Meeting in Positano
By Goliarda Sapienza
Other Press: May 11, 2021
Paperback original, 256 pages, $15.99
Goliarda Sapienza may be virtually unknown to Americans, but in Italy she was a famous stage and screen actress in the 1940s and 1950s who turned to writing autobiographical works and fiction in the 1960s. Sapienza worked with some of Italy’s most famous filmmakers and became part of the intellectual elite. She was shaped in part by her experiences during World War II. In 1943, at age 19, she took a break from her acting studies to join an anti-fascist brigade, and she remained an outspoken political activist throughout her career.
Unfortunately, her frank and unconventional writing found little success in her lifetime. Most of her work was published after her death in 1996. Meeting in Positano, written in 1984, was not published in Italy until 2015 and it is only now being published in English. That is good news for lovers of Italy and Italian fiction.
In Meeting in Positano, Sapienza tells a story, based on her own experiences, of an unusual friendship with a mysterious young widow named Erica in the isolated town on the Amalfi Coast during the 1950s, before it became a famous getaway favored by celebrities. It is a tribute to a very specific time and place and to a particularly intense friendship with a woman who could not have been more different.
Erica, in her late 30s, is a wealthy, aristocratic widow, beautiful in an imperfect way, who is lonely and, as she admits, not good at making girlfriends. For Goliarda, it is platonic love at first sight, as she is utterly taken by Erica’s unique appearance and charisma. In fact, most of the residents of Positano–a charming, eccentric group of supporting characters–appear to be in love with her. But no one really knows much about her background.
Slowly, the two women, separated by nearly a decade in age, become “the sisters,” as some in the town start to call them. Through long conversations and days spent on the beach and on the water, they come to know each other well, and we learn all about Erica’s life. Goliarda methodically peels back the layers that make up Erica and the development of their complicated relationship over the next ten years.
Meeting in Positano is both an intriguing dual character study of two unusual women and a love letter to a town that no longer exists in its charming 1950s incarnation, before new roads made it easier to reach. Goliarda describes Positano as “a place that was still isolated from the barbaric advances of products, merchandise, and urban madness.”
Erica describes the power of Positano to Goliarda: “Positano, as my father used to say, has always been the destination of the different, in every sense. He said that you could see Positano syndrome written on the faces of the most disparate people whom the god of travel made you run into here.”
Later, she explains why spending time there, escaping from her life in Milan, has been crucial. “Positano can cure you of anything. It opens your eyes to your past suffering and illuminates your present ones, often saving you from making further mistakes. It’s strange, but sometimes I get the impression that this cove protected by the bastion of mountains at its back forces you to look at yourself square in the face, like a ‘mirror of truth,’ while this great sea, usually so calm and clear, similarly inspires self-reflection.”
Soon, Goliarda finds that Erica serves a similar role in her conflicted life: she is a “mirror of truth” reflecting her own strengths and weaknesses back at her, helping her to make sense of her emotions and decisions.
Erica has finally found a friend she can reveal herself to, something she believes is essential in everyone’s life.
“[Y]ou need to tell everything about yourself at least once, if you’re lucky enough to find someone you can trust. No one can keep it all bottled up forever, or else they’d go insane . . . And besides, life is always a novel left unwritten if we leave it buried inside of us, and I believe in literature. Only what’s written lasts and over time shapes itself into a life—the only life that’s legible, even if seen from countless angles, and, paradoxically, the only one that’s absolutely true.”
Goliarda Sapienza believed that too, fortunately for readers.