth and Death of the Housewife 174-75.
(23) ("Servants and dishwashers are running in every direction, carrying fry ing pans, baskets, and trays. Pots are boiling, cooks are mixing dough, confectioners are beating eggs, the cook is smacking ladles on the shoulders of helpers who are peeling heaps of potatoes and shelling hills of peas. Gardeners are picking lettuce leaves, while countrywomen are plucking chickens. [...] HOUSEWIFE: [...] Cook, if you do as I say I promise we'll triumph. Put the deer on the spit, the cornmeal in the cauldron, the larks in flocks as if they were still flying in the sky. Listen to me. We must keep up with the times. Our times are grandiose, are they not? We must be grandiose too. Our era is memorable? Let your dinner be memorable too. The moment is historical? Let your cornmeal be just as historical. History prides itself with massacres? Then slaughter all of the animals in our estate one by one and you'll rise to glory.") Birth and Death of the Housewife 77-78.
(24) ("macaroni, pheasant, string beans, puree, cream, peaches, muscatel, and candied fruit;" "groncioli.') Significantly, bread crumbs are what the Housewife herself used to chew on as a child, the symbols of a life still free of artifice and inane preoccupations. For an in-depth examination of the theme of food in relation to anti-Fascism in Birth and Death of the Housewife, see Lucia Re's article, "Fame, cibo e antifascismo nella Massaia di Paola Masino." In Il cibo ele donne nella cultura e nella storia. Eds. Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli and Lucia Re (Bologna: CLUEB, 2005): 165-81.
(25) ("[the Housewife] occasionally found herself completely absorbed by the thought that the next day she was expecting ten people for a chess game, or thirty celebrities for a game of blind-man's-buff in the park, or the children from the orphanage for milk-and-coffee. Right at that moment, she would receive, for instance, a letter saying that one of her brothers had been injured in the latest battle. Immediately, she would do her best to sob and moan: 'Poor brother, my dear, dear brother,' but then, straight like a stone launched with a sling, a doubt would hit her on the forehead. I'm saying milk-and-coffee, but what if the orphans prefer hot chocolate?") Birth and Death of the Housewife 166. The shameful attachment to the security and comfort of a shallow existence that shields itself from the reality of war by focusing on trifles marks the achieved corruption of the Housewife, who acknowledges it with bitterness in her journal: "La guerra e tutto intorno agli orli della nostra patria e dentro la patria tuttavia la nostra anima puo sonnecchiare in misere abitudini o trasvolare i fuochi e posarsi nel sonno dei tempi trascorsi o avvenire, sognare le vie dell'uomo, pace o guerra, davanti agli occhi del Signore e che Egli ne livelli tutti i sentieri." Nascita e morte della massaia 123. ("War is all around the edges of our homeland, but inside it our soul may doze off in petty habits, or fly over fires and alight on the sleep of times pastor future. It may dream of the roads of mankind, of peace or war before the eyes of the Lord, and let Him level all paths.') Birth and Death of the Housewife 109. And yet, both the outside war and the trivial war fought by the Housewife within her four walls to maintain the hypocritical antiseptic spotlessness required by her class ultimately lead to the same outcome: "Vanto competizione bramosia guerra, e un fiume che non si arresta dal correre alla sua foce anche se la sua foce sbocca nei piu riposti luoghi della morte." Nascita e morte della massaia 125. ("Pride, competition, greed, war--they're all a river that never stops running toward its inlet, even if its inlet flows into the most secluded corners of death.") Birth and Death of the Housewife 110.
(26) Similarly, Maria Vittoria Vittori argues that the story "portrays the 'bestiary' of the time quite effectively." In Colloquio di notte, cit., 37.
(27) ("triumphs of sweets;" "all made-up in black and white;" "curry canapes;" "tubercular children;" "partisans;" "cream puffs.')
(28) ("delicate tale.")
(29) ("After so many bombings, the town had remained isolated ... A blood-colored haze stagnated on it and all around, as far as the horizon, the plain was ravaged, parched, black with smoke, bristling with rocks, scraps of iron, dead cold feet, carcasses, and bayonets. Once in a long while, however, a feeble shot was fired from the mound of debris. And because of those sporadic shots that sounded like a dying man's cough, the enemy continued to advance with the loud clanging of artillery.')
(30) Cunconditional surrender;" "Senda messenger with the order to surrender. We'll eat the pigeons for dinner tonight.")
(31) Cinnocent pigeons carrying their message of tenderness and choosing to let themselves be pierced through by the winners' bayonets.')
(32) ("rejection of the absurdity of war and the freedom represented by death.")
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2010|
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