Oxford, Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney, 2007.

This book explores the work of three women writers of the twentieth century: Paola Capriolo (born Milan 1962), Francesca Duranti (born Genoa 1935) and Rossana Ombres (born Turin 1931), with emphasis on their earlier work, which falls into, or displays features of the fantastic genre. The discussion revolves around the following key concepts: the influence of the male-authored tradition upon women writers in a post-feminist era; the fantastic genre later developing into a ‘fantastic trace’ as a means for these writers to deal with such influence; the notion of space both as literary space, i.e. within the literary canon, and as physical-metaphorical space, i.e. a privileged trope in the representation of the tension with a traditionally male dominated literary panorama. This is laid out clearly in the Introduction (pp. 1-10), in which Hipkins introduces the question of a feminist approach to women’s writing, showing awareness and skilful handling of the ensuing danger of ghettoization, but affirming the need for a critical assessment of their work that takes account of the writer’s gender within the framework of feminist theories, as represented by Jessica Benjamin, Shoshana Felman, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Marianne Hirsch, Adrienne Rich, and others. This approach is then suitably complemented by Kristeva’s psychoanalytical notions of the stranger and of the abject, Cavarero’s theory of gender difference, and Genette’s notion of trans-textuality.

Chapter 1 (pp. 11-50) outlines theoretical definitions of, and approaches to the Fantastic (from Todorov to Monica Farnetti and Lucie Armitt), its development in Italy and women’s varied engagement with the genre. Hipkins maintains that women writers face authorial anxiety, which derives specifically from their gender in the face of a male-authored ‘biblioteca paterna’. With these premises the fantastic genre is viewed as a privileged literary mode in which to face such anxiety and come to terms with a predominantly male literary tradition. As this anxiety is dealt with, the fantastic wanes leaving a ‘trace’ (a useful notion introduced by Hipkins) as the ideal textual space in which such anxiety is resolved. Indeed, space metaphors and motifs are revealed as being crucial in the expression of the fantastic or the fantastic trace: hence, the symbolic value in these texts of enclosed spaces such as the caravan, car, house, library, hotel (symbolysing introjection) and, in contrast, the significance of movement between spaces and travel across or through countries, which can symbolyse the writer’s coming to terms with a restricting or subjugating tradition, if not a liberation from it.

The three subsequent chapters each constitute a stimulating analysis of selected texts by each writer, highlighting their diverse engagement with the fantastic genre/trace in finding their ‘literary space’ within ‘masculine culture’. Interestingly, two of the three authors, Capriolo and Duranti, actually resist being labelled ‘female writer’ and having their work conceived in terms of gender (footnote 6, p. 109 and footnote 4, p. 159 respectively). Hipkins’ solid textual analysis makes a convincing case that gender issues are indeed at stake in these texts, and this is confirmed, for example, in the discussion of the narrator’s de-feminization in Capriolo’s IL DOPPIO REGNO.

The book sheds light on the influence that other literary activities have on the creation of a text, such as translation and journalism for Capriolo and poetry for Ombres, as well as the transfiguration of autobiographical matter (especially Duranti), the representation of the reading and writing self and so on. In considering intertextuality, each chapter mentions briefly the author’s disclosure of her own literary models: a disclaimer to have any models at all in the case of Ombres (p.168), the tribute to Austen, Roth and James for Duranti (p. 123), and a wide range of mainly European influences in the case of Capriolo. Hipkins rightly denounces that all too often critics and reviewers do not take this aspect beyond ‘ostentatious name-dropping’ (footnote 2, p. 108). By contrast, her engaging discussion of Thomas Mann’s influence on Capriolo’s work, particularly of DEATH IN VENICE, and the use of quotation in IL DOPPIO REGNO, is remarkable. The analysis of Capriolo’s fantastic slant in her own translation of DEATH IN VENICE further illuminates Capriolo’s linguistic practice. Hipkins points out the relative absence of female models declared by Capriolo (only four), of which she mentions Elsa Morante. This provokes a question concerning the models and sources that may be unconsciously, or even purposefully omitted by the author, among which we may well find writers of both sexes. In this light, Capriolo and Duranti’s emphatic denial of an interest in women’s literary works, as has been pointed out by Ursula Fanning (footnote 27, p. 10), is intruiguing. For example, Capriolo’s story ‘Il gigante’ (in LA GRANDE EULALIA, 1988) induces striking associations with Matilde Serao’s eponymous story from ALL’ERTA SENTINELLA (1889). However, the danger lurking behind an exploration of the intertextual influence of a woman writer with an emphasis on gender, is precisely that of hailing a ‘genealogy of women writers’ (as in the case of Fabrizia Ramondino who acknowledged her debt to Anna Maria Ortese, p. 30), which would require accurate probing before proving accurate.

Given the little critical attention that some of these authors have received (especially Ombres), it would have been useful to have a bit more biographical contextualization at hand, for the immediate satisfaction of an interest that this book undoubtedly arouses.

Whether the reader subscribes to a feminist approach to women writers, disregards gender difference in writers, or regards gender as one among a wider spectrum of aspects that may determine literary outcomes, Hipkins’ book is a thought-provoking and valuable addition to the study of literature written by women, the role and theory of gender and the fantastic, and it leaves the reader not so much with a ‘trace’, as with a debt.

[Vilma De Gasperin]