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a woman

21 april 2017

Sibilla Aleramo's A Woman (Una donna, 1906) reminded me quite a bit of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend (L'amica geniale, 2011). Though I'm putting it preposterously. Elena Ferrante should remind one of Sibilla Aleramo. But that's assuming that people always read books in literary-historical order. We don't – not even when those books were written 105 years apart.

And so, the two books remind me of each other, I guess. Each, told in the first person by a female character, covers the early part of her life – though Ferrante's tilts more toward her "brilliant friend" of the title, whereas the "woman" of Aleramo's is the narrator. Each is set largely in the south of Italy, though Aleramo's includes a Roman interlude; region, as always in Italy, is a crucial fault line. Each describes brutal marriages and is punctuated by violence and illness. Sex is not an unmeasured good in either novelistic world. Each novel had at least one sequel, though Aleramo's isn't really part of a longer saga. Each author's name is a pseudonym, though Ferrante is still, strictly speaking, unknown, and Aleramo was less complicatedly the journalist Rina Faccio.

Of course, there are many differences in epoch and rhetoric. A Woman, published when Aleramo was thirty, breaks off when its narrator reaches that age; Ferrante's narrator ages apace through the sequels. A Woman is talkier and more abstract than Ferrante's novels. And the 1900s are simply different from the 2010s. Aleramo's novel is set in the present; Ferrante's (especially My Brilliant Friend) are historical novels. So we can distance ourselves from Ferrante's apparently antediluvian world in a way Aleramo's initial readers could not. A Woman is a call to action against a misogynist society in full force.

Yet the action that Aleramo calls for is not communal (let alone communist, though late in life she would become a staunch Communist). The unnamed narrator of A Woman is isolated. Her mother had flung herself from a window, but survived, in part by going mad as a coping mechanism. Her sisters do not understand her. Her in-laws are worse. Of her few friends in the world of feminist journalism, some grow old, one dies, and contact with the others can be forbidden her at the whim of her husband.

The narrator of A Woman marries her husband after he rapes her. She presents this as a common male tactic of late 19th-century southern Italy. In fact, she is quite on her guard, even discussing the custom with the young man who will rape and marry her (28). But she is powerless – bodily and culturally – to resist him. Later, after he has abused her long past the point where staying in her marriage is even physically safe for her, she remains unable to break free. It would mean leaving her son behind, but more than that, it would mean breaking out of a legal system of constraint that offers no support outside of the institution of marriage. Translator Rosalind Delmar does not use the Victorian term "under the protection," but it is apt: the narrator is under her husband's protection and has nowhere else to turn. But her protector is a bitter and violent enemy.

Despite the terrorism that surrounds her, the narrator (like Rina Faccio herself) becomes a feminist writer and eventually breaks free from her husband. It's that or the Anna Karenina option. Late in the novel, the narrator leaves the south for Milan. "When the train moved forward again … it would be so easy, just through the door" (214-15). But she resists, and she lives to write the novel you're reading.

Unusually for a novel of such length, A Woman does not name its characters. This was OK with me, as I usually can't remember character names, and replace them mentally, as Aleramo does, with the characters' roles: the husband, the editor, the Norwegian friend. The result is an abstract chronicle that could be about Everywoman. Yet there's always plot momentum, and the novel, though rhetorical, doesn't detach itself from its characters' lived experience.

Here and there are rhetorical digressions. "There is an unnatural monster who stands at the threshold of the two parts of a woman's life – between virginity and motherhood," writes Aleramo. "This is the prostitute" (154). "She owes her life to the animal desires of male egoism," the narrator goes on, but the passage marks a kind of fault line between upper- and lower-class women in Aleramo's thinking. "A woman" is a bourgeois woman, however much she sympathizes in theory with working women. Prostitutes are working-class by definition. But they are not conceived as workers, nor as sisters, but as "monsters," zoonotic reservoirs of disease. The narrator's husband seems to have infected her with a venereal disease he's passed on from a prostitute. As in the United States, middle-class feminist writers of the period worried a lot about syphilis and other infections, partly on good public-health grounds and partly from a horror of inter-class contact.

For all its programmatic and topical elements, though, A Woman hasn't dated as a story. Though it tries to distance you from its characters, it ends up compelling your interest and identification. It is a novel little-known in the English-speaking world, and the 1980 Berkeley translation did not make it much better-known. Aleramo underwent a kind of eclipse in Italy, too, between the sensation she caused in 1906 and latter-day reappreciation. I mentioned her fervent Communism, but during the Mussolini years, as Richard Drake notes in his 1980 introduction, Aleramo went along to get along, and worse; she was on the Fascist patronage rolls and in return wrote occasional pieces praising Il Duce. All has not been forgiven, but has to some extent receded into the past, and the achievement of A Woman, written long before Aleramo had heard of Mussolini, remains fresh.

Aleramo, Sibilla. A Woman. [Una donna, 1906.] Translated by Rosalind Delmar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. PQ 4815 .A3

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