Actress Anne Enright

Actress by Anne Enright: between biography, autobiography, fiction and autofiction.

The exquisite pen of Anne Enright, one of the most talented Irish writers, strikes again thanks to her latest literary enterprise, the novel Actress.

Actress is not simply an objectively “good novel”, in a canonic way – because of the undeniable elegance of the writing and because of the story which, though flowing nicely, requires an attentive reading – but is also and most importantly an interesting novel in the light of the dense and sophisticated experimentation the author did on the literary genre. Anne Enright has indeed wisely merged fiction, autofiction, biography, autobiography, memoir, and essay writing in one engaging and well-balanced literary pastiche.

The actress in the title is the protagonist of the novel and mother of the co-protagonist, who is the narrator of this story. Therefore, a first intersection appears to happen between the voice who tells the story and the person who acts in those stories. Katherine O’Dell, a star of Irish theatre (and not only) in the post-war Ireland, lives a life of torments that inevitably end up mirroring themselves in the life of her daughter Norah – just a mistake, but very much loved. Norah is also a writer, who chooses only late in her life to dedicate her energies to the narration of her mother’s life, as a consequence of some appalling attempts from other journalists and writers, morbidly interested in the indecent details of Katherine’s love life. This story is fiction, but it is rather easy for a reader to forget, after a few pages, that Katherine O’Dell never existed and never was a great actress, and that Norah non is not Anne Enright. The novel is written in a style which is more similar to autofiction than it it is to a biographical account. What makes it even more outstanding is that Norah, in unraveling the events of her mother’s biography, ends up digging deeply into her own personal one, making it the core of her narration, at least as much as Katherine’s life. All this is then made even more unique by the unusual choice of narrating the whole story in the second person: Norah is writing to her husband, one of the characters in this double (auto)biography.

Anne Enright
Anne Enright (2008). Picture by Hpschaefer, CC BY 3.0

At times, the writing style appears almost journalistic, if not academic: some of the events of which Katherine is the protagonist are news stories and are told accordingly (in particular, her aggression to a colleague, which was all over many newspapers); others appear told through an academic filter, a scholarly filter, the filter of a historian, interested in what the great actress represented for Irish theatre in a specific historical moment. At other times, instead, Norah’s humanity outclasses the somewhat aseptic necessity of providing an objective and impartial account that biographies often require. Norah cannot resist her need for analysis and auto-analysis. Therefore, she builds a reflection on herself, on the events of her life, the life of a child cast away, of a teenager surrounded by her mother’s friends and lovers, of a young college student discovering and practicing sex in a Catholic and bigot Ireland but also in a family without taboos (Katherine never represses and never hides), of a woman tormented by her love for her mother and future husband, and from the difficulty of not having a father and nor the chance to discover who he was. At the same time, through the pages, another reflection takes place: one on her mother’s choices, on her morals, on the reasons for her eccentric behaviour, on her role and on her skills as a parent. Crucial are finally Norah’s accounts of the History in which she’s involved, the “civil war” in the ’70s, which she narrates through her personal experience of the conflicts.

Actress is a dense and compact book, well-orchestrated and full of reflections. Reflections on parenthood, childhood, adolescence, adult age; reflections on love, sexuality, morals, habits, costumes; reflections on solitude, on recklessness and responsibility; on jealousy, envy, admiration; reflections on theatre, on playing a role on a stage and in life. But above all, Actress is a book that is not afraid to reinvent a genre or more genres, of experimenting with narrative voices, with the concept of protagonists, with styles.

Actress Anne Enright
The cover of the book by Anne Enright, Actress. A Novel, published by W. W. Norton

premi letterari inclusività diversità literary prizes inclusivity diversity fiction

From Booker to Strega: diversity and inclusivity in literary prizes

As I was reading, a few weeks ago, the names in the Booker Prize 2020 shortlist, I was caught by a fleeting yet well-defined thought: how depressing can it be to make a comparison between this shortlist and those of the most prestigious Italian prizes for fiction?

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Literary prizes, inclusivity, diversity. Picture by Roberta Berardi


The answer is quite simple: very depressing. Not because the literary quality of those English novels which ended up being finalists for the Booker Prize is necessarily higher than the quality those written in Italian and selected by the committees of the Strega and Campiello prizes– I haven’t read them all, I wouldn’t know how to judge – but for the disturbing dominance, in Italian prizes, of the writing phenotype of the “white male”.
Italy saw some mild turbulence in the debate on this topic, when Valeria Parrella, the only woman in the Strega shortlist, reacted in an understandably resented way, when, during her interview on the award ceremony, had to sadly realise that a debate on the relationship between the #MeToo movement and literature would happen between two men: “e lei ne vuole parlare con Augias? Auguri!” (“and you want to discuss that with Augias [editor's note: a man]? Good luck!”, said Parrella to the journalist, manifesting a resentment which would be easily shared by many female writers, or simply many women.

Valeria Parrella’s resentment deserves to be charged with further significance if we look at the names of the finalists in the three abovementioned prizes.

For the Strega, all six writer were white and five out of six were men. The longlist was not more encouraging, if we think that besides Valeria Parrella, there were only two more women, Marta Barone e Silvia Ballestra. For the Campiello, the situation was quite similar: once again, all writers were white, and only one was a woman. Moreover, she was not even a novelist. We are talking about Patrizia Cavalli, an undoubtedly illustrious author, but in truth a poet attempting to turn to prose only now, at a later stage of her career, almost as a form of self-celebration. The Booker Prize, instead, among its six finalists, presents four people of colour of which only one is a man. The longlist was equally widely populated with talented women.

If about racial issues, someone might be naive and object that in Italy most writers are in fact white, on gender issues Italy seems to have no excuses. Contemporary Italian fiction has a panorama abounding in women, with a long- or short-lived career. Female writers with talent and original ideas.
The problem seems to occur with similar practices also in other realities of continental Europe: in France, the Goncourt prize has currently only four women out of fifteen in the longlist.

It appears that anglophone prizes, on the contrary, have decided to invest on the principles of diversity and inclusivity, making sure that their selection mirrors the actuality of the society literature represents. The choices of the Booker committee are well matched with those of the American National Book Award, whose longlist is extremely variegated both in terms of genders and of writers’ cultural backgrounds. Needless to remind that the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year was assigned for the second time to Colson Whitehead, a black writer.

It’s easy to brand these choices as banal and comfortable publicity moves. It is undeniable that they are political choices, but their necessity in undeniable in this historical moment. They act as signals, as messages aimed at a mentality change, which is not only desirable but also compelling. They are signals that must arrive from those who hold the power in publishing and media in general. Signals that other countries, like Italy, persists to give only in a fictitious form, relegating them to a surface level, when to a the duty and the honour to debate female literature is given to a man, in the reassuring certainty that the problem of being politically correct can now be filed, and that we can finally go back - without too many subtleties – to awarding the prize to a male writer.