Personal Interaction and Gossip in Dacia Maraini’s “Woman at War”

Life has slowed down considerably since I graduated and moved back to Louisiana.  I now spend my days working on my novel, filling out applications, taking long walks to Granny’s house, cooking, and catching up on last season’s True Blood (the new season started Sunday!). I haven’t been reading as much; I went from reading one or two novels a week, to starting three and not finishing any this last month. It feels like my days are all lazy days. Though there’s always a lot to do and I try to accomplish something each day, I know I can always do more.

The thing is, I have ample alone time (something I crave as a writer), but I’m discovering that even that can get frustrating. To my surprise, I’m beginning to feel too alone. In fact that’s how the walks to Granny’s house started. I needed the exercise, yes, but really I needed stimulation; writing requires my senses to be alive. How can I create a world the reader will be happy to be immersed in if I don’t get out and explore and experience the world about me?

That walk through the neighborhood, past the park, Botanic Garden, fire station and police training ground, is quite stimulating. The French architecture, huge

Botanic Garden Sunflower

old trees and flowers are visually stimulating, while the herbs at the Botanic Garden are olfactive. Passing joggers smile and wave, giving me a sense of belonging, and it’s kinda cool to have a sea of soon-to-be -policemen part as I jog through with a reggae and soca soundtrack on my iPod pushing me on. All these little things add to the experience, but the talks in Granny’s kitchen are the real inspiration. It’s amazing how talking to the right person can make me feel more myself.

Saturday, I attended a party (baby shower/birthday celebration for the daddy) and delighted in the opportunity to interact with a new circle of women. There were so many new characters, so many personalities to analyse and so many stories to piece together as I tried to figure out how these women were connected. This led me to think about Dacia Maraini’s Woman at War and Vannina, the first person narrator and protagonist who grows through her interactions with a new circle of friends. Vannina never plans it, but while on vacation in Addis, then Naples, the people she associates with, from all walks of life, change her. She tries to, but finds she can’t go back to life as it was in Rome.

Maraini uses gossip as a literary device to make a quick connection with the reader and uses this protagonist in particular, to demonstrate how personal interaction can influence a person. Vannina, a twenty-five-year-old Roman teacher, is introduced at the very onset of her summer vacation and the reader finds her to be a reliable first-person narrator, because she “gossips.” “So starts my holiday,” she writes in her diary and it is important to note that keeping a diary isn’t something she is driven to out of necessity. As far as the reader can tell, she just does it. This means she has no audience to address, no jury or judge to appeal to, and no listener to impress or persuade. The reader can take her at her word and not feel coerced or manipulated into liking or caring about her.

Vannina doesn’t aim to cloak, hide or explain away any aspects of her personality. The reader can trust her. She records her story assuming absolute privacy and appears quite comfortable with keeping a diary. She doesn’t fear prying eyes because not even Giacinto, her semi-literate husband, will read what she’s written. Maraini presents Vannina as having no reason to lie, and like Tota, a native of Addis who quickly befriends Vannina with her penchant for gossip, Vannina doesn’t hesitate to reveal the most scandalous details about everyone and everything in her diary. The text is designed to allow the reader to get to know Vannina in much the same way she gets to know her new acquaintances and friends. The reader can therefore trust that Vannina has no reason to deceive, and since she doesn’t have to worry about what is appropriate, she can talk freely, sharing all the good gossip. The text takes the form of an uncensored dialogue Vannina has with herself so that the reader can eavesdrop on a conversation that gets real intimate real quick.

Though Maraini lets the reader know that Vannina can be a bore (she appears meek and

 subservient in her interactions with the other characters), the text is chockfull of personal reflections and secret confessions. Maraini allows her protagonist to use language that is raw and honest. When she writes in her diary her voice is strong, direct and bold. She notes the most exciting and bizarre things in the most succulent language and writes with confidence and reckless abandon, precisely because she never intends an audience.

Maraini places the reader in the position of ultimate gossip buddy to Vannina, much like Vanina’s early interaction with Tota, who “started talking straight away in a carefree, natural way as if we were two old friends” the narrative voice connects with the reader as it is straightforward and has an intimate and familiar tone (9). This approach lends the work a conversational tone and the familiarity with which the narrator addresses the reader suggests that Maraini uses the first-person narrative voice to evoke gossip, and by extension, folklore.

Like gossip, the stories Vannina records seem shocking and outrageous at first, but one advantage for Maraini is that the reader doesn’t have to guess at what Vannina might be lying about. Maraini’s technique of plunging the reader into Vannina’s story, just as easily as one would “fall” into a bit of gossip, takes the reader as close as possible to what the protagonist really thinks. She also applies an oral tone to the work by using dialogue—usually without tags— throughout the text as a means of inferring this uninhibited speech, or gossip. In this way, the reader gets the story directly from Vannina, not a third party. Maraini aims to recreate a natural meeting between protagonist and reader and she draws a parallel between the new relationships Vannina strikes up with people like Tota and Suna, and the simultaneous impression she makes with the reader.

As Vannina’s transformation from subservient wife to independent woman isn’t explicitly stated as being her intention at the beginning of the work, and does not become her focus at any particular point in the work, her growing self-awareness is presented by the author as being organic, unforced. The shift occurs subconsciously, “I was sunk into a dark and painful sleep for days. On the fifth day I had a strange and obscurely revealing dream which changed the course of my life” (279). Vannina’s transformation/evolution is presented as occurring, naturally, and as unconsciously as her original social conditioning must have.

In this way, Maraini presents Vannina as somewhat in-condemnable. The author doesn’t try to distance herself from her protagonist and Vannina appears to have an acceptable reputation though she engages in actions and events the reader may not approve of. This encourages the reader to side with her, in the same way Vannina chooses not to judge her new friends, and excuse her improprieties.

Vannina eventually comes to admit to herself that some things she believed to be true about herself and the nature of a woman was only in an effort to gain the approval of the people she deemed to be better than her. This belief is a part of her social conditioning. Like a girl, she still wants to be liked, so she is willing to do things not in her own best interest; “I wanted to say no. But I let myself be carried away by the pleasure of saying yes, of being ingratiating, carrying out a task without question, so that I could then be rewarded with the approval of those who were cleverer and more confident than myself. It was just what they expected from me, naturally, it was my role as a woman” (Maraini 110). Vannina grows to understand that her unquestioning acceptance of these norms is unreasonable. Her obedience therefore, doesn’t reflect her shifting self-image or improve her life.  She learns to be more selfish once she has the opportunity to understand the extreme measures people will take for presumed personal advancement. She starts to form her own opinions and begins to take responsibility for her actions.

Maraini, in the tradition of a folklorist, seems to value the oral text as primary in the way she presents Vannina’s story. The diary format, the gossipy tone, and the repeated use of dialogue all suggest an oral text. The stories a society chooses to tell and retell form the fabric of the culture as “[w]ith time and repetition, some examples of human expression become pervasive and common place. When they do, we conceive them to be traditions or traditional; and we can identify them individually or collectively as folklore” (Georges and Jones 1).

Maraini is brave enough to write about these people, in their words. She does what the history books fail to do and allow the reader to experience the everyday activities and daily lives of these common folk by writing about gossip or folklore.  This has been the function of the earliest forms of literature in narratives by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio and the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

Unlike Vannina, I wasn’t exposed to the personalities, characters and energies of the women at the party long enough to adopt any of their traits or develop any major changes in the way I view the world. The women at the party, unlike Tota and Vannina were more guarded, reluctant to share too much, there wasn’t any gossipping, so I came away with very little. My talks with Granny however, are more embracive and should therefore be more influential. What about my interaction with Maraini through this work? I read it, studied it, wrote my final paper on it and even got the chance to talk with her briefly at The John Fowles Center for Creative Writing Annual Reading Series. I hadn’t known it until the words were spoken, but I told her that her work had inspired me to be more bold in my writing. We absorb something of another in the books we read, the music we listen to, the television shows we watch, the people we work with and those we live with, so be aware of what you’re absorbing, what your children are absorbing and how we are all affecting each other as we evolve in this web of life.

Dacia Maraini is an Italian writer. Maraini’s work focuses on women’s issues, and she has written numerous plays and novels. She has won awards for her work, including the Formentor Prize forL’età del malessere (1963); the Premio Fregene for Isolina (1985); the Premio Campiello and Book of the Year Award for La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa (1990); and the Premio Strega for Buio (1999).

A Personal Response to Teeth and Spies: What’s the Point?

Maybe the point is I had the most difficult time reading and analyzing Giorgio Pressburger’s Teeth and Spies. The text finds me panicked-yet-joyful as I approach the end of one of the most painful, and at the same time, pleasurable episodes of my life. My time at Chapman University grinds to a terrifying end, creating fear and doubt about an unknown future yet hindsight facilitates a deeper appreciation of the experience as a whole. Soon I’ll be able to put a big pretty bow on the memory of Chapman, a memory composed of all the individual experiences I’ve had here, and simply consider it an accomplishment (ego).

Right now however, in this moment, I can’t do so just yet. First I have to get through this paper, then a final, then a thesis defense, so that each moment remains taut with fear, mental anguish and anxiety. In much the same way, Pressburger presents a protagonist who constantly projects an empty future and experiences the present while analyzing the past. Teeth and Spies therefore captures the complexity of life while demonstrating the inherent difficulty of discovering the meaning of it all.

All these states of being are determined inadequate for providing any acceptable answers to the question of why life is the way it is. Why man is is the creature he is? Why pleasure is linked to pain? Pressburger doesn’t provide answers to any of these philosophical questions, but presents a protagonist who broods upon such questions in old age. Pressburger, with an anonymous protagonist, reveals that everyone has experiences like these. I know I can certainly relate.

People experience pain, and life wouldn’t be worth living without that  pain. How would one know what pleasure is? These experiences, these trials of life, help shape and mold an individual. They force one to constantly redefine oneself. By revealing the impossibility of simultaneously experiencing and analyzing these moments in life, Teeth and Spies demonstrates how life’s experiences encourage one’s appreciation of the different phases and stages of life, even through the difficult times.

Expectations, immediate experiences and memory prove too limiting to ever provide any real answers to the grand question of life, but what of art? The “Author’s Preface” establishes the protagonist’s early formation of life expectations through a single experience. He realizes his own mortality the moment he witnesses the actor’s/beggars recitation (an artistic expression). This leads him to formulate certain expectations about life. His ideas about old age and death are all based on his childhood experiences. He knows fear in that moment and spirals through a life full and complex in its varied phases, good and bad, painful and pleasurable, often all this at once.

The chapters that follow reduce the protagonist’s life to a string of experiences and demonstrate how little time one has for self analysis when busy experiencing the moment. Each moment requires action, doing, living, decision making, and applies pressure, crippling one’s ability to analyze.

Maestro G. appears to be the aggressive, ultra masculine aspect of the protagonist’s personality. Early on, the protagonist expresses the feeling of being linked to another, he says, “someone is holding the other end of the thread, someone is holding me tied to myself and to him, the pain is keeping us tied to one another” (34) and Maestro G. suddenly appears in the same LR3 chapter where the protagonist declares, “Music had entered me” (41). This Maestro G., probably the ego aspect of the protagonist’s personality, is first mentioned by name on page 44; “Maestro G. before he became my mortal enemy.” Can one be one’s own enemy? I think so and will elaborate later in this response.

Maestro G. routinely appears at pivotal moments in the protagonist’s life, offering advice or stepping up to do what the protagonist wants to do, but lacks the courage to. Maestro G. even goes as far as to eliminate Dr.Kraus; “He had killed that dentist, he had wanted to save my life at all costs, just as I had saved his” (181) and is last mentioned as being “in even greater despair than before” when the narrator gets involved in that disastrous affair with Judy (247). Could it be that in finally losing his teeth (aggression), the protagonist was better able to quell that ego and conduct the self analysis necessary to create this text?

The chapters of the text in the voice of the unnamed protagonist (i.e excluding the editor’s notes) are all presented in hindsight. The protagonist’s arrival at old age, a concept dreaded from childhood, provides him the opportunity to look back, place judgment, analyze and attempt to define and explain those most intensely painful or pleasurable moments of his life, yet he still falls short of providing answers. So, what is the point?

My entire experience at Chapman now appears singular, in hindsight, in much the same way the protagonist’s life appears singular in the form of the text. My memories of Chapman will forever remain an amalgamation, and a somewhat unreliable construction, of the countless individual experiences I’ve had here. In much the same way, the protagonist’s life remains a compilation of memories, but the question still remains why? Was it all for nothing? Why would Pressburger create such a protagonist? Why present this unreliable, pain obsessed, violent, unlikable protagonist to readers? And why in this form? Why the duality of it all? Also, does art provide a suitable outlet for simultaneously experiencing and analyzing life? Did Maestro G.’s music make him more reasonable, or maybe even rasher, than the old man he eventually becomes? Does his writing of the text provide him answers? Does the writing of this piece provide me with answers?

Take this my final semester for instance, in knowing that this semester would bring this particular episode of my life to an end, a final chapter in a memoir perhaps, I led with my ego and became my own enemy. I tried to pack as much as possible into the experience, bleeding it for all it’s worth and am now holding on for dear life. As a result, I decided, maybe not consciously, that reading Teeth and Spies would be a painful experience in much the same way the boy convinces himself that growing old is to be a bad experience. Even before I opened the covers to read the first word, I feared and hated it. The experience was tainted from the beginning. Plus, the eerily colored monster-tooth on the cover wasn’t exactly inviting. Teeth and Spies was just another thing that had to be done before I could get that all important passing grade and attain what I’ve been determinedly pursuing for the past three years; those degrees. It didn’t help that when I finally opened Teeth and Spies, praying for an easy, enjoyable read, though not really expecting the former, this is a Mark Axelrod course after all. I got the most complex and confusing text that I have ever encountered in my student career (I used to think Lolita was complex).

That first read was a slow and extremely painful experience as I couldn’t get past the protagonist’s voice, the complicated structure which requires an introduction, foreword (including international notations and diagrams), excerpts from a father’s prison diary, dental terminology, spy codes, wars, historical dates, affairs, violence, pain, pain and more pain. Even in going over my notes, analyzing, trying to decide what to write about, I came away not knowing what I should have gained from reading this novel. I knew Axelrod chose this text for a reason, but what was Pressburger’s point? How to get to the root of it?

It was only with looking back, trying to analyze the work as a whole that I began to enjoy the idea of such a text. Pressburger’s genius lies in the way the text haunts a reader; the same way his spent life haunts the unnamed-old-man-protagonist trying to repent and make sense of a lifetime of experiences. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist, S.G or Maestro G. is reliable. It doesn’t matter if I hate or like his character. It doesn’t matter what order we read the sections in or that we have an Introduction, Foreword, Author’s Preface and a staggering collection of chapters all struggling to find meaning within themselves. What matters is that the paper has to get done and the experience, no matter how painful was also enjoyable in spite of my expectations.

Maybe the point is in having done it, having read it, having experienced what there was to experience even when one never gets all the answers. What would be the point of doing it if we already knew the answers? The ego wants to project that future but in the end, one can only get there by actually experiencing it. The protagonist had to experience all these trials before he reached that old age he had projected in childhood.  It is therefore fitting that I struggled with this response, that I struggled through the text, that I struggled through the MA/MFA program, for now I can almost see the end.

Still, I can only truly appreciate that sense of relief that comes with having endured once I have complete this paper, passed this course, earned those degrees and move on to asking “what is the point” of the next book, the next episode, or chapter in my life. I may find that in the end I did “all that delicate work for nothing” but I don’t think so. Maybe the experience is enough and doesn’t need to be judged as being either good or bad, just done.