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The pulverization of memory
Eloisa Morra
19 April 2023
published in Issue Three
Distant Fathers
Marina Jarre

(New Vessel Press, 2021)

Return to Latvia
Marina Jarre

(New Vessel Press, 2023)

Write your memoir in a hostile tongue.

Marina Jarre’s Italian sounds like no other. Her love of the written word and her perfect literary pitch sprung from her mother tongue, which was German:

I remember clearly when I realized that words placed in a certain order — following an absolute necessity — were beautiful. Rereading Schiller’s Don Carlos yet again (I read and reread the books that affected me, I carried with me everywhere, I didn’t care about the name of the author and savagely skipped the pages that didn’t interest me) — anyway, reading Don Carlos again, in the school edition that my mother, studying to be a teacher, had used at the university, I came to where the prince sees Elisabeth for the last time and says to her, « So sehen wir uns wieder » (so we meet again). I repeated the phrase and I was moved. I heard a small pause after the So and the lengthening toward death of the final wieder. I was moved not because the prince was about to die — a standard occurrence in a play — but by the inevitability with which the words were joined together, those words in that way.

Marina Jarre

This is just one of the many striking passages from Distant Fathers, an autobiography published in 1987 by Einaudi. It’s woven, too, with borrowings from French. Her writing can capture mental wanderings through syntactic inversions, rhythmic slowdowns, semantic slippages.

Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1925, to a Latvian father and an Italian-Waldensian mother (her Waldensian grandparents used to speak French at home), Jarre moved to Italy when she was ten years old — or more precisely to the region of Piedmont, the atmospheres of which are masterfully translated into her books. Despite her full mastery of Italian, her felt lack of command would be an obsession. « I don’t write well, » she confessed in a letter.

« a language I have to grasp every time, to render the improper proper »

Italy, the Belpaese, was a foreign country, whose history, language and social conventions she had yet to master. « Jarre interrogates Italianness from an insider-outsider perspective, » Saskia Ziolkowski notes in her review of Distant Fathers on the website Reading in Translation — most of her novels register the impossibility of fully understanding the course of Italian history. Jarre’s relationship with the language was conflicted, too. « Italian was », she recalled, « the Esperanto in which I began to write. »

Perhaps making sense of her own place in time and space required a lack of intimacy with her chosen tongue. Marina will choose the hostile language — « a language that’s not immediate, that I have to grasp every time, to render the improper proper » — as the compass on the map of her sentimental geography. After publishing a children’s book, Jarre made her literary debut with Un leggero accento straniero (A Slight Foreign Accent, 1972), a polyphonic novel centered on a former Nazi officer pretending to be a quiet Swiss engineer in postwar Turin. But it would not be until I padri lontani (Distant Fathers, 1987) and Ritorno in Lettonia (Return to Latvia, 2004), two autobiographies written in her spare time, that a unique style would be born.

In 2022, the Italian feminist collective Missconosciute created a poster that, in the form of an iceberg, visualized the Italian publishing world’s different levels of awareness — or lack thereof — towards twentieth century and contemporary women writers. The tip of the iceberg includes, not surprisingly, Elena Ferrante, along with Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Dacia Maraini and Alda Merini. Some of the most powerful Italian literary voices of the twentieth century — like Lalla Romano and Alba de Cèspedes, whose books have recently been translated into English — are underwater, in the Dantesque inferno of the drowned.

In 2022, the Italian feminist collective Missconosciute visualized the Italian publishing world’s different (un)awareness of women writers.

A curious fate can befall books by women authors

Jarre is placed there too, perhaps because of her « hard reserve », as Claudio Magris put it in Corriere della Sera in 2015. Her books were long out of print, though Italo Calvino and Primo Levi were among her admirers and her works had been published by renowned publishing houses between the 1960s and 1990s. In 2020, Italian publishing house Bompiani issued a reprint, at the instigation of the writer Marta Barone. Now New Vessel Press, already a harbinger of the revival of Anna Maria Ortese, is bringing Jarre’s work to the attention of anglophone audiences. After the release of Distant Fathers (2021), it’s now time for Return to Latvia (2023). Both titles are translated by the sharp pen of Ann Goldstein, noted translator of Primo Levi, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Elena Ferrante.

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Bousson, 1965: Marina at her house on the Alps

One cannot think of a more appropriate diptych with which to introduce Jarre. A curious fate can befall books by women authors, and Jarre’s work (like Lalla Romano’s, an author with a similar attitude towards life and language) was considered out of style and « out of time » in the politically engaged Italy of the 1970s, and in the male-dominated Italian publishing world. She avoided publishing op-eds or engaging in political debates, and didn’t join any literary cliques. Early critics would label her experiments with autobiographical writing and the short story as intimistic, and they would deem her historical novels (such as Ascanio and Margherita, set in seventeenth-century Turin) old-fashioned. But today Jarre’s reflections on dislocated temporality, female subjectivity and power dynamics sound pioneering, in many ways close to Annie Ernaux’s inquiry in The Years. Both authors’ narratives focus on the relationship between personal history and History, and on how identity is an unstable feature — often disseminated in the memories of others rather than lodged in our inner selves.

In a 1987 review of Distant Fathers, the journalist Isabella Bossi Fedrigotti called Jarre « a habitué of minorities: there she had been a German Jew in Orthodox Latvia, here she is a French Protestant in Catholic Italy ». There is a chapter of Italian literary history yet to be written on transnational women authors, mobility, and identity: Marina Jarre will certainly deserve the place of honor, alongside Helena Janeczek and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Jarre’s family history reflects a mixed and multifaceted identity, and not only on a linguistic level. Her mother, Clara Coïsson, was an Italian academic originally from Val Pellice, a valley southwest of Turin mostly inhabited by French-speaking Protestant Waldensians. A polyglot, Clara was a well-known translator from Russian for the Einaudi and Frassinelli publishing houses. After accepting a lecturer position in Riga, Clara met her future husband Samuel Ghersoni, a Latvian Jew who worked as a sales representative for Michelin.

Samuel Ghersoni, killed in Rumbula, 1941, with his daughter Irene Vilmu

Clara was as strong-willed as Samuel was charming and childlike. These poles of personality inflected both their loving relationship and the separation that followed Samuel’s multiple betrayals. Ten years after Marina and her sister Sisi were born, Samuel and Clara divorced. Samuel remarried a German nurse and was killed in 1941 (along with Marina’s six-year-old stepsister, Irene) during the Nazi roundups of Jews in Latvia, leaving his expat daughters with a mixture of regret and guilt.

Much of Jarre’s writing stems from this wound, and from the parallel need to become mother and father to herself. « As a woman I had to be born from myself, » she wrote in Distant Fathers. « I gave birth to myself along with my children. » From her father’s disappearance onwards, the future author always felt out of place. She sought Clara’s approval, always in vain, and suffered from her mother’s preference towards her better-looking, rebellious sister Sisi, and from incessant comparisons with her peers.

Riga, 1932: Marina on the left, her sister Sisi on the right

Only through writing could she make sense of her family history. The three parts of Distant Fathers (The Circle of Light, Pity and Anger, As a Woman) roughly coincide with Jarre’s Baltic childhood, wartime Italian adolescence, and adult womanhood spent in Turin. The reader is often disoriented by her pointedly visual writing, winding as it does through continually juxtaposed fragments. As in a collage, a handwritten letter on a desk is a piece to be reassembled:

I was twenty when, going into my mother’s room one day, I saw a letter on the desk, complete with salutation and signature, written in her beautiful clear handwriting. Even now the sight of any sample of her writing moves me, as if I had a more intimate relation with her writing than with her.

Jarre’s perceptions draw less on orality than on etymologies learned from multiple dictionaries. Words aren’t thundered in Return to Latvia, because they must be deciphered first, just as fragments of a family history must be deciphered:

On their marriage certificate, found in the attic in Torre Pellice, yellowed and dried out by time, and later deciphered with the help of a small German-Latvian dictionary, my father was said to be divorced, occupation merchant, resident of Baznicas Iela 13. My mother, single, lektrise at the university, of the Calvinist faith, he Mosaic. As for nationality, she Italian, he žids, Jewish, according to the tsarist definition that was still in use, evidently, in the free Latvian republic in December of 1924.

Jarre’s irony is bitter, often tinged with sarcasm, as if she needs a distancing filter to deal with events that are painfully close. Her autobiographical self is cold, impetuous; the irony spares it from sentimentality. The result is often merciless: translator Ann Goldstein is not wrong about the « unlikable and unreliable narrator ». If literary modernism had us immersed in the inner flow of the characters, Jarre — like the Italian-Swiss author Alice Ceresa, another displaced voice of the second half of the twentieth century — rather seems to perch us on the narrative scaffold. Instead of being inside the perceptions, we are in a series of dioramas, showing multiple temporalities crystallized.

Marina’s last encounter with her father, set in the town of Torre Pellice in 1937, is narrated in Distant Fathers and tinged with remorse:

We said goodbye in Vicolo Dagotti, the narrow street where my grandparents’ house was. Maybe I was on the way to school; I was alone, probably my sister had left before me. Just as I was about to turn onto the main street, my father, who had been standing at the corner, hurried after me and, catching up, lifted me in his arms and kissed me, weeping, on the mouth. That gesture — so alien to the habits of our relationship — stunned and repulsed me. When he put me down, I ran away without saying goodbye and left him there, on the street, tall in his dark overcoat. As I turned onto the main street, running, and wiped my mouth with my hand, I continued to wonder: What was he thinking? And at the same time I wondered: Who is he?

Originally published seventeen years later, Return to Latvia represents a different narrative attempt to encircle a pain at once private and collective. It has a double dedication: « Psalm 56 / Thou tellest my wanderings: / Put thou my tears in the bottle / Are they not in the book? » and « Reunited at last in this dedication / Are my father and mother, / Who for some years loved each other in Riga, / Where I was born. » The double quote carefully intertwines the personal and the collective thanks to a sacred allusion: Samuel and Clara’s short-lived love represents not only the meeting between a fragile masculinity and a powerful feminine force, but also between two People’s conflicted histories. On the one hand the Latvian Jews, who were a minority in predominantly orthodox Latvia; on the other hand the Waldensians — a religious movement born in France in the twelfth century, which preached apostolic poverty and was soon declared heretical by the Catholics and later absorbed in the Protestant Church. Both minorities shared a common thread of exile and loss stretching from the Middle Ages up to Nazi and Fascist regimes. Return to Latvia is an attempt to reconnect two histories of marginality, showing the lives and pain of those who weren’t accounted for in history books.

« This is old age, I said to myself, being absorbed in, limited to, one’s own carcass. »

The non-judgmental voice here is identical, but while Distant Fathers is a tentative self-portrait set in three different cities (Riga, Torre Pellice and Turin), Return to Latvia is — among many other possible definitions — the chronicle of a journey to the city of her childhood, seventy years later: « This is old age, I said to myself, being absorbed in, limited to, one’s own carcass. » It’s the summer of 1999: during a vacation in Sardinia, eighty-year-old Marina, now a widow, suddenly decides she would return with her son Pietro to where her story began. If in Distant Fathers the figure of her father, Samuel, appeared only in silhouette — « She observes, without ever really knowing him, her absent father, reckless and cheerful irresponsible, who stays out all night and by day goes around the house in dressing gown and slippers, smoking cigars with a gold band » — in Return to Latvia he hovers on every page. From the very first of the thirteen chapters we are confronted with a series of distorted perceptions, formal evidence of a still-gripping regret:

I write grew, lay, began. I should, of course, replace those pasts with a present. The house is still there, the flowers bloom, the mistral slams it, and it meets the wind not unlike a solid ship against the storm. Yet if I think about the house, it appeared, rising up there on the hill, just as we got to it driving along the narrow sandy road. And so a few weeks later, when we left, it disappeared.

The arrival in Riga is preceded by a series of investigations into her father’s past, an « enchanted prince » crystallized in childhood memories. Like so many literary fathers, Samuel Ghersoni is a phantom: soon the narrator realizes that for years she perceived him as a mere reflection, an ectoplasm rather than as an autonomous self. In the shadow of her mother’s negative judgments, she herself had contributed to this disintegration by throwing away his letters and photographs. Moreover, she and Sisi failed to respond to a plea for help that came in a letter in 1941, which carried « an unevenly underlined sentence, whose fatefulness I didn’t understand: ‘Because remember that you, too, are Jewish.’ I can still see it distinctly, word for word ».

Clara Coïsson Ghersoni and her two daughters in Riga, 1931 (Sisi on the left, Marina on the Right)

Knitting the threads of her writing, Marina realizes that beneath the negative figure constructed by Clara lies a handsome and courageous man to be rediscovered. The fate of that single man, moreover, is united by etymology with the fate of all Latvian Jews. Samuel’s surname, Ghersoni, whose -y or -i ending Marina cannot explain herself, reveals a Hebrew origin:

Reading the Bible I had happened on the Gershonites, first in Numbers, and later, farther back, in the beginning, Gershon, who was Moses’s first son, born to his Midianite wife. Of this incredible antiquity — and of the meaning of the name, which contained in itself a mark of future exile, the Hebrew root ger, foreigner — I could even have been proud, if I hadn’t had to explain my « nobility » every time to good-natured but indifferent idolaters.

To complete Return to Latvia, Jarre read books on the history of the Riga ghetto, drew news from family acquaintances, got in touch with other branches of the family online and over email. Most importantly, she collected letters from her family archives, including them in two specific chapters that document her and Sisi’s relationship with their parents. By intertwining those family letters with more recent correspondence with her relatives, she reconstructs the hardship of Samuel’s last days in Latvia. The word « letter » occurs 366 times in Return to Latvia, unveiling a persisting obsession for the materiality of writing. In a way, writing is the only means through which Marina was able to reassemble, as in a family photo, the torn pieces of her childhood; throughout the book, we are often invited to read letters she addressed to her mother (she originally wrote them in German, but all of them are translated into Italian). Letters seem a more reliable exercise of memory than Holocaust memorial museums. During her stay, Jarre visits the Holocaust museum in the Moscow District in Latvia with her son. Extremely technological, neat and clean, the setting immediately reveals its essence of being a « non-place », « a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity ».The plain labels of text on the walls are disappointing:

There is in fact a treacherousness in repetition, a treacherousness that, just like the magnitude of the numbers, contributes to rendering events abstract, making them the subject of discussions and dissertations, giving them at most a pedagogic character, taking away their flesh and blood and screams and blood and death rattles and blood. Once our mind accepts them, once the first jolt of dismay and horror has passed, they acquire an aspect I would call consolatory. We transform ourselves into readers or spectators; we reassure ourselves — « It couldn’t happen to me » — and we don’t want to reread the same page, witness the same scene.

The material elements Marina and Pietro are able to collect in their visit to Riga aren’t many, but the journey proves significant in itself. In setting out on the trail of beloved places (her childhood home, her neighborhood), the author is forced to come to terms with the pulverization of memory, to consider her own limitations and, for that matter, those of an entire civilization. Hers is neither a personal investigation nor a trial post facto, but rather a moral, philosophical inquiry.

Return to Latvia’s core lies in the author’s initial dismissal of her partly-Jewish identity. Recomposing the fragments of her father’s portrait goes hand in hand with a willingness to delve into the abyss; or, rather, into the « gray zone » powerfully explored by Primo Levi. A recurring image in this mix of judicial investigation, travelogue and autobiography is that of the crowds of Latvian Jews — including women, children, and sick old people — subjected to the round-ups in the Riga ghetto. The numbers are frightening: of the 40.000 Jews living in Latvia in the 1930s, only about a thousand survived. Dragged mercilessly into the Rumbula Forest, the remainder were shot and thrown into mass graves by German soldiers, with the blessing of the Latvian nationalists.

Marina plays with her doll house, 1930

Jarre’s clinical eye does not forgive Nazism nor collaborationism, nor the later grandeur of the Russians who annexed the country in July 1940 (« the Russian protests about the ‘difficulty’ of learning Latvian are curious, » she notes. « Might the obstacle be of a different type? It’s hard to be forced to learn the language of one’s own serfs! Hard to give up one’s own colonies! »). But Return to Latvia is not merely a j’accuse. Relying on her past studies of the history of religion, she welds reflections on Christian and Jewish heritage, and finds similarities between the fate of her paternal ancestors and that of the Waldensians on her mother’s side, long persecuted by the Catholics. In the book’s last scene, Pietro and Marina drive across the Rumbula forest, sixteen kilometers from Riga, in order to find the place where her father and her stepsister were killed and buried in November 1941:

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      « Let’s go back to the centre, » I said to Pietro. « We won’t find anything. »
      « No, » he said. « I still want to look in that direction. » […]
      Now, on the contrary, what became true and present in that Star of David that marked the place where they had killed him wasn’t my father’s death, it was his life. I found him alive. Getting out of the car, I stood, weeping, before the black stone placed on another black stone. On top of this, some pebbles. Pietro stood silently behind me. I didn’t read the writing; I dried my eyes and prayed. So, praying, I asked forgiveness in German, our language, from my father, my Papi, for what they had done to him and for leaving that morning in December, never to return.

Marina, the character, stands together with Pietro in front of the memorial, refusing to read the text on the commemorative stone; Marina, the author, cannot but write and capture the moment. The sparse materiality of the memorial leads her to acknowledge the fact that once, they were there, in line, forced to watch their peers die and lie down on their corpses before the fatal shot.

Marina, Riga, circa 1928

The focus on linguistic transmission in the book’s ending scene isn’t trivial: the original Italian version includes only one word of what she says in German — Papi, a common form in many languages, including Italian — and there is no transcription of her German prayers. By intertwining history and personal reflection, Jarre’s adult self can embrace her father’s memory and thus her multifaceted identity; not in German (her own native language, and that of her father’s killers), but through the Esperanto of Italian. The last word of the book is, not by accident, ritorno: « return ». Return to Lavia is the letter teenage Marina refused to write her father, when he asked his daughters for help.   

Marina Jarre

Marina Jarre in the early 1980s

The iceberg of Italian women writers

Poster created by the Italian feminist collective Missconosciute, visualizing the Italian publishing world’s different levels of awareness, or lack thereof, towards twentieth-century & contemporary women writers.


The collective’s name originates from a pun mixing the words « Miss » and « sconosciuta » (meaning « unknown »). The adjective « misconosciuto » in Italian refers to overlooked works and authors.

Critic Enzo Golino defined Ascanio and Margherita as a « polveroso arazzo » (dusty tapestry). See E. Golino, Sotto Tiro. 48 Stroncature, Manni, 2002.

Distant Fathers (originally published in 1987) has been compared to Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon (1963) because of its Piedmont setting and reflections on a multifaceted identity, but their eyes and ears are very different. Ginzburg translated orality into the novel-form, endowing her pages with a compelling comic tone, born out of her subtle use of underdetermination; Jarre relied mostly on ethymologies and plurilingualism.

The Italian Waldensian Church opposed Fascism, especially after the signing of the « Patti Lateranensi » (an agreement between the Holy See and Mussolini’s Fascist regime in 1929). Later on, many Waldensians took part in the Italian Resistance.

 « Every so often in the months that preceded my return to Riga I applied myself to deciphering the puzzle of the final y of Gersony. In Latvian the y doesn’t exist and in Russian it has the u sound. And is there a y in Hebrew? I don’t think so »

See Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, translated by J. Howe, Verso, 1995, 87.

A similar process of not reading is described in another passage of the book: « Looking sideways I glimpsed a photograph of an enormous open pit, three meters deep, overflowing with extremely thin, naked white bodies. On the edge, Germans in uniform. One of them had taken a picture. The label, merely glanced at, mentioned German Jews, shot in the forest of Biķernieki in 1943 »