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In Sicilian Shadows

Just before things turn ugly (or uglier) for the characters in Maria Messina’s startling 1921 novel, A House in the Shadows, a young woman named Nicolina, who lives with her married sister and is about to become the mistress of her despotic brother-in-law, gazes down at her newborn niece:

If only she was a boy, she thought, she’d have an easier fate. Women are born to serve and suffer. Nothing else.

What was she holding in her little closed fists? Happiness maybe…. All of us clench our fists at birth so as not to let go of a blessing that we will never find again.*

These dispirited ruminations might well serve as an epigraph for Behind Closed Doors, a collection of stories by Maria Messina, who was born in Palermo in 1887 and died in Pistoia in 1944. Translated by Elise Magistro and appearing in English for the first time, these ten persuasive tales offer stark, finely drawn portraits of poor and middle-class Sicilian women in the early years of the twentieth century. Resigned to servitude, poverty, insult, and violence, they are blindsided by abandonment; during the era in which these fictions are set, a million people, almost a third of the island’s population, left Sicily, in most cases for America.

As an older neighbor in “America 1911” tells a wife whose husband has resolved to emigrate, the lure of the New World is “a woodworm that eats away at things, a sickness that attacks, and when the time comes for a man to buy a suitcase, there’s nothing that can hold him back.” The wife convinces her husband to take her along, but is prevented from embarking at Palermo when she is diagnosed with an eye disease. In “Grandmother Lidda,” an elderly woman raises the boy her son has deserted, then must surrender her beloved grandchild when his father demands him back. The most nuanced of the emigration stories, “America 1918,” concerns a woman who, driven by loneliness and poverty, takes an initially companionable and increasingly brutal lover, whom she must give up when her husband returns from abroad. Impoverished, his health wrecked by a career spent pressing clothes (“It’s a new illness!” declares a Sicilian doctor), the spectral, doomed husband desires only to open a grocery store—and not to die.

For most of the peasant wives and their marginally more prosperous small-town counterparts, the only exit from their fate is into madness and death. Among Messina’s strengths are the tact and compassion with which she describes how these women are required to live within mental walls constructed from tradition, obedience, obsessive worry over minor gradations in status and reputation, and a stifled notion of possibility. The all-importance of their dowries teaches girls to calculate their value according to the delicacy of their embroidered linens, and the confining experiences of birth and mourning remind them how they must be ready to sacrifice autonomy to nature and custom. Everywhere daughters and sisters are convinced to choose the cloistered serenity, the “gray life” of running a relative’s household over the thrilling but alarming unknowns of marriage and motherhood.

But to summarize these narratives risks making them sound more sociological—and less artful—than they are. Messina’s women are neither types nor exemplary female martyrs but original fictional characters. What makes their plights affecting is neither class nor geography but rather the closely observed details and the small, telling incidents with which she involves us in their fate.

Vanna, the heroine of “Her Father’s House,” flees an arid marriage to a lawyer in Rome and returns to her dismayed family; when her husband comes to retrieve her he almost instantly begins a nasty, sotto voce argument about who will pay for her ticket back to the capital. (“It’s already enough that I’ve come. You’ve got three brothers and a father….”) The shoemaker in “Dainty Shoes” returns from America to find that his sweetheart has been pressured into marrying a tree trimmer; he nearly destroys the slippers he’s stitched for her until his mother sensibly persuades him to save them for the next girl he falls in love with.

As the point of view skips between a detached third person and a more intimate perspective that reveals the characters’ inner lives, one never feels that these women are stand-ins for their creator or messengers bearing coded fragments of autobiography. Nor, for that matter, do they offer any key to the mystery of how Maria Messina, who lacked a formal education and who had to teach herself standard Italian, found the exceptional courage and resolve required for a woman of her time and background to become a writer—and to send her first book, published in 1909, to her literary hero, Giovanni Verga.

Because Messina’s home, and presumably her archive, was destroyed during the Allied bombing of Pistoia, what little is known of her history has been extracted, by necessity, from twenty-three of her letters to Verga, discovered in 1979, and from her niece Annie’s afterword to A House in the Shadows. Messina’s father, a teacher and later a school inspector, was more or less forced into a predictably unhappy marriage to her homely, aristocratic, impecunious mother. The family moved to the provincial Sicilian town of Mistretta, where Messina spent most of her youth and where, according to Annie Messina,

Maria would have withered like a spring without sun had not her brother, who was older than she and had divined her talent, encouraged and helped her to write.

…Under [his] guidance, she studied tenaciously to acquire the instrument of a clear and fluent language, free of the influence of dialect. And once she had it, she began to write short stories. She told the stories of the simple people she saw around her: the washerwoman, the peasant who came from the countryside to sell his produce, the servant girl who helped her mother with the domestic chores, the woman neighbor who confided her troubles to her. And into the telling she put all her impassioned rebellion against the condition of women at that time and in that society, all her sympathy for the weak and humble, who were destined to be crushed.

She sent her first collection “without any recommendations whatsoever” to a publisher in Palermo and the book, Pettini-fini (Fine Combs), had a critical and popular success. When her father was promoted, she accompanied her parents to Umbria, Tuscany, and Naples, continuing to write and publish, and to correspond with established authors, most notably Verga, “letters in which one feels the throb of emotion that may have been the closest thing she felt to love.” She wrote steadily, turning out stories and novels until, ill with multiple sclerosis, she retired to the Tuscan countryside, where she died at the age of fifty-six. By the time of her death, her work was all but unknown and remained so until 1981, when Leonardo Sciascia encouraged a publisher to issue a book of her short fiction.

In one of the most frequently quoted passages from Giovanni Verga, an epistolary preamble to “Gramigna’s Mistress” (1880), Verga outlines the principles of verismo, the literary movement that he co-founded with his fellow Sicilian Luigi Capuana. Inspired by the naturalism of Balzac and Zola, verismo rejected the omniscient narrators, the sonorous rhythms, and the historical sweep of such novels as Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) in favor of a literature that concentrated on the ordinary lives of simple people and sought a language that would infuse Italian with the spicy flavor of regional dialect.

Not unlike Chekhov explaining that “to describe horse thieves in seven hundred lines I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit,” Verga advocated a fiction in which the author disappears from his creation:

When the affinity and cohesion of each of its parts is so complete that the creative process is a mystery, like the unfolding of human passions; and the harmony of its forms so perfect, the sincerity of its reality so evident, its manner and reason for being so necessary that the artist’s hand is absolutely invisible—then the novel will bear the imprint of a real event, and the work of art will seem to have made itself, to have ripened and sprouted spontaneously, like a natural fact, without harboring any point of contact with its author, any stain of original sin.

Just beneath the surface of Verga’s declaration, one senses not only the ambition and passion of a writer determined to break new ground, but also the reasonable anxiety of a man from the upper classes planning to write about the poor. It’s difficult enough to describe one’s own social milieu, but it poses a far more daunting imaginative challenge to portray the lives of the rural peasantry with neither condescension nor romanticization. The decision to write from within—to create a point of view in which the thoughts of the characters merge with the narrative voice, in which folk aphorisms and superstitious presentiments appear as comments on the action, and in which the village can function as a chorus—would seem to represent not only an aesthetic but a moral and political choice.

One measure of Verga’s greatness is the apparent fearlessness and the success with which he was able to put these abstractions into practice; his plots often seem to have been drawn directly from a bottomless supply of bloody-minded folklore and local scandal. Stories like “Gramigna’s Mistress,” “Nedda,” and “The She-Wolf” move along with the headlong, inflamed intensity that would surface later in Italian neorealist cinema. Verga convinces us that the red-headed “Rosso Malpelo,” a boy whose entire town despises him, is not substantially better or worse, only infinitely more complicated and sadder than his neighbors imagine. Though we only rarely hear Verga speak in his own voice, we notice how the world is being filtered through his grainy perception. When his characters suffer hideously, as they generally do, we may sense, as in Thomas Hardy, the author taking grim satisfaction in yet another confirmation of his own low opinion of how the universe functions.

It’s obvious why Maria Messina would have admired Verga and viewed him as a model and an inspiration. His belief that the artist should remain invisible must have reassured a Sicilian woman who, though she published under her own name, maintained in her work a tone of privacy that kept her from being stared at through the curtain of her fiction. Their writing shares surface similarities of subject matter and setting, as well as a palpable sympathy for the fatalism of their hapless characters. Neither exhibits the need to answer all the questions their stories raise, nor do they seem impatient with their characters’ passivity, the lack of courage or common sense that might forestall, or at least ameliorate, the harsh destinies that befall them.

Though Messina places her women at the extremes of existence—the aging “house nun” in “Red Roses” is forbidden to marry a man she has loved all her life, the abandoned wife in “America 1918” goes mad, the heroine of “Caterina’s Loom” is in thrall to the memory of her dead sister—you can’t help feeling (especially if you read Messina alongside Verga) that she’s pulling back from the edge, or perhaps cushioning the abyss into which she’s willing to fling her characters. In “Ciancianedda,” a deaf-mute plans to murder her husband’s mistress but loses her nerve at the last moment; in a Verga story, she would have most likely shot her. Messina’s peasant women trade their bodies for security and protection, while their middle-class counterparts have the luxury of being intrigued and terrified by the prospect of passion. By contrast, Verga understands that sex can alter the course of a life and unleash the forces of destruction and chaos.

So it comes as something of a surprise to read the disturbing, thematically daring A House in the Shadows (La Casa nel Vicolo), which Annie Messina refers to as her aunt’s masterpiece. As strong as the stories are, nothing in Behind Closed Doors quite prepares you for the hothouse eroticism of the novel, the immediacy with which Messina evokes a dictatorial husband, the two cowed women—his wife and sister-in-law—whom he dominates and seduces, and the sensitive son who breaks beneath the weight of his family’s discord and grief. Messina appears to relish having the time and space to explore the depths of these personalities and to create suspense by steadily raising the pressure that builds from the book’s first pages.

In the short stories, the male characters are mostly shadows cast over the women’s lives. But in the novel, the complex characters of the father and son help us understand more precisely what those lives are like. At moments, Don Lucio—vain, afraid of aging and death, dependent on the women’s subservience to bolster his fragile self-regard—seems to have wandered in from the pages of Turgenev or Tolstoy.

In an early scene, the son lies dangerously ill with a fever. His mother and aunt are themselves half delirious with terror; meanwhile, Don Lucio frets about the annoying disruption in his routine and finds his wife’s fear and misery a bit of a sexual turn-on. Our impression of the women’s situation—their exhaustion and isolation, the gratitude they are required to show and feel—prepares us for Nicolina’s ultimate submission to her brother-in-law’s advances.

And here is where the novel makes a breathtaking and radical (in view of the era and circumstances in which its author lived) move toward what Annie Messina calls the “sinister”—without sacrificing credibility or fidelity to its material. A more timid writer might have allowed one of her heroines to escape, but no one is getting out of this house in the vicolo alive. The ménage à trois continues, with the household’s full knowledge and implicit, unspoken permission. The formerly loving sisters turn into furious, bickering rivals, and the deadlock is broken only when a new discovery and a minor mishap drive the troubled son to an act of desperation. By the book’s end, the surface details of period and place, and of a highly particular (and mostly vanished) way of life, are less fully present in the reader’s mind than the conviction of having understood what everyone does, and why.

The 1890 Harper & Brothers edition of Verga’s The House by the Medlar-Tree contains a preface in which William Dean Howells hopes that “the reader who comes to this book with the usual prejudices against Southern Italians” will appreciate the skill with which Verga reminds us how much we share in common with Sicilian fishermen who, “if harshlier named, might pass for New England types, which we boast the product of Puritanism, but are really the product of conscience and order.” Verga’s characters, good or evil, show us something about our own natures, reflected as in a “clear glass, which falsifies and distorts nothing.”

The same could be said of Behind Closed Doors. We need not be a “house nun” in a Sicilian town, or an elderly peasant left behind when all his neighbors have emigrated, in order to hear the echo of something all too familiar. We can catch, however reluctantly, fleeting glimpses of ourselves in Messina’s depleted women and in the men who disappoint them.

  1. *

    Translated by John Shepley (Marlboro, 1989), p. 50.

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