Selfhood and Narration: Goliarda Sapienza’s “Meeting In Positano,” Translated from Italian by Brian Robert Moore

By Maria Morelli

Written in 1984, Meeting in Positano marks the last volume of Goliarda Sapienza’s Autobiography of Contradictions (as she herself labelled her unorthodox autobiographical project) which began in 1967 with Lettera Aperta (Open Letter) and which her premature demise brought to an abrupt end. Departing from the narratological approach that had marked the author’s earlier texts, and more in line with her later prison writings, the focus here is not so much on the formative experience and self-discovery of the narrating “I,” but rather on the surrounding reality. Continuing in the same vein of the two preceding works, L’Università di Rebibbia (The University of Rebibbia), written in 1981, and Le certezze del dubbio (The Certainties of Doubt), written in 1982-3, Sapienza’s last novel also goes beyond them in adopting an even more relational and dialogic dimension. This shift of focus is indeed evident in the book’s opening lines: “Everyone was held spellbound as she walked down the steps to the dock” (6). The book’s incipit sanctions a new, less introspective point of view of the outside world.

At the centre of the narrative is the mythical figure that we see descending the interminable stairs of Positano. Her name is Erica and she is one of the three Beneventano sisters, described by the locals as women of noble ancestry and pearls of rare beauty. It is not until a few pages later that the “I” of the first-person narrator emerges, muffled by the voices of her fellow film crewmembers who thoroughly enjoy taking in the passing of time at the Buca di Bacco café — the focal point of life in the charming seaside town. In the early 1950s, the period during which Meeting in Positano is set, Sapienza was working with politically engaged directors such as Citto Maselli and Luchino Visconti, and it was while scouting for a filming location that she came to the Amalfi Coast. Here, the retrospective account of her engagement (and partial disillusionment) with the cinematic medium intersects with the life of the character of Erica who is modelled on a friend who belonged to the Milanese bourgeoisie and with whom she [Erica] shared an equally grim fate. Goliarda, the narrator, is immediately struck by the incorporeal figure of the “princess,” as she is known locally, suspended ‘between the ancient and the modern” (15). When she returns years later to the Amalfi Coast for the shooting of a documentary, the two will meet again. The mutual curiosity between these two women (who could not be any more different in terms of life experiences and social standing) develops into a long-term friendship that will resist the test of time, and of distance.

As already foreshadowed by the book’s title, Positano will be the chosen place of all of their meetings in the years to come. The picturesque beach town serves as an actual background for the narration and a mirror for the protagonist herself. Sapienza renders the seaside setting with painterly precision, studded with synesthetic portrayals of perspectives and light, such as in the description of its iconic steps “awash with sunlight in the morning or the pristine milk of the moon under the night’s endless sky” (19). Similarly to Erica, Positano also seems to be caught between past and present. At the time of writing, in the 1980s, the town was no longer what it used to be, its primordial quality having been inexorably tainted by the economic boom that began thirty years previously. Yet, despite the signs of an incipient modernization (emblematized by the anthropomorphized “bleeding” mountain where an asphalt line has appeared), Sapienza’s prose vividly conjures up for us the old Positano with its scented orange and olive trees and “the immense and serene dome of the sky” (150) that forms one single pearly surface with the sea.

Though always mappable, places in Sapienza’s writings also serve a precise semantic function, and her last novel is no exception. In particular, the seaside setting seems to combine the escapist and the heterotopic quality of the Mirone cinema in Io Jean Gabin (I, Jean Gabin) and of the Roman prison in L’Università di Rebibbia respectively. It is a place suspended in time where decay is exorcized to the point that the suicide towards which the whole narration advances is immediately removed from the local collective conscience and believed to have happened somewhere else. But Sapienza’s Positano is also a place of marginality and transgression, located outside of the conventions that regulate our social world; a tableau vivant inside which “painters, sculptors or simple wanderers from all over the world, both rich and poor” (19) are greeted and invited to dinner, and where, as early as the post-war years, two women can walk hand in hand and behave amorously towards each other. It is precisely by virtue of this “otherness” that it can function as a heterotopic place that silently questions the social milieu in which one lives by presenting an alternative, more desirable version of the latter.

With Goliarda, Erica opens herself up. She does so without reserve, letting go of all the sufferings that she had kept bottled up over the years. The open drawer of her memory lets us glimpse into a past made of compromises, a life never fully lived. In a confession that extends for almost ten chapters, she tells her friend of her father’s sudden death and of the debts he left behind, of her moving to a shabby apartment in Milan and taking up a job at the Rinascente department store. She also tells her friend about the suicide of her beloved sister Fiore, and of an unwanted abortion and subsequent infertility, and, finally, of a doomed marriage of convenience which tragically foreshadows Erica’s own fate.

During all this time Goliarda remains silent, immersing herself in her friend’s self-narration, which she will then make her own and turn into the book we are reading. At times this doubling ends in identification: ‘“I understand you so well, sometimes I feel like I am you. Do you think it can happen, this transferring of the self to another person?” “To enter into another being […] To be nourished by the other, before going back to the same old self, but renewed”’ (107). These considerations, which are among the most remarkable of the book and of Sapienza’s opus as a whole, seem to underwrite Adriana Cavarero’s relational approach to autobiography, which can be understood as an exercise of freedom, an evasion — in the etymological sense of the word as a forward movement — through which we leave ourselves behind to enter somebody else’s world, to inhabit it and, ultimately, put it into words and make it something “worth telling.” In their dialogic exchanges, Erica and Goliarda are both “the necessary other” that the philosopher acknowledges as the recognition (that which can only come from the gaze of the (m)other) that allows us to translate one’s story into narrative material.

Written in a clear and compact style, which certainly adds to the naturalness of Brian Robert Moore’s English translation, Meeting in Positano stands as a literary testament to the prowess of a voice that remains unique in the context of 20th-century Italian literature. Void of empty virtuousness, Sapienza’s prose is rich in polysemic images. This is especially true when her gaze shifts focus to the surrounding landscape, which is described by juxtaposing a series of pictures in a cinematographic-like manner that plunges the reader right into the languid atmosphere of the Amalfi Coast. Moore renders the emotional and topographic landscape of the novel with clarity and precision that reflect the text’s own means of signification and the sensuousness of Sapienza’s style.

The marine landscape is a fil rouge that underscores the author’s whole literary oeuvre and which asks to be read not just as a geographically identifiable setting but as a spatial metaphor that continuously acquires different, polyvalent meanings. In her last book, the pervasive seascape, which is already contained in its title, becomes a declaration of faith in the salvific function of literature. Positano provides a mythical dimension that offsets the destruction of ourselves and the world around us, emblematized by the final tragic gesture of the tormented Erica but also, on a broader scale, by the devastation of the coastline in the name of an inexorable capitalist logic. More importantly still, the waters that lap onto its shore are a symbolic mirror that force you to “look at yourself square in the face” (113) and to “tell everything about yourself at least once, if you are lucky enough to find someone you can trust” (123). Erica is reflected in Goliarda, which allows her (and us) to access to her story and sense of self.

The literary legacy of Meeting in Positano is thus the acknowledgement of the relational character of selfhood as rooted in empathy and built around the centrality not just of the self-narrating subject (Erica) but also and especially of the listener (Goliarda), the latter understood in Cavarerian terms as a necessary presence in the process of turning one’s experience into a story. Sapienza is a storyteller before she is a writer; a modern Scheherazade for whom, as she had already disclosed in Le certezze del dubbio, writing is also an attempt to extend one’s life. And, while penning the stories of loved ones does not bring them back, it will nonetheless afford us the possibility of entrusting their memory to the generative potential of words, for “[o]nly what’s written lasts and over time shapes itself into a life—the only life that’s legible” (123).

Sapienza, Goliarda. Meeting in Positano. Translated by Brian Robert Moore. Other Press, 2021.

Maria Morelli is Marie Curie Research Fellow in Modern Italian Studies at the University of Milan, where she also teaches classes on women’s theatre and feminist philosophy for the Department of Cultural Heritage. She is a member of the Interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster based at the De Montfort University, UK, and acts as Expert Evaluator for the European Commission. She has taught Italian literature and language at the University of Kent and the University of Leicester (UK), and at Wheaton College (US). Her research interests are in gender, sexuality and embodiment in modern and contemporary Italian literature and theatre, on which she has published several articles and book chapters — especially on writers Elsa Morante, Goliarda Sapienza, Dacia Maraini and Elena Ferrante. She has co-edited the volume Women and the Public Sphere in Modern and Contemporary Italy (Troubador 2017) and published the edited collection Il teatro cambia genere (Mimesis 2019). Her monograph, Queer(ing) Gender in Italian Women’s Writing (2021) is the winner of the Peter Lang Competition in Italian Studies and is featured in the Italian Modernities book series of Peter Lang Oxford Publishing.

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