Mirna Cicioni (Italian Studies, Monash University)
Susan Walker (MA in Italian Studies, La Trobe University)
Coming Round: Autobiography and Anesthesia in Brunella Gasperini's Cumulative Self-Construct
Bianca Robecchi Gasperini (1919-1979), was a journalist, a writer of romantic fiction, an advice columnist, wife and mother. As Brunella Gasperini, she wrote romances, short stories, non-fiction books, and ran advice columns for two women's weeklies between 1952 and her death. Her most important work is the autobiographical text Una donna e altri animali.
We believe that the main interest of Gasperini's work lies in her autobiographical construct, which emerges from a macrotext formed by Una donna e altri animali, and the Cronache, three volumes of 'family tales' first published between 1959 and 1965, and later reprinted as Siamo in famiglia, and her twenty-year dialogue with her readers through her weekly advice columns. We hope to show that her autobiographical construct, which starts off within the parameters of serialised fiction in women's magazines, gradually evolves towards what is commonly understood as a 'literary text' thus beginning to bridge the gap between popular literature and literature without any qualifiers. We also argue that part of this evolution involves acknowledging the pain and conflict which are understated (in Gasperini's words "anaesthetised") in her earlier autobiographical texts.
Modern autobiographical theory acknowledges that all self-constructs are positioned within specific cultural contexts (what Jerome Bruner calls 'virtual culture'). In our view, Gasperini's 'virtual culture' (mostly identified with the readership of the two popular magazines Novella and Annabella) both affected her self-construct and was influenced by it.
In 1959, Gasperini had been writing romantic fiction for Novella and Annabella for nine years. For seven years she had also written a weekly advice column for both these magazines, at first under the name 'Candida', and then 'Brunella'. These two public activities (author and advice columnist) generated Gasperini a readership of around two million and, together, contributed to the development of a public persona with an emerging autobiographical construct.
Between 1959 and 1965, Annabella published weekly stories (Cronache) by Brunella Gasperini, which described the adventures and misadventures of the Gamberini family from the points of view of the husband, a daughter, and the wife and mother who is also a writer and columnist. The three different narrating voices foreground the autobiographical persona's different facets, wife, mother, and best-selling author. Like situation comedies, Gasperini's stories have a formulaic narrative structure: each episode is a minor family drama which develops and by the end is resolved quickly and humorously. Pain, though real, is never fatal or permanent. Sources of conflict as homosexuality, drugs, and poverty are kept outside the Gamberini family.
In Una donna e altri animali Gasperini assesses her construct in the Cronache through a transparent metaphor: "[le Cronache] mi parevano vere. Non che fossero false. Ma non erano vere. Erano anestetizzate" (p.131). She gives two explanations for this. The first is historico- political: the Cronache were written between the Christian Democrats victory in 1948 and the years of the economic boom, when the frustrations of marginalised groups were still unverbalised. The second one is autobiographical: the narrating self of 1979 says about her narrated self of the mid-sixties "mi anestetizzai" (Una donna e altri animali, p.121), meaning that any misgivings she had about what she was doing she suppressed.
In the late Sixties the discursive world of women's magazines was forced to expand by the impact of politics and by the growing realisation that "the personal is political". Social and political dimensions were no longer excluded, and features on sexuality, birth control, and youth protest movements began to be included. Gasperini, now writing only for the left-of-centre Annabella, began to use her column as a forum for exchanges of opinion and argument on two of the big issues of twentieth-century Italy, divorce (legalised in 1970 and recontested through a national referendum in 1974) and abortion (decriminalised in 1978 after a long and bitter campaign).
Gasperini's autobiographical self-construct reflected these changes. Fantasmi nel cassetto (1970) revolves around Brunella's work as an advice columnist and around the way her work is central to her life. Gasperini's narrated self and her family are, for the first time, situated in a social context full of problems. The 'ghosts' in her 'drawer' are readers whose problems and needs constantly take up Brunella's time and energies, which produces guilt on her part about her children and family, and insoluble tensions between her and her husband.
Una donna e altri animali (1978), although also first published in instalments in Annabella, was Gasperini's attempt to penetrate a new readership without deserting the old one. The generic nature of the text is deliberately ambiguous. The word 'romanzo', appearing under the title, frees the author from the 'autobiographical pact', and the book's status as autobiography is repeatedly denied. However, the text contains so many autobiographical recollections and references to Gasperini's previous works that it leads readers to view it as a final summing up of all the facets of Gasperini's self-construct.
Una donna e altri animali represents a synthesis between the anesthetised cheerfulness of Cronache and the darkness of Fantasmi. The de-anaesthetising process operates on the levels of both form and content. In Cronache, conventional form reflected conventional content: each episode was self-contained, with a beginning, a development, and a fairly happy resolution. Una donna e altri animali is stylistically more complex: it has apparently no beginning and no end. The autobiographical musings are fragmented, non-linear and constantly interrupted, reflecting Brunella's self as shaped by her reactions to variety of competing ideologies. Pain (both physical and emotional) is textually integrated, as part of a life which is by definition incomplete and provisional.
Numerous clues within the text work to a climax: the death of Brunella's four brothers, killed whilst involved in the Resistance. This episode is entirely fictional: in Bianca Robecchi's life there were three brothers whose premature deaths were separate and due to an inherited disease. There was, however, a real war time tragedy, which is never mentioned directly or indirectly in any of Gasperini's autobiographical writings: the loss of her infant son who was trampled to death during an air raid.
The brothers' death provides a focus and a partial explanation of the diffused pain which accompanies the narrated self from adolescence into middle age. The scene lends itself to an additional reading. The relatively complex textual structure of Una donna e altri animali and its embedding in Italian politics from the 1920s to the 1970s create an intertextual connection between it and the more famous Lessico famigliare by Natalia Ginzburg (1963), a text which Brunella acknowledges with admiration (p.100). Both texts are pervaded by anti-Fascism and left-wing commitment, although of a more domestic type in Una donnathan in Lessico Famigliare. Both feature tragic family loss as a consequence of anti-Fascist activities. The recurrent references to the anti-Fascist history of Brunella's relatives, culminating in the wartime tragedy, lend the book credentials which might help it, and its author, gain recognition within the predominantly left-of-centre Italian literary establishment. Gasperini's book can thus be seen as occupying the same textual space as Ginzburg's, although at a lower-brow level because of its more diverse readership.
Gasperini's autobiographical writings have not received any critical attention, either from the literary establishment, or from feminists, and are probably destined to remain confined to the ghetto of "women's literature". In a 1978 interview Gasperini explained this by saying that "una scrittrice 'per donne' non merita attenzione, è squalificata in partenza, proprio perché non si rispettano le donne" (Le signore "grandi firme", p.109). Analysis of Una donna e altri animali reveals that - in spite of its author's emancipationist rather than feminist views - it is one of the first examples of feminist women's autobiography, in that it refuses to be a linear success narrative and focuses instead on the fragmentation and pain of women's lives. Feminist autobiographical writing began to emerge in Italy a few years later, with texts such as Clara Sereni's Casalinghitudine, Fabrizia Ramondino's Althénopis, Marina Jarre's I padri lontani and Luisa Passerini's Autoritratto di gruppo. Gasperini's texts - read by women of all ages and social strata - were part of the climate which fostered this development.