La Ragazza – Andrea Lee

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Egon Schiele painting,1912

I’m posting an excerpt of the short story, ‘La Ragazza’ by Andrea Lee this morning. Lee is one of the writers I go back to again and again due to her marvelous penchant for detail. Her characterizations are brilliant. Lee is an exceptional raconteur though she is often accused of classism. However I find her story-telling enchanting. I’m never bored when I’m reading Lee. She is, as Phillip Roth famously said: ‘the real thing’.

I.S.

The first time Orso sees the new maid, he thinks she is a living doll. Not in the dated American slang sense—with which he is familiar because he was once married to a woman from New England (that overeducated and thorny beauty would never have used the phrase, but somehow in her chilly Puritan environs he brushed against it and picked it up like a burr)—but in a literal sense: she resembles a doll. The maid’s name is Caterina Zupancic, and she is Romanian, like so many of the maids in Turin these days, the ones whom Orso hears his wife, Lili, and her friends discussing in minute detail, as women always discuss their domestic help. Each maid is invariably referred to not by name but as either la colf—short for collaboratrice familiare, or family helper—or la ragazza, the girl. This particular girl has a flat, almost perfectly round face. Her cheeks, slightly scarred by acne, have a puffy droop that suggests childish sullenness or a case of the mumps. Then there are black eyes that seem to be set flush with the surface of her skin, a conventional rosebud mouth, and, barely restrained with a plastic clip, an almost inhumanly abundant mass of black hair, thick and wiry, with a coarse gleam that makes it look synthetic. Like the most successful maids, she is not beautiful and not too young. If she is a doll—Orso amuses himself by thinking—she is a slightly battered one, dragged around by the legs, left out in the rain, undressed with the cruel energy of an excessively loving little mistress.

The interview takes place, irritatingly, in Orso’s study—irritatingly because he hates the way that Lili, wise in so many other matters, drags him into the endless hiring and firing of their foreign domestic workers. The girl is wearing a carefully pressed pair of jeans that delineate a sturdy, flat bottom; also a pair of worn ankle boots and a blouse of some cheap flowered material whose large collar suggests a convent uniform. Her documents—reassuringly in order—say that she is thirty-two, but she stands in front of Orso’s desk with her spine straight and her hands clasped behind her back like a pupil at a school recitation. With her eyes cast down, she tells him, in a high fluting voice, that she was trained as a nurse, and Lili nods approvingly in the background. Also standing and grinning in the background is Milan, the Romanian handyman who found Caterina for them when their previous maid quit. Milan, a wiry rascal with rings in both ears, is married but a notorious womanizer among the maids of the neighborhood, and he is staring wolfishly at Caterina. When the interview is over and the girl turns to go, Orso sees Milan slyly pinch her upper arm. Caterina flushes a dull red and moves away with a hopeless sort of slowness, like a penned animal, and Orso, who is a warmhearted, impulsive man, feels an unexpected flash of anger.

For the first three months or so, Lili is enthusiastic about the new maid, who is so much better than the string of disasters they’ve had over the past year, since Pernotta, the faithful Sardinian who’d been with them for eight years, decamped to marry a tobacconist from Bolzano. Since then, there have been officious Filipinas who dropped unfinished any task that overran union hours; a melancholy Peruvian who sobbed through the ironing; a thickly lipsticked Moldavian, brilliant at cooking, whom they discovered to be a kleptomaniac after she’d stolen two tea kettles; a tall, practical-looking Piedmontese whom they fired after the first dinner, when she served a roast chicken with the head and feet intact. Slapstick catastrophes that have almost convinced the small and efficient Lili that she’d be better off muddling through without a live-in servant.

 But there’s the apartment to think of. Two elaborately panelled floors and a terrace at the top of an Art Nouveau house in the Crocetta district: huge, and as complicated and demanding as an elderly relative. And though Orso and Lili have no children—this is a second marriage for Lili, a third for Orso, and Orso’s grownup half-American daughters live, respectively, in Palo Alto and Tokyo—they entertain a lot. Orso’s job as a sourcing consultant to European manufacturers requires it. The younger son of a family of Padua intellectuals, Orso has many famous friends. Men love him for his generous, convivial nature, while women are drawn to the innocent, greedy look in his boyish blue eyes. Their dinner table has become one of the important salons of Turin, and their parties—two or three a week—are carefully planned to appear casual and relaxed, in a way that appeals to the professors, journalists, C.E.O.s, leftist politicians, and members of the European Parliament who meet at their house. The food may be simple—sometimes Piedmontese, sometimes peasant recipes from his and Lili’s home region in the Veneto, sometimes Chinese and Singaporean dishes, prepared in Lili’s quick and expert fashion—but the details have to be impeccable with such people. Lili finds in Caterina a true “family collaborator,” an intelligent but unpretentious woman who listens to directions, observes the way her employer wants things, and then swiftly anticipates her desires. A pearl.

 The complete story is available on The New Yorker website here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/02/16/la-ragazza

 

Jupiter in the First

I was born two months early. I was supposed to be born in mid-August. Instead I was born in mid-June. The whys don’t really matter. What matters is I got here. Six months into her pregnancy my mother was ordered on bedrest. She and my father weren’t getting along and she retreated to the relative calm of my grandparent’s home. One hot summer afternoon, while watching a horrible American soap-opera, she sneezed and went into labor with me. By the time she got to the hospital, her regular doctor was unavailable and the only doctor around was the one widely known for killing babies, not birthing them. He was the town abortion doctor. My fundamentalist Christian grandparents were terribly upset by this. My mother was more concerned that the doctor, just in from a dinner party, reeked of alcohol. When my father showed up, he decided that after more than six months of missing childbirth classes, he wanted to be in the delivery room. The doctor told him it was impossible. He had not attended one lamaze class (mandatory for first-time fathers in the 1970s). My father’s response? Nerves raw and fresh off two tours of duty in Vietnam, he tried to beat-up the doctor and was promptly escorted out of the delivery room.

By the time I did arrive, everyone was shocked. My lungs were fully developed and I was just under five pounds; they expected me to be much smaller. I spent a few months in an incubator but grew quickly. My mother, a lay astrologer, says I was born with Jupiter in the first house. The first house represents the way one presents to the world, the way in which people see you. Jupiter is the largest planet. It is the royal planet. Jupiter is the harbinger of good luck. It is also the planet of born risk-takers.

My mother began her astrological studies in an attempt to build on her studies of human psychology. She read Freud’s THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS at 14. She went on to develop a fascination for Jung, Freud’s famed contemporary and eventual rival. Driven by an early focus on mythology, she was interested in the psychology of archetypes. My mother discovered the Greek myths as a girl of 7 and would spend her time hiding in a darkened closet with a flashlight reading the books she had checked out at the local library. She was forced to hide these books because my grandparents were upset over her interest in pre-Christian societies. They suspected her desire to read such was an indicator of a propensity to delve into witchery. It all sounds terribly eighteenth or nineteenth century but my grandparents were steeped in the values and educational systems of the working-class, notoriously conservative, partially Southern influenced Midwest of the 1950s. Theirs was a world of church on Sunday. Work on Monday. You did not question. You did not break from tradition. My mother did both. For this she was deemed a household trouble-maker. She needed to be watched, else she go astray.

After years of study on Freud and Jung, my mother started started studying the astrology of historical events. Major ones, like the French Revolution, the Vietnam War. What were the planetary influences which lead to masses of people being swayed by an idea, a belief? What in the heavenly bodies might have signified the coming of social upheaval? These were the kinds of astrological studies my mother took interest in.

However, beyond that my mother took an interest in the astrological charts of my paramours. Before I married my husband, my mother cast his chart and said with a hint of concern in her voice: his moon is in Scorpio. Did you know that? That’s a bad placement for you. The moon is the place in the astrological chart which demonstrates your inclinations at an emotional level, what makes a person feel safe, happy. In a marriage chart the compatibility of the moon signs are critical. It signifies whether two people might live together successfully. In essence, it signifies their ability to feel ‘at home’ with one another.  My moon is in Aquarius. Freedom-loving, humanitarian, intellectual. The Aquarius moon processes emotion at a philosophical level, always wanting to understand the whys of life. The Aquarian moon searches for meaning and has the capacity to be somewhat distant from their emotions, even detached upon examination of them. While Scorpio moons are highly emotional. They are known for their intensity. They don’t intellectualize their emotions. Seven years after my mother noted my husband’s ‘Scorpio moon’, I filed for divorce. I guess you could say my mother warned me.

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Daniel Craig and Ted Hughes and Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in the film, ‘Sylvia’

While Ted Hughes was courting Sylvia Plath, he brought her horoscopes he had cast. The writers were heavy intellectuals with their mutual passions for high education. Hughes and Plath met at Cambridge where Plath was a Fulbright Scholar. Hughes had just graduated and was still hanging around campus on the weekends. Each were steeped in traditions of academia, harbored a respect for the ideals of the Enlightenment yet this failed to diminish their mutual interests in mysticism. Hughes, in particular, studied the deepest aspects of astrology and mythology. So much of both Plath and Hughes poetry was heavily influenced by Greek and Roman mythologies. It was said Hughes courted Plath by coming over to her small apartment with horoscopes he had cast stuffed deep into the pockets of his baggy workman’s trousers. “Fixed stars govern a life”, said the poet. When his first book of poetry was published in 1957, entitled THE HAWK AND THE RAIN, he privately told those he was close to that he owed much of his success to the horoscope he had done prior to the manuscript’s submission. Hughes cast a chart to determine the optimal time to put the manuscript into the mail box. “The book won the prize and made Hughes famous for the first time. If you believed in astrology, you would see this as evidence for its validity”, writes Hughes biographer, Diane Middlebrook.

My rising sign is Capricorn. To the astrologer the rising sign or “Ascendant” is the sign rising over the eastern horizon of the geographical locale at the hour of birth. This rising sign is believed to exert strong influence over the character the newborn will acquire. It also indicates the qualities the individual needs to cultivate in order to achieve happiness. Capricorns are know for their focus and intensity as regards work. Their archetypal symbol is the goat that scales the mountain. They climb and climb. They never give up. In order to experience true contentment, the work must be our focus. All the other beautiful things in life revolve around that. My sun sign is Gemini. Ruled by the planet Mercury, we are driven by our need to communicate. We are the story-tellers of the zodiac. Gemini, the sign of writers.

As Hughes said ‘fixed stars govern a life.’

I.S.

 

How to Become Happy

As long as one is holed up in egoism, there is no happiness. It is when we break out and take action for others that our lives spring with vitality. We become happy ourselves and we help others to do the same. This is analogous to the two motions of a planet which rotates on its axis while revolving around the sun. It is a universal principle.

Daisaku Ikeda

 

Portlandia

 

It’s Saturday morning. I’m working on another memoir piece, the themes of which I have yet to decide. I expect to have my next writings posted by Sunday at the latest. In the meantime, I’m posting things absolutely writing unrelated. The following is a promotional clip for the television series ‘Portlandia’. For anyone who knows the city, it is hysterical. The series has been on for a while but I recently found this clip on Youtube and decided to share it here.

I.S.

 

Pagan Poetry

The weirder Bjork gets, the more I love her. Pagan Poetry is in my estimation one of the ultimate love songs. As for her performance in this video, it is shockingly good.

 

Pedaling through
The dark currents
I find an accurate copy
A blueprint of the pleasure in me
(Swirling black lilies totally ripe)

A secret code carved
A secret code carved
(Swirling black lilies totally ripe)

He offers a handshake
Crooked five fingers
They form a pattern
Yet to be matched

On the surface simplicity
(Swirling black lilies totally ripe)
But the darkest pit in me
Is pagan poetry
(Swirling black lilies totally ripe)
Pagan poetry

Morse coded signals
They pulsate
They wake me up
From my hibernate

On the surface simplicity
(Swirling black lilies totally ripe)
But the darkest pit in me
Is pagan poetry
(Swirling black lilies totally ripe)
Pagan poetry

[Incomprehensible]
[Incomprehensible]
(Swirling black lilies totally ripe)
[Incomprehensible]
[Incomprehensible]
(Swirling black lilies totally ripe)

I love him, I love him
I love him, I love him
I love him, I love him
I love him, I love him

She loves him, she loves him
(This time)
She loves him, she loves him
(I’m gonna keep it to myself)
She loves him, she loves him

She loves him, she loves him
(This time)
She loves him, she loves him
(I’m gonna keep it to myself)

She loves him, she loves him
(And he makes me want to hurt myself again)
She loves him, she loves him
She loves him, she loves him
(And he makes me want to hurt myself again)

She loves him, she loves him
She loves him, she loves him
She loves him, she loves him
She loves him, she loves him

Longreads’ Best of WordPress, Vol. 3

AUTHOR:

More of WordPress best ‘Longreads’.

Originally posted on WordPress.com News:

We’re back with another edition of Longreads’ Best of WordPress: below are 10 outstanding stories from across WordPress, published over the past month.

You can find Vol. 1 and 2 here — and you can follow Longreads on WordPress.com for all of our daily reading recommendations.

Publishers, writers, keep your stories coming: share links to essays and interviews (over 1,500 words) on Twitter (#longreads) and WordPress.com by tagging your posts longreads.


1. The Great Forgetting (Kristin Ohlson, Aeon)

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Why do we suffer from “childhood amnesia”? We lack the ability to recall memories from the first three or four years of our lives, and we have “a paucity of solid memories until around the age of seven.”

Read the story

2. The Mecca in Decline (Jordan Conn, Grantland)

Why doesn’t New York City produce elite NBA talent like it used to?

Years ago, New York’s playgrounds and high…

View original 562 more words

2006 – Table Mountain

In the tradition of so many women writers, I keep a journal. From Anais Nin and Sylvia Plath, to Virginia Woolf and Joyce Carol Oates, writers often cull from the details of their own lives. The intimate settings of my own first novel were inspired by my travels during 2004 – 2006. I was continent-leaping between Europe, Africa and the States. I was floundering as a writer, attempting to find my voice. Part of the way I did was through keeping journals. I took scrupulous notes on foreign interiors and the new social settings I was immersed in. These journals chronicled the shifting tides of my environment. The following piece is based on a journal entry from the time.

Table Mountain. Cape Town. 2006.

Table Mountain. Cape Town. 2006.

Africa Again

We were off, off on yet another African adventure. During the trip, ________ took a photograph of me. I was laughing right before he snapped the picture. We were standing atop Table Mountain. The day was bright, the sky, a rich cornflower blue. In the background was the grey-tinged ocean. The atmosphere was serene. We took it in like a cool drink, relief with each sip. It was a sweltering January. The sun beat down upon us. The previous week we had been on another mountain, this time in the north of Italy with the family: the sister, the father, the brother-in-law, the children. There were snowflakes, the size of pennies that fell beyond the picture window. The children were shrieking because a real life Santa Claus had made his entrance, hired to surprise them. The nannies were picking wrapping paper and ribbons from the floor. The cook was in the kitchen. She was preparing fish. That Christmas had been one of raw fish: fresh oysters and fillets of swordfish, salmon. For dessert there was a silver tray piled high with a dense and sweet, rich whipped cream. Later there were toasts with champagne and afterwards, small lavish cups of dark coffee.

Back to Cape Town, back to Africa, it was January when he took the photograph of me atop Table Mountain. After the photograph, we navigated rambling red terrain. We took a boat to Robben Island. We watched the African penguins amble about the hot, rocky island in the sun. We were very much in love. I was the girl on Slawkowska Street and he was the man I met there.

I.S.

 

Miller on Monroe

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Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. Circa 1956.

The very inappropriateness of our being together was, to me, the sign that it was appropriate. We were two parts no matter how remote of this society, this life. One was sensuous and life-loving while at the center was a darkness and tragedy that I didn’t know the dimensions of at that time. And the same was true of me. So it wasn’t that crazy.