Friday, 16 August 2019

Book Review: Souls Divided by Matilde Serao

Since times immemorial the main ingredients of a good love story are two steadfast lovers who overcome all kinds of obstacles and hazards until at last they are allowed to live “happily ever after” or – occasionally – find a tragic end after the model of Hellenic Hero and Leander or Shakespearean Romeo and Juliet. Unrequited love, on the other hand, isn’t such a popular subject of the Romance genre unless its twists and turns lead to a happy ending for the infatuated protagonist after all. The fictitious letters forming the almost forgotten Italian classic Souls Divided by six-time (sic!) Nobel Prize nominee Matilde Serao show a man in his early thirties who falls head over heels in love with a voice and seeks relief in writing to the woman for over a year because even after having found out her name and having exchanged furtive glances social conventions keep them apart.

Matilde Serao was born in Patras, Crete, Ottoman Empire (today: Greece), in March 1856, but grew up in Naples, Italy. While working as auxiliary at the telegraph’s office, she began writing for periodicals. Her first novel Cuore infermo (1881; tr. Sick Heart) appeared just before she moved to Rome where she worked as journalist and published her collection of Neapolitan Legends (Legende napolitane: 1881) along with short stories and her most important novels, namely Fantasy (Fantasia: 1883), Il ventre di Napoli (1884; tr. The Belly of Naples) and The Conquest of Rome (La conquista di Roma: 1885). During her marriage, she founded three daily newspapers with her husband (Il Mattino of Naples the most successful of them) and produced among others the novels Farewell Love (Addio amore: 1890) and The Ballet Dancer (La ballerina: 1899). On her own again, she founded yet another newspaper and continued to write novels like The Severed Hand (La mano tagliata: 1912) and Souls Divided (Ella non rispose: 1914). In the 1920s, the prolific author was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature six times and brought out her final novel The Harvest (Mors tua: 1926). Matilde Serao died in Naples, Italy, in July 1927.

From the very beginning on a night early in May they are Souls Divided, Paolo Ruffo and the woman whose song coming from the open window of the neighbouring villa entrances him on the terrace of his little house in Rome. Her charming voice lingers on in his mind and eventually he has to admit to himself that he is utterly infatuated with it or rather with the picture of its young and beautiful owner that he created in his imagination. Never having been introduced to the elderly Englishwoman who is his neighbour, it would be highly inappropriate for a man of his station to show up at her doorstep and to ask about the mysterious stranger. Thus he writes a passionate letter to the unknown singer and tosses it into the villa’s garden although he is aware of behaving like a teenage boy with a crush rather than like the refined gentleman of thirty-two years that he is. The next morning the letter is gone, but he can’t be sure that it really reached its addressee. His love makes him restless and instead of leaving as planned for London and Paris to attend to business there, Paolo begins to roam the neighbourhood making discreet enquiries and hoping to catch a glimpse of his mysterious love. Despite all his efforts, he only manages to find out that she is Diana Sforza from Perugia, but as luck would have it, the day after having left another ardent letter for her in the neighbour’s garden, he sees her in the company of a stern man so much older than she that he believes him to be her father. However, the fact that she is as young and beautiful as he imagined further increases his obsession and he writes more letters to her…

For being an epistolary novel, the perspective of Souls Divided is necessarily subjective and limited to the knowledge of the letter-writer himself who never even expects an answer from the target of his romantic obsession. Today he would probably be called a stalker, be reported to the police and face criminal charges for following his adored and pestering her with letters, while at the beginning of the twentieth century he was considered a dreamer, maybe a fool. The novel’s final part, which leaves the epistolary form in favour of a cursory third-person review of events, reveals the courted woman’s perspective that is quite another than expected turning a piteous story of unrequited love into a heartbreaking one of bad timing as well as of adverse social obligations. Language and tone of the letters convincingly reflect the protagonist’s overwhelming emotions, especially the confusion and eventually despair at his increasingly unreasonable, even harmful passion. The author skilfully emphasises this making the letter-writer refer repeatedly to arias from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice and other classical airs expressing the woes of love. Its elegant prose rich in images and resounding with lyricism made this Italian classic a great pleasure to read.

It goes without saying that as a story of impossible love Souls Divided by Matilde Serao is a rather sentimental novel, but to my great relief it turned out one of a slightly different kind thanks to the author’s imaginative power as well as to her narrative skill. In addition to the succeeded study of a mature man who indulges in his lovesick yearning for a stranger, the book first released in 1914, offers a very interesting, though rudimentary genre-picture of upper-class life in Italy of the time. In fact, it was above all the latter together with the beauty of language that made the read worthwhile, not to say utterly enjoyable for me. This one might not be the Nobel Prize nominee’s best or most famous novel, and yet, it shows that her work has fallen into oblivion undeservedly. Thus I’m glad to be able to recommend it here.

Nota bene:
Given that Matilde Serao died already in 1927, thus much more than the necessary seventy years ago, all original editions have long entered into the public domain. In fact, many Italian editions of her novels and short stories can be downloaded legally and for free from Liber Liber or similar sites. Without doubt several old translations of her books will no longer be copyrighted, either, but not many of them seem to have been made available to the online community on the usual sites.

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