Arethusa & Artemisia

Anna Banti’s novel Artemisia reviewed by Susan Sontag in a game of hide and seek, of lost manuscript, lost novel, found character, found subject …

‘Non piangere.’ Don’t cry. Who is talking to whom? It is the stricken author talking to herself, telling herself to be brave. But she is also addressing the heroine of her novel, ‘my companion from three centuries ago’, who had lived again on the pages in which Banti had told her story. And, as she mourns, images of Artemisia surge through Banti’s mind, first of ‘a disillusioned and despairing Artemisia’, middle-aged, in Naples, not long before her death, then of Artemisia as a child in Rome, ten years old, ‘her delicate features expressing pride and ill-treatment’. Mocking the loss of the manuscript, ‘the images continue to flow with a mechanical, ironical ease, secreted by this shattered world.’ Artemisia is lost, but Artemisia, her lamenting phantom presence, is everywhere, irrepressible. Soon – Artemisia’s distress, and Banti’s, are too keen – the anguished first-person voice of the author makes way for the voice of Artemisia, and then gives itself permission to become intermittently, then for longer stretches, the third-person voice that narrates the painter’s life.


Never has the passion of novelist for protagonist been so intently formulated. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Artemisia is a kind of dance with its protagonist: through it course all the relations that the author can devise with the fascinating woman whose biographer she has decided to be. The lost novel has been recast as a novel about a haunting. Nothing so crude as an identification: Anna Banti does not find herself in Artemisia Gentileschi – any more, or less, than Woolf thinks that she is Orlando. On the contrary, Artemisia is for ever and supremely someone else. And the novelist is her thrall – her amanuensis. Sometimes Artemisia is coquettishly inaccessible. (‘In order to further reproach me and make me regret her loss, she lowers her eyelids, as though to let me know that she is thinking about something and that she will never tell me what it is.’) Other times she is yielding, seductive. (‘Now it is for my benefit alone that Artemisia recites her lesson; she wants to prove to me that she believes everything that I invented.’) The book is a testament, dictated by Artemisia. But also a tale, propelled by whim and filled out with figments of the author’s imagination, not at all at Artemisia’s behest, though she may waive her objections. Banti asks and receives Artemisia’s permission to tell. She runs up against Artemisia’s reluctance to admit the author to her thoughts. The game of concealment is mutual: ‘We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I.’

London Review of Books
Vol. 25 No. 18 · 25 September 2003
“A Double Destiny” by Susan Sontag

The chasing game tugs in an intertextual flow in the direction of a fountain, another tale “propelled by whim and filled out with figments of the author’s imagination”. The fountain — allusive / illusive — of Arethusa

And so for day 2784

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