Book review: Corpo Celeste by Anna Maria Ortese

Milano: Adelphi Editore, 1997.
17 Oct 2018

Book review: Corpo Celeste, by Anna Maria Ortese

Preface: A mind like Anna Maria Ortese’s and anything coming from it certainly deserve a review more important and informed than mine. I am heartened to know that Corpo Celeste has gotten just that, and that where my analysis and description will inevitably fall short, those of some better brains have prevailed.

Corpo Celeste opens with a description of what we might today call FOMO – fear of missing out – that betrays its date of publication (1997 — just a year before her death).

“All the objects that fill the space around the earth were once known, in scholastic texts from years long past, as celestial bodies. […] We, who leafed through those texts and admired those maps of blue heavenly faces found ourselves, instead, on planet Earth, which was not a celestial body, but  rather a dark and earthy ball, not the least bit aerial. Thus it might happen, over the course of a lifetime, that, looking up at the vast space above us in the calm evening light of the countryside, we should think, “Oh, would that we, too, were up there!” Legends and those old text books talked about that blue space and those heavenly bodies as though they were an otherworld, a superior world. […] “We would never meet a celestial body up close! We were not worthy” thought the average student. But instead, we, too, [live] on a blue object placed in space […]: Earth, too, [is] an object of the otherworld, the superior world, once its label of “planet Earth” [is] delicately lifted. […] The whole world [is] that otherworld. Even the Earth and the country I [live] in; and the placement, or rather, the birthplace of everyone [is] that otherworld.” (10, translation mine)

The passage functions as an explanation of the book’s title and as an introduction to what, by the book’s end, emerges as a concept fundamental to Ortese’s overall philosophy: the divinity of Nature (Reason) itself and a mistrust of the Intelligence (Enlightenment and the evils that come with it — consumerism, degradation of language and communication, loss of memory, loss of national identity, loss of civility) that comes to usurp it. But Corpo Celeste is not (or not primarily) an abstract philosophical treatise. It is, instead, an intimate and moving retrospective on writing, the writer’s physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual relationship with the world around her, and her place within it.

It consists of three short essays followed by three interviews between Ortese and what my research thus far has revealed to be an anonymous (I think, willingly) woman writer or journalist spanning fifteen years (the earliest excerpts are from 1974 and the last interview was conducted in 1989). Each tackles a different set of precepts of Ortese’s personal philosophy, all related to each other and some overlapping. But what makes this collection so successful, as is the case with many other works of fiction and non-fiction alike, is its ability to communicate beyond its content truths no less important – and, often, difficult to accept – than those found within it. In other words, the draw of its “show” is just as strong as the pull of its “tell.”

What does it tell?

It tells of a life, Ortese’s, spent persistently between the twin needs of written expression and basic survival. Ortese is one of six children to poor parents living in Naples around (and during) the Second World War. As she states repeatedly, she comes from nothing – “uno scrittore venuto dal nulla” (59) – and is given nothing. As a girl, her mother’s “difficult daughter” (72) in a sea of children lost to the war, she is given very limited professional possibilities. She isn’t even taught to read. So she becomes self-taught and, eventually, the wonder with with she looks at the world, her “attempts, at first happy and then increasingly neurotic and belaboured, of representing the world’s first impact on [her] (ecstasy, wonder) and then [her] discomfort in watching this world become more and more like a desert” (73) get her noticed: Einaudi publishes her stories in La Repubblica when she is just a girl. Eventually, she goes on to partner with other major publishing houses — Bompiani and Adelphi, to name just two. But her work is esoteric, ephemeral, seldom accessible to the common reader and still less frequently political by her own standards. She receives little attention from the general public, and the critical success she occasionally (but not consistently) enjoys is not enough to ensure a comfortable existence for her; she is iconoclastic and refuses to bow to her publisher’s whims when they disagree with her own thought. She lives hand to mouth, constantly antagonizing those around her with what they consider to be her ‘radical’ way of thought and her obstinance, and consequently moves from place to place, the roof over her head never her own. Yet, writing is her very essence. She cannot – and does not – stop. “Writing is seeking calmness, and sometimes finding it. It is going back home. The same goes for reading. He who truly writes or reads, that is, solely for himself, goes back home, is well. He who neither writes nor reads or does so only on demand – for practical reasons – is always away from home, even if he owns many of them. He is poor, and renders life still poorer” (109).

In this overall personal narrative, Ortese goes on to tell us of a post-war Italian society that has crumbled under the weight of its own illustrious past and that, to move forward, forgets about it entirely. “Italy was born, as a Kingdom, in [18]61, was unified with the annexation of Rome in 1870 and lived many happy years – even if more recent ones have been burdened by a dictatorship that daily intensified the cloud hanging over the history of the world. It lived under this dictatorship that, however, was Italian, of an Italian brand, for the last twenty years of its European history. Thus, eighty years of an Italian kingdom. Then followed the pause – or better, the hell – of the [Second World War]. When it emerged in 1945, its crown was wavering, and one year later, it fell” (39). What followed was the republic of Italy and with it, great hope in the changes it promised to introduce. But what comes, instead, is the aftermath of bombings — houses destroyed and no opportunity for improvement to impoverished communities — the degradation of language in the wake of Futurism, a descent into cruelty and competition, where men act “against” or “on top of” each other, rather than “with” each other (43), a lack of “earthly conscience” either practiced or written — “it [was] a language that [did] not yet exist” (43). What came after the war was the loss of memory and literary memory, the disappearance of Italian authors in Italy, the disappearance of Italian national identity as it had existed, paradoxically, before the wars of unification. “Little by little, our Mediterranean life was no longer blue, it no longer had Florence or Naples at its centre, but the cities that resembled ‘those other ones’ […] [Italy was known] not for the splendid and grand things its civilization had [demonstrated], but in the marginal things – that now seemed central – and in the inhuman things, principally. We were America” (26).

Society’s show in subsequent years justifies the lion’s share of what has been called Ortese’s pessimism: an unrestrained love of money and descent into unbridled consumerism (“Freedom belongs to Money! Life belongs to Money! Space belongs to Money!” (123)), the ubiquity of English and the steady dissolve of a literary Italian language, an obsession with ownership as opposed to civil existence. Ortese tells of all these things in a breathtaking narrative that more than once gives pause to reconsider one’s view of the world — no small accomplishment. She is, here and elsewhere in her corpus, a visionary who announces the fate of our small world decades in advance. “Today,” she writes in 1980), we live in “a culture – juvenile – made of slogans, attitudes and associations with what is worst or what is easiest; always [haunted], however, by the solemn solitude of the ‘I’ who sees itself going nowhere, who abhors itself and hides this [hatred] in boastfulness” (38-39). She is a rare light in a literary world grown dim.

What Corpo Celeste shows, however, complicates and enriches Ortese’s own words to the responsible reader.

What it shows is Ortese’s steady descent from the concrete (1974) to the surreal (1980) to the abstract (1989). It shows her movement from being in this world to being merely of it. It shows, at once, and largely via her interviews, a maturation of her thought — moving from general, in the first essay, to specific, in the second, to universal by the book’s end — and, irreverently, a contradiction between her later thought and her earlier thought that, however, remain of a piece with her descent into complete disenfranchisement with society at large.

Some points that come up in the essays are elucidated eloquently, if frustratedly, in the interviews: her relationship with the political left, to cite just one. She addresses it in both of the longer essays, but limits herself to saying she had a difficult relationship with the left, who had expectations of her and of all members of artistic and intellectual society that she deemed too categorical, political, and rigid. In the interviews, and at her interviewer’s insistence, we see her first clarify the definition of the (political) left, and then defend her logic under the umbrella heading of theirs (151, 161). But she does so using concepts that largely pre-date any of her work and thus appear anachronistic to reader and interviewer alike. Though in her essays, she laments the disintegration of elite culture and literary language and their lapse to the pop culture market, in the book’s last interview, she discredits all institutionalized learning as well, accusing them of promoting “Uniformity! Here, Imitation and Crime, twin brothers, think incessantly about their own masterpieces! Attention! Destroyers!” (159). Here, and as the interviewer points out, her contempt of Intelligence – as she defines it, a post-Enlightenment attitude of entitlement and ownership over Reason (or the natural law of the world) (in other words, man’s artificial manipulation of nature to suit his own needs) – flies in the face of her earlier praise of poetry and cultivated language.

While it is true that Ortese remains consistent in her appreciation of the world’s natural splendour and potential throughout her life and works, it is clear that by Corpo Celeste (and her life’s) end, she has lost all hope in anything other than the Earth’s natural mysteries. Just ten years earlier, she spoke of writing as the only sure way to be well, to return home. But when asked in 1989 if she is working on anything, her answer demonstrates, now, a clear distancing herself from even the activity she once considered to be the core of her essence and about which she had previously spent pages upon pages proliferating. “Writing is something very private,” she says, “It is like dreaming. Reading is something more. Unfortunately, I don’t have many books. And furthermore, only those I’ve already read seem real to me. Until half a century ago, real books were read, so to speak…” (160).

In short, what Corpo Celeste shows is an author admittedly disappointed in her life’s final result and deeply embittered by what readers now recognize to be her inability to adapt to or flourish in a society in which she felt herself a foreigner of spirit even at a young age. What it shows is an author obsessed with money and possession for the lack of it in her own life; enraged by the state of the intellectual elite because not fully appreciated by it and unable to make her mark elsewhere; a woman profoundly nostalgic for a childhood innocence she, growing up in war-torn Naples, never had. What it shows above all, however, is a soul of remarkable sensitivity, emotional depth, and mental resilience even in the face of unrelenting criticism, commercial failure, and personal disappointment. It shows a great hero of Italian literature in the plain light of day, exposed in the last moments of her extraordinary life.

NB: All translations mine.
Anna Maria Ortese, Corpo Celeste, Milano: Adelphi, 1997.