Timpanelli’s Sometimes the Soul

October 22, 2007

Often contemporary novels that retell fables or fairy tales don’t work. They are wedding cake frosting with sugar-clotted interiors. They don’t connect to the heart or wit of the stories; are just an attempt at the form. True fables have hardship and labor that unearths hidden lessons. The words are clean and crisp and light, something that collapses under most replicas. Gioia Timpanelli’s Sometimes the Soul is a collection of two novellas that rework the author’s Sicilian fables featuring two women seeking heartfelt independence and exploring their places in the world. In A Knot of Tears a baroness locks herself away in a manor seeking seclusion, but is interrupted by a parrot flying through her window one night. The parrot is followed by his owner, a sailor, who tells the woman and her housekeeper three stories, while thwarting the advances of two would-be suitors. The second story is a fresh retelling of the traditional Beauty and the Beast story called Rusina, Not Quite in Love. Both connect because of the generosity and depth of the writing.

One element that particularly sets off this work is their ability to combine two separate chance storylines that highlight the difference between appearance and reality; that twist of fable logic showing things aren’t always as they appear. In A Knot of Tears a woman secludes herself away into her dark manor. Her housekeeper laments of her employer “Imagine locking all the windows and doors and sitting for days, weeks, months, inside a cage of your own making! She had not been given a good enough reason for this strange arrangement, except that the lady desired to be alone, and that of course, was the strangest reason of all” (19). Already we are given a glimpse of a woman cut off from the world and her desire to remain secluded away from society. This solitude persists until one day the woman finds herself overwhelmed by a line “Un gruppu di chianti (a knot of tears)” in a book she is reading, and experiences an emotional claustrophobia as “she felt confusion and the need of air” (18). She asks for the housekeeper’s assistance and together they move a table from the center of the room and open the window.

It is into this oppressive atmosphere that two neighboring gentlemen are given their first glimpse of the woman through the window.

“Ah! Thank you, God! (Ah! Signuri vi ringraziu!) And as that inadvertent Ah! Left her lips, two men sitting at a lawyer’s bench across the way, by chance heard that freeing word, looked up, and saw the blissful face of a beautiful woman in ecstasy” (20).

It is with this chance sighting of the heavy-hearted and sequestered woman that the two men are given an impression of a blissful and ecstatic woman that sets the stories plot in motion. It is interesting to observe the reality of the woman’s internal life in contrast to the impression the two men have. Already we are shown that love is frequently a projection onto a hapless person. “Oh! My God, look at that beautiful woman, said one of the men, a gentleman who was sitting with his lawyer. Who is she?” (20). Both men are in love, wondering if she was merely an apparition, yet plotting a means to get closer. Each man is overcome by her beauty and they quickly place bets on who will meet her by the end of the week.

Both men ponder her loveliness. One muses “Her strong face and those wide gray eyes and thick black braids reminds me of that painting of Titian’s your uncle left you. The one they think is Minerva” (20). While the other one counters “Ah! But, my dear man, you are mistaken—this lady has brilliant violet eyes and is not as calm as Minerva” (21). For the woman the encounter leaves almost no impression at all. “When Costanza saw the two men looking up at her with such interest, she withdrew slightly annoyed” (20).

The discrepancy between these two realities and each character’s perceptions sets up the crux of this story. An unhappy woman through a chance glimpse becomes a beautiful goddess to the two men outside the window. Already we see that their romantic pursuit of a disinterested woman is based on the two men’s fantasy and romantic projections. The remainder of the story unfolds with the two men’s bumbling attempts to meet Costanza, while the real story takes place inside the estate with the lost parrot and the sailor who shares his three tales. Through the circular logic where chance encounters have preordained consequences, Costanza’s story is one of finding one’s proper place in the world and reconciling with one’s past to find happiness. As Timpanelli likes to say (in this case through the parrot Nello) all Sicilian stories start with “Si cunta e si recunta (It is told and retold) and end with “and they remained happy and content and here we are looking for love”. She reminds us always that “story doesn’t promise us that we will live happily ever after. Our lives change moment to moment” (83). We must return to the work of our lives.

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