Ippolita Avalli


Part Nine Chapter 14

̶ So, what are you up to these days? you ask Riva.
̶ Translation. I’ve just finished an anthology of erotic fiction. By women, of course.
̶ Of course. French to Italian, or the other way around?
̶ The other way around. Italian to French.
̶ And how long have you been working as a translator?
̶ You don’t remember?
̶ No.
̶ I’d already started when I was going out with Inès.
̶ Is that so?
̶ Yes. Now I can afford to translate only what I like.
̶ You must be very good.
̶ I’ve worked hard…

So this is Riva, the woman who, before she met Inès, had never had an erotically satisfying relationship. Neither with a man nor a woman. Struggled against her homosexuality. On experiencing its power, she was shocked and desperate, appalled at her own response. Felt condemned, as if she’d just signed her own death sentence. This Inès told you in the Lounge of Neon Lies.

̶ You know, Marietta, there’s a story in the anthology that makes me think of you.

Never experimental, never casual, never promiscuous: That, we would learn, was how Riva was in all her affairs: Serious. Always serious.

̶ Yeah, really?
̶ Yes. It’s by Ippolita Avalli. It’s called ‘Simena’.
̶ I’ve read it. Ten times. That’s how much I love it.
̶ But my translation’s not out yet!
̶ Have you forgotten I’m perfectly at home in Italian? But if it would please you, I’ll read your French translation.
̶ No, no, if you’ve already read the original…

Odilon Redon, Adam and Eve, 1912

By Maria Rosa Cutrufelli

It is through the enigmatic alchemy of body-sexuality-language that the dream of female freedom, of being and becoming a subject, of representing oneself as a subject, takes shape. The dream gains a dimension of reality when, at last, the word is translated into writing.

The true and proper passion of many women for the practices of writing has its origin here, in this process of construction and representation of oneself as a subject. But in this process sexuality plays an ambiguous role. Erotic desire and activity (which constitute the plot, the meshwork stretched upon the loom of sexuality) can be implosive, fragmenting, incoherent. Narrative, the literary account, often emphasizes the ostensibly triumphant subject’s sensation of being eclipsed as it penetrates into the darker and more secret mazes, the more unexplored recesses of desire. But with what consequences?

“Eros is at work in all writing,” writes the Canadian theorist Nicole Brossard[1]. And one immediately asks, what might this mean for women? To which body is Eros being here referred? Which body, which desire, which subject is passing through the writing?

This is a question one must inevitably pose in the long voyage of exploration toward sexuality. And one of the most arduous journeys is certainly the one that leads us into the “forbidden city” of erotic literature. […]

Many women authors have tried to construct maps, to delimit borders. In these literary cartographies of sexuality and of erotic desire, experimentation is, for many such writers, the primary navigational tool. […]

Obscenity, pornography, eroticism—the boundaries between these concepts are labile, subjective. They shift according to changing epochs, tastes, customs.

Angela Carter, who in her novels writes about the “mistresses of the whip,” of female slaves and sadistic pleasures, shrewdly observes, “I believe that people find many different things erotic, and I find it difficult to generalize … Perhaps one characteristic of erotic literature, if I had to try to define it as a genre, is that of not taking sex for granted.” Eroticism, generally speaking, “problematizes sex,” while in pornography “sex is everywhere, in every form, is a consumer product that loses its value.”[2]

Erotic literature, on the other hand, is precisely the exploration of the boundaries between the obscene and the erotic, between pornography and erotic art, between the great temptation and the great challenge. This play of stereotypes within the genre—what is masculine, what is feminine, what belongs to men, what to women—is conducted along a very fine edge and is always dangerously balanced between convention and transgression. […]

Eroticism is a form of knowledge that writers and philosophers have from time to time tied to an idea of loss and of suffering, a feeling of dissipation, and a “strong” concept of power from which there is no escape. The erotic experience, wedded in this way to mystical experience, destroys reality at the very moment in which it discovers it. In his introduction to a well-known work of Georges Bataille, Alberto Moravia writes, “The sexual relation, like Attila, leaves no grass on the ground over which it passes. It creates desert around itself and calls that desert ‘reality’.”  Since it projects man outside of the world, the erotic experience is a devaluation and rejection of the world itself. And no return is ever possible, as Moravia writes: “The bridges are burned; the real world is lost forever.”[3]

This grandiosely tragic vision of the power of sex is by no means unfamiliar to women. But there is a difference, the difference that for women, return is always possible. The cancellation of the world is never total, never definitive. Destructiveness is not an obsession. Alina Reyes, who achieved success in France with her first published work, an erotic tale, has explained with great simplicity: “Male eroticism is too enslaved to its ghosts, its stereotypical and repetitive fantasies, voyeuristic imaginings; at bottom, to abstractions. Women, instead, are more tied to the concrete experience of the flesh, to matter.”[4]

From the Introduction to In the Forbidden City: An Anthology of Erotic Fiction by Italian Women, edited by Maria Rosa Cutrufelli, translated by Vincent J. Bertolini (University of Chicago Press, 2000). Posted by kind permission of Maria Rosa Cutrufelli.


[1] Nicole Brossard, The Aerial Letter, trans. Marlene Wildeman (Toronto: The Women’s Press, 1988), 83
[2]1 Angela Carter, interviewed by Paola Bono, Tuttestorie, vol. 1 no. 0 (March 1990).
[3] Georges Bataille, Storia dell’occhio (Rome: Gremese, 1991), preface by Alberto Moravia.
[4] Alina Reyes, interviewed by Marisa Rusconi in Tuttestorie, vol. 1 no. 0 (March 1990).

Egon Schiele, Lovers—Self-Portrait with Wally, 1914