Torregreca: Life, Death, Miracles

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9780140147841: Torregreca: Life, Death, Miracles

IN 1959 ANN CORNELISEN came to the impoverished region of Basilicata. A young, unmarried Protestant woman, she found herself in a tradition-bound, male-dominated Catholic world. She smoked, drove a car, occasionally drank at the village bar, and quickly became the object of disapproving gossip. With aplomb and tough-minded determination, Cornelisen established a school and gained the acceptance, if not always the approval, of the community. In this absorbing memoir, she renders the people, landscape, and vexing social ills of her adopted home with candor and compassion.

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About the Author:

ANN CORNELISEN is the author of four books, including Women of the Shadows, which is available from Steerforth. After living in Italy for more than two decades, she now makes her home in Georgia.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Foreword to Torregreca: Life, Death and Miracles in a Southern Italian Village
by Frances Mayes
"How long does it take to get to Urbino?" I ask Ed.
"When is the right time to fertilize olives?"
"Where does the accent fall in 'Maritima' ?"
"How long was a Roman mile?"
"I don't know," he answers. "Ask Ann."
Later he asks me, "Will we need to buy a chain saw?"
"Do you think the shutters must be oiled every year?"
"Poliminia was the muse of what?"
"Where will we get the well tested?"
I look up from my book. "Call Ann--she would know."


My husband and I bought a gone-to-ruin little villa in Tuscany. As we were about to launch into restoration, we were invited to lunch at the casa colonica of expatriate French and Filipino writers we'd met at another summer lunch given by a British and French couple. They'd heard that American poets had been crazy enough to buy the long abandoned house near theirs and simply had walked up the driveway and introduced themselves. Suddenly, we realized, a colony of foreign writers lives in these hills.

The table is set under a shady grape arbor. Cold salads and wine, fruit, a grand cheese souffle somehow steamed on top of the stove. Heat shimmers around the olive trees in the distance. On the stone patio, we're cool. We're introduced to the other guests: novelists, journalists, translators, a nonfiction writer--all expatriates who have restored old properties. One guest is Ann Cornelisen, a writer I have long admired. She moved to Cortona after living for years in the post-war wild south of Italy and then in Rome. I knew from book jackets that she lived here "in a 13th century farmhouse." I even had been given her telephone number by a mutual acquaintance in Georgia, the home of her parents and where she now lives.

Cold calls always have been hard for me to make and I am a little awed by the woman who wrote, in luminous, austere prose, about the dark, raucous, convoluted lives of women in the south of Italy. When Women of the Shadows came out in 1976, I was intrigued by these lives, so far from my own in mellow California at the height of the women's movement, and intrigued, too, by the woman who chose to live in severest Basilicata, driving the pen across page after page, recording the toughness, humor and cunning of women so different--or were they? When I read Torregreca (actually written first), I knew it was one of those blessed books that I would reread from time to time, teach from, and pass around to friends. It struck me with the same power as James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book it resembles, not in style, but in its penetration of a time and place.

Ann is across the table and down from me. I see her cover her glass with her hand as Alain starts to pour wine. "You know I never drink at lunch." Ah, the austerity. She wears a blue cotton shirt with some vaguely religious looking medallion around her neck. She has the kind of dead-level blue gaze that I associate with a steely intellect. I notice her fair skin and catch an inflection in her voice that I think has a touch of my own accent.

I lean forward and venture, "Is that a trace of a Southern accent?"

"I certainly hope not," she snaps--do I see a hint of a smile?--and quickly turns back to the famous translator beside her. I look down into my salad.

By the time Ben serves his lemon gelato made with mascarpone, several empty wine bottles stand on a side table. The intense sun is now caught in the limbs of a chestnut. Ed and I join in where we can but this is a lively group of old friends, almost like a family gathering, with years of shared experiences. Claire talks about her research trips to Bulgaria and Russia; Tom tells a story about bringing a gray parrot in his coat pocket when he came back from an assignment in Africa. A woman whose name I didn't catch talks about a family dispute over publication of her famous mother's notebooks. Alain makes us laugh over his unbelievable luck in sitting next to a film producer on a flight to New York, launching into a description of his script to this captive, who finally said to send him the script. Now the producer is coming to visit and has bought the option. Ann looks bemused.

As the party breaks up she says, "You were supposed to call me. I've tried to get your number but there's no listing. Irby [a friend of my sister's] told me you've bought a house here--in fact, I met your sister at a dinner in Rome--Georgia, that is." I make excuses about the confusions of the house then impulsively ask her to dinner on Sunday. Impulsively, because we don't yet have furniture, dishes, linen--only a rudimentary kitchen with a few pots and plates.

I pick up a linen cloth at the market to cover the ramshackle table left behind in the house, arrange wild flowers in a jar and place it in a flower pot, plan dinner carefully but keep it simple: ravioli with sage and butter, sauteed chicken breast and prosciutto rolls, fresh vegetables and fruit. As Ann arrives, Ed is moving the table out to the terrace. The entire top and one leg fall off--either an icebreaker or a disaster. She helps us piece the table together and Ed pounds in a few nails. Covered and set, it looks quite nice. We tour the big empty house and begin to talk drain pipes, wells, chimneys, whitewash. She completely restored a noble casa colonica when she moved here. As a wall came down the first day, she found an angry sow left behind by the peasants. From her years working with the Save the Children Fund in the south of Italy, where she oversaw the construction of nurseries, she has solid technical knowledge of structures and of the foibles and habits of workers. Well prepared to restore her own house, she was her own contractor, buying materials and hiring for specific jobs. Our innocence must be alarming to her.

Quickly, it becomes clear that she knows everything about Italy. It is at this moment that Ed and I begin what is to become the 10,000 questions. Who's the best butcher? Can you buy old roof tiles? Is it better to apply for residency? She has been an intense observer of Italy since 1954 and knows an astonishing amount about the history, language, politics as well as the telephone numbers of good plumbers, the name of a woman who prepares gnocchi with the lightest touch north of Rome. Long dinner under the moon; me wedging my knee against the table to keep it from keeling over. We became friends. We laughed in the same places, as someone defined friendship.

Every morning that she lived here, Ann drove into Cortona, bought a paper and took her espresso at the same bar. This began the long habit of her writing days. After coffee in town, she worked in her study until one. During siesta hours she read and rested. Perhaps a couple of hours more before the computer then, usually, dinner with friends. The social life in a small Italian town is fierce and she is invited out several nights a week.

I'm always up early too, trying to establish a writing rhythm but finding the lure of Tuscany compelling. I love to see the town come alive. I take a Roman road over the hill with my Italian verb book, memorizing conjugations as I walk. When I get to the town gate, I put away my book and concentrate on seeing Roberto arranging vegetables, the shopkeeper sweeping the street with one of those witch brooms made of twigs, the barber lighting his first smoke, leaning back in his chair with a tabby sleeping on his lap. Often I ran into Ann. Without plan, we begin to meet a morning or two a week. She was just as happy without me. The bar soon filled with local people grabbing a coffee before work and with tourists who, assuming no one there speaks English, have conversations novelists cannot resist tuning into. All the while Ann turned the pages of the Corriere della Sera. Not surprisingly, I soon saw in the person the same stunning quality of the writing--the observer with the archaic smile.

In her review of H.V. Morton's A Traveller in Southern Italy (The London Sunday Times, June 8, 1969), Ann wrote "The south is still not for the easily discouraged. It is for those who can imagine living in another time, who can believe, even for a moment, in the mirage world created by light so piercing that it sears the eye." That kind of light informs her prose style. Richard Eder, reviewing Where It All Began in The Los Angeles Times (January 25, 1990), noticed "Cornelisen's Puritanism is evident in her splendid portraits of an impoverished rural Italy. . . . It is not the Puritanism of narrow mindedness but of self denial, of rigor, of striking to the bone." While this is true, what's omitted is the acute humor, a distinctly non-Puritan trait. Eder mentions, too, the narrative stance that I think gives her prose an elusive quality, while at the same time allowing the reader the gift of discovery: "the person to whom it happened is only hinted at." The reader, then, participates from his or her own peculiar cast of mind.

In Renaissance paintings, there is often a figure off to the side, outside the action, who looks directly at the viewer or completely away from the event or miracle that is the focus of the painting, for example, in the Masaccio frescoes at the Chiesa del Carmine's Brancacci chapel in Florence or in the Signorelli cycle at Monte Oliveto Maggiore. This is the figure who has a different opinion, the figure who would comment ironically, the figure who would question. There is this quality in Ann's prose. Frederika Randall, another reviewer of Where It All Began (The New York Times, February 18, 1990), wrote, "A firm net of discretion (and pride, no doubt) keeps us neatly away from any private satisfactions, any hardships, doubts, or second thoughts. Better to observe the great commedia of everyday life as yo...

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Ann Cornelisen
Editore: Penguin Books (1991)
ISBN 10: 0140147845 ISBN 13: 9780140147841
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Descrizione libro Penguin Books, 1991. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. First Printing. Codice libro della libreria DADAX0140147845

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