Letter to the Silent Duchess from a Relative

  • Your second daughter Giuseppa allowed herself to be found in her husband’s bed with her cousin Olivo. The two men challenged each other to a duel. They fought, but neither of them was killed: two cowards who abandoned their weapons at the first drop of blood. Now the beautiful Giuseppa is expecting a child and no one knows whether it is her husband’s or her cousin’s. But it will be accepted by her husband as his, because otherwise he would have to kill her and he certainly has no wish to do that.

Appointment in Samarra Redux

Both of self’s parents were readers. The living room was lined with bookshelves, and there were always books on her parents’ nighstands.

Dearest Mum liked Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima.

Dear Departed Dad liked John O’Hara and John Updike.

One of Dear Departed Dad’s John O’Hara’s books was Appointment in Samarra. Self remembers loving it. The appointment in O’Hara’s novel is the same as the one in the excerpt below from The Silent Duchess, with O’Hara using Samarra as the stand-in for Samarkand. In both versions, the irony is delicious.

This morning, 6:30 a.m., self is racing to the end of The Silent Duchess.

She reads, on p. 226:

  • One does not truly escape by always escaping. Like that character in The Thousand and One Nights, who lived in Samarkand. She cannot remember whether it was Nur el Din or Mustafa. He was told, “Soon you will die in Samarkand,” so he galloped full speed to another city. But right in that unknown city, while he was walking peacefully along, he was assassinated, and as he died he saw that the square in which he attacked was called Samarkand.

Curfew takes effect in her area tonight: everyone must stay home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Stay safe, dear blog readers. Stay safe.

The Death of Uncle Husband

A death self was not at all prepared for, for he seemed to be in the prime of health. But anyhoo, he has died. He and the Silent Duchess were married when she was 13, and he approximately 30 years older. The Duchess is now (self guesses) in her late forties. They had eight children, of whom the first was born when the Duchess was just 14. Four of the children lived to adulthood.

The Duchess is left alone with the body in the family chapel:

Marianna brought her eyes back to the naked body of uncle husband stretched out before her. But why had they left her there on her own? Perhaps so that she could give him a last farewell, or possibly to reflect on the frailty of the mortal body? Oddly enough the sight of his forsaken limbs reassured her; he was so different from the other bodies surrounding her, so fresh and tranquil, distinguished by the veins, eyelashes, hair and full lips that characterise the living. Those waves of grey hair preserved intact the memory of sunlit countryside; the cheeks still retained a few gleams of pink candlelight.

The Silent Duchess, by Dacia Maraini, translated from the Italian by Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood

Stay safe, dear blog readers. Stay safe.

August in the Bay of Palermo

All over the water in the Bay of Palermo are hundreds of boats: gozzi, caiques, feluccas, each festooned with its array of lights, each with its seating for the nobility and places for the oarsmen. The sea is calm, the moon hidden behind small ragged clouds edged with violet, the boundaries between sky and water invisible in the dense blackness of a calm, still August night.

Soon the firework scaffold that rises imposingly on the shore will explode with Catherine wheels, rockets and fountains of light that will rain down over the sea. In the background Porta Felice seems like a Christmas crib all strewn with oil lights. To the right the Cassaro Morto, the dark outline of the Vicaria, the low houses of the Kalsa, the massive facade of the Steri Palace, the grey domes of Santa Maria della Catena, the square wall of the Castello by the sea, the long stark building of San Giovanni de’ Leprosi. Suddenly from a maze of dark crooked lanes thousands of people are pouring out towards the sea.

The Silent Duchess, by Dacia Maraini, pp. 118-119

How To Get Rid of Ants: THE SILENT DUCHESS, p. 81:

Balance a board between two chairs, the legs of both chairs immersed in saucepans filled with water. Put the enamel jars of sugar on the wooden board, cover each jar with a soup plate filled with vinegar.

You’re welcome.

The Silent Duchess’s Youngest Child

This novel is incredibly, incredibly complex. So many notes. Sometimes self gets so enraged — especially at the marriage of the 13-year-old to her uncle.

In the end, the Duchess develops affection for her husband, who she refers to throughout as “uncle husband.” He is an ineffably diffident man, who several years into the marriage begins spending longer periods of time in Palermo (Self thinks: Mistress!)

Anyhoo, the Duchess spends the years between 14 and 30 having babies. The last child, born when she is 30, is a sickly boy named Signoretto. She feeds him by hand, “little pizzas filled with minced chicken, pasta made with egg-yolk and cheese, and egg-flip with orange juice: everything that . . . ‘makes good red blood.’ “

p. 74:

Signoretto got no fatter, but he grew taller and taller, acquiring the neck of a stork and two small thin arms like a monkey’s, which were openly ridiculed by his brother. At two he was taller than Agata’s three-year-old. Although he did not gain any weight, he shot up like a plant in search of the sun. Neither his hair nor his teeth came through. His head was like a wooden ball and she covered it with embroidered bonnets turned up and puffed out at the edges.

The Silent Duchess, by Dacia Maraini, translated from the Italian by Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood

Stay safe, dear blog readers. Stay safe.

The Silent Duchess Gives Birth

It’s her third child, and her third girl. Since the Duchess has been continuously pregnant since marriage to her uncle (at 13), she must be 16.

pp. 36 – 37:

Now the midwife used her long sharp nail to cut a small membrane that still held the new infant’s tongue, so as to ensure that she wouldn’t stammer when she grew up; then, in accordance with tradition, a finger dripped in honey was thrust into the crying baby’s mouth to comfort her.

The last thing that Marianna saw before sinking into sleep were the calloused hands of the midwife holding the afterbirth towards the window to demonstrate that it was whole and that she had not torn it or left any fragments inside the mother’s belly.

The Silent Duchess, by Dacia Maraini, translated from the Italian by Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood

Stay safe, dear blog readers. Stay safe.

The Silent Duchess, pp. 28 – 29

Self better hurry up, her mind just can’t seem to focus on anything, which makes this novel very slow going.

It feels like she just met the Duchess (who is deaf and dumb), and now here she is, being married off on p. 28. She is 13.

The Duchess learns of her fate from her mother, who writes her a note (full of mis-spellings, the education of women was pretty bad in those days).

The mother’s note:

Your father did everything to make you talk. He even took you with him to the Vicaria where the frite mite have helped you

(Here self must interject: the “frite” she refers to happened when the Duchess was five. Her father had taken her to Palermo to watch a public hanging. The victim was a boy who, it was said, had killed a dozen people. But to the Duchess, he wasn’t a murderer, he was just a boy)

The mother’s note continues:

You never uttered a word because your head is a sieve, you don’t have the will. Your sister Fiammetta is betrothed to Christ, Agata is promised to the son of Prince Torre Mosca, and you – your duty is to axcept the bridegroom we have found for you because we love you. We don’t want you wedded outside the family so we are giving you to your unkle Pietro Ucria di Campo Spagnolo, Lord of Scannatura, of Bosco Grande and of Fiume Mendola, Count of Sala di Paruta, Marquis of Sollazzi and of Taya. On top of all that he is my brother and your father’s cousin. And he loves you. Only with him will your soul find sanktury.

Stay safe, dear blog readers. Stay safe.

Starting: THE SILENT DUCHESS, by Dacia Maraini

Her mother presses her daughter to her with lazy tenderness. Marianna sees her lips moving, but she can’t be bothered to guess at her words. She knows she is telling her not to cross the road on her own; because of her deafness she could easily be crushed under the wheels of a carriage she has not been able to hear. And then dogs: no matter whether they are large dogs or small dogs she must give them a wide berth. She knows perfectly well how their tails grow so long that they wrap themselves round people’s waists like chimeras do and then, hey presto, they pierce you with their forked points and then you are dead without ever realising what has happened to you.

The Silent Duchess, by Dacia Maraini, Translated from the Italian by Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood, p. 10

Calvino: Reader and Other Reader Meet Cute

  • But something has changed since yesterday. Your reading is no longer solitary: you think of the Other Reader, who, at this same moment, is also opening the book; and there, the novel to be read is superimposed by a possible novel to be lived, the continuation of your story with her, or better still, the beginning of a possible story. This is how you have changed since yesterday, you who insisted you preferred a book, something solid, which lies before you, easily defined, enjoyed without risks, to a real-life experience, always elusive, discontinuous, debated.

Self knew it; she knew she shouldn’t have read forward.


The Reader attacks the book with a paper knife and penetrates to the heart of the book.




Too precious by half.


Stay tuned.

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