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Like a river towards the sea: Writing the ‘Other’ and the unfamiliar

Primon, Julie Helene 2020. Like a river towards the sea: Writing the ‘Other’ and the unfamiliar. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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Abstract

This thesis is in two parts: an historical novel titled Like a River towards the Sea, set in 1940s Italy, and a critical commentary which articulates several problems and methodological questions involved in my creative process, in order to provide a toolkit that may inform the work of other writers interested in historical fiction and cultural otherness. As such, the commentary focuses, first, on the use of reading as research – and particularly, in my case, reading Italian novels as a way of researching, on the one hand, 1940s Italian culture, and on the other, themes of Italian literature; secondly, on the representation of a foreign language within an English-language text; and thirdly, on writing the past, and specifically the Italian Resistance. The initial aim of the novel was to explore women’s lives in 1940s Italy; after my grandmother’s death, I was curious to know more about her life, what her childhood, her teenage years would have been. Having chosen Bologna as a place of escape for the protagonist loosely based on her, I began researching the history of the city – and indeed, of Italy – through the Second World War. Until then, I had been unaware of the breadth and importance of the Italian Resistance after 1943, when Mussolini was dismissed from power. As I read further into the movement, and particularly into the role of women, it became obvious to me that the Resistance would have to feature in the novel, since I was interested in questions of gender and feminism. Like a River towards the Sea opens just after Stella, a seventeen-year-old girl from Caorle, in the Veneto, has left her town, escaping at night to avoid a marriage she does not want. Inspired by the memory of her schoolteacher, who saw her intellectual potential, Stella makes her way to Bologna. After some difficulties, she finds work as a typist, and becomes friends with another employee, Gianna Angeli, the daughter of a banker. Gianna is upper middle class and beautiful, but lonely; she takes Stella under her wing. She also introduces her to her brother Pietro, a socialist. The novel is a bildungsroman: Stella evolves as her relationships with Gianna and Pietro develop, her friendship with Gianna slowly undermined by her admiration for Pietro, who supports her dream of a university degree. After 1943, Pietro joins the Resistance and asks Stella to become involved. She cannot refuse him, but when a mission goes badly and a man is killed, she re-evaluates her participation. A Catholic, Stella believes in compassion and kindness; she cannot condone leaving an injured man to die, even if he is the enemy. Through Gianna and Stella, and eventually Marta, another typist, the novel explores different attitudes to the war and the Resistance, and different embodiments of femininity. Giovanni Falaschi writes in his study of the literature on the Italian Resistance that there was a tendency, in memoirs published by former partisans, to glorify the movement; perhaps to some degree this explains the impact of the images that were released in the 1980s,1 suggesting that the partisans had enacted as much violence as the opposing side, and should not be held as heroes. Elisabetta Calzolari’s novel, Sguardi sull’acqua,2 set in Bologna and published in 2013, is careful to depict all sides of the conflict: within one apartment building, she shows families involved with Fascism and with the Resistance, as well as characters caught in between. To some degree, this is what I have attempted to do in my own novel by showing Stella’s doubts, as well as Gianna’s diffidence and her unwillingness to become politically engaged. The ending of the novel highlights Stella and Marta’s pride at having been involved in the Resistance – after reading the twelve testimonies of Piemontese women in La Resistenza taciuta,3 I wanted to convey, to some extent, their quiet determination and courage, and their faith in what they were doing – but I hope that by placing Stella in the middle, involved but also questioning her role, I have created a balanced representation. The critical component of this thesis contains three chapters, each linked to an important aspect of my creative process. Chapter One discusses the importance of reading as research, looking at my own experience of reading Italian fiction set in the 1940s and 1950s as a way of researching Italian culture and literary themes. Through a close reading of several contemporary Italian novels, including Renata Viganò’s L’Agnese va a morire (1949), Italo Calvino’s The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (1947), Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi Continis (1962), and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2012), I isolate common themes and features of these Italian narratives and highlight the way in which these themes were used in my own novel. Chapter Two looks at language, pondering the advantages and limitations of using Meir Sternberg’s intratextual translation strategies to bring Italian language into an English narrative, looking at Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence, Adam Foulds’s In the Wolf’s Mouth, Virginia Baily’s Early One Morning, and Lindsay Clarke’s The Water Theatre as examples. Finally, Chapter Three discusses some of the challenges inherent to writing the past, and more specifically the Italian Resistance, exploring questions of politics, gender, and personal connection. The three chapters of the critical component function as a toolkit for writers interested in crafting not just historical fiction, but also fiction interested in ‘foreignness’ or otherness. Together, the creative and the critical components of the thesis highlight the value of historical fiction as an enquiry into the past, and potentially into a different culture.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Date Type: Completion
Status: Unpublished
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 27 January 2021
Last Modified: 25 Jun 2021 14:31
URI: http://orca.cardiff.ac.uk/id/eprint/137991

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