Star Turn

February 12, 1999

The diva of English literature woos Paul Bompard with words at a lecture on Virginia's Woolf's Mrs Dalloway at Villa Mirafiori, Rome

The Villa Mirafiori in Rome, a sprawling, late 19th-century house surrounded by a tree-shaded park, feels like the perfect setting for a lecture on Mrs Dalloway given to first-year students by Nadia Fusini, professor of Anglistica at La Sapienza University.

With its 180,000 students, La Sapienza has taken over a number of buildings outside the main campus. Even so, the 120 students that Fusini is teaching are just those with surnames between Q and Z. Another four classes in the English literature course are taught by others.

Fusini herself is something of a star inside and outside the university. Novelist, frequent radio commentator on literary subjects, critic and promoter of English and American authors new and old, she was recently described by a weekly magazine as a "cult figure" among La Sapienza academics.

There is no doubt that her students adore her. Some keep coming to her lectures years after they have graduated, simply for the pleasure of hearing her. All sit in rapt silence as Fusini, with smoothly eloquent gestures of her rather beautiful hands, suggests the exact nuances of what she is saying, switching seamlessly from English to Italian and back again, exploring the volcanic depths of emotion smouldering beneath the dialogue between Clarissa, who has chosen a stable and passionless marriage, and Peter, the man she really loves and who has just returned from India.

"In the first year we study the modern writers to make it easier for the students. Shakespeare and Chaucer come later," Fusini explains. "The fact is that many of my students do not come from schools in which they studied English, since in Italy a student can choose literature even after studying chemistry and physics in school.

"The miracle we are expected to perform is to teach Virginia Woolf to students who may only have a rudimentary knowledge of English. So alongside the teaching of literature there are language courses in the university, and some students also have private teaching.

"Given the circumstances, most of my students are wonderful, and their enthusiasm overcomes many of these problems. Some of them, however, fail exams over and over."

It is clear that Fusini loves to teach, and that her enthusiasm for her students and for her work is the key to her success and popularity - a popularity that in the expressions seen on some students' faces seems to verge on veneration. Many of them wait outside the doors of the lecture room for 20 minutes to get a good seat.

By the time the doors are opened, a crowd of students jams the corridor and there is much light-hearted shoving and jostling as cigarettes are quickly stamped out on the marble floor and the crowd pours in. A few fail to get a seat and lean against the walls.

About 85 per cent of the students are women, reflecting the fact that almost 70 per cent of liberal arts students in Italy are women, and that Fusini has a solid reputation as a feminist. She does not shrink from describing the "phallic symbol of the pocket knife that Peter plays with as he talks to Clarissa," or that in response Clarissa "opens and closes her sewing scissors".

And she explains to the young Italians, presumably unfamiliar with the rigid reserve governing polite conversation in turn-of-the-century upper-middle-class England, the stunning impact of a direct question like "Are you happy?" which Peter asks of Clarissa At the end of the 45-minute lecture Antonella is glowing. "She really teaches with passion. Not like some of the others. With La Fusini you feel as if she is talking straight to your heart, she makes reading Virginia Woolf a delight. I know I've been lucky to have her."

Marco is only slightly more restrained: "She is a better teacher than many others. This analysing each detail, the explanation of the symbolisms, makes the reading far more interesting and pleasant."

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