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Goliarda Sapienza in Context: Intertextual Relationships with Italian and European Culture edited by Alberica Bazzoni et. al.

Reviewed by Hannah McIntyre, University of Oxford

Goliarda Sapienza in Context: Intertextual Relationships with Italian and European Culture, edited by Alberica Bazzoni, Emma Bond, and Katrin Wehling-Giorgi. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016. £60.00. ISBN: 9781611479164.


Some forty years after the completion of her most ambitious and well-known novel, L’arte della gioia, academia is beginning to catch up with Goliarda Sapienza. Emerging from a conference of the same title at the University of London in 2013, this critical edition takes on the monumental task of contextualising a diverse body of work within an even more diverse array of 20th century Italian and European literature, in addition to engaging with multiple strands of theory. Overall, the collection balances this range of sources with dexterity and poise, avoiding an overly dogmatic use of theoretical framework in a manner befitting Sapienza’s own mistrust of external doctrine.

            Often overshadowed by the extraordinary life of their author, Sapienza’s literary works are no less extraordinary in their own right. A brief reiteration of that life is, however, useful: raised in Fascist-ruled Sicily by prominent Socialist parents, Sapienza went on to train as an actress in Rome, where she was forced to take refuge in a convent during the Nazi occupation. In adulthood she underwent a breakdown and suicide attempt. Suffering from memory loss as a result of electro-shock therapy, she began to write about her childhood. Much later, a theft resulted in a short period of incarceration.

            This volume interrogates many of the recurring themes of Sapienza’s work whose roots can be found in her experiences, namely: ‘the centrality of autobiography, the nonconformist representation of gender identity, motherhood and sexuality, a conflictual relationship with psychoanalysis, and an original depiction of life in a female prison.’ (4). In addition to expanding on these primary areas which have formed the basis of the limited scholarship on Sapienza to date, this volume also makes space to explore hitherto unchartered territory. This includes an analysis of Sapienza’s work as an uncredited screenwriter (Gobbato, Chapter 5), and an investigation into the possible correlations between Sapienza’s embodied experience of Sicily and the history of racialised discrimination against the island by mainland Italy (Polizzi, Chapter 11).

            Given the fledgling position of critical studies of Sapienza, this edition’s sections are necessarily broad: ‘Life, Writing, and the Ethics of Subjectivity’; ‘Goliarda Sapienza: International Intertextuality’; ‘The Italian Context'; and 'Spaces of Recollection’. Although only one of these sections is entirely concerned with international intertextuality, an ethos of comparison is carried across the entire collection. Several essays seek to present Sapienza as an illuminating figure in the development of feminist and gender theory and to establish her intersections with and divergences from other female writers of the 20th century. The long and often arduous route of Sapienza’s works to publication becomes a source of study in itself, raising questions of canonicity and her position within an international ‘alternative’ canon of women’s writing. This transnationality is of course of particular interest to this review, and it is heightened by the relative success of Sapienza’s work in translation, with the French translation of L’arte della gioia (2006) prompting the publication of the 2008 Italian language Einaudi edition.

            In this volume one of the most recurrent sources of comparative analysis is Virginia Woolf. Her influence is explored at length in Maria Belén Hernández González’s chapter on Woolf’s protagonist Orlando and Sapienza’s Modesta (115-130). This comparison is driven not only by Sapienza’s professed admiration of Woolf’s power as a writer, but also ‘by the common aspiration of both authors to express themselves with freedom’ (115). Other contributors note Woolf’s importance, with Monica Farnetti (71-72), and Charlotte Ross (94-95), both referencing Sapienza’s deep appreciation of Woolf as a model of female expression in its most true and free realisation.

            Other essays draw upon more oppositional comparisons to explore the ways in which Sapienza was unique in her mode of writing. Emma Bond provides an insightful study of Sapienza’s prison writings in dialogue with the English writer Joan Henry (Chapter 7), while Maria Morelli examines the same texts alongside the work of Italian writer Dacia Maraini (Chapter 13). The latter chapter is notable for its compelling theorisation of the function of prison space in Sapienza’s writing, drawing upon Foucault’s notion of heterotopias. Foucault also features prominently in Andrée Bella’s chapter, which employs his use of the Greek term ‘parrhesia’ to explore the compulsion towards joy, freedom and truth in Sapienza’s work, and the crucial role of writing in achieving those goals (Chapter 3).

            In Sapienza, the editors of this volume identify a marginalised and controversial writer, whose lack of success to date has in part been due to how radically out of context her work often appears to be. This ‘difficultness’ comes to light particularly well in Alberica Bazzoni’s chapter comparing L’arte della gioia with Elsa Morante’s La Storia (Chapter 10). Although both are historical novels, centred upon female protagonists and epic in scope, they could hardly be more different, both in tone and reception. Morante’s text has notably become a rare example of a critical and commercial success amongst Italian women writers of the 20th century. Bazzoni’s original analysis approaches the depictions of female agency in these two texts through the lens of historical time.

            The final chapter points to a contemporary Italian context that may be more attuned to the overarching themes of Sapienza’s works. Katrin Wehling-Giorgi considers Sapienza in comparison with the enormously successful contemporary writer Elena Ferrante (Chapter 14). Departing from the two writers’ treatment of motherhood and language, Wehling-Giorgi identifies a common interest in ‘corporeality, violence, space, and native language’ (227).  

            As the very first critical edition to appear in English to appear on Sapienza, this volume represents an important step forward in scholarship on her work. It is closely followed by co-editor Alberica Bazzoni’s monograph Writing for Freedom: Body, Identity and Power in Goliarda Sapienza’s Narrative (Peter Lang, 2017). Placing Goliarda Sapienza ‘in context’ is an enormous task, and this is by no means an exhaustive volume. The contributors instead seek to open multiple pathways for future scholars to pursue, with a commitment and dedication to their project that verges on the evangelical. Farnetti writes:

‘We are far from appreciating the true nature of her mysterious and contagious power to desire: each step of the way, a new intuition, a light, the fragment of a thought brings us closer to her center and heart,’ (63)

Although Farnetti is in fact writing about Modesta, the explosive protagonist of L’arte della gioia, the sentiment holds true to critical assessment of Sapienza on a wider scale. As a collection of intuitions, lights and fragments, Goliarda Sapienza in Context offers a rich seam of material for current scholars of Sapienza, modern Italian literature, life-writing, and canonicity.

Goliarda Sapienza in Context: Intertextual Relationships with Italian and European Culture edited by Alberica Bazzoni et. al. | OCCT


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