THE MADONNA OF THE MOUNTAINS: AN INTERVIEW WITH ELISE VALMBORBIDA
Elise Valmorbida’s critically acclaimed novel The Madonna of the Mountains is winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction 2019. It has been shortlisted for further literary prizes and translated into several languages.
Spanning three decades and set in the mountainous regions of the Veneto in northern Italy, her novel tells the story of one woman’s aspirations, fears and struggles for herself and her family, particularly when the rise of Fascism and the theatre of war beset her mountain community.
Elise Valmorbida is a London-based Italian Australian author. On the eve of her visit to Australia this March to teach several creative writing workshops in Sydney and Melbourne, Segmento publishes the following interview with Elise, which focuses primarily on the state-of-mind of her main character, Maria Vittoria, at different stages of her life. It was conducted via email over the course of three months when time permitted.
Given that The Madonna of the Mountains is partly based on your family background, I am curious to know whether you felt any moral ambiguity around relating events, including actions and behaviours of several of the characters?
All writers are gleaners, picking up interesting snippets from anywhere and everywhere. When my creative writing students are inspired by real people, I always advise them to write with imagination, compassion and empathy. Much as categories can be restrictive, there are clear and useful differences between non-fiction, creative non-fiction and fiction. The Madonna of the Mountains is a work of fiction. It’s set in the rural Veneto. I’m very familiar with the culture and place - these are my people! Naturally there are bits and pieces of family stories in there. And informal oral histories from others, too, not just family. Old friends. Neighbours. Strangers I’d meet at a sagra or a wedding. I have all sorts of notes - about courting, conscription, flouting a fascist, when to plant in the moon’s cycle - written not with a specific project in mind, but because I didn't want to forget this richly fascinating, disappearing world. And people liked telling me things, knowing that someone, a writer, was genuinely interested and that they would not be forgotten.
These details help to shape a narrative world, but they are not enough to make a novel. Intensive historical research went hand-in-hand with the slow layering of the creative process: my dreams, daydreams, personal experiences, characters that appeared out of nowhere, plot-lines that emerged from brainstorms, and the endless polishing of language and structure.
Several of the main character’s actions can be seen as a working through of Sigmund Freud’s ideas around unconscious impulses and their manifestation through repression, projection and symbolisation, which is something I find very interesting about your book. One example is Maria Vittoria’s affair with her Fascist cousin, while performed out of need - securing the safety or release of her husband - it can also be seen as an enactment of a repressed childhood desire for her cousin, the ‘guilt’ of which finds projection and symbolisation in the statuette of the Madonna.
I am familiar with some of Freud’s writings, though by no means all. When writing fiction, I’m imagining characters and settings and stories, as well as the words which best express them. This imaginative work comes from a balance of unconscious and conscious material, but I don’t think in terms of specific theoretical ideas. Some characters embody facets of myself, developed and magnified. Some characters are composites of characters I know, drawn from real life, research and fiction. Some characters appear fully formed in a dream or daydream. Major characters can spring from minor ones, or from incidental details. If characters start life as a cerebral concept, which is not my approach at all, I think they'd need to be developed beyond theory into flesh and blood, quirks and all.
Early in your book there is a moment when Maria Vittoria watches her baby daughter Amelia as she’s sleeping in a basket, and she makes an analogy to the 'baby Moses'. Is there a specific reason for that analogy?
Most of the novel is from the perspective of the protagonist Maria Vittoria, and so the language, the ideas, the allusions, reflect her world view. She knows her Bible stories, and she has images of those stories in her mind. For her, the baby in the basket makes a natural connection with Moses.
That connection is quite allusive: Moses as the one to lead the Jews out of the repressive state of Egypt to the ‘promised land,’ and so in that respect one can read a kind of exodus, of course not by a whole people but by a family in this instance, to a promised land, or to use the term in your book, to ‘La Merica’, the latter being an idea, a fantasy, a projection held by many Italians of that generation. What I find curious is that the analogy to Moses is made while Amelia is a baby sleeping in a basket but, as it turns out, it is the older Amelia who stays behind.
This is interesting and, of course, such resonances may have been at play in my unconscious. But no author can provide the final explanatory word. Too much intellectual control and you'd have a dissertation, not a creative work. And, yes, Amelia is the character who stays behind, but she’s also the one who flies away!
And that’s what I find interesting, because Moses too had flown away and stayed behind - as prophesied he cannot enter the promised land.
Amelia consciously chooses her land.
A character who intrigues me, and I also look on with high regard, is the madwoman, La Delfina. She turns up at the precise moment when a major change is about to happen in the life of Maria Vittoria - that is, she will be married. Can you describe the role of La Delfina in the story, in the life of Maria Vittoria, and in life in the contrà? Is she something of a scapegoat?
I love Delfina. She started off as a few warning words from Maria Vittoria’s mother who says, “You’ve got to get married or you’ll end up like that witch in a nightdress!”, and then that ‘witch’ appeared in the narrative, stinking, singing, cursing, disturbing, predicting … It’s as if she wrote her own part, a lot of confrontation and a lot of poetry too.
From Shakespeare to Beckett, I have always loved the wise fools. Like them, Delfina is insightful, unsettling, and unhinged. Sgangherata—I think that’s the word for her in Italian. Some reviewers have likened her to Cassandra for her garbled prophetic vision, others to a chorus in ancient Greek drama, a character embedded in the action, who also stands outside the action and offers commentary on it. I like those associations.
For Maria Vittoria, la Delfina is one step away from her own potential fate: poverty and disgrace are very real possibilities in the life of an ordinary peasant woman. For the contrà, Delfina is a kind of exile. She is between communities, never belonging, perpetually outside, but noticeably present at the edges. Members of the community can feel lucky not to be her. They can be charitable towards her. The priest gives her food. Maria gives her food. For the greater community, the Fascist nation, outsiders and misfits are to be ‘cleansed’.
What is a scapegoat? A goat that is symbolically burdened with the sins of the people and cast out into the wilderness.
Though La Delfina is killed, supposedly murdered by a Fascist relative, nevertheless I find her presence is diffused throughout the story. Is La Delfina the dark mirror of Maria Vittoria?
Delfina dies, but she never really leaves the story. Early on in the novel, she appears on the path as Maria Vittoria goes to and from the well. Maria says, “I need to fetch the water.” Delfina says, “I am your face in the water.”
In accordance with that reflection in the water, would it be fair to say that the inference of the dialogues between Maria Vittoria and the statuette of the Madonna is that Maria is as mad as La Delfina?
Within Italian Catholic faith, it’s normal to talk with saints, and it’s normal for statues to bleed or cry. In Padova, St Anthony’s tongue is moist and incorrupt. In Napoli, San Gennaro’s blood liquefies each year. A plaster Madonna weeps blood in Civitavecchia.
I’m curious about a moment when Maria, in preparing for the departure to ‘La Merica’, goes to visit the contrà, her family home, and she describes her sister Claudia in much the same way as Delfina was described—unmarried, her dress stained and dishevelled, hair untamed, teeth brown, and smelling of sour milk. Given that Maria then thanks God and the Madonna that she is staying with her other sister, Egidia, is this moment another projection for Maria, another reincarnation of Delfina, as an unwillingness to accept what is disagreeable about herself, the parts of herself that she cannot bear or want to look at?
Claudia suffers from a sense of worthlessness as an aged unmarried woman, she’s like a servant for her extended family, and I think of her as being lost, slowly falling apart, almost returning to the earth. There are aspects of her life that remind Maria of La Delfina. Again, poverty and disgrace are very real possibilities for an ordinary peasant woman, and Maria knows it.
An essential aspect of scapegoats is that their role is a temporary one, that the ‘sins’ of an individual, or a community, return in some way, or the responsibility for the ‘sins’ are always reflected back, as in a “face in the water”, leaving one or the community to face their anxieties and fears, to question their inner beliefs and attitudes, and thus initiate change, a psychological change. When in the ship’s cabin, Maria cannot avoid seeing her reflection in the mirror and discovers she looks old and old fashioned. It marks an outward, physical change, and she even proceeds to alter her skirt, but I wonder whether at this point she has experienced an inner, psychological change?
Maria has indeed experienced inner, psychological change, and I’d hope that you’d feel and notice this happening piece by piece as the narrative progresses - it’s not for me to explain it here and now - the story does the telling. I did want the book’s ending to be redemptive, but not with some implausible triumph or superimposition of today’s values upon her. She is still who she is, but she has come a long way.
Why close the book with a Coda that is essentially a series of recipes?
There are recipes for preserving fruit or making gnocchi, and these tap into the survivalist culture of peasants - “one works in order to eat, and eats in order to work”, but there are skills and rituals for growing and harvesting, preparing and preserving, an artisan culture deeply connected with the rhythms of nature and religious practice too. In the Coda (literally ‘tail’) there are also ‘recipes’ for political torture, a snippet of a folk song, an image of Australian customs officials confiscating and burning the foods lovingly prepared and imported by migrants on ships. So, food is ritual, survival, power, nature, religion, family, history, torture, nostalgia.
In the chapter Oceantime, before the Coda, as the ship pulls away from the dock, Maria Vittoria is holding Bruna’s hand and wants to wave to someone, make a gesture that’s symbolic of cutting ties to her family, her community, her country, and she feels something akin to hope. Are you signalling here another book, another instalment in the story of Maria Vittoria? Or is her story sufficiently closed?
I don’t have plans to write a sequel. But you never know. Right now, I’m deep into my creative writing guide, a non-fiction book that draws on my 20 plus years of teaching creative writing. It’ll be published in 2021. Once that’s edited and settled, I’ll see where the next novel will take me. Probably to Italy.
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Elise’s new non-fiction creative writing guide launches in 2021. More information can be found at www.elisevalmorbida.com
Click on the links below for information on Elise’s creative writing workshops with the Faber Academy (Sydney and Melbourne) and CoAsIt (Melbourne):
Writing Women’s Stories, one-day workshop co-conducted with Anna Maria dell’Oso, on Saturday 14th March at CoAsIt.
Writing Family Stories, a two-day workshop to be held on Monday 16th March and Monday 23rd at CoAsIt.
Migration Stories, one-day workshop on Saturday 21st March at Faber Academy Sydney.
Migration Stories, one-day workshop on Saturday 28th March at Faber Academy Melbourne.