An epic tale of Italian life in the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of an indomitable woman.
Modesta is born into a land of heat and dust at the very dawn of that century: “The mountains always turn black as her hair when the heat lets up,” she recalls, “but when the heat intensifies they turn blue, like the Sunday dress that Mama is sewing for Tina.” It being rural Sicily, a land beyond the pale even of Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, Modesta is brutalized before she is even of school age; the youngest, she does not even stand to receive hand-me-downs. When she’s packed off to a convent school where she’ll at least eat, she’s hardened for battle, but instead she finds—well, love of the sort that dare not speak its name. Modesta grows, becoming increasingly ungovernable even as Italy falls under the sway of fascism, unafraid to declare herself a socialist and resist the regime; with the passing years, she experiences all the normal loves and losses, compounded by her lack of interest in formal definitions of gender or institutions. It’s said that this long novel, which sometimes drifts into the politically doctrinaire (“The way you’re acting, you’re not merely showing respect for the Catholic electorate, you’re meeting it fully and distorting the very roots of our struggle”), is a definitive roman à clef recounting its author’s life, save that Sapienza enjoyed perhaps less success in her life than does Modesta, who enjoys a considerable reversal of fortune; for one thing, Sapienza, who died in 1996 and whose father was a devout anti-fascist, could not find a publisher for the book in her lifetime, and it appeared in Italy only in 2005. Readers without a grounding in Italian history will perhaps not appreciate fully the depth of Modesta’s struggle, while those who are familiar may find in the book a sort of worm’s-eye rejoinder to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, narrated from the point of view of one not born to privilege.
Though long and sometimes slow moving, the book has considerable merit, particularly for students of women’s literature of the past century.