This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission
France for me – long, long before Paris – was Yonville-l’Abbaye, eight leagues from Rouen. I remember crouching inside that place-name one afternoon, when I was barely fourteen, traveling through the pages of Madame Bovary. Slowly, over the years, thousands of other names of cities and towns followed, some near Yonville, others far away. But France remained essentially Yonville, as I discovered it one afternoon decades ago, and it seemed to me that at the same time I came upon the craft of making metaphors and upon myself.
I certainly saw myself in Berthe Bovary, Emma and Charles’s daughter, and felt a jolt. I knew that I had my eyes on a page, I could see the words clearly, yet it seemed to me that I had approached my mother just as Berthe tried to approach Emma, catching hold of her par le bout, les rubans de son tablier (‘the ends of her apron strings’). I heard clearly the voice of Madame Bovary saying, with increasing annoyance, ‘Laisse-moi! Laisse-moi! Eh! Laisse- moi donc!’ (‘Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Won’t you leave me alone!’), and it was like the voice of my mother when she was lost in her tasks or her thoughts, and I didn’t want to leave her, I didn’t want her to leave me. That cry of irritation of a woman dragged away from her own bouleversements, like a leaf on a rainy day toward the black mouth of a manhole, made a deep impression on me. The blow arrived right afterward, with her elbow. Berthe – I – alla tomber au pied de la comode, contre la patère de cuivre; elle s’y coupa la joue, le sang sortit (‘fell at the foot of the chest of drawers, against the brass fittings; she cut her cheek, it began to bleed’).
I read Madame Bovary in the city of my birth, Naples. I read it laboriously, in the original, on the orders of a cold, brilliant teacher. My native language, Neapolitan, has layers of Greek, Latin, Arabic, German, Spanish, English, and French – a lot of French. Laisse-moi (‘leave me alone’) in Neapolitan is làssame and sang (‘blood’) is ’o sanghe. It’s not so surprising if the language of Madame Bovary seemed to me, at times, my own language, the language in which my mother appeared to be Emma and said laisse-moi. She also said le sparadrap (but she pronounced it ’o sparatràp), the adhesive plaster that had to be put on the cut I’d gotten – while I read and was Berthe – when I fell contre la patère de cuivre.
I understood then, for the first time, that geography, language, society, politics, the whole history of a people were for me in the books that I loved and which I could enter as if I were writing them. France was near, Yonville not that far from Naples, the wound dripped blood, the sparatràp, stuck to my cheek, pulled the stretched skin to one side. Madame Bovary struck with swift punches, leaving bruises that haven’t faded. All my life since then, I’ve wondered whether my mother, at least once, with Emma’s words precisely – the same terrible words – thought, looking at me, as Emma does with Berthe: C’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide! (‘It’s strange how ugly this child is!’) Ugly: to appear ugly to one’s own mother. I have rarely read-heard a better conceived, better written, more unbearable sentence. The sentence arrived from France and hit me right in the chest, it’s still hitting me, harder than the shove with which Emma sent – sends – little Berthe against the chest of drawers, against the brass fittings.
The words entered and emerged from me: when I read a book I never think of who has written it, it’s as if I were doing it myself. So as a child I didn’t know the names of authors; every book was written by itself, it began and ended, it excited me or not, made me cry or made me laugh. The Frenchman named Gustave Flaubert came later, and by then I knew quite a lot about France: I had been there not only thanks to books and not happily, as in books; I could measure the true distance between Naples and Rouen, between the Italian novel and the French. Now I read Flaubert’s letters, his other books. Every sentence was well shaped, some more than others, but not one – not one ever had for me the devastating force of that mother’s thought: C’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide! In certain phases of my life I’ve imagined that only a man could conceive it, and only a man without children, a peevish Frenchman, a bear shut up in his house honing his complaints, a misogynist who thought he was father and mother just because he had a niece. In other periods I’ve believed, angrily, bitterly, that men who are masters of writing are able to have their female characters say what women truly think and say and live but do not dare write. Today, instead, I’ve returned to the beliefs of early adolescence. I think that authors are devoted, diligent scribes, who draw in black and white following a more or less rigorous order of their own, but that the true writing, what counts, is the work of readers. Although the page of Flaubert is in French, Emma’s laisse-moi, read in Naples, has Neapolitan cadences, the brass fittings make ’o sanghe gush from Berthe’s cheek, and Charles Bovary stretches the child’s skin by sticking ’o sparatràp on it. It’s my mother who thought, but in her language, comm’è brutta chesta bambina (“How ugly this child is”). And I believe that she thought it for the same reason Emma thinks it of Berthe. So I’ve tried, over the years, to take that sentence out of French and place it somewhere on a page of my own, write it myself to feel its weight, transport it into the language of my mother, attribute it to her, hear it in her mouth and see if it’s a woman’s phrase, if a female really could say it, if I’ve ever thought it of my daughters, if, in other words, it should be rejected and erased or accepted and elaborated, removed from the page of masculine French and transported into the language of female-daughter-mother. That is the work that truly leads to France, juxtaposing sexes, languages, peoples, eras, geography.
You can read a review of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay at The Telegraph website.