Francesca Duranti’s brilliant first novel, The Little Girl, originally published as La bambina in 1976, is a small classic of modern European literature. Internationally acclaimed for such intriguingly enigmatic fictions as The House on Moon Lake and Left-Handed Dreams, Duranti here turns a direct and sharply observant eye on the events, the absurdities and the terrors of a wartime childhood. The little girl of the title is Duranti’s younger self, presented to us not via adult hindsight but through a psychologically convincing and richly comic recreation of a growing child’s view of her world, an approach which also enables Duranti to offer the reader an oblique but revealing insight into a dramatic period of Italian history.
Born into a privileged but courageously free-thinking family – her father was the distinguished socialist lawyer and politician Paolo Rossi – Duranti spent the war years in a beautiful 16th century villa and its surrounding estate, a threatened paradise in which the Jews and left-wing intellectuals her parents sheltered co-existed with strict German-speaking governesses and billeted German troops. That her family and their guests all safely survived the war (the only death is that of a beloved pig, ‘sacrificed’ for Christmas ham and sausage) was due in no small part to Francesca’s formidable mother, who dominates the novel as she imposes her iron will on the small community of which she is the self-appointed queen. Duranti reminds us that the eye of love can be an unsparing and even a censorious one, as mother and daughter become locked in a battle of wills in which inevitably it is Mamma who has the last word.
Judith Woolf’s lucid translation includes an introduction and notes which make the historical background to the novel fully accessible to an English-speaking audience.