Anna Maria Ortese Essay - Critical Essays

Ortese, Anna Maria


Anna Maria Ortese 1914–

Italian novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Ortese's career through 1995.

Best known to English readers for L'iguana (1965; The Iguana), Ortese often combines elements of realism and fantasy in her writings. Her works, which have been described as dreamlike, philosophical fables, have prompted stylistic comparison to the fiction of Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe, and her major themes include anxiety, loss, materialism, and human nature. Ortese, however, has stated that her primary concern is with "the inner life." Remarking on her short fiction, Henry Martin has argued that "this inner life with which the author deals is a complex world of thought, speculation and intuition, no less than of feeling and fantasy, and it touches dimensions that are more than simply personal."

Biographical Information

Born in Rome, Ortese published her first book, a short story collection entitled Angelici dolori, in 1937. She has since published several novels and story collections as well as poems and essays. Several of her works have received important literary prizes: Il mare non bagna Napoli (1953; The Bay Is Not Naples) won the Premio Viareggio in 1953; Poveri e semplici (1967) was awarded the Strega Prize in 1967; and The Iguana received the Fiuggi Prize in 1986. Ortese lives in Rapallo, Italy.

Major Works

In her short stories, which often employ first-person narration, Ortese examines such topics as memory, love, fear, loss, disillusionment, the pain humans inflict on one another, and the relationship between the past, present, dreams, and reality. For instance, in "Il continente sommerso" ("The Submerged Continent"), which originally appeared in Il sonno e in veglia (1987), a woman ponders a dream about a family in Naples as she tries to unravel the complex of memories, dreams, and history that comprise her past. Three of Ortese's best-known novels include The Iguana, Poveri e semplici, and Il cardillo addolorato (1993). In The Iguana Ortese tells the fantastic story of a Milanese count nicknamed "Daddo" who, on a voyage in search of real estate, discovers Ocaña, an uncharted island off the coast of Portugal, inhabited by three noblemen and their servant, Estrellita. Recalling Gregor Samsa from Franz Kafka's "Die Verwandlung" (1915; "The Metamorphosis") and Caliban from William Shakespeare's The Tempest (c. 1611), the mysterious Estrellita is at once an iguana and a young girl. Daddo falls in love with her and develops a plan, which ultimately fails, to provide financially for the noblemen and to take Estrellita back to Milan. Described as a satiric fable, the novel combines lush descriptive passages with esoteric discussions on literature and dualism as it questions distinctions between insanity, reality, and imagination. Ortese's second novel concerns a group of communists living in Milan, their idealistic hopes for world peace and solidarity, and their struggles with poverty. Presented as a fictitious autobiography, Poveri e semplici has a fragmentary structure organized around moods rather than specific plot-related events. Il cardillo addolorato is set in the eighteenth century and concerns the competition among three men for the love of a Neapolitan glover's mute daughter and the unraveling of her elusive past.

Critical Reception

Although Ortese has received numerous literary awards and honors, her writing has been relatively neglected by the reading public in Italy, and few of her works have been translated into English. Commentators have noted her dreamlike style—which questions distinctions between fantasy and reality—her concern with loss, memory, and the past, and her investigations into human nature. Noting her talent for interweaving elements of realism and fantasy, many critics have placed her work within the tradition of magical realism, in which fantastic incidents are presented in an objective style. Other commentators, while continuing to stress the experimental focus of Ortese's writing, disagree, thereby indicating the difficulty of clearly placing her fiction within any literary genre. Commenting on the stories collected in L'alone grigio (1969), a critic for The Times Literary Supplement observed that Ortese writes in many genres but with "a single voice: science fiction of a kind, Kafkaesque fantasy of another sort, stories that read like fragments of autobiography but may not be so." Henry Martin, however, contends that Ortese's work is in the tradition of the fable and that it "suggests the existence of a genre of 'metafable' in which one listens to an otherworldly tale while casting a vigilant, questioning eye about the room in which it is being told."

Principal Works

Angelici dolori (short stories) 1937
L'infanta sepolta (short stories) 1950
Il mare non bagna Napoli [The Bay Is Not Naples] (short stories) 1953
"Il treno russo" (essay) 1954; first appeared in journal L'Europeo
I giorni del cielo (short stories) 1958
Silenzio a Milano (essays) 1958
L'iguana [The Iguana] (novel) 1965
Poveri e semplici (novel) 1967
La luna sul muro (short stories) 1968
L'alone grigio (short stories) 1969
Il porto di Toledo (novel) 1975
Il mormorio di parigi (short stories) 1986
In sonno e in veglia (short stories) 1987
Il cardillo addolorato (novel) 1993
A Music behind the Wall: Selected Stories, Volume 1 (short stories) 1994

∗This book is the first in a planned two-volume omnibus collection.


Marc Slonim (review date 27 August 1967)

SOURCE: "European Notebook," in The New York Times Book Review, August 27, 1967, pp. 16, 18, 22-3.

[In the following excerpt, Slonim remarks on the merits and weaknesses of Poveri e Semplici, particularly in light of its status as a winner of the Italian Strega Prize for literature.]

[There] is nothing remarkable about Poveri e Semplici (Poor and Simple), a 163-page novel by Anna Maria Ortese, which won the [Strega] prize by a small margin. Some critics feel that Ortese's other novels, such as the neorealistic portrayal of Neapolitan paupers, Il Mare Non Bagna Napoli (The Sea Does Not Wash Naples) and the poetic and fantastic Iguana are superior to Poveri e Semplici. In any case the award given to the 52-year-old Ortese is not only a recognition of her indubitable talent but also a homage to a human being who during much struggle and suffering has preserved her dignity and integrity.

Ortese usually writes with a delicate grace, excelling in impressionistic sketches, and Poveri e Semplici is conceived in this lyrical, fragmentary and almost evanescent manner. Under the guise of a fictitious autobiography, Ortese presents a group of young Communists who live and work in Milan, struggle against poverty and anonymity, dream of universal brotherhood, have sentimental love affairs and nurture idealistic hopes for the advent of socialism. In the early fifties they disagree about Stalin and lose many of their illusions, but their simple and naive attitudes toward their own life and that of the world are hardly changed. Ortese's prose renders the urban landscape well, but it lacks real substance, and often lapses into sentimentality. Based more on moods than on a definite plot, Poveri e Semplici follows the Arcadian, idyllic tradition, deeply rooted in the Italian artistic past. Despite its faults of construction and a hasty ending, it is pleasant in the same way as primitive water-color illustrations are, but it can hardly be rated an important work of fiction.

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 29 January 1970)

SOURCE: "Italian Fantasies," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3544, January 29, 1970, p. 115.

[In the following review of L'alone grigio, the critic discusses the style and tone of Ortese's writing.]

Anna Maria Ortese has an extraordinary presence, one that glows through everything she writes and turns everyday subjects into festive ones. More than a style, it is a case of personality; indeed, the style as such is transparent, a limpid, unaffected, one might almost say un-Italian means of expression—un-Italian at least in its apparently artless air of plain speaking, its total lack of rhetoric. Seldom does a writer make so personal and immediate an impact, so almost idiosyncratic and private an effect. Ortese readers may feel they are eavesdropping on some sad (yet on the surface often cheerful) soliloquy; or else involved in a tête-à-tête, a special encounter, admitted to a secret world of fantasy, a very human and unpretentious yet luminous world in which souls rather than social beings communicate, one in which common things become strangely important and ordinary moments precious and therefore vulnerable.

It is a fragile rather than a strictly feminine world; in fact it lacks the solidity most women give their surroundings, and their preoccupation with facts and detail. Realism and fantasy interweave so completely that a book like L'Iguana, which is pure...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Lawrence Venuti (review date 22 November 1987)

SOURCE: "A Lizard for the Ages," in The New York Times Book Review, November 22, 1987, p. 40.

[An American educator, critic, and editor, Venuti has won several awards for his work as a translator. Frequently rendering Italian works into English, he has been the recipient of a Renato Poggioli Award for translation from International PEN, a National Endowment for the Arts translator's fellowship, a Columbia University Translation Center Award, and the Premio di cultura from the Italian government. In the review below, he remarks on the themes, plot, and stylistic features of The Iguana.]

Anna Maria Ortese's prolific career has been marked by paradox—the kind of...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

Stuart Klawans (review date 5 December 1987)

SOURCE: "Scale Tales," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 245, No. 19, December 5, 1987, pp. 688-90.

[In the excerpt below, Klawans favorably reviews The Iguana.]

First published in 1965, The Iguana belongs to a long and uproarious Mediterranean tradition of philosophical fables. In these tales, the natural world doesn't behave quite properly, perhaps because the human world misbehaves toward it. Sexual urges, the class structure, the imponderabilities of weather, the disturbing texture of the dinner set before you on the table—all come into question through some fantastic, alluring break in the animal world's order. Natural History, a vampire story by the...

(The entire section is 822 words.)

Suzann Bick (review date Winter 1988)

SOURCE: A review of The Iguana, in The Antioch Review, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 115-16.

[In the review below, Bick comments favorably on The Iguana.]

First published in Italian in the mid-sixties, Ortese's novel [The Iguana] is set on Ocano, a remote island off the Portuguese coast. Ocano is inhabited by a diverse and fantastic assortment of characters: Don Ilario Jimenes, a marquis given to sumptuous clothing and an enthusiasm for literature; his two rather simian brothers; and the eponymous Iguana, also known as Estrellita.

Bent on discovering lucrative Mediterranean real estate—or manuscripts that can be published for the...

(The entire section is 377 words.)

Rocco Capozzi (review date Summer 1988)

SOURCE: A review of In sonno e in veglia, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, p. 445.

[In the review below, Capozzi offers a brief stylistic and thematic discussion of In sonno e in veglia.]

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Emma Marras (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Island Motif in the Works of Grazia Deledda, Elsa Morante, and Anna Maria Ortese," in Proceedings of the XIIth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, Vol. 3, Roger Bauer, Douwe Fokkema, and Michael de Graat, eds., iudicium verlag, 1990, pp. 275-80.

[In the following excerpt from a paper presented at the twelfth congress of the International Comparative Literature Association in 1988, Marras discusses the island motif and Ortese's investigation of human nature in The Iguana.]

Novels by Grazia Deledda (1871–1936), Elsa Morante (1918–1986), and Anna Maria Ortese (born in [1914]) are major instances of Italian modern prose...

(The entire section is 2013 words.)

Valentine Cunningham (review date 3 June 1990)

SOURCE: "Down and Out in Dublin," in The Observer, June 3, 1990, p. 62.

[In the excerpt below, Cunningham offers a mixed review of The Iguana.]

Anna Maria Ortese's very bizarre The Iguana features the sea voyage that one Daddo, or Aleardo, Count of Milan, undertakes in search of 'the confessions of a madman in love with an iguana'. He had suggested this zany item to a publisher chum and, lo and behold, on a run-down Edenic Isle owned by a bunch of down-at-heel Portuguese aristos, he finds an iguana and becomes its deranged lover.

The island seems set up as a crucible of magical realisations, and on it desires materialise and the shape-changing...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Henry Martin (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: A foreword to A Music behind the Wall: Selected Stories, Vol. 1, by Anna Maria Ortese, translated by Henry Martin, McPherson & Company, 1994, pp. 7-9.

[Martin has translated some of Ortese's work into English. In the essay below, he comments on the major themes and ideas that inform Ortese's fiction.]

Anna Maria Ortese's first volume of shorter fictions, Angelici dolori, appeared in 1937, her seventh and most recent, In sonno e in veglia, in 1987. The present collection of her stories in English translation [A Music behind the Wall] ranges through the whole of these fifty years and touches nearly all the modes of storytelling which have...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 April 1994)

SOURCE: A review of A Music behind the Wall: Selected Stories, Vol. 1, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXI, No. 8, April 15, 1994, p. 501.

[In the following review, the critic remarks on the themes and plots of the stories collected in A Music behind the Wall.]

This first volume of a planned two-volume collection [A Music behind the Wall: Selected Stories] could almost serve as a primer on old-fashioned Italian short fiction.

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 16 May 1994)

SOURCE: A review of A Music behind the Wall: Selected Stories, Vol. 1, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 20, May 16, 1994, p. 52.

[In the following, the critic briefly reviews A Music behind the Wall.]

Ortese has been a major force in Italian literature since her first volume appeared in 1937; her most recent book was published in Italy in 1987. The stories in this collection [A Music behind the Wall: Selected Stories, Volume 1], the first of a projected two-volume set, are culled from this 50-year career. Martin supplies neither dates nor sources for the entries, displaying a disregard for chronology of which Ortese herself might well approve. Much of...

(The entire section is 255 words.)

Wilborn Hampton (review date 9 October 1994)

SOURCE: A review of A Music behind the Wall: Selected Stories, Vol. 1, in The New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1994, p. 22.

[In the mixed review below, Hampton comments on Ortese's concern with loss and the past in the stories collected in A Music behind the Wall.]

Anna Maria Ortese's Music Behind the Wall, the first of two projected volumes from 50 years of her writing, is less a collection of stories than of ruminations and reveries by largely unnamed narrators. There are few actual characters beyond those conjured by the narrators' imaginations. In one tale, a woman has relationships with a light and with a plant she sees from her window. In...

(The entire section is 257 words.)

Rita Signorelli-Pappas (review date Winter 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Il cardillo addolorato, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 116-17.

[In the review below, Signorelli-Pappas comments favorably on Il cardillo addolorato, praising Ortese's interweaving of fantastic and realistic elements.]

In Anna Maria Ortese's strange, haunting novel Il cardillo addolorato three high-spirited gentlemen—a prince, a sculptor, and a merchant—undertake a journey at the end of the eighteenth century from Northern Europe south to Naples to pay a business call on a glovemaker, Mariano Civile. They also hope to satisfy their curiosity about stories they have heard regarding Civile's...

(The entire section is 417 words.)