When Clara Sereni was asked why she wrote she replied: “I write to give order to my own world, to establish a precise point; writing represents for me a moment of balance and a focus on reality through pathways which cannot be practiced with other tools. These paths belong to the structure of the literary discourse, to that grid that guides them in a layout, which is at the same time logical and emotional and reveals previously unknown perspectives” (Conversazione con Clara Sereni: Donne, Scrittura e Politica, 1996).
Writing is for Sereni a process that is better understood on its own terms as the unfolding of memory in the crevices of the present. Indeed, literature is for Sereni the ideal space to enrich one’s experience both of the everyday and of the past. In all her literary work she mixes the personal and the collective into a relationship with history and its cunning passages. In her work, history is imbued with personal experience and does not reduce historical facts to black and white representations. As can be seen in Casalinghitudine (1987) and Il gioco dei regni (The Game of the Kingdom, 1993), her writing allows for more nuanced representation of subjectivities, giving space for dreams, utopias, contradictions, and courage within the constraints of private space–such as the house—and public spaces and institutions—such as the political party, public office and the like.
Clara Sereni was born in Rome on August 28, 1946 to Emilio Sereni (1907–1977), a historian and parliamentarian born in Rome, who twice served as a minister in the Italian government. In 1928 he married Xenia (née Silberberg), an author and translator, who was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1905. She died in 1951. Clara had two sisters—Lea (1929–2003) and Marina (b. 1936)—and two half-sisters, Anna (b. 1957) and Marta (b. 1963). In 1978 Sereni married the film writer Stefano Rulli (b. 1949). Their son, Matteo, was born in the same year.
Clara Sereni now lives in Perugia, where she served as Deputy Mayor of the city from 1995 to 1997. She is the author of several novels, collections of short stories—Manicomio Primavera, (Spring Asylum, 1989), Eppure (And Yet, 1995)—as well as books of social and political commentary on contemporary Italy, such as Taccuino di un ultimista (Notebook of a Meek Woman, 1998). She has translated Stendhal, Balzac and Madame de Lafayette and has edited collections entitled Mi riguarda (I Care, 1994) and Si puo! (One Can, 1996).
Her literary career began with the appearance of Sigma Epsilon (1974). In the autobiographical mode that would characterize her whole literary production, she narrates the years of political commitment following the 1968 student disturbances. Even in her first book she expressed her distaste for professional politicians and for politics seen as a profession detached from the real needs and feelings of the people such politicians are supposed to represent. Sereni is particularly interested in giving space and voice to marginal personae, such as those suffering from mental illness (Manicomio Primavera) and in giving voice to the language of women. In Sigma Epsilon, for example, the female narrator recounts her fascination with one of the leading figures in the Italian leftist movement, with whom she has a love affair while acting as an aide in his political activity. In the book she records her alienation as a woman caught in a power struggle in which she has only a subaltern’s role. In this context, her most faithful companions become the two machines with which she works daily translating the messages of the leader which, in her view, have become technical, repetitive and void of any creativity. The two machines in question are “the cyclostyle and the typewriter,” which are now obsolete, but in the early 1970s were machines that signified political activism. In Sereni’s words, they were: “real tools of condemnation of the marginalization of those who are destined to a subaltern position. This also goes for leftist organizations, where there exists a division of labor still linked to sexual discrimination, according to which men are the leaders and women are their secretaries” (Sigma Epsilon, 1974).
Sereni’s relationship to politics, and especially to political commitment, is a complex and ever-present characteristic of her writing. It underlies her elaboration of ideas and projects which are developed in her works and for which she then attempts to find viability through her public role as an intellectual. In her view, intellectuals have an important task in contemporary society. They cannot limit themselves to watching the world from a window without trying to change the status quo. Sereni thinks that what is missing in contemporary intellectuals is the “ability to build a new utopia” which would provide the thrust to project a future model of society and political practice that would no longer be based on the model of traditional political parties. Another theme recurrent in her writing is her striving to establish an ethics of literary discourse and its practices. Thus it has become inevitable for her to dig into her family past, which is characterized by both communism and Zionism. Her father, Emilio Sereni, was in fact one of the leading figures in the Italian antifascist movement and in the communist party. Her uncle Enzo (1905–1944), who had lived in Palestine since 1927, was parachuted into northern Italy in May 1944 to join the partisans and help rescue Jewish survivors. He was captured by the Germans, interned in Dachau and executed in November 1944. His wife, Ada Sereni, became a central figure in the organization of “illegal” immigration to Palestine through Italy.
Her in-depth exploration of the intricacies of her family past is beautifully achieved in the novel Casalinghitudine (1987) and then transformed into a choral epic in her historical novel Il gioco dei regni (1993). In using the terms “novel” and “historical novel,” one must be cautious or use them with a pinch of salt, since Sereni’s is a writing that situates itself at the borderline of these two literary genres, both of which have a well-established position in the literary tradition. Sereni’s writing constantly slips from one genre to another by way of the language she employs and her recourse to archival sources, especially in Il gioco dei regni.
Casalinghitudine is testimony to Sereni’s striving to define women’s language and writing. This characterizes her work as a whole. In Casalinghitudine, domestic space and the time of food preparation with its various rituals represent the ideal location of memory. The house has always been associated with women and domesticity—a closed, private space that deprives them of any active participation in public life. But in Sereni, the house and the taste of food create the background to a transformation from being to becoming, which is achieved in the process of writing and in the elaboration of her language and literary form. The house is a dwelling and network of emotions that hides the mystery of the past in a forgotten corner or in an object, such as the teddy bear Miska in Il gioco dei regni, who seems to hold “many legacies in his tattered and worn out belly.” The house is the place where women have for centuries kept family memories in the form of photographs, objects, food and all the “non-verbal languages” in which women have talked and articulated their presence in history. Thus, in her own words, Sereni’s project is that of “recovering the ‘lost language of women,’” a language that perhaps never existed as such and that it is impossible to invent abstractly. Nevertheless, this is a language that has found an infinite possibility of expression in non-verbal languages such as food, clothing, etc. To look for this kind of language implies that one chooses a woman’s perspective and it means, for example, that one recounts gestures more than words. It also means going beyond a cultural superstructure that is inevitably masculine to search for a gender specificity that is somehow my own” (Taccunino di un’ultimista [April 1995]: 40).
It is in this way that Sereni’s writing always traces a trajectory or non-linear movement from being into becoming. Her exploration into the paths of memory leads her to refute the idea of rootedness, or being fixed in a permanent position. Indeed, she counters this idea of immobility and fixity. This is especially true for her Jewish identity, to which she belongs “by choice more than by destiny”( Taccuino, 12). She is aware, however, of the legacies as well as the contradictions of her Jewish heritage and its role within twentieth century Italian history. Indeed, in Il gioco dei regni which, together with Casalinghitudine, are her literary masterpieces, we find the most overt and in-depth questioning, searching and reconstructing of the Jewish legacy of Sereni’s family members. Il gioco dei regni retraces the history of three generations from the beginning of the twentieth century. Her family members were protagonists in some of the most traumatic events in history, from the early revolutionary movements in Russia where her maternal grandmother came from, to the two world wars, fascist Italy and the persecution of the Jews. Il gioco dei regni touches on all the emotions and contradictions, as well as the utopias, of its characters, who are caught in their attempt to find a balance—sometimes unsuccessfully—between their sense of duty and responsibility towards their ideals on the one hand, and the reality of their present condition, on the other.
Thus Sereni prefers to locate her roots in the air, as she writes in Casalinghitudine:
“My aereal roots are sunk into the jars, liquors, plants on the terrace, in the sweaters and blankets with which I would like to trap the world in a freezer: because in my life built of ill cut pieces, in my life as a mosaic (like the life of everybody and especially that of women) casalinghitudine is also a warm corner. A corner to be modified each moment, if it were fixed I would die. The recipes are only the bases on which each time to build new flavors, diverse combinations” (Casalinghitudine, 165).
Casalinghitudine in fact creates an interaction between food and recipes that constitutes the structure of the text, but also forms and beats time with food as a sort of musical counterpoint to images, tastes and flavors. The book goes from the present, when the protagonist is busy preparing food for a child, to the memories of dinners prepared during social and family gatherings, political meetings, meetings at the restaurant with her father and preparation of confectionary food after his death in the section called “Conservare.”
Events and people from the past are evoked through recipes and in the intimate relationship that this creates between the narrator and the space of the house. The theme of food and its interrelations with the everyday, this time overwhelmed by the lack of time for its preparation and enjoyment, also informs Sereni’s novel Passami il sale (Pass Me the Salt, 2002). Here she recounts the period of her public role as Deputy Mayor in Perugia and vividly depicts the bureaucratic contradictions that slow down and ultimately prevent the implementation of the projects she works on. She denounces the difficulty, even in a situation of power, of making one’s ideas heard or taken seriously, as in the case of her project to implement a proposal for a “legge sui tempi,” which was supposed to create a network of solidarity among citizens of different ages and groups, through voluntary work and the volunteering of one’s own time. For instance, she reports ironically how she stood alone in opposing sexual discrimination against women in the workplace and how other politicians (including some women) were indifferent to this issue. Her attention to women’s lives found new expression in her most recent novel, Le Merendanze (The Afternoon Snacks, 2004), in which a group of five women with different backgrounds and pasts meet and decide on impulse to create a project and raise funds for it. They gather sometimes for lunch, sometimes for a snack, all the time finding a new solidarity and the courage to bring life to their creativity.
Both Sereni’s fiction and non-fiction have enriched contemporary reflections on important issues such as identity and its relations with the politics of gender and ethnic diversity. Indeed, what is at stake in her writing is what one may call a politics of listening to any kind of diversity, from mental illness to race. Her writing is akin to an intimate space where emotions are located, out of which emerges a mosaic of different pieces held together by the passion and the ethics of the act of writing.
Sigma Epsilon. Venice: 1974; Casalinghitudine. Turin: 1987; Manicomio Primavera. Florence: 1989; Il Gioco dei regni. Florence: 1993; Eppure. Milan: 1995; Taccuino di un ultimista. Milan: 1998; Passami il sale. Milan: 2002; Le merendanze. Milan: 2004.
Cicioni, Mirna and Susan Walker. “Picking Up the Pieces: Clara Sereni’s Recipes for Survival.” In Novel Turns Towards 2000: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Narrative Writing from Western Europe, edited by John Gatt-Rutter, 35–47. Melbourne: 2000; Cicioni, Mirna. “Better Losers than Lost”: Self, Other and Irony in Clara Sereni’s Autobiographical Macrotext.” In Reconfiguring Italian Identity: Women Writing Lives, edited by Susanna Scarparo and R. Wilson. Leicester, UK: 2004; Kolsky, Stephen. “Clara Sereni’s Casalinghitudine: the Politics of Writing. Structure and Intertextuality.” Italian Quarterly 133–134 (Summer-Fall 1997): 47–58; Menozzi, Giuliana. “Food and Subjectivity in Clara Sereni’s Casalinghitudine.” Italica 71.2 (1994): 217–227; Miceli Jeffries, Giovanna. “Unsigned History: Silent, Micro-’Technologies of Gender’ in the Narratives of the Quotidian.” In Gendering Italian Fiction: Feminist Revisions of Italian History, edited by Maria Ornella Marotti and Gabriella Brooke, 71–84. London: 1999; Paulicelli, Eugenia, and David Ward. “Interview with Clara Sereni.” L’anello che non tiene 9:12 (Spring–Fall, 1997): 82–111; Properzi Nelsen, Elisabetta. “Clara Sereni and Contemporary Italian-Jewish Literature.” In The Most Ancient of Minorities: The Jews of Italy, edited by Stanislao G. Pugliese, 157–167. Westport and London: 2002.