In a 1994 interview with Italy’s history channel RAI Storia, Goliarda Sapienza, proclaims her dislike of one-night-stands. Men have so many insecurities the first time you sleep with them, she says. Then she remembers an exception. Glee spreads across her face. She hesitates. The interviewers, Anna Amendola and Virginia Onorato, zoom in. It is clear no one knows what will come next. “Oh well, I can say his name,” Sapienza says. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.” She proceeds to give a vivid play-by-play of her one-night-stand with Milan Kundera. “My friends, his dick was this big,” she gestures for the historical record, “and my vagina is only this big.” Her smile is irresistible. The painter Renato Guttuso once compared it to a slice of watermelon.
Goliarda Sapienza talking about Milan Kundera’s penis on the history channel is not just a lapse into gossip, a reference to Kundera’s literary eroticism, or a refusal of the channel’s pretension. It’s a moment that repeats throughout her work: one woman recounts herself to another in the frankest, most uncensored terms possible. A libertine both sexually and politically, Sapienza was a writer who Mary Gaitskill described as “a life force” who “breaks too many workshop rules.” There’s something generous about Goliarda’s rule-breaking, what I would call freedom. As if by addressing you, involving you in live-wire intimacy, she’s also passing it to you. “You need to tell everything about yourself at least once, if you’re lucky enough to find someone you can trust,” Sapienza writes in Meeting in Positano, as translated by Brian Robert Moore. “No one can keep it all bottled up forever, or else they’d go insane.”
On its sparkling Mediterranean surface, Meeting in Positano is a beach read. This is what I call it when I recommend it to all my friends. A work of autofiction set on the Amalfi Coast in the ’50s, it opens with a young radical filmmaker named Goliarda beholding a glamorous aristocratic woman known by locals as “The Princess.” The beginning of their friendship is portrayed as a seduction. Like sex, friendship becomes a site of experimentation and possibility; soon Goliarda and Erica “The Princess” are sharing long-held secrets, and in many ways come to depend on each other for survival. Each page radiates with the lushness of summer, and Moore’s translations of long Italian sentences whip by as if you’re on the Positano ferry yourself. The plot consists of each character recounting herself in turns against a backdrop of cliffs and sea, and reading feels like eavesdropping on the people next to you while you tan in the sun.
“Women love to talk about things, but it never leads to action,” my friend’s boyfriend told us at dinner one night; all the while, I had been silently wishing that she and I were alone so that we could solve each other’s problems. Like Sapienza’s interview, Meeting in Positano is a rebuttal to the dogmatic and often sexist cultural context in which she worked, where male approval was necessary to be taken seriously, let alone be accepted into the Italian canon.
Goliarda Sapienza was born in 1924 to notorious Sicilian “lawyer of the poor” Peppino Sapienza and Maria Giudice, one of the most prominent Italian socialists and feminists of the twentieth century. Giudice had been Antonio Gramsci’s superior at the Socialist newspaper Il Grido del Popolo, and moved to Sicily to organize, trailed by a government spy. In Palermo, she met Peppino Sapienza through organizing work, and the couple moved back to Sapienza’s native Catania with their dozen other children from previous relationships, and had Goliarda.
As a child, Goliarda was taken out of school to avoid a Fascist education, and learned from roaming the streets, working for a puppet-maker, and eating olives with fishermen. At 18 she went to Rome to study acting at Rome’s Academy of Dramatic Arts, and fought in the Resistance, killing a Nazi. She didn’t like to mention the fact that she had killed a Nazi because people who were too performative about their role in the Resistance disgusted her. In Rome, she began working in film, often writing screenplays without credit for major Neorealist directors. Credit didn’t interest her here either: she saw herself as part of the filmmaking process and didn’t care about having her name on things (too individualist). In the decades that followed she robbed a wealthy friend of hers and spent a month in prison, married a much younger man, and spent the rest of her life writing and going to the beach.
It’s notable that Sapienza wrote Meeting in Positano in 1984. That year, her epic Bildungsroman The Art of Joy, now considered her masterpiece, was going into its sixth year of editor rejections. The same year, Sapienza was also interviewed on television about her book on women’s incarceration, Università di Rebibbia (Rebibbia University)—a book which, upon its publication, was mocked for suggesting that there was more to learn in prison than in academic institutions. In this interview she sits, surrounded by a group of men who make no attempt to mask their condescension. At their every snicker, she digs in her heels and reiterates her point: “You can only know a country by its prisons, its hospitals, and its mental wards.”
Self-revelation between marginalized political subjects is at the core of Sapienza’s work. This applies no less to the bourgeois focus of Meeting in Positano: two women gossiping on a beach vacation. “Even a count like Luchino Visconti didn’t concern himself with anyone but fishermen and factory workers,” Goliarda states in an early chapter,explaining why her journey to Positano, and thus the novel, was politically shameful:
On more than one occasion he had urged me in that sharp way of his not to isolate myself too much in the ‘personal’ while there was the great medium of film to educate the multitudes. Why didn’t I act anymore? Why didn’t I use my talent to influence the ideological direction we could give to the masses?
In the U.S., memoir and autofiction are often accused of being narcissistic, individualist forms, but in Italy the word “individualism” is practically a slur. As scholar Francesca Zambon points out, Sapienza’s use of the first-person “I” was a provocative shift away from the collectivist politics of the Communist party in the postwar ’50s, when Meeting in Positano is set. This held too for the ’80s, when the novel was written, on the heels of the Women’s Movement and its collectively authored feminist texts. For Sapienza’s “I” to focus on encounters with a conservative woman at the beach is even more—I’m tempted to say “radical,” but that’s the very term being put into question here.
In Sapienza’s writing, the personal is political because it is never singular. Her “I” is always relational, constantly in flux. Accordingly, Meetings in Positano is the final book in Sapienza’s “autobiography of contradictions,” a term she used to refer to her six works of autofiction taken as a singular whole. Each novel focuses on a different era of her life, bent through the prism of the present. Each novel also swerves wildly in subject matter. Her debut, Lettera aperta (Open Letter), is a fragmented memoir of her childhood and adolescence in Sicily. In Università di Rebibbia, Goliarda goes to prison for theft, and her voice intermingles with those of her cellmate friends. In Meeting in Positano, the same writer who observed that “you can only know a country by its prisons,” waxes poetic about “the melodious smells of jasmine and herbs coming from countless gardens.”
In U.S publishing and, relatedly, MFA programs, voice and subject matter in nonfiction are expected to be consistent—crucial to the formation of the author’s brand. As an MFA student at Iowa, I often had to introduce myself by “what” I write about, just as when I worked in the publishing industry I advised authors about building a platform. I feel the same forbidden pleasure from Goliarda’s inconsistency and provocations as I do hearing her talk about Milan Kundera’s dick. “Scrivo per essere fraintesa,” she once said: “I write to be misunderstood.” In Meeting in Positano she shifts tense and moves between first and third person. The self in her work is constantly changing and responding to the present moment, constantly re-presented.
The relational “I” models Adriana Caverero’s philosophy of self in her 2000 book Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood. Both authors are linked to a specifically Italian feminist focus on the collective as opposed to the individual. Identity, for Cavarero and Sapienza, is born in the moment of narration: the desire to recount oneself depends on the listener; the self is born in a moment of reciprocal exchange. Within Meeting in Positano, long passages are entirely in Erica’s voice telling her story, filtered through Goliarda’s recollection. Friendship is “to enter into another being… to be nourished by the other, before going back to the same old self, but renewed.” At any given moment, the self is co-constructed, and the two women are led deeper and deeper into self-exploration.
Reading Sapienza, her willingness to be unlikable and honest, no matter the consequences, inspires me to imagine what I’m holding back as a writer, or even in daily conversation. Often what I am most afraid of writing is what I most need to write—and just as often it takes the outside voice of a friend to tell me. Late in the novel, Erica says to Goliarda, and I underlined: “You yourself said that it’s better for a woman to write cheap books like Peverelli than to castrate herself through self-criticism. Let’s move away from these categorical abstractions and be practical for once.”
I thrill at her casual perversity, her obscene use of verbs. To castrate is to lose pleasure, to halt some creative impulse, to alter the relationship with one’s gender. The verbs are reckless, urgent, like paint splatter. What would your writing look like if you stopped castrating yourself with self-criticism? This moment is beautiful for the same reason the novel is challenging to translate: the voices of both characters have to be distinct enough to intermingle. Erica is citing Goliarda’s intensity back to her with “cheap books” and “castrate,” while you can hear Erica’s posh elocutions in “let’s move away from these categorical abstractions.” It’s testament to Moore’s care that the two are as distinguishable as texting styles in a group thread, or when you start borrowing a friend’s catchphrase. I wasn’t surprised to see that the book was recently shortlisted for the American Literary Translator Association’s Italian Prose in Translation Award.
This may all sound warm and fuzzy, but it wouldn’t be Goliarda if there wasn’t something plainly shocking, like the opening of The Art of Joy which jumps from a brutal rape scene straight into the heroine’s arousal at the touch of a nun. Positano’s extremity is subtler: it is an ode to a relationship with an aristocratic woman—probably the least politically correct thing for Sapienza, or any leftist, to do. While reading the book, I happened to be at the beginning of my own blossoming friendship with a conservative woman. Among many differences, this friend was once the president of an anti-choice legal society, while I once published an essay on the joy of eating hot dogs after an abortion. To take so much interest in the life and interiority of someone whose politics make you want to cry—to find your own interiority revealed through someone so unlike you—feels taboo. Like an extreme version of Goliarda’s time with Erica, it seems wrong to even describe this friendship, as if to reveal our many commonalities, or that we even help each other explore our identities, might take away from my own credibility. If the “I” is as relational as Sapienza shows, then I had to also allow for the fact that this friend was changing me, as I of course hoped to change her. That we were even able to talk came from her willingness to listen. Locked in the uncensored exchange of friendship, we experimented with ideas and attitudes, and I often had to articulate things I had never said out loud, avoiding the buzzwords that divided us.
“It’s the fault of all that socialist neorealism, my mind insists as it puts down my senses for having grown rusty from ideology,” the character Goliarda says, walking barefoot around Erica’s villa while she mostly lives in poverty. That willingness to self-interrogate at every turn is inspiring to me. With every sentence, I feel Sapienza trying to provoke me, to scrub against my rust—my desire for easiness, for categories, for beach reads. She pushes me towards the present moment of co-creation. It is clear that no one knows what will come next.