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Marina Warner: The Lost Father

Marina Warner is the daughter of an English father and an Italian mother, as is Anna, the (partial) narrator of this book so we can probably assume that this book is at least partially autobiographical. The lost father of the title is Davide Pittagora. Pittagora is the old Italian spelling for the man we know as Pythagoras (now normally spelled Pitagora in contemporary Italian). Davide claims that the family descended from Pythagoras who, we know, lived some time in Italy. Anna, his granddaughter, daughter of Fantina, his youngest daughter and an English father, reconstructs the story of Davide. In other words, she recounts what information she can glean from her mother and various documents, though at least some of the story is made up by her so, in other words, we have an unreliable narrator. The rest of the story is made up of Davide’s diaries, various documents and reminiscences. It is not told in chronological order so we know some of the story in advance but not the details.

The key point of the story is that Davide died as the result of a duel. What we only find out later is that, in fact, he died nineteen years after the duel. The bullet, intended to miss him, ricocheted off a stone and hit him in the brain. The doctor refused to remove the bullet, fearing to do so would cause further damage so the bullet remained in his brain, giving Davide serious headaches and, apparently, eventually causing his death. However, in the meantime, as we also learn, he married, emigrated to the United States (and later returned to Italy) and fathered five children. The book is divided into three sections, called Rosa, Fantina and Anna, respectively. The first and longest part is Rosa. Rosa was one of the two sisters of Davide. There was another, younger sister, Caterina, and a younger brother, Franco. The family lived in a small village in the South of Italy. The story starts in the first decade of the twentieth century. The family, by local standards, is comfortably off. Davide has a friend, Tommaso, who is from a poorer and rougher background. Nuncia, Davide’s mother, is critical of Tommaso’s manners and behaviour. Life is quite hard, as the landlords are oppressive and employers can be brutal toward the peasants. Indeed, part of the background of the novel is this hard life and oppression, which does not get any better in 1922, when The Leader (as Mussolini is called throughout the book) takes over. The oppression is one of the main motives for Davide’s emigration to the United States.

Much of the book is, as the section titles indicate, concerned with the role of women during the period as well as their sexuality. Rosa, who is not pretty, develops large breasts early and the young men including Tommaso, notice this. The younger Caterina, however, is much prettier and much more naive. Rosa, for example, masturbates and Caterina, who shares a room with her, thinks this is terrible. Indeed, Caterina is remarkably ignorant about sex, which Rosa has to explain to her. When Tommaso goes off to join the army and then returns, no longer a boy but a young man, both Rosa and Caterina are attracted to him, though Rosa is far more willing to act on her attraction. Indeed, it is this that leads to the duel.

After the duel, Davide marries Maria Filippa, and the family, including Davide and Maria Filippa, with their baby son, Rosa and Caterina, emigrate to the United States. Davide has qualified as a lawyer but finds it difficult to get suitable work in the United States, as he is not up to doing hard labour and not up to the cut and thrust of the legal business in the United States. He returns on his own, with the intention of returning, but it soon becomes clear he wishes to stay in Italy and Maria Filippa and the four children follow (Fantina is born in Italy). They always plan to go back but do not. Davide manages a building for his brother-in-law (Caterina’s husband) and practises as a lawyer, which he does not really enjoy much either. He feels that Italians are too ready to litigate and the only winners will be the lawyers. In addition, the period of Fascism is not a good period for many Italians.

However, as mentioned, the role of women is key to this book. Men did not know what women did when they were alone, Anna/Warner comments. We first see it, when Davide and Tommaso visit a recently discovered Roman villa nearby. It shows pictures of women, involved in some sacred ritual. The reactions are interesting. The old men say it showed the witchcraft women contrived the minute they were ever given a millimetre… Never leave a woman on her own. Above all, never leave two women alone together! Three was worse, four, a curse, five, a calamity, six… Despite this they clearly loved and revered the Lady of the Villa. However, the rich and powerful men have something of a different view. It was agreed, a woman with a healthy appetite was a treat from heaven. It is at this time that Davide starts to pull away from Tommaso’s earthier approach to women, not least because of his reverence for his mother and sisters. We also see the sexual awareness of Caterina and, more particularly, Rosa, who makes a considerable effort to be more attractive to Tommaso. She does not want to be a traditional Italian woman. Make something happen to. Something, to me, she cries out.

The book fades out in the final section, about Anna, though she is very much revealed as the unreliable narrator. Some of her chapter describes what the life of the family was like after Davide’s death, under Mussolini. The family was definitely not anti-Mussolini, though Franco, Davide’s younger brother, was in trouble for writing an opera buffa, which was considered too immoral and too American. Overall, while I thought this a very fine book, the way it jumped around, with different viewpoints and jumping backwards and forwards in time, detracted somewhat from it.

Publishing history

First published 1988 by Chatto & Windus