Turin’s Skies, Women’s Bodies, and Foreign Lands: Marina Jarre’s “Distant Fathers,” Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

By Saskia Ziolkowski

Ann Goldstein’s translation of Marina Jarre’s Distant Fathers (New Vessel Press, 2021) follows a recent Italian edition that has called new attention to the memoir. When a great book finally receives the notice it deserves, its reception prompts two questions: why not before and why now? Nicolas Glastonbury describes the struggle of getting Turkish fiction that “did not play into the predominant scripts that the World Literary Market has set for Turkish writing” published in English. Whereas the global literary market tends to restrict literary traditions such as Turkish to certain narratives, works in English and French have fewer limitations in terms of what they are supposed to represent. The fame of authors such as Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri have widened the expectations for and interest in recent Italian fiction, leading to reissuing of overlooked works from the past.

Although originally published in 1987, Distant Fathers fits better with many contemporary conceptions of Italian literature: the work examines in depth a difficult mother-daughter relationship (like Elena Ferrante, Nadia Terranova, and Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s novels), it brings other places into Italian fiction (like Francesca Melandri and Igiaba Scego’s novels, Adua was also published by New Vessel Press), and it was written by someone whose first language was not Italian (like Helena Janeczek and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Italian works). While these elements were not absent from Italian literature before, they are now emphasized in publication practices and recent critical attention. Many of the answers to why not before and why now are the same. Goldstein’s previous translations have helped prepare a terrain where Jarre’s enchanting work can not only be read in English but also understood in terms of the diverse Italian literary landscape in which it participates.

The three sections of Distant Fathers, each of which is dedicated to a different woman from Jarre’s life, focus on consecutive time periods. Although the sections are not narrated linearly and events from adulthood are mentioned in the first part, their tones shift as the rhythms of memory change. Childhood memories from before her parents’ divorce differ from the later ones: “Time entered my life when I arrive in Torre Pellice with my sister. It gave me for the first time a past, a thickness in which to be submerged, avoiding investigations and assaults; the story of my childhood was what remained to me of my preceding existence, since in the space of a few weeks I changed country, language, and family circle” (73). Goldstein’s “Translator’s Note” describes how the second part has “a French accent” (x) in contrast to the first which largely concentrates on Jarre’s German-speaking experiences.

The first section, “The Circle of Light,” is primarily set in Riga, where Jarre lived until she was ten. The next section, “Pity and Anger,” describes Jarre’s coming of age in a Waldensian community in Piedmont, her youthful understanding of fascism, and her interactions with members of the antifascist movement Giustizia e Libertà. In the final section, “As a Woman,” Jarre narrates her marriage, children, writing, and the development of her sense of self, making clear why she has been included in works on feminism in Italy.[i] She reflects on how motherhood changed her identity, “As a woman I had to be born from myself, I gave birth to myself along with my children” (148), and her consistent anger with the patriarchy, “Furious rages against men continue to overwhelm me – uncontrollable rages, when I get up to speak, to cry out, because of an unjust act, a boast, an abuse of power, a mockery of someone who is younger or can’t defend herself” (203).

The centrality of women’s experiences in current Italian fiction has drawn attention to previously neglected works. Although Jarre’s frankness about the body, from childhood to older age, is not shocking after Ferrante, it marked a new contribution to Italian literature in her time: “You mustn’t touch yourself, and I had done some cleaning in that little hole I have between my legs. I like cleaning that little hole” (33) or “In the months after my hysterectomy I dreamed that an enormous, very healthy white tooth fell out; this irritated and worried me, but in the dream I kept repeating: it doesn’t matter, I’ll have a false one put in!” (145).

Providing important context for Jarre’s intricate memoir, Marta Barone’s introduction, “A Stubborn Distance,” precedes both the new Italian edition and Distant Fathers. Barone traces some of the potential reasons that prevented Jarre from having a larger audience earlier, including chance and being out of step with literary fashions, a characterization that has also been used to describe other great female Italian writers, such as Elsa Morante and Lalla Romano. Distant Fathers also adds to a number of important Italian literary traditions beyond feminist literature, including Piedmont’s regional identity and representation. The memoir opens: “There are days when the sky above Turin is immense” (3). The work’s descriptions of this northern Italian city and their association with Jarre’s discomfort relate to Turinese depictions in Cesare Pavese’s Among Women Only and Italo Calvino’s “Smog.” A contemporary Turinese author herself, Barone is a guiding force for Jarre’s growing audience. Umberto Eco declared, “Without Italy, Turin would be more or less the same, but without Turin, Italy would be very different.” The city’s distinctive architecture, milieu, and history play a notable role in works by Primo Levi, Carlo Levi, and Natalia Ginzburg as well.

Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon represents Turinese environs that overlap with Jarre’s and also, again like Distant Fathers, represents reality but is perhaps best read as a novel in terms of its form and language. Both works grapple with the difficulty of presenting memories truthfully and how language reshapes experience. Jarre’s memoir ends “I delivered the pages of a story I would perpetually revise” (208). As in Family Lexicon, in Distant Fathers the complexity of others is repeatedly revealed, providing the reader with a sense of how much the authors’ honest representations are partial, like all depictions. Though both works bluntly analyze how the tragedies of history and the personal intertwine, Jarre shares with Ginzburg an aversion to excessive sentiment: “Besides, you’re not supposed to make a show of your feelings, those who do are surely putting on an act” (16). Jarre often returns not only to the difficulty of discussing her father’s murder at the hands of Nazis in 1941, but also how her father’s absence shaped her. The reflections on her father’s life add to the representations of Jewish persecution in crucial Italian works by authors such as Primo Levi, Elsa Morante, and Giacomo Debenedetti.

While Ginzburg and Jarre both include the importance of Giustizia e Libertà members and antifascist activity in their lives, Jarre describes events with a greater degree of distance. Like Edith Bruck, Kossi Komla-Ebri, and Amara Lakhous, Jarre interrogates Italianness from an insider-outsider perspective. After her arrival in Italy, Jarre could not initially differentiate between Italian customs and fascist ones: “The practices of fascism—fascist Sundays, compositions on the Duce, gymnastic exercises—had greeted me in Italy accompanied by the widespread, saccharine sound of ‘Faccetta nera,’ the marching song of the regime. At the same time I was with an entire, completely new series of customs that I couldn’t distinguish at all as different from the fascist ones. Everything for me was ‘Italian’” (116-7). Her youthful confusion can be seen as part of an ongoing historiographical debate about distinguishing between the two.

Related to her multiple perspectives, Jarre’s memoir can also be considered in conversations about Italian border literature, which most often comes from the northeast rather than northwest of Italy. Claudio Magris, author of Danube, Microcosms, Blindly, and Blameless, provides one of the English-language edition’s blurbs attesting to Jarre’s power as a writer. As in the works of multilingual Triestine authors, not only are quotes from languages other than Italian included in Distant Fathers (German, Yiddish, French), but Jarre also reflects on the limitations of being bound to communicate in any one language: “Every language had qualities that were neither translatable nor interchangeable. In every language I was different. Every language has its time” (106). Jarre contributes her specific and unusual (in literature) experiences with Waldensians, a Christian tradition that originates in twelfth-century France and whose members were persecuted by the Catholic church.

Jarre’s youthful attempts to map religion, ethnicity, and national identities are complicated by interactions with individuals who do not match the stereotypes children are often taught: “My Latvian grandfather and my Russian grandmother are Jewish. My Italian grandparents – who in fact are also part French – are Waldensian. My mother is Waldensian. Some Latvians—the most stupid—are Catholics. But Aunt Jo is Catholic, and she isn’t in the least stupid. Petkevic, our driver, is also Catholic. The Poles are Catholics. The Russians are Orthodox, but my Russian grandmother is Jewish. On the other hand the Russians at the Soviet Embassy aren’t Orthodox. They’re like my father: they have no religion” (57-8). As the work progresses Jarre explores how various prejudices shaped her childhood and her relationship with her mother.

Prolific and distinguished, Ann Goldstein is an ideal translator for Jarre’s provocative combination of psychological insight, feminist critique, transnational reflections, and historical interrogations: Goldstein has brought many works by authors mentioned above into English, including Amara Lakhous, Elsa Morante, Nadia Terranova, Italo Calvino, Jhumpa Lahiri, Donatella Di Pietrantonio, Primo Levi, and most famously, Elena Ferrante. In Goldstein’s translation, Jarre contributes to Italian narrations of the complicated events of the 1930s and 40s as well as to investigations of deception among family members and the struggles of all relationships. Explaining how she exacerbated tensions between her parents, Jarre describes dedicating herself to a lie about her mother: “The truth is that the words would take possession of me: I spoke them and they broke off from my will and pursued their own way, by themselves, intertwining, connecting, forming new shapes. I knew I was giving in to an irrational impulse when I let the words run away from the real point of departure, but I couldn’t resist” (42). Jarre’s imagination, truths, and lies add to the complicated picture of modern Italian literature and history.

Jarre, Marina. Distant Fathers. Translated by Ann Goldstein. New Vessel Press, 2021.

Saskia Elizabeth Ziolkowski is Assistant Professor at Duke University. She works on Italian literature from comparative perspective, especially in terms of German-language literatures, modernism, and Jewish studies. She has published articles and chapters on Primo Levi, Elsa Morante, Italo Svevo, Scipio Slataper, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth, and Rainer Maria Rilke, among others. Her book Kafka’s Italian Progeny (University of Toronto Press, 2020) explores Franz Kafka’s sometimes surprising connections with key writers — from Italo Svevo, Lalla Romano, and Italo Calvino to Antonio Tabucchi, Paola Capriolo, and Elena Ferrante — who shaped Italy’s literary landscape. She received her Ph.D. in Italian and Comparative Literature & Society from Columbia University. She is writing a book on Jewishness in Italian literature.

[i] See for instance Sharon Wood’s Italian Women’s Writing 1860-1994 and Luisa Quartermaine’s “Women’s viewpoint: expectations and experience in twentieth-century Italy” in Textual Liberation: European Feminist Writing in the Twentieth Century (edited by Helena Forsås-Scott).

Leave a Reply