Anna Maria Ortese

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Marc Slonim (review date 27 August 1967)

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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)

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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 fantasy—mythical animals and places and events—is atmospherically very close to a realistic novel like the Strega prizewinner Poveri e semplici , which deals with the lives of a group of young people. Signorina Ortese seems as solidly at home in fantasy as in reality, and able to shift without strain from one to the other. Even...

(This entire section contains 537 words.)

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her journalism and fiction overlap in a similar way, a descriptive article, for instance, being transformed by the feeling, subjective vision one generally associates with imaginative writing; by the intuitive flash. The fact that she generally uses a first-person narrative adds to the strong sense of unity in all she writes, the feeling of a world whose circumstances may change but whose centre remains constant.

L'alone grigio consists of short stories published over many years and collected for the first time. Stories? Even at their most fabulous they read like reminiscences, like things solidly (though not solemnly) remembered things that may have happened in dreams but were lived through, and that once again show how fantasy to Signorina Ortese is not an escape from reality but an extension of it, a new dimension to explore. Among them there is every kind of genre but 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, descriptive reporting that again may be autobiography or fantasy or both, and nostalgic pieces that seem to suggest longing of a spiritual rather than material or even emotional sort. "È lunga la strada per giungere a Tipperary, È lunga la strada per arrivare": in one of the stories the banal, disconcertingly translated words, sung by the narrator's father, are used to conjure some paradisal state of mind, a Tipperary that never was but needs to be, the other (Ortese) world beyond this one, apprehended intensely by a poet who happens to write prose.

Lawrence Venuti (review date 22 November 1987)

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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 critical recognition and reader indifference that often greet a writer who departs from the worn grooves of association cultivated by large commercial publishers. Born in 1915 and raised in the impoverished south of Italy, she has produced a steady stream of short-story collections and novels that provocatively combine realism and fantasy, autobiography and invention, and that address some of the most urgent social issues in Italy. Since the 1950's she has won several prestigious awards for both fiction and journalism. Yet her books have been more often praised than read, and she continues to live near poverty, an embittered recluse moving from city to city in search of an affordable apartment, alienated from an Italian reading audience that for the most part prefers American best sellers. Her neglect in Italy has meant that even adventurous American publishers have not wanted to risk translating her and only one of her books has been published here previously; The Bay Is Not Naples, a collection of stories, appeared in 1955.

Originally published in Italy more than 20 years ago, her extraordinary novel The Iguana is a powerful indication of what we've been missing. A Milanese nobleman, Count Aleardo di Grees, sets out on his yacht seeking real estate for his mother, "who intended within the next few years to see an exponential multiplication of the young man's holdings," and a literary property for his friend, "a young publisher of the nouvelle vague, extremely ambitious, but with still garbled finances." The sensitive, idealistic Aleardo is thoroughly disillusioned with such money-making schemes, insisting that any manuscript he brings back must be published "for the moral improvement of the public, nothing else." Off the coast of Portugal, he finds an uncharted island inhabited by a trio of indigent aristocratic brothers whose only servant is an iguana, named Estrellita by the oldest brother, a marquis. She talks and acts like a girl 7 or 8 years old, performs the most menial tasks for her employers and is forced to live in a dungeon-like cellar beneath their house.

The reptilian servant is only the first in a series of fantastic touches that transform the narrative into a satiric fable dense with echoes of Shakespeare's Tempest and Kafka's Metamorphosis. Miss Ortese's targets include the commercialism of publishers, the deluded philanthropic impulses of wealthy Milanesi and the class pretensions of parvenu Americans. The marquis, it turns out, is a nihilistic poet driven mad by the loss of his family's fortune and his hopeless love for one Perdita, whom he has idealized in an incomprehensible ode. Attracted by the possibility that the marquis may have written a marketable manuscript, but repulsed by his cruel treatment of the iguana, Aleardo offers to act as a literary agent and to purchase the island—hoping to restore his hosts to splendor and to liberate their oppressed servant so that she could return to Milan with him. But Aleardo's ridiculously misguided benevolence is frustrated because the marquis, however insane he appears, has already made more profitable plans: with the help of an archbishop, he has contracted to marry into a patrician American family so that he can retire to a vast estate in Venezuela.

The busy narrative is filled with surprising revelations and mysterious incidents that broaden the scope of Miss Ortese's satire and raise questions that are left unanswered until the climactic ending. Here the enigmas baffling Aleardo and the reader are resolved, and we discover the iguana's identity as the count experiences a deranging epiphany. While it would not be appropriate to give away the details of this resolution, I will say they bring the fable's main theme more clearly into focus. Miss Ortese is most concerned to show that class and sexual domination is exercised, often unwittingly, through stereotypical representations grounded in biological and metaphysical principles.

The complex fictional discourse of The Iguana poses many difficult problems for the translator, not the least of which is rendering the occasionally archaic sentence construction and the dazzling array of tones of voice assigned to the narrator. Modeled on 19th-century writers like Poe and Stevenson, Miss Ortese's prose abruptly shifts between direct addresses to the reader and more conventional third-person commentary on the characters, changing from cynical irony to righteous outrage to cool philosophical speculation often on the same page. Henry Martin has served the original text well, creating a richly textured style that catches these changes with very few infelicities. The Iguana is a superb performance which leaves one wanting to see more work by both writer and translator.

Stuart Klawans (review date 5 December 1987)

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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 Catalan writer Joan Perucho, is a good contemporary example: ironic, ornate and light in touch…. The Iguana is another. It's the novel that might have come about had Jane Austen sat down to rewrite The Good Soldier and got the pages mixed up with The Metamorphosis.

The story begins, appropriately enough, with the quest for a good story. The protagonist, a young Milanese count nicknamed Daddo, is about to sail his yacht up the coast of Portugal, really for pleasure but ostensibly for business. His mother, who has an acumen Daddo lacks, wants him to locate some property suitable for development as a resort. Daddo's compliance with her is half-hearted; but he catches fire when his best friend, a publisher who lives off Daddo's generosity and the glamour of the avant garde, asks him to look for manuscripts on his travels. "Why don't you run me down something really first rate," he asks, "something maybe even abnormal?" Without thinking, Daddo replies, "How about the story of a madman in love with an iguana?"

No sooner said than done—and guess who the madman turns out to be. Daddo sails to a miserable little island called Ocaña, where he immediately encounters the heroine of the tale: a lizard who is the sole domestic servant of a Brazilian marquis and his ruined, dissolute family. The lizard's name is Estrellita. When Daddo makes her a present of a scarf he'd bought in Seville for his mother, a tear falls from her "mild, imperceptible eyes…. Actually, the tear had to rise, since her eyelids, like those of all iguanas, opened exclusively from the top."

No matter the direction of the tear, Daddo is soon in love with her, and is alarmed by the circumstances of her life. She is worked cruelly and paid with stones (which she avidly hoards), and there seems to be some guilty secret to her relationship with the marquis. Daddo struggles for pages on end not to admit the obvious to himself: that Estrellita may have been seduced and then abandoned to drudgery. Worse still, there is guarded talk of a Mr. Cole, who runs a British circus and may be interested in a certain purchase. Daddo decides he must act.

Screwing up his courage, he follows Estrellita to the chicken shack that serves as her bedroom. He takes her little hand in his own and asks, "Wouldn't you like to dress up in a lovely veil … and come away to Europe?" When she tells him no, he begins unhappily to survey his situation:

Here I am in the middle of the night on a desert island called Ocaña, walking up to a chicken coop and asking a tribulated young Iguana whether she'd like to get married and come with me to Europe. She's still too young for any interest in a thing like that, and I've forgotten my own intentions. I've been thinking all along of my duty to assume the role of a father in her life. The world contains quite enough husbands already. Even too many, and no fathers at all, as far as I've been able to tell. There's an obstacle remaining in this case, too: is it possible in fact for an immortal spirit to make itself understood in a dialog with irrational Nature? And what is it, this thing I'm calling Nature? Is it good or evil? What are its needs and demands and expectations? It's clear that Nature suffers … and requires our help. But can such a thing be possible without risking eternal death?

This mad outburst erupts in what is still the early part of the novel. Already, Anna Maria Ortese has called up the myths of the tortured aristocrat; the abused brute; the false innocent who cannot admit his desires; the blameless sinner caught helplessly in her sins; and, above all, the myth of the human soul. As Daddo guessed before he set out on his voyage, these are the demented stories we like to tell ourselves, and which we easily enter. There are a lot more of them, too. As Ortese spins them out, she sometimes drops her mask of genial satire, but never falls into the routine or the expected. Her tone and timing are often disconcerting, but they're unfailingly sure—much like the instincts we so admire in soulless Nature.

Suzann Bick (review date Winter 1988)

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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 "moral improvement of the public"—Carlo Ludovico Aleardo di Grees ("Daddo"), a Milanese count and architect, anchors off the coast of the island and soon resolves to rescue Don Ilario from his limited surroundings. In his combination of saintliness and ineptitude the Count resembles Dostoevsky's Prince Mishkin as he also becomes fascinated by the plight of the Iguana, who first appears to him as a "shrunken old woman," then as a pitiful young girl confined in a hideous pit when not performing her duties as serving maid.

Overtones of the Cinderella myth predominate as the Count, convinced that this reptilian creature is beautiful, determines to take her back to Milan where she can be educated appropriately and escape the drudgery of her present situation.

Even though the novel features fairly esoteric discussions between the Count and Don Ilario regarding the dualism at the basis of creation and the meaning of literary realism, The Iguana can also be viewed as a curious type of mystery story where the reader, like the Count himself, must thread his way through "sinister inconsistencies" in order to decide what "mystery" the house conceals.

At a time when minimalist fiction dominates many publishing circles, it is a pleasure to encounter lush descriptions; for example, Ortese describes the sea as taking on "a hue of burnished silver, like the back of a fish." Indeed, the novel has a romantic richness, and the magical strangeness of the island and its inhabitants reminds the reader of such 19th-century poems as "Lamia" and "Christabel." For in The Iguana, as in much Romantic poetry, the line between madness and sanity, reality and imagination, truth and fiction, is blurred.

Rocco Capozzi (review date Summer 1988)

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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 title of Anna Maria Ortese's collection of ten short stories [In sonno e in veglia] comes from the second-to-last selection. "Bambini della creazione," specifically the line "In sonno o in veglia questi duri pensieri?" (While dreaming or awake, do I have these harsh thoughts?). The title is also an obvious (intertextual) echo of other literary and artistic illustrations, throughout the centuries, which have dealt with the issue of "life as a dream," or better, with the question "Where does dreaming end and reality begin?"

Ortese had not given us such beautiful and intense denunciations of violence, suffering, and solitude since Il porto di Toledo (1975). Except for the last selection, which is presented in the form of a "conversation" between the author and an inquiring interviewer, the stories are all narrated with an oneiric (and metaphysical) background. In addition to their fable or fairy-tale tone, these pieces contain some explicit metanarrative elements which underline the act of "writing" and "narrating" a story to readers. Neither the obvious references to the process of narration nor the explicitly fantastic projections of anxieties, fears, disillusionments with fellow man, and denunciations of social evils could ever be considered playful literary exercises. Ortese's readers know far too well that this would not be expected from an author who from the days of Angelici dolori (1937) has constantly manifested a need to speak against the erosion of life.

In sonno e in veglia confirms Ortese's masterful techniques incorporating dreamlike memories, oneiric and/or surrealistic descriptions, apparitions, ghosts, realities that suddenly (or slowly) fade out, feelings of emptiness, and sensations of being lost. These are some of the familiar expressions of an author who, often quite bitterly, denounces misery, anxieties, estrangement, and man's destructive drive. And if there is one motif which clearly stands out from the stories, it is unquestionably Ortese's reminder that man (not animals) is the being who inflicts pain on others. Moreover, in each story Ortese does not miss the occasion to condemn artificial and unnatural living conditions which man has learned to accept.

Emma Marras (essay date 1988)

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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 writing. When comparing Deledda, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, Morante, and Ortese, important distinctions should be made with regard to the author's style and view of the human condition, yet some continuity can be traced between the works of the three women writers, while each one's approach to life and art itself is indicative of the variety and complexity of modern Italian narrative. Deledda's pessimistic view of human nature is modified by her Christian vision of the self; in Morante's work her pantheistic conception of nature contributes to shape the way she perceives the self; whereas in Ortese human reason usually enlightens and redeems senseless nature and human suffering.

However differently Deledda, Morante, and Ortese treat their subject matter, they share a common interest in investigating human passions and the secret sides of the self. All three novelists also tend to make subtle references to historical, economic, and cultural processes shaping Italian society. In their writings, the specific setting of the narrative stands out against the wider socio-historical context.

Sardinia is the literary setting of most of Deledda's works, including her major novels of the 1910's and 1920's. In two of their most meaningful works, Morante's second novel L'isola di Arturo, of 1956, and Ortese's L'iguana of 1965, Morante and Ortese also select an island to portray their main characters acting in confinement and facing the issues of good and evil in human life. Deledda's Sardinia, Morante's Procida in the bay of Naples, and Ortese's imaginary fantastic Ocaña island set beyond Gibraltar have an important function as spatial motifs, images, and themes, denoting a strong sea/land opposition. In Deledda's novels, in Morante's L'isola di Arturo, and in Ortese's L'iguana, the sea/land opposition suggests a space—as well as a time—apart from the familiar world. It enhances the feeling of separateness and seclusion of the self and, in some instances, its feeling of not being part of the whole perfect creation. The sea stands both for a means of communication with and a means of protection from outer reality.

The way Deledda, Morante, and Ortese use the island as a literary setting as well as a spatial motif brings to clearer light the way each one relates to nature and the self. Their approach to nature and the self is deeply rooted in Italian and Mediterranean culture, which is best shown when comparison is made with the use of the same motif in other literary and cultural contexts. Some instances of the island image appear in the work of the Anglo-American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), as well as in the works of other, more recent poets who like her have been influenced by the legacy of Puritan culture. In this poetry, the island usually stands as the space where the self can fulfill its desire to reach perfection, which is at one with its desire to reach absolute self-sufficiency. The geographical space of the island turns into a mental space, a space of the mind for the self to apprehend on familiar terms what is usually unknown. In Dickinson sea-land images, including the island, the peninsula, the continent, can evoke a space where the self may achieve total bliss, away from historical as well as everyday reality.

The poet's imagination sets the self back into a sort of prelapsarian Eden where human suffering and evil (and therefore good itself) cannot be taken into account. In extreme versions of the use of the island image in such contexts, as in Anne Sexton's powerful collection of 1975 The Awful Rowing Toward God, the island becomes the special circumscribed space where the writer's self confronts dramatically the very being of God, intending finally to deny it (God and the self cannot coexist). In Deledda, Morante, and Ortese, on the contrary, the writer accepts human nature and all its flaws.

The island represents a natural space, with man-made features, self-contained within nature, yet clearly distinguishable from the surrounding landscape. In Deledda, Morante, and Ortese, the island, which stands by itself within the wider natural space to which it belongs, also acquires the value of a domestic space, one which in turn contains the home of the main characters, representing the domestic space par excellence, man-made and self-contained, and familiar to the writer, who clearly has perfect control over it—a most common setting in many works by women authors, in particular the home of the ladies Pintor in Deledda's Canne al vento, "la Casa dei guaglioni" in Morante, which reminds young Arturo of a magic ship and where before Nunziatella no woman was ever allowed in, and the Guzman home in Ortese where no sign is left of the family's past glories, with its trap-door that leads to Iguana's miserable quarters in the cellar.

The island, where the different characters interact and face inner and outer reality, is used as a convenient and congenial setting to grasp the working of human nature, which would easily escape close observation when looked at in other, more extended, varied and populated contexts. The island therefore represents a perfect microcosm for the writer to focus on the reality of the self, how it acts and reacts under stress, when its integrity is put to a test, how it confronts life's good and evil values.

When Deledda, Morante, and Ortese are at their most convincing in showing their insight into human nature and conveying their special sense of self, they draw a major contrast between the self's behavior on the island and its behavior away from it. The moral and cultural values of the characters on the island often differ from the values in the social context at large. In addition, the descriptions of the island and its landscape, for instance the moonlight in the night sky above the seashore, confer great lyric quality to each writer's prose….

A distinguishing feature of Ortese's art when compared to that of both Deledda and Morante is her reliance on the surrealist mode. In L'iguana, written and set in the 1960's, Ocaña itself belongs to both the conscious and the unconscious self, to objective and subjective reality; the island does not exist on geographical maps until the close of the novel, when the reader has been able to fully perceive and live through its intriguing and conflicting reality.

When well-meaning Aleardo, born into the wealthy and business-minded Milanese aristocracy, sails in search of cheap real estate property to be advantageously exploited and discovers mysterious Ocaña, an island off the coast of Portugal which is not even on his nautical charts, he comes into the strange world of the Guzman family, apparently living in total isolation and with no financial means. Aleardo is fascinated by and falls in love with part-human and part-animal-like Iguana, the primitive maid of the Guzman home. In the past, Iguana, who was called Estrellita, was cajoled and adored by young don Ilario, and lived in a sort of earthly Eden. Now estranged from the affection of the Guzman family, no longer Estrellita, but Perdita, Iguana, wearing clothes on her animal body and speaking man's language, is seen as evil and perdition; though convinced of her own badness and animal nature, she is still secretly in love with don Ilario and aspires to acquire a human and immortal soul.

In the first part of the novel, naive Aleardo plans to provide financial support for Ilario and all the Guzmans, to rescue Iguana and take her to Milan. In the second part of the story, after the Guzman family have secretly managed to sell away the island most profitably to other real estate developers, mocked and defeated by man's greedy and evil nature, Aleardo dies a victim of his own dream, drowning in the well from where Iguana used to draw water.

Ortese argues that the nothingness of the unreal—and of the world of man's things as opposed to that of man's self—threatens the world of man's reality. The real, at one with the surreal, beyond appearance, becomes so only when merciful human reason is at work to recover it from unreality and senseless suffering. Likewise, enlightened reason is necessary in order to recover culture from meaningless nature.

In Ortese's surreal love story that is also a parable (and a parody) of human nature both beastly and divine, in Morante's initiation novel, in Deledda's novels of sin, reconciliation, and purification, it is on the island that the self is awakened to its own identity and is called to assess its own being. The ultimate issue the self is faced with on the island concerns man's approach to life and death, to mortality and immortality, and man's relation to God. The view each writer has of these matters affects the way each one of them portrays the self's relation to surrounding reality.

Whereas the use of the island as a spatial motif in some Anglo-American poetry suggests, for instance, that God and the self are antithetical, since the self's attempt at self-assertion does not allow for any kinship of man's self with God, in the works of Deledda, Morante, and Ortese, on the contrary, the island stands as the special space where the self eventually overcomes its conflicting relationship with God. The novelist's apprehension of God's nature and of man's good and evil self does occur within historical time, even though the narrative evokes as well a lyrical temporal setting, belonging to the writer's and the reader's imagination and corresponding to the island's lyrical spatial setting.

In an interview of 1978 regarding L'Iguana, Anna Maria Ortese mentioned that the writer's ability to express mercy and enchantment ("misericordia e incanto") is one most important characteristic in Italian literature. Deledda's Sardinia, Morante's Procida, and Ortese's Ocaña represent a special space different from, yet at the same time within, the human world at large, where the self questions and challenges the nature of God, but in the end does not oppose it. Compassionate toward human suffering, the self best transforms otherwise senseless reality, making it fascinating and meaningful.

Valentine Cunningham (review date 3 June 1990)

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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 metamorphoses of dream multiply entrancingly. But the harsher realities also poke through. The iguana, at once the essence of ageless femininity and provoking virginal girlhood, is also a Carib, a slave, a beast. She is caught up in the dizzying aesthetic that inspired Velázquez, but she's also Caliban, focus of evil fantasies, subject to the purchasing power of some Americans and the jailing threats of a menacing circus-owner from England.

This strange account of the barmy count's odd quest is not, it has to be confessed, without a decided power to irk. Much of it reads like magic realism with the juice extracted. But it retains enough vigour to keep you reading, if only to find out how it might end.

Henry Martin (essay date 1994)

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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 characterized her creative life. The early work was once described as "magical realism." The middle period of work made that somewhat cumbersome adjective recede. The recent work lies at the edges of fable. Or perhaps 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. Rooms and houses are highly vital themes in Ortese's writing.

Anna Maria Ortese has remarked that her work is always and exclusively concerned with the inner life, and her stories most typically present us with moments in which the inner life might be said to readjust or realign itself, redefining its rights and prerogatives, reasserting its needs, reestablishing its proper scope—its sense of itself as a no less groundless than necessary function. 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. These stories, indeed, have little to do with psychology, since the psyche itself is the hero, focus or guiding principle of psychological narrative, whereas here the psyche is simply one force among many. Each of these stories is a place in which various realities manage to meet, or they concern themselves with voices and characters on whom such various realities converge. These realities themselves are the stories' truest protagonists. The psyche is simply the field, albeit an active field, in which their conjunctions and oppositions come momentarily into view.

Many of these stories have appeared on various occasions. In addition to presenting new stories, each of Ortese's collections of shorter fictions has furnished an occasion for the reappearance of previously published work. The author has a way of insisting on the continuity—even perhaps the simultaneity—of her present and her past. For example, one of the more recent stories in this present collection, "The Submerged Continent," seems to craft an emblematic bond between apparently different modes of relating to the self and the world: the deft and energetic thinking of the introduction and conclusion encircles and protects a much more ingenuous reverie which re-evokes the breathlessness of the author's earliest work. The narrative presents itself as a philosophical reflection on a dream, but it also engages the theme of "the ages of man," and its strategy for doing so lies partly in deploying its own internal moods and styles as elements of a startling yet self-evident continuum. This story is in some ways reminiscent of the author's most curious and sui generis novel, Il porto di Toledo, which was published in the early 1970s. Il porto di Toledo re-appropriated the stories of Angelici dolori and used them as elements of a fictional investigation into the life of the girl who had written them some forty years previously. The author's vision of the inner life is both dynamic and conservative. Nothing can be taken for granted, and nothing can be overlooked.

Ortese once wrote that her work can be seen as falling into two basic categories: the callow and the unfashionable. Those words sound barbed and inauspicious, but so purposely so as finally to remind us of a more serene statement by Tommaso Landolfi: that literature starts where literature stops. This, perhaps, is the greatest of the great romantic longings which have survived into the modern age. Anna Maria Ortese's goal, as voiced in one of her stories, is to reach and explore those "regions of the soul where everything impossible in fact takes place," and no secondary description of what and how she writes, even if quipped by the author herself, can be anything more than secondary. Yet wherever she goes is a place from which she always returns: each of these stories is a roundtrip ticket from a here to a there (an extraordinary there) and back again to here—but always with a difference, a loss of ignorance and innocence; or through their loss the rediscovery of the greater innocence of a greater openness to experience.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 April 1994)

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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.

Ortese drifts from one dreamlike subject to the next in these cerebral and enjoyable stories, most related in the same educated, uninvolved first-person voice. The narrator of "The Submerged Continent" describes a wealthy family from Naples with three daughters who may or may not be real. "Torture" has no characters per se, but it's a startlingly clinical examination of romantic love and the havoc that it wreaks. In "Donat" the narrator sits in a dingy room at six o'clock and dreams of seeing a man named Donat in a bar at six o'clock, only to have Donat say that he too has dreamed of seeing the narrator in the bar at six o'clock some time in the future. "The Ombras" takes its name from a family—whose surname means "shadow"—whom the narrator visits, only to glimpse them gathered around the bed of a young girl with a black and swollen body. In "The Tenant" the narrator's grandmother shares her room with an angel named Mr. Lin, who eventually grows wings and leaves. "Moonlight on the Wall" follows a pregnant woman who is suddenly finding joy in "the mysterious beauty of being alive," even though she is convinced that few people appreciate her. "The House in the Woods" is the lengthiest and least successful of these stories. Its narrator lives with Trude, whom she describes as "the bruised and swollen side of one's own soul," and there is an odd incident with two men who are either plumbers or thieves or something else altogether, but Ortese has played the same tricks in a smaller space in the earlier pieces, so this time around they seem elaborately elongated.

Interesting, but with a strangeness that sometimes becomes predictable.

Publishers Weekly (review date 16 May 1994)

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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 her idiosyncratic fiction deals with the vagaries of time: "The Submerged Continent" is characteristic of Ortese's themes and her deceptively ingenuous narratives. Here the author explores a woman's search to understand her past, unfolded as a complex, fable-like mix of memories, dreams and history. The narrator declares, "Most human beings, if you question them, know that the past is what was, while yet believing that at present it is still to be found 'somewhere.'… Up until two years ago I was convinced that all of the Past was gathered together in some part of life or the cosmos." So passionately does this collection elaborate on such seemingly banal mysteries that when a character in another story ("Winter Voyage") says that "life makes room now and then for encounters that do not belong to life, or to the times in which we live," Ortese has prepared the audience to believe her.

Wilborn Hampton (review date 9 October 1994)

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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 another, the heroine falls asleep while waiting for the plumbers, and a Persian fable invades her dreams. Yet another seriously considers the notion that the past actually exists as a submerged continent. The best of the 10 stories explore the real loss that time can bring—a woman remembering a youthful love who always arrived at a certain hour, a young wife who rejected the friendship of a waitress in a cafe, a woman recalling a kind tenant at her grandmother's house when she was a child. Ms. Ortese, who is known here for her novel The Iguana, is an observant writer, and there are phrases in Henry Martin's affectionate translation that enliven even the dullest passage (a woman, for example, describes her wardrobe as being "consecrated by poverty and bad taste"). But through most of these stories, one keeps turning pages without seeming to get anywhere.

Rita Signorelli-Pappas (review date Winter 1995)

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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 beautiful but inexplicably silent daughter Elmena. From the moment they arrive in Naples, they find themselves inhabiting an unsettling intersection between the fantastic and the real in what becomes a tale of magic realism that has the intricate plot turns and the disarming inventive force of Ortese's earlier novel, L'iguana (1965).

Like the maiden iguana Estrellita, the character of Elmena alternately evokes responses of enchantment, censure, and a deepening delusion from the three men, who quickly fall in love and find themselves in helpless competition for her attention. Although the sculptor Dupré finally succeeds in winning her hand, it is the prince, Neville, who is the most thoroughly beguiled by the secrets of her mysterious past, and he embarks on a quest to unravel them. What he enters, however, is nothing less than a labyrinth in which each new revelation interweaves with another, more unpredictable one, as the contours of this elusive story continue to expand, vanish, and reappear in the manner of a waking dream.

The metaphoric centerpiece of the novel is the mournful, enigmatic cry of the cardillo, whose hallucinatory presence keeps intervening and whose song alternates between ecstasy and despair. What role the pet bird actually played in the Civile family chronicle remains deliberately obscure, as each successive version of the tiny creature's death and rebirth condenses only to fade into another. The bird's voice of pain does, however, manage to transform the prince's sensibility in a way that endures. Neville muses that the voice, "rising from desire and a general dream of good, is not a bird's voice…. It creates both tears and virtuous acts." Like Elmena, he comes to realize that he too "lives under the influence of a duty that is a dream." The cardillo becomes his melancholy muse, empowering him to reclaim his own artistic essence and to weave the separate threads of Elmena's story, as the novel concludes, into the concentrated unity of a poem.

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