Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore)

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti among others in the 1940s and 50s. Moreover, it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast, which she viewed as her spiritual home. In his excellent afterword to the novel, Sapienza’s husband, Angelo Pellegrino, conveys the history behind Meeting in Positano and his wife’s relationship with the region, offering us a window into the past. The novel was written in 1984 but failed to secure an Italian publisher until 2015, nearly twenty years after Sapienza’s death. All credit then to Other Press for issuing this radiant translation by Brian Robert Moore – it really is a very evocative read.

The novel, which is narrated by a young woman named Goliarda, has a semi-autobiographical feel, tapping into Sapienza’s world of 1950s Italy. During a visit to Positano, while scouting for locations for a film, Goliarda glimpses a beautiful woman, flitting around the café bars and restaurants of the village, holding onlookers in her sway. The woman in question is Erica Beneventano, known locally as ‘Princess Erica’, a charming widow from a (once) very wealthy family. While Goliarda doesn’t meet Erica in person during the trip, she remains captivated by this vision of loveliness, like a destiny she is yet to meet.

…that curious creature whom everyone in Positano loved—something already rare in and of itself—always fluttered at the edges of my imagination, like a meeting that I could not miss. (p. 15)

Sometime later, when Goliarda returns to Positano for a break, she comes across Erica on the beach, sparking a friendship that ultimately lasts for several years. Following their chance encounter on the beach, Erica invites Goliarda to her housea luxurious mansion with a secret bolt-holewhere the two women talk about culture, politics and art, the latter being a topic particularly close to Erica’s heart. Unsurprisingly, Goliarda is enchanted by her intelligent companion, leading to an intimate (although not explicitly sexual) bond between the two women.

Like that sunset or Giacomino’s personality, she too is eternal—with her timeless gesturing, her melancholy as old as the world itself. Or her beauty, which every hour is renewed and changes its appearance: sometimes a slightly withered flower, sometimes a soft cloud, or—as it is now—a beautiful, colourful orange, pulsing with a joy for life. (p. 78)

During their discussions, Erica shares with Goliarda the story of her rather eventful life, with Sapienza skilfully shifting her focus from one central character to another as the novel unfolds. Erica, it seems, is the middle sister of the Beneventano family, whose wealth and land were lost by the men of her father’s generation. Rewinding to the time of their parents’ deaths, we find the sisters have been left virtually penniless, necessitating their move to a small apartment in Milan, where Erica and her older sister Fiore must work to earn a living. Tragedy strikes when Fiore commits suicide, no longer able to cope with the narrowness of her life. It’s a development that acts as a clarifying filter for Erica, revealing the misguided nature of their previous highly privileged lives, cocooned from the realities of the outside world.

A reconciliation between Erica and her estranged Uncle Alessandro swiftly follows, ultimately resulting in her marriage to Alessandro’s business associate, Leopoldo; not out of love but for financial security, leaving Erica’s younger sister, Olivia, free to marry for more romantic reasons.

Erica reveals her previous experiences of love as largely unhappy ones, highlighting her marriage to Leopoldo as a prime example of this emotional state. To say anything more about the nature of the couple’s marriage would be unfair of me at this stage (I’ll leave you to discover this for yourself, should you decide to read this excellent book). Suffice it to say that the relationship contributes to the air of darkness surrounding Erica, a hint of something unsettling that Goliarda clearly detects. As Goliarda notes at one point, Erica seems distanced from those around hera sense of being dignified and deeply troubled at the same time.

As it so happens, I’m generally not shy with men or with women, so why this deranged feeling of uncertainty every time I see her? Is she too beautiful? Too full of passion? It’s fear, I conclude in a flash, remembering the near whiteness that gleaned from her eyes yesterday in front of the window. Am I afraid for her, or for myself? No, it’s for her that I fear something. (p. 32)

As the friendship between the two women evolves, Erica is reunited with Riccardo, her first love from the adolescent days of her youth. It’s another development that signals heartache for Ericaand ultimately for Goliarda, tooas events from the past come back to haunt her.

Sapienza has written a beautiful novel here, full of nostalgia and yearning for the enchantment of the past. It is at once a paean to the allure and intimacy of female friendship and a love letter to Positano itself, a village that exerts its pull over those who visit.   

“Positano can cure you of anything. It opens your eyes to your past suffering and illuminates your present ones, often saving you from making further mistakes. It’s strange, but sometimes I get the impression that this cove protected by the bastion of mountains at its back forces you to look at yourself square in the face, like a ‘mirror of truth,’ while this vast sea, usually so calm and clear, similarly inspires self-reflection…” (p. 130)

With its long sunsets, shimmering sea and rusted red cliffs, Positano is almost another character in the novel, casting a languorous spell over inhabitants and visitors alike. Again, there is a sense of the village exerting a kind of dominance or hold on people— ‘the more you solemnly announce your departure—the harder it becomes to leave’. As a former actress and a writer, Sapienza has a filmic eye for detail, conveying the Positanesi with ease and authenticity.

Giacomino Senior—legendary cook of Positano, who at ninety-five years old still basked on the sunny steps next to one of the large stone lions, at times looking like an in-the-flesh copy of those statues, especially when he’d doze off— (p. 9)

Her prose, too, is evocative and sensual, perfectly capturing the allure of Positano as the setting for this radiant narrative. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy. Meeting in Positano is a wonderfully elegiac book, full of subtlety and complexitythe more you read, the more profound it reveals itself to be.  

It’s also my first read for Meytal’s Women in Translation (#WITMonth) event, which takes place every Augustmore details about that here, along with my previous recommended reads for #WITMonth.

27 thoughts on “Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore)

  1. MarinaSofia

    And Positano was featured last night in Richard E. Grant’s travelogue on BBC4 Write Around the World, albeit as the setting for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Such lush backdrops for your first #WIT reads (Radz Pandit had Greece), unlike my rather unassuming Greenland. Will have to do better! 😂

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how timely! That sounds like an excellent programme, I shall have to check it out – thanks for the tip. And yes, both this novel and the Liberaki have wonderfully evocative settings, as heady as the heat of a vibrant summer’s day,

  2. Jane

    Your opening sentence had me longing for a glorious summer day and perfect reading for now when a trip to Italy is off the cards.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hopefully I’ve captured something of the tone and feel of this book in my opening paragraph as it really is a very evocative read. Perfect for a lazy day in the garden, even in the UK!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    How glorious, Jacqui – and what a find for #WITmonth (and of course one which ties in with your love of film). I’d never heard of author or book, but those quotes are excellent and anything which captures the mediterranean and the glamorous past has plenty going for it!!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I know! I just stumbled across it online somewhere, possibly via Sapienza’s connection with the film world and Visconti in particular. It’s really beautifully written, too – very evocative and fluid, just like the portrayal of Positano itself.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. Sapienza seems to have captured the essence of Positano so well, especially the powerful aura it casts over those who visit. It was lovely to experience something of it, albeit vicariously!

  4. heavenali

    I have never heard of Sapienza, but so glad I have now. This certainly sounds like a gorgeously evocative read. The intense relationship between the two main characters really appeal. Italy as a setting really appeals too, a perfect summer read, even when skies are grey.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d really like this one, Ali. It’s not a million miles away from Three Summers in tone and feel, with the central focus of female friendship replacing Liberaki’s three sisters and their life choices. Anyway, a very evocative read! (And there’s another Sapienza available in translation, too: The Art of Joy, which Penguin Classics published a few years ago. Quite a chunkster, I think, but it does sound terrific.)

  5. 1streading

    An entirely new author to me – it sounds very atmospheric, the kind of book that makes you want to visit the place it is set. I wonder why it had to wait thirty years to be published?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. And I’m glad to have introduced you to a new author as it’s often the other way around!

      There’s quite a lot of background on Sapienza — including her writing career and struggles to secure publication — in Pellegrino’s afterword. Another of her novels, The Art of Joy, had been rejected by almost every Italian publisher in the late ’70s, and was only published posthumously in 1998 with Pellegrino’s help. (Sapienza died in 1996 following a fall.) Rizzoli, her Italian publisher, did publish L’Università di Rebibbia in 1983, apparently to great success, but they continued to pass on L’arte della gioia (The Art of Joy) despite the response to Rebibbia. A massive missed opportunity on their part, I suspect, given the quality of Sapienza’s work…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, a wonderful discovery for me. As you say, it’s heartening to see it in print as a consequence of Pellegrino’s efforts – all credit to him for persisting!

  6. buriedinprint

    Nice job of glancing at spoiler territory and looking away! This isn’t a title or author I recognize but I think I would enjoy the story. Thematically and time/place, would it make an interesting companion for lovers of Ferrante (whose books I’ve barely sampled)?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely in terms of the potential interest to Ferrante fabs. Sapienza’s style is quite different here — more evocative and sensual — but the period and setting are undoubtedly linked. Sapienza has another book available in English translation, The Art of Joy, which sounds a little closer to Ferante’s Neapolitan novels. It’s seems to be a broader, more ambitious book than Positano, so I’m intrigued to discover more!

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