A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo

When her carefree, aspirational childhood in a seaside town is brought brutally to an end, the nameless narrator of Sibilla Aleramo's blazing autobiographical novel discovers the shocking reality of life for a woman in Italy at the dawn of the twentieth century. Read an extract from A Woman.


Towards the end of that summer my husband decided that we should go on a trip, for rest and recreation, to rejuvenate my frayed nerves and to enhance our boy’s strength. The week we spent in Venice was a melancholy one, despite the enchantments of the city, despite the intense sweetness of the languor that insinuates itself there into the very veins of the most despairing. The child did not allow lingering visits to museums and churches. Moreover, with his lack of any innate taste combined with a total ignorance of the history of art, my husband was hardly a genial companion, often spoiling even my most spontaneous responses. On leaving the city we felt a sense of relief, as if a great weight had been lifted from our shoulders, but in the remote corner of the Tyrol where we had chosen to stay next, the gloom did not lift.

'How my childhood came back to me with these austere landscapes, wild scents, resonantly clear sounds! How long had it been buried in my memory?'

The place itself was wonderful, a narrow valley echoing with the sound of waterfalls, where the green of fir and pine woods was framed by colossal snow-­covered peaks. How my childhood came back to me with these austere landscapes, wild scents, resonantly clear sounds! How long had it been buried in my memory? If only I could have been alone with my son in the midst of those woods, educating him in the school of nature, making sure that in the distant future a wave of childhood memories could never affect him in such a harrowing way as I was being affected now: that his whole life would unfold harmoniously, that he would be like an honoured guest in a hospitable country.

He was so happy exercising his little legs by trotting bravely along grassy paths, calling out to the cattle with the silver bells around their necks! In the modest hotel in which we were staying he was adored for his smile and treated as if he were an exquisite floral specimen the scent of which could be absorbed with a kiss; a creature who came from afar, from a part of Italy which these pensive, nostalgic and somewhat taciturn northerners could hardly point to on the map . . 

My husband was also happy in the mountains that were new to him – he overflowed with emphatic exclamations and naive observations, as confident as ever in his own judgement, proud of spending his savings in such a refined manner, and eager to receive my explicit gratitude. And whenever he caught me looking sad, he would become indignant, as if he had been defrauded. What kind of a woman was I? Nothing was good enough for me!

When repentant, he would egg me on to come up with some project for when we got home, to try again the distraction that was writing . . . Why didn’t I start by taking inspiration from the magnificent place we were staying in?

I listened wearily, as you listen to someone you meet in the street who asks after your health and gives advice without knowing the first thing about you. At that stage I did not know myself just what it was that I needed. All I knew was that my solitude, my mental isolation, was deepening and looming large; for while I made a certain effort to share my impressions with my husband, to be superficially an open book to him, I understood well enough that there was a substratum to my life that remained untouched; and that, even if I had wanted it, I could not be aided in the ongoing work of fathoming those depths. And I was gripped constantly by something like an inner tremor . . . How can we recall such periods as this? Some mornings we have the clear sensation of having spent a night full of dreams and tremendous visions, of having lived fleetingly, in semi-­wakefulness, instants of a deeper life; but we cannot manage to reconstruct those visions, or reconfigure our nocturnal trains of thought; and we become aware subsequently that any crucial action of ours comes as no surprise to our inner self, because our essential self has already been forewarned of it. 

'Each remembered place I assign a physiognomy, given to it subjectively at the moment I encountered it, treating it as the frame for my own thoughts and feelings.'

The last afternoon spent in the mountains has remained visually engraved in my mind, unusually so inasmuch as I tend to remember only the moral character of the places I pass through. Which is to say that to each remembered place I assign a physiognomy, given to it subjectively at the moment I encountered it, treating it as the frame for my own thoughts and feelings. I can see myself again on the wide road along which the next morning, in the carriage, we were due to descend towards the railway line, towards the Benaco River. The atmosphere was grey and damp. Despite this, everything and every sound had an extraordinary clarity; everything seemed larger, more formidable and defined than usual. And we who moved so slowly through the ashen air, what were we but tiny transitory dots that the earth protected for a short while with austere care. Perhaps for the first time I felt a gratitude towards it that was almost filial. It seemed to me that time and space were becoming fluid; that I was going with their flow: that I was all humanity journeying, without a goal and yet guided by 115 A Woman ideals; humanity enslaved to certain laws, and yet compelled by a rebellious will to break them, to create an existence superior to them . . .

On precisely that day I had finished reading the book that had so gripped me for weeks, and which had been my constant, secret companion during my entire stay in the mountains. Two kinds of emotion were fused within me: those elicited on the one hand by the ideas which had developed in my mind prompted by my reading; on the other by the nature that I was surrounded by and was about to leave. There ensued from this a mysterious fervour of the kind known only to those who have a deep faith, or who love deeply: those who adore life beyond their own selves. I disappeared, together with my misery: before me there was nothing but the beauty of the human struggle to raise itself up in the vastness of the world.

It was a prospect that my soul avidly welcomed and nurtured. It wasn’t a great revelation, it was the subterranean germination of seeds that feel the warmth of the sun nearby, and both fear it and long to experience its full splendour.

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