cover image The Woman Watching

The Woman Watching

Paola Capriolo. Serpent's Tail, $13.99 (224pp) ISBN 978-1-85242-520-3

The second of the acclaimed Milanese writer's novels to be translated into English, this witty, psychologically astute gothic tale chronicles the ruin of two young actors in a provincial Italian theater troupe at the beginning of the century. Playing the comic role of Don Juan's valet, Sgnarelle, the great Vulpius notices a mysterious woman watching him from one of the boxes ""as if there was no one but him in the entire theater."" Jarred by this experience from his effortless naturalism (what a later generation of actors would call his ""public solitude""), Vulpius becomes obsessed with the woman and with the theatricality of his craft; he first neglects his lover, the adoring, beautiful ingenue Dora, then uses her in private rehearsals as a stand-in for himself, until the strain of his monomania destroys them both. At once a complex reworking of the Narcissus myth and an allegory of the fate of theater under modernism, the novel is strongly reminiscent of the work of Thomas Mann, which Capriolo (Floria Tosca) has translated; the chief influence on Heron's impressive translation, however, seems to be Nathaniel Hawthorne (or else a stylist very much like him). For this reason, Heron's few slips into late-20th-century vernacular appear in regrettably high relief, although they distract only briefly from this intriguing, highly wrought account of artistic decadence. (Oct.)