But don’t be fooled, I read it in Danish – although I am seriously in the mood to learn some Italian as it sounds so passionate, I make no pretense of knowing the Italian language past ‘ciao bella’- but a good language to scold someone in.
The novel takes place in Italy and reeks of Oedipal confrontation with a twist.
Come prima delle madre begins with the little boy Pietro, who is sent off to boarding school after his childhood friend Irina mysteriously dies.
He has angst – concerning his relationship with his mother, as she grows more and more distant and cold towards him, concerning his friend’s death, concerning the boys and the teachers in school, and pretty much his whole existence. He is at a turning point in his life, the shift from childhood to adulthood, and he is confused. He has terrible abandonment issues that manifest themselves when the symbiotic bond between mother and child is severed. Incidentally this takes place during the last throws of WWII and Pietro comes home from boarding school after an incident with a nearly half-dead boy leaves him to blame, and the school is also forced to close down because of the war. When he comes home, his longing for his mother is not set at ease. There is no turning back to the comforting arms, that are now drunk, drugged and caressing a man that is not his father. His innocence is being chipped off him, bit by bit, with death, abandonment, sexual debut and betrayal going through the story like rings on still water. When he finds his dead friend’s diary and letters, he is let into a world of deceit and behind the scenery of family ties.
The story’s point of view makes a shift halfway through the novel to the mother and her story. Which is interesting, because it seems like Vinci doesn’t want Pietro’s mother to go unexplained – maybe because the harsh criticism of a mother’s role would be to detrimental to the storyline – so she gives her a voice. Turns out she has had quite her own turbulent life – leaving her mother and brothers behind she goes off with a homicidal maniac to Berlin (not that she knows that at first, but he does carry a gun, so she cannot act the part of complete innocence). He ends up incarcerated, she is left pregnant with only the man’s accomplice as a ‘friend’, and somehow married off to a wealthy man like some sort of bargaining calf. Her story is as such no fairy tale, but one that rings of familiarity – you know the one; a woman, naive and victimized, is forced to make the best of it, ends up brutally cold, deteriorating from the inside and fighting hands and claws to secure herself, her position and her kin. Which is questionable, a bit tiresome, but in the end makes for a good storyline.
The main conflict – the one between the boy and his mother – has a very sinister ending. Pietro’s feelings for his mother, the nostalgic memory of comfort tied up with the very harsh abandonment, leaves him disguising his wrath as a form of pious righteousness. And in a way, the abandonment has struck so hard that he takes steps to resolve and stand up against this mother figure he no longer feels ties to that maybe he cannot foresee the consequences of.
I won’t go to much into all the nooks and crannies because I do think it is worth a read without me recounting all the details.
I sense through the translation that is is a beautiful language, very cold – in a way like Oksanen, although not as brutal, more verging on the poetic side. I would maybe have liked the ending to be maybe 5 pages longer, it is a bit too abrupt for my taste. But all in all worth a read and a debate.
Behind those sorrowful and attentive eyes lies a story fit for the history books. Let me introduce you to Ding Ling (1904-1986); Chinese writer, woman and revolutionary. She is the author of one of my favorite short stories, ‘Mrs. Sophia’s Diary’, written in a Westernized, cosmopolitan Beijing and published in 1927. Unfortunately, I believe, as a result of the hectic societal changes in China, during the former half of the 20th century, her writings got eclipsed by her personal life. When she was in her 20’s she flung herself passionately into her stories, exploring the female mind and mentality through different female protagonists in urban settings.
The 20th century in China was ushered in with two major political changes that are of importance for the attention Chinese female authors gained both concerning their role as authors and womanhood in general. The first one was the abolition of the traditional civil service examination in 1905, that ended a long tradition of educating male scholars for employment in the state. The education of women, ushered in by Western girl’s schools, was rapidly taken in by the intelligentsia. The second was the abdication of the Qing dynasty in 1912, ending 2000 years of imperial rule, and establishing the Republic of China. The presence of Western powers was very much a reality in China and this both nurtured cultural affinity and strong revolts. Movements, such as the Culture Movements and the May Fourth Movement, saw great advantage in the upheaval of traditional values and looked interestedly to the question of equality between the sexes. It was also an age in which the individual was scrutinized and portrayed in countless short stories, essays, articles and novels. All of which, as I must lay emphasis on, mainly took place in urban settings.
‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’ is a story about a young, tubercular woman who has left her family in order to move to Beijing, struggling to figure out who she is, but ultimately ends up in disillusionment. She is a perfect example of what some have called the ‘New Woman‘ or ‘Modern Girl’ in Chinese culture. With Sophia, Ding Ling explores the realm of moral virtue bestowed upon women, and challenges the notion that moral virtue arises from the female body’s natural disposition to be chaste. Written in a 1st person diary form, it gives a very realistic insight into the modern struggle and crisis of identity from a female point of view. With her Western-ringing name and in urban settings she is a woman of the modern world. But instead of writing about a strong female character that takes on the world head-on and achieves her goals, Ding Ling chooses rather to describe the inner workings of a woman isolated from the world, both of her own accord, but also because of the lack of understanding she feels her surroundings have for her. She is strong in her own way, but so many things complicate her life. Ding Ling portrays Sophia as an erotic being, but one who is unfamiliar with her own sexuality and torn between what she wants and what she is supposed to do. She exemplifies the fear of being stigmatized by a society that does not allow for women to be overtly sexual without being labeled as femmes fatales:
I know very well that in this society I’m forbidden to take what I need to gratify my desires and frustrations, even when it clearly wouldn’t hurt anybody. I did the only thing I could do. I lowered my head patiently and quickly read the name printed on the card, “Ling Jishi, Singapore…
Like Ding Ling, Sophia uses writing in hopes of reaching clarity and to take stock of her position in life. She feels at ease nowhere, with no one, and her interactions with other people leave her frustrated and alone. With these emotional levels, Sophia goes from high to low with every diary entry, and thoughts of death and suicide are reoccurring. The isolation and following depressive reaction shares obvious affinities with Western literature such as Goethe’s ‘Young Werther’ and Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’, struggles between society and individual that leaves the protagonist ambivalent and confused. Unlike the male’s experience with identity, Sophia is not only up against society’s expectations and the desire to change this, but she and others also question the very core of her being – her femaleness, and what that entails. Most of the rhetoric leading up to the 1920’s had been on female emancipation, claiming equal rights, education and a healthy nation, gaining freedom through financial autonomy, all set in ideological terms. However, Ding Ling takes it one step closer, to the intimate corners of femininity, where she bares Sophia as a sexual being in her own right. For many in the urban community, singlehood symbolized independency, showing social resistance towards marriage, but in more conservative circles it was a regular threat to the essence of Chinese society. In some instances, same sex relationships were feared as a potential outcome with this lifestyle. Same sex love is also insinuated in ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’, with reference to the relationship between her and Yunjie predating the diary. Sophia moves on the border between familial sisters (jie) and sexual interest in her relations to other women – one character, Jianru, reminds her so much of Yunjie that she ‘started chasing her (…) writing at least eight long letters [but] she didn’t pay the slightest attention.’ But society’s moral virtue catches up with her and constantly makes her aware of her own personal deficiencies and how unwritten social codes still act as limitations on her behavior. However, she is still more concerned with how to respond to and understand the hazy term of love, both as is manifests itself as lust, passion an metaphysical love. The narration of Sophia, on her own terms, in her own words, places the reader as a voyeur, peeping in on a woman’s innermost secret thoughts. And in doing so, the reader is in the advantageous role of gaining insight into her struggles with identity and modernity.
As China’s political situation became more polarized, and the cooperation between Kuomintang and the Communist Party ended in a bloody showdown in the late 1920’s, Ding Ling was smack down in the middle of revolution, joining the Communist Party and participating actively. She was both a chief editor to a magazine and in the 30’s she joining the Communist Party in Yan’an where she teached, studied the life of the worker and peasants and wrote. The problem was only, her writings did not please others within the Party. Mao Tse-tungs ‘Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art’ in 1942 made it quite clear what role literature had in the greater scheme of party politics, namely subservient to the proletarian glorious struggle, under strict scrutiny by the body of officials that held posts within the organization. And Ding Ling had, unfortunately for her career as an influential writer in Communist China, written some rather critical essays and stories that questioned the use of the communist ideology by some at the expense of others. Among these were ‘When I was in Xia Village’ and ‘Thoughts on March 8’ – an essay about the inconsistencies in sexual politics in the CP. All hell broke loose and during a ‘Rectification Campaign’ she was heavily criticized which in return led to a public self-critique, confessing the errors of her ways, saying that she ‘merely pointed out some of the darkness and forgot to affirm the bright future.’ However, stories such as ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’, which was by now considered a classic example of the petty bourgeoisie, subverting the ideology of peasant-worker revolution, was a black spot on Ding Ling. It was quite clear that there was no longer a place for an individualistic, creative attention to the female experience.
I had some good news today.
Sara Stridsberg is out with a new book called ‘Darling River’, published in Sweden in early 2010 and just translated to Danish pending appearance on August 20th. I, however, (sorry Danish publishers and bookstores) will shoot my future career in the foot and buy it in Swedish and on the internet! My fingers were tingling just by the thought of this book as I was reading an interview with the author in Weekendavisen’s book section. And at one point Stridsberg explains her writing process and I knew just what she meant, only with me it’s in regard to my reading process.
When I am writing on a novel I always have the feeling of being away in a dream for a couple of years and afterwards I almost can’t remember it.
The thing with dreams is (as Mr. DiCaprio says in the movie Inception, which I went to see the other day btw) you are just there in the middle of the dream, all of a sudden. And as with dreams, literature, for me, behaves in a similar fashion. I couldn’t tell you how it started, I can’t remember every detail, there is often just the feeling afterwards of having felt something, which in reality is really blurry, and I really have to concentrate if I want to recollect details. But the bigger picture is so much more colorful and vibrant.
I read Sara Stridsberg’s ‘Drömfakulteten’ about two years ago, which is a “literary fantasy based upon Valerie Solanas” – the girl who shot Warhol – and I was blown away by the style in particular, but also the very gripping story that interlaced the pages. There is the factual person Valerie Solanas, and then there is Stridsberg’s fictional Valerie Solanas. What’s so great is that factual Solanas may have been the stepping stone for the fictional one, but neither is in the others’ debt. Imagine a spoon and a bowl of water; you dunk the spoon in, making ripples in the water, and take a very little percentage of water out, drinking it and leaving the water disturbed, touched. With reading I feel like, on it’s own, the pages with signs on them are meaningless and still, but as soon as I read a page it is in my head, occupies my thoughts and forms my consciousness. Stridsberg has translated the SCUM-manifesto, written by Solanas, before writing ‘Drömfakulteten’, so it is a really interesting process to figure out how Stridsberg has read in between and on the lines to create her ”fictional” Solanas. The novel is raw and shifts between the past, present and thoughts of Solanas’, who carries herself with a sense of self-rightiousness of a radical political activist. At the same time it is also a very vulnerable and lonely novel. There is so much unresolved emotional baggage that dart out of the story and the pain is most explicit when Solanas is conversing with Silkboy, her companion and ally. It is a dark universe that sucks you in, and questions of sexuality, wronged and wrong are recurrent in the novel, forming a foundation for the pained individual.
If you read Danish and are interested in Stridsberg’s authorship, I would recommend this interview, which is to be found in Weekendavisen’s no. 32 – August 13 2010. And I would definitely recommend ‘Drömfakulteten’ (of course, if you like stream-of-consciousness styled literature, Valerie Solanas, sexual politics, the tormented individual, take your pick!)
I can’t wait to receive my copy of Darling River, but if anyone has read it out there, feel free to make your impression known here 🙂