Out of the Drawing Room: Italian Women Writers in Translation

“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This ...

“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room,” Virginia Woolf once lamented.1 There are no drawing rooms in Anna Maria Ortese’s Neapolitan Chronicles or Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s A Girl Returned, because their protagonists do not dwell in the salons of Woolf’s early 20th century. Even so, both works lay bare the full intricacies of women’s daily lives, in the piazza as much as in the home. That two such distinct pieces, once only available to Italian speakers, have now reached anglophone audiences evinces a desire for stories by and about women that resonate across languages.

In the wake of the international success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, interest in Italian fiction by women has flourished. From contemporary works like Viola di Grado’s 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (2012) and Igiaba Scego’s Adua (2015) to a fresh take on Elsa Morante’s 1957 novel, Arturo’s Island, translations abound. Ortese and Di Pietrantonio are two more voices joining this chorus. Like the fiction of many other Italian women writers, their works explore a question that has yet to lose its allure: What does it mean to be a woman, anyway?

Ferrante herself cites Ortese’s Neapolitan Chronicles, originally published in 1953, as a crucial influence.2 But comparisons between Ortese and Ferrante obscure the fact that Ortese’s collection of short stories, which won the prestigious Premio Viareggio, is a masterpiece in its own right. Despite its critical success, only now has this classic of 20th-century European literature been translated into English—thanks in part to the Ferrante phenomenon.

Conveying the intricacies of Ortese’s style presents a challenge to the translator—the author herself admitted the work was sometimes “something of the too much.” But, happily, Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee are the ones to tackle her knotty prose. Together, they crafted an English translation whose language is easy to read, while still strikingly strange.

Neapolitan Chronicles presents a panorama of lower-class women’s lives. By blending fiction, reportage, and autobiography across five short stories, Ortese forces us to face those scenes from which we would instinctively avert our eyes. For example: Poor women clamoring to bargain away their jewelry for pennies in “The Gold of Forcella.” The derelict buildings of “The Involuntary City,” where a malnourished child’s “perfectly skeletal” body belies her age. A half-blind girl’s horror when she sees the poverty of the world for the first time (“A Pair of Eye Glasses”). The mundane predicament of an independent woman, who still longs to meet society’s expectation of becoming a wife: “She would willingly have thrown away all those satisfactions, and gone to be a servant in his house, and serve him, serve him forever, the way a true woman serves a man” (“Family Interior”). Shaped by the harsh conditions of the city, the women of these stories collectively produce an unforgiving portrait of Naples in the post–World War II years.3

While Ortese’s stories openly condemn the impoverished conditions of the postwar city, she also integrates a more subtle critique of patriarchal power into the collection. In “The Silence of Reason,” the last and longest story, the narrator—an obvious stand-in for the author herself—recounts her contentious relationship with a group of Italian intellectuals.4 She finds that her male colleagues, with whom she had previously shared youthful ideals, now regard her concern for the Neapolitan poor as irrational feminine sentimentality.5 Of the eminent novelist Domenico Rea, she concedes: “Perhaps he had no faith in my abilities as a journalist, or it annoyed him, as often happens with men from the South, to see a woman involved in such things.”

Of course, we can’t know if the precise interactions in “The Silence of Reason” actually occurred. But Ortese certainly felt a similar sense of exclusion throughout her life. After the initial publication of Neapolitan Chronicles, she never lived in Naples again and spent her later years in a small town outside of Genoa. From her isolated geographic position, she mused to her friend the Italian author Dario Bellezza, “In all these years, I’ve never asked who wanted my invisible and certain marginalization … their pen is still a golden pen. Mine is considered leaden.”6

Ortese and Di Pietrantonio alike explore an OLD question that has yet to lose its allure: What does it mean to be a woman, anyway?

Yet Goldstein and McPhee’s translation reveals Ortese to be anything but leaden. Their work is a welcome step in bringing Ortese’s fiction to the English-speaking world.

While Ortese’s classic stories offer a broad vision of urban poverty, the most recent novel by Donatella Di Pietrantonio focuses instead on the inner workings of a single family. “I was thirteen, yet I didn’t know my other mother,” the narrator declares in the novel’s opening line. She finds herself, for the first time, in the home of her biological parents. Why her adoptive parents—distant relatives of her birth mother—have decided to bring her back is the novel’s driving question.

The direct but elegant syntax of the opening line is typical of Di Pietrantonio’s style, as well as of Ann Goldstein’s exceptional translation. Each word of the novel teems with significance, beginning with the title: L’arminuta. Goldstein’s rendering, A Girl Returned, accurately captures the essence of the original, which means, simply, “the returned.”

However, the English title inevitably loses some of the subtleties of l’arminuta, which is not standard Italian but, rather, a dialect of the central Italian region of Abruzzo. The title highlights the conflict between Italian—the language of the narrator and her educated adoptive parents—and dialect: the quasi-foreign tongue spoken by the narrator’s biological “other mother.” The two worlds the narrator navigates are characterized by the contrast between these two languages.

Finally, the title also alludes to the narrator’s experience of being objectified; she is a girl who has been returned, an arminuta, and remains otherwise unnamed. This theme of objectifying, and of returning, persists throughout the novel. Lashing out at her birth mother, the narrator cries, “Then I’ll find a judge and report all of you. I’ll tell him you exchange a daughter like a toy.” Later, she makes the act of returning—or, in some cases, not—her own choice. Speaking of the woman who cares for her during her high school years, the narrator says, “I’m still grateful to her, but after I graduated I didn’t go back. I’m not in the habit of returning to those I’ve left.”


Somalia and Italy across a Century

By Gabriele Lazzari

The homecoming of the narrator is not joyful but, instead, simply a fact of life, at least as experienced by the impoverished family to which she returns. Her biological mother greets her, after years of separation, with an unemotional “You’re here.” The comforts of her former middle-class life—dance and swimming lessons, days at the beach, a bed to herself—are nowhere to be found. In her new home, the girl returned confronts previously unknown hardship: plucking and gutting a dead chicken, the mother’s curt language and violent blows, a fight for food at the dinner table. To endure her situation, the narrator relies largely on her younger sister, Adriana, with whom she forms an enduring bond.

Di Pietrantonio presents motherhood as contentious and problematic. Although the narrator eventually reunites with her adoptive mother, their relationship continues to be strained. Connections with other mothers, such as the mother of her friend Patrizia and the mother who houses her during the school week, provide the narrator with support but ultimately leave her wanting. The narrator never fully develops an attachment with her birth mother, who remains largely on the periphery of her life. Despite the vaguely sanguine tone of the story, those wishing for an uplifting reflection about what it means to be a mother should look elsewhere. The narrator concludes:

In time I lost that confused idea of normality, too, and today I really don’t know what place a mother is. It’s absent from my life the way good health, shelter, certainty can be absent. It’s an enduring emptiness, which I know but can’t get past. My head whirls if I look inside it. A desolate landscape that keeps you from sleeping at night and constructs nightmares in the little sleep it allows. The only mother I never lost is the one of my fears.

In stories such as Ferrante’s Troubling Love or Neapolitan Quartet, daughters find clarity within their contentious mother-daughter relationships. In A Girl Returned, however, there is no such reckoning. The wound left by an absentee mother remains open. But the novel still provides the hope that, even in the face of the destruction of an ideal of motherhood, we can build bonds and create our own families.

Whether one reads Ortese or Di Pietrantonio—wrestling with chauvinism on one hand or delving into the complexities of motherhood on the other—exploring the quotidian lives of Italian women is a worthwhile endeavor. And while the question of whether Ferrante is a woman has gripped the literary world for years, it’s a question that matters less than the incredible enthusiasm for women writers and women’s stories that her fiction has inspired. Even now, English readers typically remember the male figures who dominate the Italian canon: Dante, Petrarch, Eco, Calvino. Thanks in part to Ferrante, I am hopeful that Italian women writers will soon find their place as well. Alongside Ferrante, Ortese and Di Pietrantonio are only the beginning.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929; Harvest, 2015), p. 74.
  2. “As for Naples, today I feel drawn above all to the Anna Maria Ortese of ‘The Involuntary City.’” Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa, 2016), p. 64.
  3. For more on Ortese, see Eloisa Morra, “Anna Maria Ortese’s Unforgiving Vision in ‘Neapolitan Chronicles,’Los Angeles Review of Books, November 27, 2018.
  4. All of the characters in the story are historical figures identified by their real names.
  5. “In ‘Il silenzio della ragione,’ the narrator is dismayed to discover that her own sense of sorrowful pity for the Neapolitan poor is dismissed by her intellectual interlocutors as a form of feminine emotional weakness. If embraced, such ‘emotionality’ would emasculate them, and threaten their very existence and ability to survive as ‘rational’ men.” Lucia Re, “Invisible Sea: Anna Maria Ortese’s Il mare non bagna Napoli,” California Italian Studies, vol. 3, no. 1 (2012), p. 16.
  6. Translation mine. Anna Maria Ortese, Bellezza, addio: Lettere a Dario Bellezza 1972–1992, edited by Adelia Battista (Archinto, 2011), p. 81.
Featured image: Piazza Dante Alighieri, Naples (2010). Photograph by Anthony Albright / Wikimedia Commons