ANNA MARIA ORTESE was the last great writer of the generation that produced Italo Calvino and Primo Levi. Today, few critics would disagree with the poet Andrea Zanzotto, who rates her as "one of the most important Italian women writers of this century". That her name rings no bells in the English-speaking world reflects more on the priorities of the book trade than on her own, admittedly hermetic, literary genius.
Even in Italy, recognition came late. Ortese's readers were a select band until 1993, when her historical fable Il cardillo addolorato was published (this is the only one of her works currently available in the UK: it was translated as The Lament of the Linnet for Harvill in 1997). The novel topped the Italian fiction lists for several weeks and ended up selling almost 200,000 copies. Ortese was nearly 80 at the time.
This deserved though belated success was partly due to the Italian reading public's discovery that they had a magic realist in their midst to rank with the best of the Latin American myth-makers. But some of the credit must also go to the vigorous support of the Adelphi publishing house, run by Roberto Calasso, who is best known outside Italy as the author of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988). Since the mid-Eighties Adelphi has been repackaging and reissuing the Ortese back catalogue - in editions newly revised by the author - as well as providing her with an apartment in Milan for use as a writer's retreat.
Ortese was born in Rome in 1914 to a working-class family. She grew up with six brothers and sisters between Potenza in the south of Italy and Tripoli in Libya, then part of Mussolini's African possessions, where her father had moved in search of work. It was in Tripoli that she wrote her first collection of stories, Angelici dolori ("Angelic Pains"), influenced by the magic realism of writer Massimo Bontempelli, who also helped persuade Bompiani to publish the book in 1937.
In 1945 Ortese's family moved to Naples, a city which still bore the scars of the German occupation, with its aftermath of black marketeering and desperate poverty. Here she fell in with a group of young writers centred on the review Sud, which had an influence far beyond its three- year lifespan.
Ortese's ironic portrait of this literary clique in the epilogue of her most famous collection of stories, Il mare non bagna Napoli ("The Sea Does Not Reach Naples", 1953) still had the power to irritate its targets - among whom were Raffaele La Capria and Francesco Rosi - when it was republished in 1994.
These stories were based partly on Ortese's articles for the weekly news magazine Il Mondo, in which she denounced the conditions of life in the Neapolitan bassifondi; she wrote from experience, having lived in a shelter for the homeless for more than a year. But she never accepted the "neo- realist" label, seeing the book as "a screen on which to project one's sense of disorientation". The novel L'iguana, first published in 1965, is an example of how Ortese's disenchantment could also spill over into compelling, other-worldly fantasy. The iguana is one of a series of unsettling, magical animals - including the goldfinch (or linnet) of Il cardillo addolorato and the puma of her last novel, Alonso e i visionari ("Alonso and the Visionaries", 1996) - which Ortese used to deflect her frustration at the limits, and the littleness, of the knowable world.
Her measured, ironically loaded syntax has something of the hauteur of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa or Tommaso Landolfi. Elio Vittorini, an early enthusiast, described her as "a gipsy lost in a dream". She shunned the literary salons of post-war Italy, preferring the company of her sister Maria, with whom she lived in Milan (after 1958), in Rome, and finally in Rapallo on the Ligurian coast from 1978 onwards. After Maria's death in 1995 it was her younger brother Francesco who took care of her.
Despite a steady stream of books - one every three years on average - Ortese never achieved financial independence, and in 1986 she was granted a state writer's pension. Her brief forays into journalism were limited by a refusal to modulate her writerly voice: once, while covering the Giro d'Italia bicycle race for Panorama, she wrote that "the Giro often sails close to the sweet, unremembering shores of death".
Ortese deserves to be better known in Britain. One hopes that Adelphi's imminent revised edition of her most autobiographical work, La Porta di Toledo ("The Gate of Toledo", first published in 1975) will soon be followed by an English translation. Two other books are available in the US: the novel The Iguana (the best introduction to Ortese's work) and a selection of short stories - the first of two projected volumes - entitled A Music Behind the Wall.
Anna Maria Ortese, writer: born Rome 13 June 1914; died Rapallo, Italy 9 March 1998.
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