Introduction

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Fallaci, Oriana 1930–

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Fallaci is an Italian novelist and journalist. Approaching her work as a socialist and a historian, she is deeply concerned with politics, feminism, and the influence of people in power. Her interviews with numerous leaders and political figures are known for their candor and controversial method of questioning. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Isa Kapp

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Fallaci enacts each of her assignments [as interviewer] as though it were a boxing match or a love scene. She springs into many different postures in rapid succession to unnerve her opponent, and alternates verbal scratches with relenting pats until her subject releases what she takes to be the essence of himself.

Whether or not these disingenuous tactics are necessary to overcome the self-protectiveness of public figures, they certainly testify to her belief that nothing could be duller than objective fact, and that the pursuit of truth must be peppered with friction. She specializes in the production of a spurious electricity, not so much to switch a clear light on political leaders, as to disclose in them a weakness here, a downright meanness there—those small shocks and sparks that journalism assumes are the surest devices for wakening its somnolent audience.

Fallaci brings the same rousing mixture of tactician and implied crusader to her new book, Letter to a Child Never Born, which became something of a cause celebre when it was first published in Italy; and if there is a danger that histrionics may subtly alter the substance of a political discourse, they certainly seem out of place here, considering the centrality and seriousness of her subject. Advanced as a novel, the plot proceeds as a monologue-debate on procreation and the right of a woman who has conceived a child to decide whether she should allow it to live. Never inhibited by fine scruples, Fallaci—that is to say, her main character—formulates all sides of the issue herself, and is indeed the heroine of all its emotional reverberations.

From page one, she addresses to her unborn child a disheartening recitation of its prospects, dutifully arraying the diverse shapes of human adversity. War, disease, humiliation, betrayal, slavery—there is no end to her lexicon of oppression. By the time she shares her conviction that "the family is a lie," "work is blackmail," and love "a gigantic hoax," the baby must be not a little discouraged for himself and much concerned with the self-dramatizing disposition of his mother-to-be as well as her indiscriminately scalding rhetoric. (p. G7)

The reader worries about her stability as she fluctuates from assuring the embryo "You looked like a mysterious flower, a transparent orchid," to charging, "you hurl yourself against my body like a vampire." The doctor suggests she is subconsciously resisting the child, and soon everyone's suspicions are confirmed. She leaves her hospital bed and goes on a ten-day car trip to carry out her magazine assignment, and the baby dies.

At an imaginary trial in which the heroine is both accuser and accused (so we may feel confident that she will receive clemency), the spectrum of views on abortion (or, more exactly, deliberately placing the fetus in danger) is rather eloquently presented. Ironically enough, Fallaci is at her best not when she is up in arms, but when she is putting concrete facts in order…. [The] unborn child, captive audience until now, makes the most bruising accusation of all: she did not believe in life. But the baby should have known that his mother would have the last word, and that it would be uttered with bravado:

"But elsewhere a thousand, a hundred thousand children are being born, and mothers of future children: life doesn't need you or me. You're dead. Maybe I'm dying too. But it doesn't matter. Because life doesn't die."

To go one step further and say that life doesn't need vindication of this caliber, and to resist the throbbing, self-vaunting tone of Letter to a Child Never Born is not to deny that Fallaci has taken on a stirring complex subject at an opportune moment…. A laudable verve has gone into bolstering the biological and doctrinal particulars of the book's argument, and snappy phrasing corsets some of its emotional excesses. But for most women real ambivalence about giving birth to a child does not arise from petty considerations like vanity or missing out on a journalism assignment, but from graver problems of health, poverty or temperamental capacity. The question of abortion (or even childbirth) has had relatively little place in literature until recently. Precisely because its increasingly respectable status has created an immense uncertainty that neither dogma nor common sense, sentiment nor severity are altogether adequate to, we want, in the writers who deal with it, largeness of mind, refinement of spirit and—something we cannot reasonably expect of Oriana Fallaci—a disciplined ego. (p. G10)

Isa Kapp, "Oriana Fallaci and the Facts of Life," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 13, 1977, pp. G7, G10.

FRANCINE du PLESSIX GRAY

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Fallaci's new book ["Letter to a Child Never Born"], which she calls a novel, takes the form of a passionate dialogue with the unborn child she once carried during a three-month pregnancy. Its theme is easy enough to identify with, being central to the lives of most women: the general ambivalence of joy and fear towards the act of giving birth, the more agonizing ambivalence towards giving birth to an illegitimate child. Yet although the book has moments of intense emotional power it too often lapses into a bathos that is as disconcerting as it is unexpected, coming as it does from this rapier-witted debunker of all bourgeois clichés and historical sentimentalism.

"Letter to a Child Never Born" is a profoundly sad work that balances between two sorrows: the primary sorrow of knowing that an illegitimate child exists within her, the more profound sorrow Fallaci experiences when her pregnancy is terminated….

I wept a bit over this book yet felt rather ashamed of my tears, as if I had found myself crying at 3 P. M. over "Guiding Light." Although many feminists would like to transgress this ultimate taboo, the task of writing about our unborn children presents almost insuperable esthetic problems because of the biological luridness of the theme and the inevitable sentimentalism it evokes in us. Fallaci, alas, falls deeply into this double trap. She presents us with romantic fantasies of the growing fetus which might be compatible with a bambino-worshiping Mediterranean culture (her book has sold 400,000 copies in Italy) but which I find as lurid as the bottled fetuses touted by antiabortion agitators. "There you are at six weeks … how cute you've become! No longer a fish, no longer a larva…. You've grown wings. What's it like in the egg?"

Like much of the intimate confessional writing presently being explored by women, Fallaci's book is also flawed by the dominance of a passionately engaged narrator over a subsidiary cast of sloppily limned, two-dimensional characters. In this respect, Fallaci's literary problem is further complicated by a strident brand of feminism that makes a cardboard villain of every man with whom she comes in contact during her pregnancy…. [They] all offer her the cold judgmental stare that has been the stock in trade of pulp literature dealing with the theme of unwed motherhood. The father of Child—a cowardly sniveler with poor taste in flowers, who sits on her bed to weep more comfortably—is the most stereotyped character of all. At the book's conclusion, only Fallaci's parents, a woman friend and a kind womanly doctor pronounce her innocent of the charges of having murdered Child.

In Jonathan Cott's marvelous interview with Fallaci in "Rolling Stone", she refers to "the solitude that oppresses women intent upon defending their own destinies … an internal solitude that comes from being a woman with responsibilities in a world of men." This inevitable solitude of the "emancipated" woman is the real theme of Fallaci's new book. One feels that she is left alone with her own destiny, a woman who considers love "a gigantic hoax invented to keep people quiet and diverted," who sees the family as "a lie constructed the better to control people." Notwithstanding its severe flaws, "Letter to a Child Never Born" is a poignant testament to this new solitude, and also to the older tension between our desire for liberation and our equivalent desire to be shackled to the process of nurturing. In her best moments, Fallaci, as always, strips truth down to its naked bone. She exposes the poignancy of these contradictions and the agony of our new-won freedoms. (p. 3)

Francine du Plessix Gray, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 13, 1977.

["Letter to a Child Never Born"] is an attempt at a general consideration of the state of motherhood from the point of view of a successful, single, Italian reporter—a worldly, cynical, independent, globe-trotting iconoclast. It is written in the form of a monologue addressed to the unborn child that the woman suddenly discovers she is carrying…. A sad story but a wordy one, full of absurd generalizations, of posturing (the author casts herself alternately as Elektra and Peter Pan), and of bathetic self-ennoblement. (pp. 125-26)

The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 21, 1977.

Hope Hale Davis

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Fallaci focuses [the whole of Letter to a Child Never Born] on the child's physical presence within the heroine; the fetus as imagined from an article becomes the other main character, and is addressed throughout….

Though her tone tends to be arch, Fallaci makes the process of pregnancy marvelously vivid….

The novel neatly encapsulates the battle between an old longing that may be irresistibly instinctual, and the urge of women toward outer fulfillment, worldly success. (p. 15)

Fallaci is famous for her interviews with celebrities…. Her power is such that she could bring to heel the Duchess of Alba, with all her 63 titles, by threatening to choose another Spanish aristocrat as her subject. Fallaci never hesitates to speak freely. Ending long hours with Alfred Hitchcock, for whom, before their meeting, she had felt only a banal admiration, she said, "With all your cordial humor, your nice round face, your nice innocent paunch, you are the most wicked, cruel man I have ever met." After hearing his gleeful boasts about the sickening real-life murders his films had inspired, she overcame her fashionable blindness to what she now could see as "really evil." Give her credit for that.

The price of journalism, though, can be high. When she brought out in America The Useless Sex (1964), a survey of the state of women in countries she had visited, The New Yorker said that her "quest was not fruitful, her research was not diligent, her observations are not intelligent, her style is not witty, her conclusions are not interesting, and her translator is dreadful."

Carried away as the critic must have been by syntactomania, there is enough truth in the blast to explain Fallaci's obvious difficulty in giving her novel depth and richness. Even its brevity seems less by design than by default. She tries to fill it out with three cautionary "fairy tales" told to the baby as warnings about the world. These tales, involving social inequities and apparently based on her own childhood, grow increasingly bitter. The last one breaks out of its mold to reveal in raw anger what must be the source of Fallaci's prejudice against the United States. It tells of a girl forced, for a few cans of beans, to wash the dirty underpants of soldiers who had been expected to bring the "tomorrow" her father had dared and suffered for all his life. (p. 16)

Hope Hale Davis, in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), March 14, 1977.

John Begley

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Unlike most modern novels I have read in recent years, [Letter to a Child Never Born] will be difficult to forget. In the form of a novel, and I frequently found it necessary to remind myself that it was a novel and not a private journal I was reading, it is an intensely personal reflection upon the purpose and value of human existence. The medium of expression is a tragic monologue in which an unmarried, liberated career woman confronts the question to give life or to deny it….

To the end the mother retains her independence by refusing to agree with the child's decision to die on the grounds that "it is not enough to believe in love if you don't believe in life." For her the meaning of life is to search for meaning. For all its ambiguity, life is its own justification.

The monologue is an extraordinarily difficult literary form to sustain. It requires the disciplined talent which Ms. Fallaci obviously possesses…. Few readers may share the vision of life related in this novel. However, all should find this encounter with a gifted novelist very worthwhile. (p. 38)

John Begley, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), May, 1977.

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Fallaci, Oriana (Vol. 110)