Anna Maria Ortese: Celestial Geographies ed. by Gian Maria Annovi and Flora Ghezzo (review)
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Reviewed by
Gian Maria Annovi and Flora Ghezzo, eds. Anna Maria Ortese: Celestial Geographies. University of Toronto Press. xii, 492. $90.00

The Italian writer Anna Maria Ortese (1914–98) had a "life of hardship and marginalization," and only in the 1990s did she surge to become "one of the most significant" Italian authors of the European Novecento. With Celestial Geographies – as we read in Flora Ghezzo's excellent introduction – she disembarks on the North American continent. Ghezzo proposes in her introduction a working model through which to navigate the diverse writings of "the dreamy thinker" via the lens of international magical realism – not just the magical realism coined by the Italian writer Massimo Bontempelli in the 1920s (nor the various theories of the fantastic). Ortese's writings, argues Ghezzo, defy rigid definitions: as a wandering nomad flitting among cities and genres, she "transcends that which she touches, always positioning herself on the slippery slope of the liminal and the in-between." Indeed, Ghezzo clarifies, Ortese's multiform writing is "far more restless and tragic, dreamlike and visionary, melancholic and baroque" than a restrictive magical realism and displays affinities with Goya's delirious realism, Turner's architectural dematerializations, and the Spanish Baroque's atmospheres, extending beyond national cultures and geographical latitudes and over an extended temporal arc from modernism to postmodernism. "Celestial geographies" define multiple interpretative directions for approaching "Ortese's transnational legacy."

In this beautifully articulated collection, the essays are related through a "logic of resonance" that succeeds in sensing the unexpected mobility of the writer's singular poetics. The first of the book's four parts considers Ortese's unsettling gaze toward urban contexts: Lucia Re opens Part One with a new reading of Il mare non bagna Napoli via the cultural context (the city's "inhuman conditions of life that persisted in the 1950s," the Neapolitan narrative tradition, the Italian neorealist season): if the book was controversial and its publication attacked as "an act of nearsightedness," Re studies the very metaphor of "nearsightedness" with an exquisite close reading of the book, and in particular of the short story "A Pair of Glasses" in which the cognitive force of the "humble act of looking up close can restore authenticity and humanness to vision." Andrea Baldi studies how Ortese's reportages in Milan during the 1950s and 1960s denounce the predatory modernity that mobilizes the writer's solidarity with the oppressed "as a wondering intellectual through the ruins of modernity"; Cristina Della Coletta, pairing Hannah Arendt's figure of the "conscious pariah" and Ortese's expression of the "non-consenting ones," illuminates how the visionary poetics of Il mormorio di Parigi inhabits a hybrid and anachronistic utopia transcending the grammar of inclusion and exclusion toward the quest for "concrete changes via political praxis and social engagement." [End Page 194]

The second part illuminates how Ortese's "autobiographical project" performs multiple moves between self-presentation and dissimulation: Amelia Moser studies letters to Bontempelli that display how the "uneducated" young writer's self-storytelling brings to life multifaceted and fantastical representations of the self; Luigi Fontanella, situating Ortese's first short story collection, Angelici dolori, within the cultural climate of the 1930s, reads it as an "unstable yet extremely personal" springboard from which the writer will take flight; Flora Ghezzo embarks on a study of Il porto di Toledo that emphasizes a paradoxical temporality that brings readers into a moving fuga temporis for which impermanence is a sea-changing experience of the self.

In the third part, the essays plunge into Ortese's later novels, marked by ethical and ecological thought paired with an allegorical aesthetics that deconstructs narrative structures and genres from L'iguana up to Alonso e i visionari; Gian Maria Annovi delves into L'iguana, exposing cross-cultural and allegorical references that weave it together, and does so with a critical apparatus spanning from Gayatri Spivak's postcolonial critical legacy back to colonial discourse to affirm how Ortese "fully accepts and thus represents the Iguana's marginality, preserving her unique otherness."

The fourth part concludes the collection brilliantly with Monica Farnetti's splendid overview of Ortese's "uncommon" literary criticism and with a rare dialogue from...


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