You know you’re in for a complicated novel when the author writes a foreword, someone else (Susan Sontag) writes an introduction, and the translator provides an afterword. So much explanation! In this case, we learn that Artemisia is a rewritten novel; the manuscript of the first version was destroyed in the bombing of Italy during the last days of World War II. In the reborn version of the novel, Anna Banti’s misfortune provides a prism through which we see the lifelong anger and frustration of Artemisia Gentileschi, outspoken rape victim, illiterate, and the best-known female painter of the Italian Renaissance.
Artemisia certainly has quite a bit to be frustrated about: her husband leaves her, motherhood bores her, and she spends most of her life trying unsuccessfully to win her distant father’s love. There is no acceptable role for her in her society, and she is consistently underestimated and misunderstood. Unfortunately for the reader, Artemisia has no sense of humor whatsoever, and her unrelenting misery and alienation make her trying company as the book progresses.
The book is evocative and beautifully written; Anna Banti illuminates Artemisia’s story with a lifetime of study in art history. However, the author’s habit of interposing herself into the narrative, as if she could ask Artemisia herself about certain plot points, is irritating. I sympathize with the author’s troubles, but I am not sure they should become the reader’s.