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Contaminating Conversions: Narrating Censorship, Translation, Fascism

  • Author(s): Escolar, Marisa Abby
  • Advisor(s): Spackman, Barbara G
  • et al.

In an idealized formulation, translation and censorship mark opposite points on the spectrum of signification: if translation works to raze boundaries between text and reader, censorship strives to raise them. In scholarship on fascist Italy, this polarized definition was particularly widespread: censorship was cast exclusively as the tool of the powerful, and translation, as a way for intellectuals to smuggle subversive ideas into a xenophobic society. However, despite their apparently antithetical aims, literary historians have found archival evidence to support a more nuanced view of censorship and translation under fascism, and seminal theoretical contributions by Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida have led to wide recognition of a chiastic relationship between “repressive” censorship and “productive” translation. If, today, in light of the numerous fields which take translation and censorship as their objects of study (literature, history, psychoanalysis, cultural studies), it were possible to make a single claim about these processes, it would speak to their ability to destabilize notions of discipline, author and text.

This dissertation uses these transgressive, polyvalent phenomena to unsettle a rather stubborn boundary in the postwar Italian literary panorama: “fascist” and “antifascist” literature, specifically as it relates to fictionalized wartime narratives by Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957), Elio Vittorini (1908-1966) and Beppe Fenoglio (1922-1963), intellectuals who are key for different yet convergent reasons: Malaparte, who abandoned fascism in 1931, has been depicted as an unscrupulous chameleon; Vittorini, who became antifascist in 1936, has become a symbol of redemptive conversion; Fenoglio, a partisan in the Resistance, has become synonymous with antifascist literature. In bringing together these texts, traditionally understood as reflections of their authors’ politics, my dissertation examines how the rise and fall of fascism is narrativized and suggests that these political conversions—never before considered comparatively—share common anxieties as they attempt to renegotiate boundaries not just between “fascist” and “antifascist” but also between other categories of identity, including race and gender.

While my dissertation locates such overlaps in “fascist” and “antifascist” texts, it also identifies a preoccupation with renegotiating boundaries shared by these fascist era texts and their postwar criticism. Perceived as a site for struggle between intellectuals and the regime, censorship and translation maintain their tantamount importance today, as their oppositional definitions—still widely held in the scholarship on Malaparte, Vittorini and Fenoglio—contribute to the reification of the emblematic positions of these intellectuals and their texts. My readings explore the ways in which censorship and translation have shaped perceptions of the texts’ production and afterlife, but also how they inform narrative dynamics. After an introduction to my theoretical methods in Chapter One, in Chapter Two, I look at how categories of sexual and political “integrity” and “violation” intertwine in the plots of two novels by Vittorini, Garofano rosso [The Red Carnation], a famously censored fascist bildungsroman, and Conversazione in Sicilia [Conversation in Sicily], a story of an antifascist awakening, whose stylistic innovations were held to be the result of his experience translating Anglophone literature. As I offer new readings of previously marginalized scenes, I show how the critics’ rhetorical emphasis on the censor’s “violation” of Garofano and the “integrity” of Conversazione has helped construct Vittorini’s emblematic position as a redemptive antifascist convert, obscuring the representations of sexual violence on which the protagonists’ conversion depends. In Chapter Three, I focus on Fenoglio’s Partigiano Johnny [Johnny The Partisan], purportedly born through self-translation from English to Italian, and show how its status as a literary monument to antifascism is predicated upon philological “conversion” efforts to restore the text to its uncensored form and thus tell the “complete” story of the Resistance. I argue that these efforts paradoxically censor a number of suggestive tensions that speak to the trauma of Italy’s civil war. In Chapter Four, I turn to Malaparte’s La pelle [The Skin], a polemical novel still caught in a debate on whether it deserves to be freed of its “cultural censorship.” While the critics debate its “fidelity”" to the “truth” of the war, I explore the text’s construction of its own truth claims, as it represents moments of “translation” between the Allies and the Italians.

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