Billiani, Francesca, and Gigliola Sulis, eds. The Italian Gothic and Fantastic: Encounters and Rewritings of Narrative Traditions. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007. 243 pp. Cloth. ISBN 978-0-8386-4126-2.
This anthology is divided into three sections, the first of which comprises two chapters and deals with general critical underpinnings of the fantastic and the Gothic as contextualized in Italian literature. The second section includes four chapters and concentrates on nineteenth-century manifestations of these genres in Italy, while the final section, also of four chapters, deals with the female writers of the fantastic in the latter twentieth century, often neglected by critics despite their impact in Italy.
Francesca Billiani's "Italian Gothic and the Fantastic: An Inquiry into the Notions of Literary and Cultural Traditions (1869-1997)" outlines the purpose of the volume: the analysis of the Gothic and the fantastic in Italy during two key historical periods--the late nineteenth century and the second half of the twentieth century--in which foreign models in these genres allowed Italian writers to subvert contemporary literary realist paradigms and to center their works on disempowered and disjoined subjectivities. In the former century, these authors proposed the construction of identities alternative to the literary traditions of Manzonian realism and verismo. Another refusal of realist representation occurred in the latter twentieth century, when women writers of the fantastic employed the subversive potential of the fantastic and the Gothic to oppose hegemonic political and cultural forces as they challenged representations of gender in a patriarchical society by emphasizing not anxiety but pathos vis-a-vis the Other.
In his "Boundaries of the Fantastic," Remo Ceserani starts with Luigi Pirandello's definition of fantastic to draw several conclusions. The first refers to the difficulties created by the term itself, which raises problems of confusion between an overly limited Todorovian definition and an overly extended generic meaning. Secondly, Ceserani underscores the intrinsic connection between fantastico and umoristico, a constant albeit subtle element in canonical fantastic texts since E. T. A. Hoffmann. Lastly, he points out the importance of romantic irony, present in the best examples of nineteenth-century fantasy, on which the author focuses his attention. He attributes the fantastic's late appearance in Italy, on the one hand, to the particularities of an Italian romanticism that lacked the complexity and range of other European romantic literatures and, on the other, to the belatedness with which Italy faced the process of modernization, source of the genre for the critic. Ceserani posits that the fantastic of this period opposed themes of laceration and fragmentation to the bourgeois notion of a strong subjectivity and countered bourgeois laicization of society and positivism's glorification of reason with the rediscovery of the extraordinary and the exotic.
In "Anxiety Free: Re-Readings of the Freudian 'Uncanny,'" Monica Farnetti provides reflections on the responses of women writers of the fantastic to an uncanny event or encounter with an Other. Following the tradition of Dante's intellectus amoris, instead of Western rationalist intellectualism, the female fantastic in Farnetti's view portrays an embracing of alterity and a pietas for despised creatures, while simultaneously substituting a morbid curiositas with a more open cura. For instance, Farnetti points to the monster, the quintessential Other, as it connects to women, themselves traditional paradigms of monstrosity, and stresses that in the fantastic, women transform their relationship with the monster into a journey of learning and disjoin the experience of the uncanny from the sphere of anxiety. Even when anxiety remains, the heroine of the female fantastic often not only emerges unscathed but even empowered as a subject, with a greater self-awareness and a reinforced self-esteem. For Farnetti, fantastic literature is thus revealed as a utopian space of freedom for female subjects, an unprecedented opportunity to achieve an innovative representation of the Self.
Vittorio Roda's "The Eye that Kills: Notes on a Fantastic Theme" considers the crisis of human corporeal unity as a fundamental innovation of the nineteenth-century fantastic. Roda focuses on the relationship between the separated body part and the fragment's owner and posits two solutions to this type of narrative: the first envisages a recovered unity while the second, the object of Roda's analysis, is characterized by conflict, with the inevitable defeat of the protagonist and the victory of the centrifugal fragment. The divided body for Roda thus becomes a metaphor for an intrapsychic conflict that aligns these stories with a typically modernist question, namely the crisis of the single centripetal subject. Roda then turns his attention to I fatali by I. U. Tarchetti, the nineteenth-century Italian writer of the fantastic who dedicated much attention to the theme of the divided body. In the piece, Tarchetti portrays the protagonist as a homo duplex in whom the aspiration to good coexists with the perpetration of evil. Roda discerns this same process in Italo Svevo's unfinished fantastic novella Il malocchio, in which the protagonist is a divided modernist individual.
Two articles deal with the author Anna Maria Ortese. In "Fantasy, Narrative, and the Natural World in Anna Maria Ortese," Sharon Wood analyzes two primary themes in the author's work: the separation of humanity from nature and the spurious notion of the real as opposed to a higher transcendental reality. Wood discerns a clear influence of Neoplatonic transcendentalism in her opus and posits that, for Ortese, the task of the contemporary writer is to counter bourgeois individualism and to heal the degenerated relationship between humankind and nature. In L'Iguana (1965), Ortese reiterates humanity's indivisibility from nature, reaffirms the primacy of the spiritual, and explicitly distances herself from conventional temporal and spatial parameters of bourgeois consensus reality. Daniela La Penna's "An Inquiry into Modality and Genre: Reconsidering L'Iguana by Anna Marie Ortese" is entirely dedicated to the aforementioned novel and specifically to its dense intertextuality and symbolic surplus. La Penna analyzes the largely unexplored extent to which the postwar debates on Sartrean existentialism shaped Ortese's own vision of realist narratives and asserts that Ortese's aesthetic mission in L'Iguana is the representation of colonial discourse through the reptile, a metaphor of the exploited indigenous populations of the New World.
In her "Excessively Fantastic? Rossana Ombres's Serenata," Danielle Hipkins considers Rossana Ombres's third novel as a typical example of the contemporary female fantastic. In Hipkins's analysis, the author explores female marginality through three cultural stereotypes regarding femininity: magic, as practiced in the marginalized South, where a previously repressed female corporeality may be recovered through paganism; mysticism, a disproportionate expression of female passion; and hysteria, a typically female form of erotic sublimation. According to Hipkins, by means of the female supernatural, mysticism, and paganism, the author roots her heroine's experiences in a primordial conception of women as unheimlich.
In the final essay, "Paola Capriolo's Mythic Fantasies," Rita Wilson points out that the representation of subjectivity in Capriolo's texts includes an important spatial component that reflects the author's concern with the boundaries between the mythical and the quotidian as she underpins her fantastic with an ethical function in its engagement with consensus reality. The essay centers on the short novel Con i miei mille occhi (1997), in which the Ovidian myth of Echo and Narcissus allows Capriolo to posit a contextualization and exploration of the Self. Wilson discerns in the author's representation of the relationship between narrator and characters the motif of reflection, both auditory (e.g., the echo), and visual (e.g., the mirror, traditional topos of imagination), a motif fundamental for identity formation and self-consciousness.
Other essays included in the anthology are: Angelo M. Mangini's "A Portrait of the Writer as a Somnambule: Reflections on Verismo and Phantasmagoria in Verga and Capuana," in which the critic sets out to examine whether Luigi Capuana's definition of spiritualism as a "psycho-literary" matter might have had some influence on the work of Giovanni Verga, arguably verismo's greatest exponent; Ann Hallamore Caesar's "Sensation, Seduction, and the Supernatural: Fogazzaro's Malombra" argues that the Italian author's first novel constitutes a unique example of Italian work inspired by English Victorian Gothic; and Ursula Fanning's From Domestic to Dramatic: Matilde Serao's Use of the Gothic, which posits that the Gothic allowed Serao to distance herself from the paradigms of verismo as she reworked elements of the English Gothic tradition in her shift from domestic Gothic writings in the late nineteenth century to authentically Gothic novels in the early twentieth.
While this volume is comprised of well-written and argued articles, some weaknesses do emerge. Firstly, the concentration on the late nineteenth century and second half of the twentieth centuries begs reader to pose the (unanswered) question of why the early nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth were excluded. Also, the volume's solidly traditionalist approach fails to assess popular and non-canonical texts, ignoring in its exploration of the Gothic and the fantastic three central figures in these areas of the late twentieth century: Dario Argento (cinema), Tiziano Sclavi (sequential art), and Valerio Evangelisti (literature). Lastly, again the canonical approach of the volume results in the exclusion of female writers of the fantastic from the second half of the twentieth century, such as Roberta Rambelli: a paradigmatic example of the female subaltern, she was forced to write under a foreign male pseudonym. These lacunae notwithstanding, the text will be of interest for those scholars of the canonical fantastic and Gothic and should certainly be included in any collegiate library.…