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Reading Sveva by Daphne Marlatt
reviewed by Hilary Turner

Reading Sveva
Daphne Marlatt


In Reading Sveva, Daphne Marlatt meets a kindred spirit in Sveva Caetani (1917-1994), a visual artist who, with originality equal to Marlatt’s own, strove to dissolve the same binary concepts that have preoccupied the poet and novelist throughout her career. In Recapitulations, a series of fifty-six watercolour painting, Caetani created an autobiographical narrative, both personal and symbolic, in which history overlaps with myth, and identity with lineage; in which, moreover, she gently but categorically refuses the formal distinctions between foreground and background, centre and periphery, the real and the surreal.

Had Caetani not died at almost exactly the time when Marlatt was about to publish Ghost Works—her own wide-ranging study of home, place, self, family, past and present—the two artists would have had a great deal to say to one another. As it is, in Reading Sveva, Marlatt conjectures the conversations that might have been. She enters into dialogue with Caetani, not only directly,by quoting from her letters and diaries, but also structurally, by weaving poems in and around reproductions of six of Caetani’s most intriguing paintings and a handful of photographs of the artist with her parents, Leone and Ofelia.

These parents are central to the narrative, and almost larger than life. The Caetani family (originally Gaetani) was one of the most ancient and prominent Roman lines of descent. In her readable and engaging MA thesis on Sveva Caetani (University of Victoria, 2000), art historian Karen Avery cites the date 750 BCE as the first verifiable record of this remarkable family. Primarily scholars, politicians, ecclesiasts, and diplomats, down the centuries the family collected honours, wealth, and distinctions galore. How odd, then, that the last eldest son in the paternal line, Sveva’s father, having discarded his titles of duke and prince, should fetch up in Vernon, BC in 1921.

Leone Caetani was a distinguished scholar, and principal author of the ten-volume Annals of Islam (1905-1926), a work that broke new ground by virtue of its use of documents in the Arabic languages. By all accounts, Leone was a towering figure (6 feet, 8 inches) and a towering intellect, with a command of eleven languages. His unhappy marriage to a woman of his own rank—a woman who had little patience with his scholarly pursuits—propelled him into a relationship with the beautiful and sophisticated Ofelia Fabiani. The birth of their daughter, Sveva was a turning point in many respects. Given that Leone had socialist leanings and was an admirer of British-style democracy, the rise of fascism in Italy round about 1920 made it desirable for him to emigrate. Equally intolerable, Italian law forbade him to pass on his name to an illegitimate offspring. Leone had been to Canada in 1891 on a trek on horseback through the Kootenays, and was impressed by the grandeur and openness of the landscape. His sudden acquisition of a home and orchard in the Okanagan thirty years later and his determination to begin life as a gentleman farmer were not entirely out of character.

Initially, the family maintained its European ties with regular trips to London, Paris, Rome, and the south of France. Sveva took art classes in Paris, and was tutored in Nice by the Russian painter André Petroff. Back in Canada, where outdoor activity was part of everyday life, governesses were hired from abroad for Sveva, and a steady stream of books arrived in the mail. Though undoubtedly a lonely childhood, it must also have been idyllic.

The stock market crash of 1929 took its toll upon the Caetani family fortune and, as Marlatt remarks in her Introduction to this volume, “the European trips and governesses came to an end.” Sveva was sent to Crofton House School in Vancouver. This opportunity to mingle with girls her own age was short-lived, however. In her second year at the school, a bout of measles sent her home. This illness was swiftly followed by a much graver medical condition: Sveva’s father was diagnosed with throat cancer. His death in 1935 when Sveva was eighteen was a blow from which her mother Ofelia never recovered; she entered into a period of fearful seclusion that lasted until her death in 1960.

For Sveva, it represented the end of an independence that had barely begun, the end of all meaningful contact with the outside world, and (because Ofelia deemed it “a waste of time”) the end of her painting. She described this sacrifice as like “death in life”, yet for the next twenty-five years, she was a virtual recluse—her mother’s caregiver, housekeeper, and protector—with only reading and her own thoughts to sustain her. Her father’s intellectual legacy, a considerable bequest, can be summed up in a telegram he sent her from the Mayo clinic. It advises her to learn Dante’s Divine Comedy by heart.

It is necessary to know these sad and difficult circumstances to understand the attraction that Caetani’s life and work hold for Marlatt. There is, to begin with, the fascination of a young woman’s sheer resourcefulness in maintaining a sense of self under such constraints. More importantly, in poems and journals, Sveva grapples with the big questions that concern all artists. As Marlatt notes, “she seems to have initially conceived her project as a poetic one. Her poems, like diary jottings, are constructed of statements and questions, sometimes rhetorical, often sincere…. Socially astute in critique, her poems record the thoughts of a passionate mind examining life experience within the larger spheres of Italian culture, Canadian contemporary life, and the multicultural traditions of the human spirit.” Sveva’s unusual circumstances and family tragedies notwithstanding, in time Marlatt finds herself mainly interested in “the ontological question expressed in much of her writing: What is the role of human consciousness in the larger orders of the cosmos?”.

The paintings both pose and answer this primal question. Recapitulations is, of course, the work of Sveva’s later life, following the death of her mother. The paintings are unusually vivid: as Avery writes, “each painting glows as if it was painted in acrylic or oils rather than watercolour”. At times (in the magnificent Workmanship, for example) they depict divine and human “creation” as intertwined and mutually fructifying; at others (such as in A Deep Transparency) they suggest a human stance in liminal space, neither truly part of nature, nor wholly beyond it. The series is united by references to Dante’s retelling of Virgil’s cosmic journey, and punctuated by the personal symbolism of Sveva’s life.

Given the complexity, the richness, and the completeness of Caetani’s paintings and writings, it remains to define the relationship between Marlatt’s poems and the “text” that inspired them. The poems are neither commentary, nor interpretation, nor do they evaluate or judge. Rather, they represent the summoning of one artist’s intuitive knowledge of another artist’s being. The task is not so much to discover “what it was like to be her” as it is to recapture the private voice in which she spoke to herself.

At their most powerful, Marlatt’s poems conduct a kind of running interview with Sveva, addressing her as “you,” quoting her own writings back to her in a new context. For example, in “the hand promised” two speakers trade fragmentary images and phrases that replicate the effort of making a whole of seemingly shattered potential:

then what was handed to you?

the woman
Imprisoned storm
climbing walls
three bleeds the same
in Catholic purdah

walls become floors
scrubbed daily

under constant erasure

close-up: Sveva
daughter devoted
and friendless for
twenty-five years

A fellow practitioner, Marlatt is able to convey her conviction that art is work. In her treatment of the masterpiece Workmanship, she is there at the painter’s shoulder, watching, as her aging hands are transformed into their own image on the canvas:

arthritic bone knobs
boutonnière deformity dip
ochre and ivory wrinkled
fingers of one hand
warming stiffness of the other

another you state with a capital
Creator, these so human hands
between brush strokes

In communing with the mind of this artist, Marlatt also acknowledges the way in which all artists are isolated, sympathetically voicing Caetani’s outsider status in her community:

called artist
called “our countess”
called a character

context small-town Vernon
between the lakes

In sum, this volume must be understood as a gift. In her introductory essay, Marlatt speaks of the gifts of language and learning that were bestowed upon Sveva, as well as the gift that her completed work represents to Marlatt herself. “The generosity of gifts,” she writes, “—the gifts we inherit and the gifts we are subsequently given—prompts us to offer further gifts to others.” This collection is a gift to the artist, Sveva, a gift of deep understanding. Too late for friendship, it comes in time to correct for Sveva’s years in isolation and despair, and to garner a new audience for the remarkable work of this consummate artist.

Avery, Karen. The Elusive Self: Storytelling and the Journey to Identity in Sveva Caetani’s Autobiographical Series, Recapitulation. Unpublished MA thesis. University of Victoria. 2000.

Hilary Turner teaches English at the University of the Fraser Valley.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 21.