by Lianne Moyes, Université de Montréal
On the back cover of Fabrizio’s Passion, the English version of Avril ou l’anti-passion, Antonio D’Alfonso describes the novel as "baroque." What is the significance of the latter term, a term which also surfaces within the pages of the novel (209)? The baroque, an art-historical period (approximately 1580 to 1750) but also an aesthetic, a tendency which recurs at strategic moments in history, is associated with ambiguity, uncertainty, incongruity, contradiction, transformation, multiple perspective, illusion, surface play, hybrid form, ornament, passion, and excess. Given the number of formal and aesthetic qualities as well as historical moments to which the term refers, it is important to specify what the baroque means to D’Alfonso at this historical juncture.
D’Alfonso is not the only one to use the term in the field of Quebec letters in the 1980s and 1990s. The term "baroque" surfaces, for example, in Louise Dupré’s work on Madeleine Gagnon, Robert Richard’s analysis of Hubert Aquin, Claudine Bertrand’s presentation of new currents in québécois writing, Pierre L’Hérault’s discussion of D’Alfonso, Michel Peterson’s writings on Claude Gauvreau and Lianne Moyes’ work on Nicole Brossard. Nor is this the first period in which the baroque has known a certain currency in québécois literary discourse. According to Jacques Marchand in his study of Gauvreau’s writing, the term was used widely in the 1950s and 1960s in the sense of "uneven," "excessive," "unusual" and "exaggerated." Gauvreau, who published a novel entitled Beauté baroque in 1952, considered "baroque" a work marked by the rush of life’s impulses, by the erratic texture of desire (84-85).
Without a doubt, Fabrizio’s Passion qualifies as such a work. The baroque manifests itself in the novel’s multiple perspectives, formal heterogeneity, surplus of languages, movement between times and places, preoccupation with surfaces (especially scars) and attention to the passions, to various states of emotional and physical extremity. However, subtending all of these manifestations of the baroque is the question of cultural difference; and it is this question which gives the baroque its specificity in D’Alfonso’s writing. Drawing upon a conversation between D’Alfonso and Pasquale Verdicchio published in Duologue, upon an essay by Verdicchio in his collection Devils in Paradise, and upon D’Alfonso’s poems "Il nuovo barocco" in the collection The Other Shore, I will suggest that the baroque accommodates the hybrid subjectivities and linguistic instability which accompany a history of migration. Such a history is one of the key producers (and effects) of late twentieth-century global culture. As a loosely woven set of aesthetic practices and preoccupations which recur particularly at moments of cultural and technological crisis and transformation, the baroque allows a text such as Fabrizio’s Passion to underline and reflect upon the temporal and geographical precariousness of its own cultural location. Something I do not address in this paper but which is nonetheless crucial to the baroque in D’Alfonso’s novel is the question of technology, particularly that of how the medium of film confronts cultural difference.
The term ‘baroque’ appears in a recently published conversation between D’Alfonso and Verdicchio, a conversation about the way those with a history of migration locate themselves in language. "[T]he infinite intricacies of language," the two writers agree, "are Baroque" (Duologue 32). This assertion follows a lengthy discussion of "the invention of a new poetic language" in the work of Verdicchio, Mary Melfi, D’Alfonso and others. This new poetic language, Verdicchio explains, "has moments of narrative" (28) but for the most part resists linear narrative. Fabrizio’s Passion, D’Alfonso points out, works in a similar way, presenting the reader with fragments instead of fully developed characters and a single narrative thread (28). Such writing gives the reader a sense of the disjunction, tension, and complexity which mark the writer’s relationship to language and to culture (31). From Verdicchio’s point of view, the challenge for a writer who has migrated from one place to another is to find a language in which to express his/her condition. Another challenge—for writer and critic alike—is not imagining that condition representative. There is a danger, he suggests, in reducing writing to "mere themes," that is, themes that are taken to be representative of a particular group (24), themes that present a "shallow and unidimensional picture of what any group is capable of achieving" (24-25). Without making the baroque a model or a theme, then, I would like to explore its relevance for a reading of Fabrizio’s Passion.
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D’Alfonso’s novel revisits several of the paradigmatic narratives of Italian-Canadian fiction: leaving Italy for America, rejecting the old country in favour of the new, returning to Italy. However, these narratives, available only in fragments and lived differently by different characters, do not constitute the narrative trajectory of Fabrizio’s Passion. Although the narrator provides enough information for the reader to piece together an outline of his family history, such a reconstruction is not a priority of the novel. The text explores many histories and conflicts, among them Fabrizio’s experience as a writer/filmaker and the situation of Fabrizio’s sister Lucia as a woman in an immigrant family.
In a sense, the novel begins at the beginning with the narrator’s parents in Italy prior to emigration. Yet this beginning is complicated by the very terms of its representation. The beginning is, in fact, Fabrizio’s translation into English (or French) of an excerpt from his mother’s diary and of letters his father wrote to his mother before his birth. In place of the story of the parent’s experience of Italy prior to emigration, the reader finds a set of documents, a written trace of that experience. In the beginning, then, is the parents’ writing. I am reminded of Lea’s assertion later in the narrative, "[w]e believe that we are better than the men and women who came before us. But we are simply wasting our time in ‘reinventing the umbrella’ only because our parents invented it first" (111-12). Writing is not something unique to Fabrizio’s generation or to the family’s Canadian experience; writing begins elsewhere. This is part of the point of Duologue: culture exists as an ongoing process in Italy as well as in Canada, and indeed as a potential dialogue between the two. In translating his parents’ writing, Fabrizio translates himself into a writer. Insofar as he simultaneously adopts the language of the majority and marks it with traces of his parents’ language and culture, his writing bears witness to the movement between languages and cultures which shapes his family history and his sense of self. Translation, here, is no simple equivalence, no mere substitution of one word for another.
Rather than taking the form of a nostalgic, retrospective glance on the part of Fabrizio or his parents, the novel’s return to Italy takes the form of a translation of key moments in the lives of each of Fabrizio’s parents. The mother’s diary documents the transition in 1944 from German to American control of Guglionesi, and the letters speak, among other things, of the father’s ongoing questions during his military service in the late 1940s about where he wants to live: in America, a place his friend Cavanna idealizes; in Argentina where, according to his father, meat is inexpensive and life is easy; or in Udine where there is the chance of a job (27). Clearly, Canada is not the only choice. Nor is economic prosperity the sole motivation. Fabrizio’s father expresses a desire "to look at life from another angle, live it differently" (27), a desire one might call baroque.
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In the first chapter of Devils in Paradise, entitled "Subalterns Abroad: Italian Canadian Writing Between Nations and Cultures," Verdicchio is at pains to complicate the notion of a singular, coherent Italian culture as a point of departure for the "e/im-migrant" (8) writer and that of a unified Canadian culture as a point of arrival. Both cultures, he suggests, are far from static. He also rejects models of acclimatization and acculturation which require that the e/im-migrant writer leave behind the old identity and embrace the new. Verdicchio emphasizes the new languages and cultural processes which emerge from friction between and within cultures or from forms of resistance to the official culture of arrival.
His first example of such resistance is drawn from the final section of D’Alfonso’s The Other Shore, entitled "Il nuovo barocco" in which the speaker announces "I shall no longer write (in English)" (D’Alfonso 155) yet continues the poem in English (Verdicchio 20). Verdicchio’s discussion of ‘Il nuovo barocco’ is suggestive for my argument not only because it foregrounds the way D’Alfonso’s speaker inhabits English while contesting English (along with French and Italian) but also because it makes a link between the baroque and issues of language, culture and history. Verdicchio reads the cultural production of e/im-migrants in terms of what D’Alfonso, citing Marshall McLuhan, calls "the moment of change" (D’Alfonso 150; McLuhan 18). The moment of change is not a stage in an immigrants’ process of finding a Canadian identity. Change, here, is far more multidirectional. In explaining the moment of change, McLuhan draws upon Roy Daniells’ discussion of the Baroque sculptor Bernini, a discussion which sheds further light on the baroque as D’Alfonso understands it:
The moment of change was a favourite Baroque theme. Bernini, as we have noticed, represents Anchises and Proserpine at the instant of their being carried off, Daphne as the bark folds round her body and her fingers put forth leaves. The action looks both ways and we know from the extreme and subtle expressivenes of Bernini’s modelling . . . both what the subjects have been and what they will be. (Daniells 179)
Transposed to the context of e/im-migration, the moment of change is neither a nostalgic backward glance nor a naïve valorisation of the new. In Daniells’ terms, it "looks both ways." The moment of change alters the cultures of departure and arrival irrevocably. It is neither the relinquishing of the cultures the e/im-migrant has known nor the adoption of the cultures s/he is coming to know; it is the transformation of both of those cultures. A locus of interference between cultures, the e/im-migrant brings cultures into contact and produces in her/his work new forms of writing, new forms of cultural production. S/he becomes another and, at the same time, as Verdicchio points out in his reading of ‘Il nuovo barocco,’ English "‘becomes another[’s]’" (20). The baroque, an aesthetic which in McLuhan’s terms seeks "to unify disparate facets and experiences by directing attention to the moment of change" (18), is ideally suited to a writer in the process of making sense of and giving literary form to the shifting languages, fractured cultural discourses, and multiple temporal and spatial references through which he constitutes himself.
Fabrizio’s Passion explores the moment of change in several contexts. One of the most vivid examples is the farewell photograph of Fabrizio’s paternal grandparents which Fabrizio examines just after his grandmother’s death. Searching the bodies and faces in the photograph for signs of emotion, Fabrizio finds his grandmother less favourably disposed than his grandfather toward the departure which prompts the photograph. He imagines their eyes staring at "[t]he place where they both will be" and concludes that "the present moment is but an interstice between the old life and the new life" (157). The action of looking both ways (Daniells 179) is precisely what Fabrizio finds in the grandmother’s ambivalence and in the farewell photograph’s reference both to the selves they are leaving and to the selves they are becoming.
The five scars Fabrizio describes in Chapter 5, too, capture ambivalence, in this case, Fabrizio’s ambivalence toward his culture and family. Fabrizio reads his scars as marks of tensions within himself, particularly within his relationship to his body and his heritage. In his terms:
Scars turn the body into a sign. The body comes to mean something else, this something else leaving a mark on the sensitive skin of being. On the body, the initials of a particular event. There are five such scars on my body. None too serious, each one easily hidden by clothes.
Let’s speak about these scars, for they bring me back to my history, to my origins, to what has made me the one I am today, physically speaking. (66)
Each of Fabrizio’s scars has something to do with the tension between a desire to leave the family home, "to free [him]self of [his] origins" (54) and a desire to honour the roles and relationships that constitute his family and his culture. The first and third scars he gets in the presence of his mother, the first in the kitchen—"the heart" of the family (48)—playing cat and dog with his sister Lucia (66-67), and the third from his mother’s iron as he kisses her on the cheek after negotiating with her for his own room in the basement (70-72). Just as Fabrizio is "burned" by this move downstairs and away from the heart of the family at age fourteen, he receives the other three scars while engaged in activities that are identifiably Canadian or, at least, North American. As a child, he escapes his family’s Italianness by spending time with his more Canadianized cousins who live outside Montreal. On one occasion, he gives up his Italian-made Toledo bicycle which is too fragile for country roads to ride his cousin’s wagon. But the frenzied wagon ride, emblematic of an exaggerated refusal of his own cultural heritage, ends with a nail in his ankle (69-70). Similarly, a game of baseball leaves him with a serious head injury (72-74); and an over-zealous descent on cross-country skiis ends in a gash beneath the eye (74-76).
The larger point of the chapter about scars is not simply that taking leave of one’s family and one’s origins hurts; although clearly it does. The larger point has to do with Fabrizio’s ambivalence, with his sense of each scar as capturing the simultaneous loss and gain involved in adopting new cultural practices. The scars, then, take us back to the baroque—not only, as I had originally thought, because they transform the skin into an elaborately wrought surface—but also because they are vivid instances of McLuhan’s moment of change. Not unlike the diary, the letters and the farewell photograph, they document moments of passage, for example, in the relations between childhood and adulthood or between Italy and Canada. These relations are in no way unidirectional. As the account of the scars demonstrates, the relations are characterized by oscillation, by movement back and forth. This temporality, this logic, is clear throughout the novel: pasta which is unpalatable one minute solicits compliments the next (62-65); and adulthood repeats the patterns of childhood (109).
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Terms such as "ambivalence" and "oscillation" suggest movement between two poles. Although there is a strong sense of "there and here" in D’Alfonso’s novel, there is also a strong sense of the heterogeneity of both spaces. The fact that "Italian" exists as "different dialects" spoken by children at Saint Finbarr’s school (73-74), and as the "formal Italian" (141) Fabrizio and his sister Lucia have never learned or that their father needs translated during his military service (22), reminds us that in Italy there is no one-to-one relationship between language and territory. Fabrizio’s Montreal is is also a place of many languages: "The city I call my native city was called Monreale. . . . Monreale confers on me the privilege of being three persons in one" (212). Each language allows Fabrizio to perform himself differently. At the same time, choosing the appropriate language entails a certain loss, a loss which is particularly palpable in Fabrizio’s address to his Nonna Angiolina after her death. He explains that he must write to her in English (French in the French version) in order "to be understood by the men and women who will read this book" (164). Juxtaposing Italian, French and English—"[e]commi solo, me voilà seul, here I am by myself, Nonna, Grandmother, Grandmère" (164)—the text emphasizes the set of choices Fabrizio confronts each time he speaks or writes, and concretizes the way in which languages cohabit the space of Montreal. Fabrizio’s sense of his identity—his Italian identity as much as his québécois and Canadian identity—is plural and deterritorialized.
If, as I have suggested, the baroque allows for multiple, even contradictory, identifications and for ongoing processes of cultural transformation and resignification, it also destabilizes the nationalist equation of land, language and identity. Late in the novel, Fabrizio exclaims to his lover, "O Lea, how can I tell you where I come from if I haven’t said where I am for the present moment. I want to be a stateless man. An eternal pilgrim" (214). Again we find a baroque tension between the question of where Fabrizio comes from and where he is. Fabrizio clearly finds neither "where he’s from" nor "where he is," on its own, sufficient explanation for who he is; he wants to be both and, in resistence to the very question of identity posed in these terms, he wants to be neither. "I do not limit myself to blood, or language, or flag" (170), Fabrizio tells Mario.
The question of passion, so key to the baroque preoccupation with representing the subject transported by something outside itself, is a source of ambivalence in D’Alfonso’s novel. A number of Fabrizio’s comments on what he calls the "nationalist obsession" (212) take place during sexual encounters. "Yes," he asserts on one occasion, "a nation does not limit itself to its geographic boundaries…Open the minds of people…Or else refuse to give your love to another person" (108). Fabrizio, who at one point in the novel asks himself "Why love when you are so happy on your own" (91), begins to realize that to love is like speaking "[i]n another language. For the other. Aware that the other will become [him]" (106). Love opens him to an awareness of his own self-otherness as well as to an awareness of his relationship to other subjects. When he writes of nations moving beyond geographical borders, Fabrizio is extending this model of an ethical relationship to others to the sphere of the nation. I am also reminded of the exchange between D’Alfonso and Verdicchio at the end of Duologue about the e/im-migrant who, confronted with hatred, responds with love (118).
If for Fabrizio, love recognizes otherness, passion poses the risk of blindness and obsession. Fabrizio associates the terms "blindness" and "obsession" with his passion for Lea (114;121) as well as with ethnic nationalism: "What can I say, Lea, about the nationalist obsession that blindly leads men and women to believe that a piece of land should grow its own particular brand of people?" (212). Toward the end of the novel, Fabrizio turns to music in order to avoid falling into what he calls "the catastrophe of passion, the disorders of selfish appetites, and the baseness of tyrannical platitudes" (221). At its best, love takes place "[i]n un’altra lingua. In another language" (106); at its worst, love sinks its tongue into the mouth of another and comes up not with a new language but with "the silence of the victor" (117). It is this effacement of the other, of difference, that Fabrizio finds in discourses of nationalism. Hence the title of the French version: Avril ou l’anti-passion. "L’anti-passion" is, among other things, a stance Fabrizio adopts to resist a "geography of self" which limits itself "to blood, or language, or flag’ (170).
* * *
Fabrizio’s Passion flirts with the cosmopolitanism of the writing of modernity. As Sherry Simon explains, "l’écriture de la modernité est celle qui se maintient dans un espace entre identités, dans un espace hors-identitaire. Ce ne sont pas les régimes d’appartenance, mais les espaces de l’exil, réel ou imaginé, qu’expriment les grandes oeuvres de la modernité (41). Like much of the writing of modernity, D’Alfonso’s novel explores the spaces between identities—sexual, gender, and cultural identities—and the precarious moments of encounter between languages. However, if Fabrizio, the artist-figure, has difficulty belonging, if he inhabits the edges of his community, it is not because he is in exile but rather because he inhabits a space of multiple, adjacent, and overlapping cultures and languages. The latter space, an effect of forces of globalization as well as colonization and immigration, might be characterized in terms of postmodernity more than in terms of modernity. In such a space, the relations between "self" and "other" through which the exiled artist-figure becomes other without losing his/her privilege simply do not obtain.
In rereading the list of formal and aesthetic qualities with which I open this essay, formal and aesthetic qualities associated with the baroque, I cannot help thinking of the postmodern. Is the baroque a new way of speaking about postmodernity? In many ways, it is. But in the context of Quebec culture and in the context of D’Alfonso’s writing, the baroque has a specificity which the postmodern does not. There is a connection, for example, between baroque aesthetics and Catholicism, a set of practices and beliefs crucial to many communities in Quebec. Even more important for D’Alfonso’s novel is the association of the baroque with hybridity, with the meeting of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other realities in the streets of Montreal. In French-language writing in Quebec, the baroque captures the intensity of the Quiet Revolution and of recent debates surrounding cultural and linguistic heterogeneity; in English-language writing in Quebec, the baroque has become more important in the 1980s and 1990s as the English community grapples with its own transformations, especially the process of "minority becoming" (Moyes 4). Questions of cultural hybridity and historical change are key to Fabrizio’s Passion. Insofar as the baroque emphasizes the emotions, desires and bodies through which a subject lives hybridity and change, D’Alfonso has a stake in engaging with the baroque.
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Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services