I’ve just read my 42nd book in Italian right in time for my 42nd birthday – Anna Maria Ortese’s collection of short stories and essays Il mare non bagna Napoli. This isn’t a big number since I’ve been keeping this list of books since 2009, so that means 42 books in Italian in 12 years. But it’s still pretty neat and it’s making me think about birthdays, milestones and reading in Italian. As I’m looking at the list of books, I realise that it follows the long, meandering road of my Italian language adventure, a road full of plateaus, breaks, emotional upheavals, insecurity, and frustration along with self-discovery, excitement and overwhelming pleasure.
The first book I read from cover to cover was La casa in collina by Cesare Pavese – an old beau gave it to me for my 30th birthday after I had just moved to Rome from London. Typical. What a nice book about post-war existential despair to welcome me to my 30s and life in Italy. But I read it with a lot of enthusiasm back then and it was a great start to my Italian literary education, even if I had only understood about 50%. I remember spending that week after my birthday in a basement room in the Monteverde neighbourhood, staying cool from the late August heat and slowly reading Pavese, sifting through the melancholy lonely prose. I remember the chestnut trees, uncertainty and despair. Perhaps a bit like my own life at that time as I was just at the start of my great experiment of creating a life in Italy with no idea how I was going to be able to do it.
That was the only Italian novel I read during the 18 months I lived in Rome. Perhaps one was enough. It’s funny, when you learn a new language, it’s not like you learn at a steady pace where your levels of speaking, listening, reading and writing are all equal and progress at the same rate. Back then, I thought my Italian was pretty good since I could live and function and have a social life, but I didn’t know enough Italian at the time to realise how many holes there actually were. Language learning isn’t just about the mechanics of language expression, but also all about the subtleties, nuances and cultural references. And I had no clue about the history of Italian, how the diffusion of the national language as a spoken and written language is only a recent phenomenon, and how the dialects and regionalisms add so much richness. I guess I learned all of that slowly over the years as my relationship with Italy and the language deepened as I became a reader of Italian.
When I moved back to London and met Marituccio, I picked up reading again. I read all of Elena Ferrante’s books (my favourite is La figlia oscura which I got from the Italian Bookshop when it was in Soho), Domenica Starnone’s Lacci, Casalinghitudine by Clara Sereni, and Jumpha Lahiri’s In altre parole. During these years, thanks to Marituccio, I visited other parts of Italy and I learned more about Italian contemporary history so I could place characters from these novels within a newer and richer context; up until that point my point of reference was what I had learned about Italy from my parents and spending my childhood summers in Napoli.
I suppose when I moved back to Italy in 2017, my reading changed again. I got into mysteries, which I never do in English, but in Italian I loved following the narrative, how the characters from diverse backgrounds talked, and reading and putting together the details to try to figure out how it was going to end. Some mystery writers I read were Piera Carlomagno, Giuseppe Torragrossa and Pino Imperatore. I shared these books with my mother-in-law whenever I would go up to Venice or she would come down to Ischia and we would talk about the characters and describe to each other what we thought they looked like. And then there was the Festival of Italian Literature in London (FILL) where one year I participated in a poetry event and I got a chance to discover and meet Italian contemporary authors – Nicola Lagioia, Claudia Durastanti, Michela Murgia, Helena Janazek, and Christian Raimo. This was a new development and for the first time, as an Italian-American, I didn’t feel like an outsider in an anglo-american literary setting where often times I came across barriers of perceived Italian-american stereotypes. It was refreshing to hear about Italian contemporary literature without the umbrella of a dominant American culture and listen to these writers talk about what they care about. It made me think about writing and reading in new and deeper ways, adding to what I had learned from my academic background in American and British literature.
And even this year, my reading in Italian is continually changing. In the early spring, I picked up La Ferocia by Nicola Lagoia, winner of the Strega Prize in 2015. I had bought a copy at FILL in London after I had seen him give a talk about the European novel, but I didn’t get beyond the first chapter or so. But this spring, I saw it on my shelf and as soon as I touched it, I knew I was going to read it. And I entered into this complex world of a rich and corrupt family of Bari with multiple points of view that told the story of the death of the daughter. It was rich and delicious and while reading, I was brought back to how it felt to read when I was little, to get lost in the words, to decipher meaning from an unknown word, and how to just keep going. When I was little, I didn’t have to prove anything to myself, I didn’t pressure myself to understand every word I read, I just wanted to read the story. And that’s how it felt this time. I began to read for pleasure, not just comprehension. And when I finished the book, something had changed. Since then, my brain feels different when I read, my eyes move differently, I read faster, the words kind of pour. And I can savour the words and the style. It feels easier. I lose myself in the book, I savour the words and the style, I laugh and cry.
I don’t know how this all connects to my 42nd birthday as I sit here. It’s been a year of loss and upheavals, but also some good things too like becoming an Italian citizen. Perhaps this is a year of transformation and I guess reading in whatever language is a transformation in itself. We read to master the language or some concept of language and change along the way. Anyway, I’m excited to turn 42 and today I’ll stop at the bookshop and pick out another book.