'A House in Sicily': the immutable, plus gossip

August 29, 1999|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

"A House in Sicily," by Daphne Phelps. Carroll & Graf. 270 pages with eight pages of color photographs. $25.

With the global economy eroding nationalism, with high personal incomes, early retirements and the vogue for country houses in Italy and France, expatriatism today has a special allure. In 1947, Daphne Phelps, an English social worker, inherited a spectacular house -- Casa Cuseni -- in Taormina, Sicily. Her memoir, "A House in Sicily," provides the reader with a 50-year account of expatriate life.

Running a pensione gave her a window from which to observe not only her occasionally famous guests, but a rich mixture of Sicilians, from her own servants to the local head of the Mafia.

Phelps writes with clarity and authority, and seems to work from detailed notes that continuously inform her text and entertain the reader, despite some tedious passages. She is particularly effective in portraying the Sicilians around her, their pride, sexual mores, rigid Catholicism and quaint misunderstandings of Englishmen and Americans.

"A House in Sicily" is best seen as the depiction of a clash of cultures, as Phelps stubbornly retains her English views of life, which seem to change little during the long stretch of her residency in Sicily.

While she notes some changes in Sicily, particularly in the status of women --- their ability to enter into previously exclusively male professions and to drive cars -- Phelps misses the deeper changes in Italian life brought by Italy's postwar participation in Europe and the information age, including the ubiquitous growth of media and public education and the increase of social mobility. The portraits seem unaffected by time, and seem to be chosen because they illustrate our traditional ideas of a backward or quaint society. Even so, Phelps sometimes tells touching stories, particularly about women.

Men fare less well. Phelps loses few opportunities to point out their pomposity, nefariousness and their unwelcome sexual attentions to her. Her endless belittling of men seems gratuitous, even if, at times, well-deserved.

Nor do her guests emerge unscathed. Phelps' portrait of Caitlin Thomas, the widow of Dylan Thomas and author of "Left-over Life to Kill," can only be described as unremittingly vicious, as she cattily regales the reader with tales of Mrs. Thomas' drinking and promiscuity. While Phelps admires her philosopher-guest Bertrand Russell, she tells us little of his ideas, but a great deal about his sex life. "As always, he couldn't keep his hands off any woman, but I was firm; he did not attract me physically, but the scintillating wit which flowed over the sink each night was riveting." Her fine portrait of the painter Henry Faulkner is multi-dimensional and mostly without judgment.

While unembarrassed about her anger and sexual disgust, and clear about her genuine compassion for the poor Sicilians around her, she is remarkably guarded about her private life. "A House in Sicily" is a window perhaps on Sicily, and a few of the guests who stayed at Casa Cuseni, but only by inference on its author. While some of her guests are fair game, she is not, but then she is the writer of this uneven, but often engaging account of an expatriate in Sicily.

Craig Eisendrath, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, served as a U.S. Vice Consul in Italy.

Pub Date: 08/29/99

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