“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Maya Angelou’s words seem to encapsulate much of Marina Jarre’s (1925-2016) complex and conflicted life in Distant Fathers, her memoir, originally published in 1987. This brilliant Italian author’s work is not well known to American readers.
Her story, now translated by Ann Goldstein, released June 22, is an intimate account of her multi-cultural life. In essence, Distant Fathers appears to have been written in an effort to come to terms with the demons of Jarre’s past.
Now for the first time New Vessel Press is publishing Jarre’s work in English. Thanks to that and the recent translation of Distant Fathers by Ann Goldstein, famously known as the “star translator ” of Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Novels,” Anglophone readers will be able to appreciate Marina Jarre’s work. In Distant Fathers we see Jarre as an elusive, insecure product of divorce, at a time in 1920’s Italy when a religiously divided family left this adolescent with lifelong scars. Such is the case in this all- encompassing history of the Jarre family while covering two distinct religious backgrounds.
One of the great themes of Distant Fathers is the recurring sense of a lack of belonging, of an identity torn, an alienation from her mother’s family. Her maternal grandparents were Waldensians, French-speaking Protestants from the alpine valleys south of Torino. The young Marina arrived from Riga, where she spent the first ten years of life with her Jewish father.
These feelings of disconnection permeated Jarre’s soul throughout childhood and during the years spent with her grandparents, who condemned her Jewish father and her past spent with him, creating an insecurity that haunted her for much of her adult life. It’s a bond that remains distant and removed. The study of Jarre’s mind in this novel, is as original as its author.
“I’m always in love, boys are handsome, unfortunately they’re a little stupid”, exclaims a 7-year-old Marina Jarre, musing in Distant Fathers. Some early instincts seldom change. Reflecting on the nature of time, she writes “it entered my life when I arrived in Torre Pellice with my sister, at age ten.” Jarre alternates between dream sequences and reality, while leaving the reader caught somewhere in between, an intriguing position that enables all senses to be elevated. The mood remains consistent throughout the novel: an ache, a longing, sadness related to her father. While she, the young child of a domineering woman must display loyalty, even though her pain persists.
Goldstein’s translation perfectly captures Jarre’s mood, which is conveyed through the memory of smell, the varying odors in each room of their Latvian home. These descriptions are so palpable that one can conjure the odors through the written word. Use of the olfactory function magnifies images of Jarre’s experiences, beginning in childhood and following her move to Torre Pellice from Riga. In one memorable instance, while visiting a family friend and their newborn baby, the aroma of hot chocolate wafting through the air intensifies her feeling of nausea; sensations that remain throughout life.
Like all compelling novels, Distant Fathers has one recurring message resonating throughout the many stages of the protagonist’s life: a woman who while in the course of her life achieves great literary feats, still remains displaced and disoriented from birth to death.
The question that inevitably we ask is, “But why isn’t Jarre considered to be among the great Italian writers of the late 20th century?” There is no clear answer to this, she is not alone in having had unjustly been denied the prominence that perhaps she deserved.
Marta Barone, an Italian novelist who is overseeing the reissuing of Jarre’s work for the Bompiani publishing house in Italy, and has written a wonderful introduction to the translation, says that Jarre herself attributed it to bad luck and bad timing: “always writing the wrong thing at the wrong time…short stories that weren’t fashionable”. These, as well as other ironic factors, led her to stay aloof and off the grid of the literary scene.
Distant Fathers is a beautifully articulated story and a profound psychological history of this brilliant author’s life – from her birth and first ten years in Latvia to her life in Torre Pellice with her grandparents. The road she carved was filled with overtones of pain, insecurities, alienation and loneliness in spite of a gifted mind, all stemming from her early life and a deep-seated longing for her father. Ann Goldstein’s translation is a brilliant introduction of this important author to English readers.
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