Book Review: These Barbed Wire Barriers

Jenifer Nicholson, These Barbed Wire Barriers: Antonio Gramsci and the Schucht Sisters (BSA Auto/Biography Study Group, 2020)

Reviewed by Peter Beilharz, Sichuan University


(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

Everybody in our line of work knows Gramsci; or so we think. We know about prison, or some; some about Mussolini, maybe even some about the Soviet connection. We do not know much about his family, his immediates, his intimacies. Yet these, too, maketh the woman, or man. Marx wrote, and Gramsci surely believed, that we are sensuous, suffering, sentient creatures. Why then is the subject routinely absent from social theory?

Jenifer Nicholson does us a wonderful service by looking into Gramsci and especially the women of his life, the Schucht sisters. We know something about Gramsci’s letters, wonderful epistles that they often are; but we receive one end of the correspondence, as is commonly the case. Archives are one ended. Nicholson locates and interprets the return line of communication, the incoming mail, which is so often missing from the analysis of letters and correspondence.

What do we learn here? A great deal, of which I can gesture only to a little. Gramsci married one sister, Giulia. They had two sons, but did not share a life together in the conventional sense – she in Moscow, he in Italy and then in prison. They love, but do not love together. A second Schucht sister, Tatiana, became Gramsci’s constant prison correspondent and assistant at a distance. Nicholson calls her Gramsci’s go-between and gatekeeper. The third, Eugenia, was his first attraction, but was to become the most distant from Gramsci, though she was also to intervene in the care of the first born, Delio. The three came from a family of aristocratic bolsheviks. Out, damned contradiction!

Days of our lives? Not quite; for history is better, but as they say, it all gets complicated. As Nicholson crisply puts it, Giulia remained his beloved, but Tatiana became indispensable. The intimacy there is almost confessional. Gramsci writes for example to Tania that his life has been a mistake, a huge miscalculation. Gramsci is able to say less to his wife, as he is guarding her. But when he is in prison Giulia is without a lifeline, and without love. Tania becomes something of a mediator here, too, between the two who cannot so easily share their sentimentality.

It may seem obvious here, but not often spoken, that Gramsci’s life and work, public and private, might be usefully aligned with the literature on the experience of imprisonment, and political imprisonment. If, say for Trotsky those Russian prisons became his universities, for Gramsci they were personal hell, Dante all the way down. But it might also be aligned with family history, psychoanalysis and the fraught webs of family dynamics that are familiar to us all yet also routinely below the surface. There is so much still to learn.

There is the psyche, and there is love and dependency, and then there is history. What if? Giulia was expecting Gramsci to join her in Moscow in 1926. Mussolini got in first.

Who suffers? Everybody. Gramsci is in prison; so, in a sense is Giulia too.

Gramsci used early on to feel proud to be isolated; optimism of the will, etc. – later he felt in his own words ‘the squalor of a life based exclusively on will’. He had failed properly to connect with the woman he loved, in those terrible times. But it was all too late.

There is much to be learned here, thanks to Jenifer Nicholson and her people. More power to her elbow, and to this initiative of the BSA and its Auto/Biography Project. It brings Gramsci and the Schucht sisters to the table.

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