Le Quattro Ragazze Wieselberger is an autobiographical novel documenting a century of family history. The first part, from which this extract is taken, is an engaging account of the family’s fortunes, led by a passionately irredentist and music-loving patriarch, living in nineteenth-century Trieste, then still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (it would become part of Italy again after the First World War). It details the fates of the eponymous sisters: the tragically premature death of Adele (the beauty of the family) and the unhappy marriages of Alice and Elsa to philandering men, while Alba remains single. The subsequent parts of the novel follow the fortunes of Elsa and her children – Fausta and her brother Renato – in the twentieth century, which include tragic loss in war, separation and voluntary exile from Italy under fascism.
The novel holds historical appeal as a portrait of life in a culturally divided Trieste in the late 1800s, and the evolution of the new Italian nation over a century. However, the themes and experiences throughout have a universal relevance and contemporary relatability for readers who have lived in another country, struggled to build a career (particularly as women), or experienced personal loss or marital breakdown – in other words, anyone and everyone.
By Ailsa Wood Azzaro
This is how a sensible, well-to-do family from Trieste lived towards the end of the century. They could reside in a nice apartment in the city and own a large house in the country with a garden, vegetable plot and vineyard, the pantries of both bursting with all sorts of good things. Guests might arrive at any moment without causing any disturbance: the wardrobes were stocked with dozens of monogrammed damask-linen sheets, lace-trimmed, embroidered and pleated by hand, as well as hundreds of pillowcases, towels and cloths. The seamstress was a permanent fixture in the apartment and villa, with four girls to dress, each requiring a trousseau, regardless of whether any of them eventually ended up an old maid. Nevertheless, it was thought better to raise them believing that they were not wealthy, though the carriage and horses at the front door might have led them to think otherwise. The good Micél, growing older in the meantime, was therefore a long-term arrangement, the remnant of implied power.
The windows of the house in which the fourth sister was born (and perhaps some of the others too) overlooked Piazza del Ponte Rosso, but the entrance was on the side, in Via Genova, then called Via del Campanile, near the church of Sant’Antonio Nuovo. From the windows you could glimpse the splendid canal built on the old salt flats, which still penetrates the square, boats and barges floating on it, crossed halfway by the bridge. By leaning out a little from the balconies you could also see the sea, and in any case the scent of it was carried on the breeze. In the morning there was a large fruit-and-vegetable
market in the square with seasonal produce: piles of cherries and plums from the Karst region, figs, grapes and peaches from Istria, oranges and lemons brought up from Sicily – that is, from the longed-for kingdom of Italy – and heaps of beautiful, transparent redcurrants shining fire-red on the scales. The women who sold them were called venderìgole, while the gum-arabic and coffee huskers who sat on the steps of the church, waiting to be offered a day’s work or more, were called sessolote. The song they sang was well-known: ‘Sessolote lavoré – trenta soldi ciaparé – ventiquatro per la sala – quel che resta pel café’ (‘I’ll do a husker’s work, I’ll get thirty soldi, twenty-four for the hall, and the rest for a coffee’). The sala meant the dance hall. They were famous for other songs too, harmonised in three or even four voices. All these women heroically endured the beating sun, the lashing rain and the harsh gusts of the Bora, and those who could shelter under the frenetic flapping of the awnings counted themselves lucky. Nearby was Piazza della Legna (formerly Piazza San Lazzaro), renamed by the people because the wood market was held there, and piles of kindling and dry, seasoned wood were permanently stored amongst the poor hovels, which, had they caught fire, would have vanished in a swift, savage blaze; and this was why the first fire station was installed there.
By Fausta Cialente
Translated by Ailsa Wood Azzaro
LE QUATTRO RAGAZZE WIESELBERGER (‘The Four Wieselberger Sisters’)
by Fausta Cialente
published by Mondadori (1976); reissued by La Tartaruga (2018)
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Fausta Cialente (1898-1994) had a strong family connection to Trieste, her mother’s hometown and the city at the heart of her autobiographical novel, Le quattro ragazze Wieselberger. After marrying, Fausta lived in Egypt. She spoke in favour of the Resistance and against Italian fascism during the Second World War.
Ailsa Wood Azzaro is a British national who has lived in Italy for over thirty years. She is a translator, teacher, writer, and general linguaphile, and an avid reader in both Italian and English. No-one will play Scrabble with her as she gets too competitive.