Anna Maria Ortese

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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...

(This entire section contains 724 words.)

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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 inL'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