Friday, May 21, 2010

Women’s Work: Umbertina, by Helen Barolini – Part 2 of 2

I call these posts about Umbertina “women’s work” because women’s work is so often undervalued, taken for granted, or overlooked.  Or, as in the case of the fictional Umbertina, someone else is given the credit for it.  Recently I was at a jubilee celebration for my husband’s aunt, a Sister of St. Joseph, an order active in teaching and health care (as well as in opposing the death penalty, I was very happy to learn – Helen Prejean belongs to the same order).  It was my husband’s aunt’s 50th anniversary as a “religious.”  She is a lovely, fairly boisterous person in her big blue polyester skirt suit and, during the mass, I sat there trying to imagine her life.  I was also following the mass – presided over by a priest, of course – and wondering about the frustration of these women who have given over their lives to their faith and have so little power or status within the Catholic machine.  As the priest gave the homily, which talked about these women’s many years of service, I thought of something Simone Weil had written:  Catholicism is the religion of slaves.  (I slightly misremembered the quote, actually, which is from Waiting for God: “le christianisme est par excellence la religion des esclaves” – “Christianity is above all the religion of slaves.” In Weil’s belief system, this was of course a good thing – further evidence of what dangerous reading Weil can be for soulful young women with martyr complexes).  Later I was talking about this with a friend, and she said that the nuns she’s known reconcile themselves with their position within the church by seeing things this way:  I married God, bub, not the Pope.  Faith is the heart of the matter, “religion” maybe not so much.  (For similar reasons, Weil, born to non-practicing Jewish parents, was never baptized into the Catholic Church.)

So, yes – we’re talking about women’s work here.  

Umbertina’s middle section, “Marguerite, 1927 – 1973” is the nerve center of the book; of the three sections, its prose and tone also show the most variety, as if mirroring the turbulence and indecision of Marguerite’s life.  Chapter Sixteen is suddenly in the first person – and while such a change can be fun for the writer, it’s more often than not jarring for the reader (I think of a similar jump to first-person in Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, and what a big mushy drag that particular chapter is; I wish her editor had talked her out of it, as well as the endless-ravings-about-Mick-Jagger-by-the-crazy-sister section).  In the case of the first-person chapter in Umbertina, I suspect it originated as a diary entry.  There is no more pointless game than to play Is This Autobiographical? when reading a novel, and yet, much more than the other two sections, Marguerite’s has life’s uneven textures running through it, which makes it interesting as a kind of character study but somewhat unsatisfying as a shapely piece of prose.

Marguerite, as a girl, is the odd child out in the family; “Why aren’t you like everyone else?” her mother is constantly asking her.  She is intelligent and questioning, and part of her alienation seems to stem from her family’s lack of definition as Italian-Americans:

Marguerite learned that it was not nice to look too Italian and to speak bad English the way Uncle Nunzio did.  Italians were not a serious people, her father would say – look at Jimmy Durante and Al Capone; Sacco and Vanzetti.  Italians were buffoons, anarchists, and gangster, womanizers.  “What are we, Dad, aren’t we Italian?” she would ask. “We’re Americans,” he’d say firmly, making her wonder about all the people in the shadows who came before him.  Grandma Umbertina was exempt, even though she didn’t speak English, because she had made good. 

After college, a disastrous but short-term marriage that lands her back at home, and a general inability to be “normal,” Marguerite meets an Italian man from whom she takes language lessons; she decides to go to Italy:  “An unselected candidate for American happiness, a family failure, she sailed for England harboring the certainty that her destination was surely Italy.”

And her destiny is Italy, but not before some easy, acrobatic, and joyless-seeming sex along the way: 

Sex was the way to unpeel all those layers of lies that had been plastered on her consciousness.  Family, God, Money, Success, Marriage – all she had to do to strip these plastered-on slogans from her was to derobe [sic – the interesting Freudian-slip typo of a French speaker, dérobé meaning, among other things, to steal or, as a reflexive verb, to steal away] and screw them off.  Fucking is fucking Mother, Middle-Class Virtues, a College Education, and Marrying Well, with its square coitus and family life around the backyard picnic-table. 

This passage, like the one from the prologue quoted in the earlier post (“She had no uniform…”) illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Marguerite sections.  Interesting detail – and too much of it.  It wants to snap, like a Mary McCarthy observation – note I refrained from writing “gimlet-eyed” – but there’s not the economy to do so.  Too many words doing the same work, too much repetition. 

Once in England, Marguerite meets a handsome – tall, blond, etc. – Italian scholar named Gillo Gatti at the British Museum, and they begin an affair.  Eventually, Marguerite goes to Italy with the plan that her lover will join her; in the meantime Gatti’s friend, a poet named Alberto Morosini will meet her there.  Quickly upon their meeting, Morosini unknowingly drops the bomb:

“And Gillo?” he said in one of the lulls of their conversation.  “How is he? I saw his wife not long ago and she said his future plans were still uncertain.”

After the shock wears off, Morosini becomes Marguerite’s consolation prize – and in no time at all he is proposing to her on a temporary bridge over the Arno.  Marguerite never seems to get over his lack of physical appeal, and the description of him is pretty harsh:

Each time they re-met she was startled again by the splay-footed professor who snorted and blew through his nose and had small brown furtive eyes sunk in the hollows on either side of that huge nose.  In winter Alberto wore a thick brown loden coat and a hat whose brim turned up all the way around.  His walk, with that rocking toed-out gait, made him seem ludicrous like a performing Russian bear, but he was unaware of anything except being himself.  
The Ponte Santa Trinita, bombed by retreating Germans during World War II. 
The bridge was reconstructed in the 1950s, using much of the original stone dredged from the Arno. 

But he’s a poet, and older, and established, and can be her Pygmalion (needless to say, if Marguerite’s grandmother had never emigrated, such a class jump – granddaughter of Southern Italian peasant marrying scion of old Venetian family – would have been nearly impossible; it’s only possible because Marguerite is a moneyed American who re-imports herself, a point not lost on Marguerite).  Alberto also wins points with Marguerite because when she reveals her affair with Gatti, he is kind to her.  So she signs on for marriage with him – and the description of this marriage feels like real life:  full of ambivalence, highs and lows, and ever-shifting moods; unfortunately for Marguerite, unhappiness mostly wins out.  We are of course proceeding from the point of examination set forth in the prologue – the years of frustration with her life having piled up until she’s contemplating divorce – and so the description of the marriage is one of something problematized, its details evidentiary:  look at all the reasons for my unhappiness.  Sometimes Marguerite fantasizes about her husband’s death; sometimes, in a cartoony, day-dreamy way, about murdering him.  They have children, two girls and a boy; they live for a time in Washington, D.C..; their young son dies; they return to Italy.  Time is elastic in this section – years are compressed, small moments elongated.  Marguerite finally decides on a separation.

The first-person chapter (which is also present tense) that follows this decision is a whirlwind.  Marguerite visits her hometown in upstate New York, where we meet her teenaged daughter, Tina, who will be the subject of the last section – “a beautiful girl,” Marguerite says, “I love her.  She is what I wanted to be.” – there’s a trip to New York City, shopping, the revisiting of daughterly alienation – “‘You have to think of the children,’” says Dad. ‘You’ve got others to think of beside yourself.’  No, Great White Father, you’re wrong.  First me, this time.”  Then we’re thrown back to Florence, third-person and past-tense, with Marguerite trying to make a go of it alone.  She has a kind of flirtation with a slightly boozy Episcopal minister, realizes this relationship would be hollow, and lands back in Rome – and in the arms of her husband.  The separation is over.  Hurray, it’s all been worked out.  Except of course it hasn’t.

Because in the next chapter we plunge, in medias res, into an affair Marguerite is having with a writer named Massimo Bontelli.  In these chapters, the prose is both sort of breathless and exhaustive – the focus tightens and the writing contains rather more close observation, since we are talking about a short, specific span of time rather than the habits and rhythms of a long marriage (here’s a sharp observation:  “…Irene had the tense bright look of all women who arrive in their forties not yet ready”). 

Marguerite meets Bontelli at a literary party.  He is a writer but he stands out from the others:  “Bontelli was different not only in his youthfulness but also in the kind of wary self-consciousness that again set him off from the confidence and aplomb around them.”  This is appealing to Marguerite, who still feels like something of an outsider herself, and she offers to look at his work, perhaps translate it.  In short order they’re having an affair.  But in this case, they’re frank with each other – Massimo is, like Marguerite, married with children – and so they both know what they’re getting into.  

Complications and disappointments will of course ensue, and the root of them is the same as it had been with Marguerite’s marriage:  she still hasn’t found her own identity.  “Somewhere she has lost her footing from that safe hold she had reached with Alberto.  Somewhere the balance had tipped and made her no longer her own woman, but Massimo’s.”  She is disturbed by Massimo’s treatment of his wife (“His domestic, he called her.”) and the fact that he still sees other women, even if he insists they aren’t important to him.  At some point he says to her: “‘I don’t want to lose you; you’re what any man would desire – beautiful, elegant, cultured.  You’re everything ideal,’” and she feels defeated:  “He was weaving the abstraction of the ideal woman…”  She muses on the downside of actually living with him in the future:  “…his coming home at noon to the conventional Italian dinner, which would take up all her morning to prepare and mean sacrificing her freedom as she didn’t with Alberto, who was used to American ways; his going off in the evenings, leaving her alone while he developed his contacts….There was even the question of his shirts.  He had his shirts made to order.  Twelve to fifteen thousand lire each.”  She never quite says it, but he certainly reads like a spoiled, selfish, sulky guy – away, slight man!

Bontelli is obsessed with getting ahead in the Italian literary scene, and it’s through this that Marguerite decides she’ll cement their relationship:  “She had begun to play her own games, gambling on Massimo’s vanity and ambition; if she gave him the satisfaction of being published in America, this of itself would tie him to her.  He was driven by the need to succeed as a writer.  He gave her clues for helping him:  Alberto and Alberto’s friends were influential figures in the literary world.”  Bontelli has his heart set on winning the Premio Strega (perhaps Italy’s top literary prize), which his new novel has been nominated for – and, in fact, Marguerite somehow intuits that if he doesn’t win the prize, their affair will be over.

Much of this section, and all the parts touching on Italy’s literary elite, read like a roman a clef; some real names are used (Bassani, Barzini; at one cocktail party, we see the man himself, Ignazio Silone:  “…gloomy as Eeyore and predicting that this year would be worse than the last…”) while some invented names stand in for writers I’d probably recognize immediately if I knew more about the Italian literary scene at that time.  The favorite for the Strega is a book called Una Spirale de Bruma by one Tomaso Campo, and Marguerite has to force down feelings of nausea as she hears it praised. 

The texture of the Strega section especially is glittery and derisive and, hideous to report, the writers whom the narrator treats with the most scorn are pretty exclusively other women:

A huge female form loomed over their little table.  It was Clotilde Guarino – self-styled national monument of Italian letters.  One of a troupe of thick-skinned, aggressive, overpowering Italian women-cultivators of their own garden who manure with contacts their meager crops of literature.

Another lady poet, known as La Béchamel for the white-sauce blandness of her verses, had managed to get hold of Alberto.  The critic whose last name was the same as that of a laxative and whose slogan, they said, was “I work while you sleep” had come in.  And Maria de Maria, the wild beauty of three decades past who still thought, with dark hair streaming over her curving shoulders, she could pass for a girl-writer of promise. 

I found all this catty without being funny – it’s satirical writing making a weird incursion into what’s essentially a realistic novel (the great Dawn Powell, for one, must have seen the risks of such a combination, because she kept her satirical and naturalistic novels pretty well separate; they could almost have been written by two different people).  What this writing also sounds like is internalized sexism born out of a masculinist culture; or perhaps belated payback for a lack of support or understanding from these Italian Lady Writers to – just to go out on a limb here – the young, pretty, American-born wife of noted poet Antonio Barolini.  

Speaking of satire, and returning to something touched on above, I sense the spirit of Mary McCarthy running through so much of the Marguerite section.  The attitudes are similar, from a hook-up with a man while on a trip, with its go-on-girl-and-make-yourself-brave pose towards sex (“The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit”), to the agonized therapy sessions (“Ghostly Father, I Confess”), even to Marguerite’s premature end:  in an automobile smash-up on the way to meet her lover.  (McCarthy, ever piling the notion of futility on best-laid plans, has main character/personal stand-in Martha die in an automobile accident at the end of the chilly little book A Charmed Life – in this case, having just borrowed money to get an abortion after drunkenly sleeping with her ex-husband, chubby and fairly disgusting Edmund Wilson stand-in Miles Murphy; one would never guess Wilson was such a good writer going by McCarthy’s endless fun-making at his expense.)  However, such a texture doesn’t suit Umbertina – the book’s many small, clashing patterns detract from its cumulative effect.  It keeps changing direction, taking a different tack, trying something new – just as we may do in life.  

The Marys have so much to talk about.

Of the three sections of Umbertina, the final section “Tina 1950 –” is, for me, the least compelling.  It begins with the news of Marguerite’s death – Tina, a graduate student and Dante scholar at Columbia, is crushed by it; comforted by her boyfriend Duke, what she says to him fills in the reader on her life.  Among other things, Tina had known about her mother’s affair, and she also thinks her mother always had a kind of death wish:  “‘…I believe what Freud said – there are no accidents.’”  She goes to Rome for the funeral, and realizes that this also means, for some unspecified, intuitive reason, the end of her relationship with Duke. 

Despite her mother’s perception of her, Tina – named for her great-grandmother Umbertina – sees herself as high-strung, indecisive; of the three characters, she is torn between cultures the most, having been raised bilingual (unlike her mother or grandmother) and brought up in both Italy and the US.  Rome calls out to her but she also resents its “softness and languor…beneath which, she knew, there were deadly poisons of unrest and discontent.”  She is reunited with her younger sister Weezy – a grouchy little number who seemed to me at first little credit to the feminists or anarchists of that era – and together they go through their mother’s hidden cache of diaries.  Finding the last entry, they realize their mother was pregnant with Massimo’s child when she died.  This causes Tina to reveal to her sister that she too is pregnant. 

Time is passed in Rome, with Tina, unsure about what to do, ruminating about her place in the world.  She looks insultingly at the Italian-American tourists, with their awful accents, visiting the motherland:

Oblivious, friendly, expansive, the man went on. “My father was from Fudge.”
“Don’t you know where that is?  Down near Bari.”
“Oh,” Tina gasped, “Foggia!”
“Yah, Fudge.”

She is insistent that she is not of this tribe; she is not Italian-American.  She thinks:
I am part Italian and part American, not Italian-American.  It was a splitting of hairs that convinced no one, not even Tina.  But she felt obliged, each time, to put up her defense against being merged in the ethnic mess she saw and despised in the States.  She thought of a bumper sticker that disgusted her:  “Mafia Staff Car, Keepa You Hands Off.”

She runs into Jason Jowers, the brother of a former classmate, and they spend time together, hanging out in Rome and going to visit a former teacher together.  They take mescaline and watch Cabiria and wander the streets.  Suddenly it all turns sour – Tina blurts out that she’s pregnant and, feeling Jason’s disapproval, runs away.  At her mother’s funeral at the Protestant Cemetery they reconcile, and they’ll take a trip together, but not before Tina has to have the abortion. 

Bad judgment, and maybe some resentment of her sister’s leftier-than-thou attitude leads Tina to go through Marguerite’s friend Angela to get the abortion, rather than her sister’s feminist doctors.  Creepily, Angela brings a male friend with her to the doctor’s – she’s going on a date after seeing Tina through the procedure – and Tina’s thoughts run to the least comforting things as the operation is about to start (“…she hated the pope in his long unsullied skirts, or the pigs in the Parliament who daydreamed of women to fuck as they deliberated on laws that violated their bodies”).  The doctor shouts at her to be quiet as he’s performing the procedure and, afterwards, just as an exhausted and weeping Tina is being hustled into the car, a man hurls himself in and insists they chase a thief (!). 

In all, it’s a harrowing scene – not as harrowing as the nearly sick-making abortion scene in the late great James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and the Works, nor as gallows-humor-shocking as the one in Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (a book I read some years ago while staying with my oldest sister in a freezing cold house in shotgun country Wisconsin, shortly after we ran off the road in her pickup and landed, screaming all the way, in a creek bed) – but it’s powerful and affecting; and great agitprop.  At the end of the scene, as Tina is comforted by a now very kind Weezy, Tina says:

“…I’m one of the lucky ones who had the money.  The women who get it done on a kitchen table with knitting needles aren’t so lucky.”
“When we change things it won’t be like this anymore, Tina.”
“Change things, Weezy, change them.”

And as I read those words and found myself about to cry, I said to the author:  Yes, sister, you have earned that cliché. 

Tina and Jason take their trip after this, enjoying sunny days in southern Italy, with a goal of visiting Umbertina’s village, Castagna, together.  A little too conveniently, Yankee-born Jason also has a Castagna in his past – it’s the name of an Italian ship that ran aground off his family’s beach house in Cape Cod; his grandfather had been part of the rescue team.  The journey to Castagna takes on great meaning for them.  Meantime, staying at a villa loaned them by their teacher, they talk and eat and make love and have cute, insufferable nicknames for each other.  Just as everything’s going so well, they’re invited to a party at a count’s house nearby where, in short order, Tina slips away with a Rico Soave type named Ferruccio.  And it’s with this man, and in his Maserati, that Tina ends up going on the pilgrimage to Castagna.

Like so many who go back to the motherland and expect bells to ring for them, Tina’s experience there feels anticlimactic.  Tina and Ferruccio look at the ruins of the monastery of Corazzo, they go to a bar and have a coffee – there is no place to eat, and little to buy in the town, not even postcards or cigarettes; looking for a souvenir, Tina buys a packet of salt at the Sale e Tabacchi.  She yearns to feel connected with Castagna, “but more and more she seemed to herself an intruder in a place that was as much a ruin as the monastery below them.”  They run into a priest who recognizes Umbertina’s name, and when Tina tells him Umbertina and Serafino emigrated to America, the priest says yes, and they never came back:  “They left because of miseria and they forgot the others still here in miseria.”  (That this would have happened nearly a hundred years before this scene is taking place presented no suspension of disbelief issues for me – collective memory in small Italian towns runs very deep.)  Tina feels shamed by the priest’s words and, wanting to help in some way, she volunteers to send books to the town.  “How could that help?” the priest says and, when Ferruccio asks what the people in Castagna do, the priest says:

“They leave; there is no work here.”

Children crowd around the Maserati; Tina symbolically but messily drinks from the town fountain and then, her eyes filing “with tears that ran down her cheeks, merging with the water on her face,” it’s time to leave Castagna.  “And as she got into the car Tina knew that though she had physically located the where of Umbertina, the secret of why she was lost and Umbertina directed still eluded her.”  The rhythm of the Tina and Marguerite sections is all about revelation and quick change, but Castagna is not a nut to be cracked in one day.  Maybe more than anything, the Marguerite-Tina line is cursed by modernity and its expectations. 

From here the book just has to sew up the Tina plot – she returns to New York, resumes grad school at Columbia, befriends a nice gay man called Alan and, while waiting on line for Shakespeare in the Park tickets (an activity so many of us in NYC used to do, mostly replaced by the virtual line these days), she runs into Jason Jowers.  Of course they reconcile, he forgives her, and – hurray! – they’ll be married.  Sad to say, my interest shut off almost entirely at this point, as Tina and Jason go up to Ye Olde Yankee white clapboard grandparents’ house on the Cape and the last chapter disintegrates into a kind of WASP day-dream.  The house’s handsome interiors are lovingly described, a photo of the bark Castagna is meaningfully gazed upon, and Tina goes to sleep “…in her New England canopy bed, dreaming of the swallows sweeping down over a terrace in the stupendous twilight of a May night in Rome”:  and thus are her Italian and American halves finally united.  She plants a rosemary bush by the Jowers’ stout Yankee house in memory of her great-grandmother Umbertina, and also because “where it grows, the women of the house are its strength.”  As the book ends, Tina calls Jason by his old nickname (“darling Bear”), they plan a bright future together and, finally, tonstant weader fwows up. 

But, to go back to the unfortunate Is This Autobiography? question, if Marguerite is sort of the author’s alter-ego, then Marguerite’s daughter is sort of the author’s daughter:  so who can blame a mother for wanting to give her child a happily-ever-after ending?  The daughter finally gets the roots – literally represented by the rosemary plant – that Marguerite and even grandmother Umbertina never finally got in life.  What’s unfortunate to me is that Barolini chose to ground these roots in a tradition – Mayflower Yankeedom – that, even if the particular specimens of that tradition are the nicest people you’ll ever meet, nonetheless happens to represent the worst kind of cultural snobbery.  

Right after I finished Umbertina back in April and was thinking about what to say about it, I got my monthly e-newsletter from the NIAF.  Amid the sort of corny items about visiting Sorrento and seeing Frankie Valli in concert, there was something about an Italian studies conference.  Clicking on a link eventually brought me to an outline of the conference (which was entitled “For a Dangerous Pedagogy: A Manifesto for Italian and Italian American Studies”), and trolling through it I saw many familiar names (Stanislao Pugliese, for example, was an advisor).  My interest was piqued by a lecture called “Globalizing Dante” by a Dante scholar at Columbia named Teodolinda Barolini.  Who, once I googled her, turns out to be the daughter of Helen Barolini. 

Well, the internetz iz a strange place.  Further googling led me back to Antonio Barolini, father of Teodolinda and husband of Helen, who wrote charming and well-observed sketches for your father’s pre F-word New Yorker of the 1960s, and who died in 1971.  Umbertina was written in the 70s, and published in 1979.  Can some women’s work only begin when the husband is out of the picture? 

Something else made me go to the website for the Premio Strega.  Clicking on the Vincitori  ("winners") section, I saw that a book called
Una Spirale di Nebbia won in 1966, the same year that a book by a writer named Massimo Grillandi, which sounds a lot like fictional Marguerite's fictional lover Massimo Bontelli, was nominated.

Una Spirale de Bruma?
And then I just left it there.  I mean, should I have access to this knowledge?  And what’s the point, anyway?  I reminded myself of when I was in graduate school in what felt to me a lonely city and, working late at night at the writing center, I would suddenly pull up the internet and google my own last name.  Invariably, the website of a public relations and marketing firm in Seattle (!) and hundreds of mentions of soccer players would come up:  cold comfort for a lonely person.  What was I, relying on the outside world to tell me I existed?  I realized I hadn’t done this in years and, in this spirit, I recently googled my name again.  What did I find?  Some weird stuff.  Namely, that my old agent had recently donated his papers to NYU’s Fales Library and, among them, in Box 21, items 20 & 21, were the two parts of the manuscript of my old novel – a book unpublished/unpublishable because of its many inconsistent tone changes, its almost autistic level of detail, and its reliance on the vagaries of life to provide a coherent and believable story.