Carolyn Turgeon’s Heart Belongs to Nanni

carolyn-turgeon.jpgCarolyn Turgeon is different from the authors who usually make guest appearances here, in that she and I have a long-running rivalry at Scrabble (at which she currently, damn her, has the advantage). Tomorrow night, she’ll be reading from her debut novel, Rain Village, at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble, and then heading out to a nearby tiki bar for a party that, I’ve been led to believe, will include “fire eaters, sword swallowers, burlesque girls, an old-time vaudeville band, and pink cupcakes.” So that sounds like it’ll be fun. In the meantime, she’s here to tell us about one of her favorite stories.

It was in an Italian literature class in college that I first read “La Lupa” (“The She-Wolf”) by the late nineteenth-century Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, and lost my heart.

How could you not love Verga? He was famous for verismo, naturalist writing rooted to the harsh realities of peasant life in Sicily, but to my mind there is no bigger drama queen than this man, and this is pure diva fiction: mothers crying over their dead sons; men losing their mind and crawling on their bellies in front of churches as penance; women stalking through the countryside in the burning afternoon, ravenous with lust; hot ax-wielding men covered in the grease of fermenting olives.

I don’t know a more lusty, ravenous woman in literature than Pina, the title character of “La Lupa.” I mean, just look at the story’s first lines: “She was dark-haired, tall and lean, with firm, well-rounded breasts, though she was no longer young, and she had a pale complexion, like someone forever in the grip of malaria. The pallor was relieved by a pair of huge eyes and fresh red lips that looked as though they would eat you.”

I love her the way I love Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Imagine Marlene Dietrich setting her formidable gaze on a poor olive farmer with the unfortunate name of Nanni. No one would be able to match her, or resist her. For Pina, it doesn’t matter that she has a grown daughter and spends her days working in the fields. She’s hot! She’s even made a priest lose his soul. As often as I myself pass in front of churches swinging my hips, I have yet to even come close to this. And she always has bright red lips, no matter how many hours she slaves in the fields, while I have to reapply “Wine with Everything” on the hour. And Pina wastes no time on small talk or stolen glances: instead, “she would gobble up their sons and their husbands in the twinkling of an eye with those red lips of hers.”

Pina wants that olive farmer and nothing’s going to stop her. She’ll work in the fields next to him, she’ll marry off her daughter to him and sleep in the kitchen, she’ll face death to have him. She is not afraid of hard work, “digging, hoeing, rounding up the cattle, and pruning the vines in all weather.” She doesn’t sit nervously in a corner wondering if she’s too fat, too old. She doesn’t let the unbearable heat of the sun get her down and she doesn’t mind a little olive grease and sweat on her man, unlike her sniveling daughter.

I don’t know if Pina was intended as a positive portrayal. I mean, she does threaten to kill her daughter if she doesn’t marry Nanni, since Nanni wants the daughter and Pina knows that’s the only way to get to him. And she proceeds to get it on with Nanni regularly while her daughter’s at home with the children. Pina’s grandchildren. As far as I can see, however, Pina just knows how to get things done. And she’s a little kinky, so what? Nanni can’t resist Pina. This young strapping olive farmer, unable to resist a grandmother! Ha! What she is more than anything is an inspiration—setting goals and achieving them, not letting sentimentality get in her way. She’d be just at home in modern day New York as in nineteenth-century Sicily. She makes Ibsen’s Nora look like a wuss.

The last image in the story is of Pina walking towards Nanni, who is speechless and undone (of course), her hands full of red poppies and her coal-black eyes staring straight at him, devouring him. If that’s not as iconic as Greta Garbo standing on the prow of the ship at the end of Queen Christina, or Marlene Dietrich strutting around in a tuxedo in Morocco, I don’t know what is.

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13 November 2006 | guest authors |