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Joseph Luzzi Conjures Two Italies 

The Genius of Family

  • Roy Gumpel

Joseph Luzzi is handy with chopsticks. The Italian Studies professor and author of My Two Italies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) suggested meeting at Murray's, a Tivoli eatery run by Bard graduates. When I arrive, Luzzi is standing outside, a bella figura in charcoal suit jacket, pale pink shirt, and faded jeans. The café is closed, so we go to Osaka, the Japanese restaurant next door. The incongruity of discussing a book that starts with "the smell of frittata" while eating sushi makes him smile. I spot a Band-Aid on his thumb, a homely touch that softens his dark-browed handsomeness.  

My Two Italies' title refers to the pull between the hardscrabble south of Luzzi's Calabrese heritage and the northern Italian Renaissance culture of his professional passions. ("I yearned for the Italy of Dante and Michelangelo, not the one of sharp cheese and salted anchovies," he writes.) 

There's also the dichotomy of Italian and Italian-American identities. The first child born in America after his parents and four older siblings immigrated, Luzzi can claim ties to both, though his preference is clear: "Dante described his quest for the elusive Italian language as the hunt for a fragrant panther that knew its way around the woods; Snooki in leopard print advertised her ethnic identity with decidedly less mystery."  

The book itself has a dual identity. Part family memoir, part cultural study, its twin strands intertwine like a traditional Calabrian Easter bread. "It's ostensibly about Italy, but it's also about American families," Luzzi says, dredging a tuna roll in soy sauce. "It's a story of immigration. So many of us have stories of parents and grandparents that shape us."

The book proposal he sold was primarily a cultural history, with family vignettes interspersed. The first chapter he wrote centered on Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's scandal-plagued prime minister. But early readers found the family stories most compelling, and the book's balance began to shift. (Berlusconi is still in the mix, but he doesn't show up until chapter five.)

Instead, the book opens with an Easter dinner at which Luzzi's pet rabbit became the entree. Even as a child, young Joe knew this wasn't the norm in suburban Rhode Island, where his neighbors had "vacuumed Pontiac Bonnevilles and pine-scented air fresheners." Instead of a neatly mowed lawn, his father filled every square inch with vegetable gardens, which he tended with old-country stubbornness even after a stroke left him partially paralyzed.

Pasquale Luzzi was a prisoner of war in Germany; his captor's niece became his lover and, after the war ended, his wife. When she got pregnant, he stole a bicycle and escaped before the baby was born. Back home, he set his sights on Yolanda Crocco, a local landowner's daughter. He courted her with serenades and gifts of candied almonds. Then he broke into her house and held her at gunpoint, declaring, "I'm going to rape you." 

Yolanda fended him off, brandishing scissors. When neighbors arrived, he swore he hadn't touched her, but was enacting a ritual acchiapare ("to grab") to dishonor his victim so she'd have to marry him. He was accused of violenza carnale (carnal violence); a village judge ruled that unless Yolanda consented to marriage, he'd be imprisoned.  Unable to bear the thought of him suffering on her account, she agreed. She was just shy of 15 years old.

The details of this violent courtship were new to Luzzi, though he knew his father had been held captive by a blond German. "You grow up and there are these family stories floating around, but you don't probe," he says. "I probed, because I was writing this book."

Pasquale is no longer alive, but Luzzi interviewed his mother extensively. "The most surprising thing she said was that she'd been 'happy and carefree' in the old country.  Nothing had ever shocked me more—it was like saying, 'You have an extra head on your shoulder.'"

He also saw his volatile father—"a fierce, ethnic Lear roaring across the plains of old age"—with new eyes. "As a first-generation child, you want to fit in, you have your own axes to grind. I realized that, like Dante, my dad was truly in exile. He never acclimated to life in the US, never really spoke English. He was a landscaper who worked in a factory. He built a life for us, but it was a true sacrifice." 

 Writing such personal stories was not always comfortable. "I'm a private person—I am by nature kind of reticent," Luzzi explains. He was also concerned with his family's privacy. "I didn't take this lightly. To the best of my powers, it's 100 percent accurate. First, I hope it reflects my profound love of my family. Second, if you're going to tell the story, you've got to tell the story." 

He picks up his green tea. "There are some crazy elements of my family's history. So be it. But isn't it better to have those stories written with generosity and a spirit of love, rather than radio silence?" He hoped to preserve a history, not settle scores. Nor does the author escape his own probing: "Perhaps I deceived myself in thinking that I could ever outrun my southern Italian heritage. Maybe, in the end, all that separated me from the Mezzogiorno was a few advanced degrees and the desire to tell my story to strangers."

Luzzi graduated from Tufts and earned master's degrees in French and Italian literature from NYU and Yale, where he also completed his Ph.D. He's taught at Bard for 12 years, often teaching Italian intensives in Florence. He also hosts public screenings of Italian films at Rhinebeck's Upstate Films. Roberto Rossellini's 1954 Voyage to Italy was so well received that he followed up with Fellini's I Vitelloni and the Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die.

Luzzi celebrates these directors (along with de Sica, Bertolucci, Pasolini, and others) in A Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). His first book, Romantic Europe and the Ghost of Italy (Yale University Press, 2008), won the Modern Language Association's Scaglione Prize for Italian Studies. Though gratified by the reception of these scholarly books, he also longed to write for nonacademic readers. My Two Italies broke new ground. A lifelong researcher, he marveled at going into his office "with just my computer—no books!" But "the moment any writer lives for is when the story dictates itself. When I remembered the smell of my mother boiling tripe downstairs, it all came back." 

Writing about his tumultuous childhood may have helped Luzzi open the door on the more recent past. Invited to write an essay for The New York Times, he chose the most personal story imaginable: the death of his first wife, Katherine Mester, in a car accident during her last month of pregnancy in 2007. The essay is a gutpunch: "Forty-five minutes before her death, she delivered our daughter, Isabel, a miracle of health rescued by an emergency cesarean. I had left the house that morning at 8:30am to teach a class; by noon, I was a father and a widower." 

Luzzi's title, "I Found Myself in a Dark Wood," cites the opening of Dante's Divine Comedy. Framing his grief and eventual reemergence within a larger context of darkness, he notes that Dante found his "heaven's-eye view of human life" while mourning his exile. Just as the ghost of his Virgil serves as the poet's guide through the underworld, Dante helped to lead Luzzi through his own circle of hell. 

He was overwhelmed by readers' responses to the essay. Hundreds of comments poured in from people coping with loss, or describing how literature helped them through crises. Luzzi is now writing a book about Dante, based in part on the Times essay and "the idea of grief and rebuilding." (He has since remarried, and is raising his daughter Isabel with second wife Helena Baillie, a classical violinist and colleague at Bard.)

Though Dante provided a light in the darkness, Luzzi's daily support through the depths of despair and the first years of raising a child was his family. He moved back to Rhode Island, where "my mother poured centuries of Calabrian nurturing into Isabel's developing consciousness." 

My Two Italies ends with his first trip to Florence with his daughter, then four. As her pink sneakers smack against ancient cobblestones, "my body trembled with a joy I had never felt before, so powerful was the sense of relief—of survival—that we had made it through the long years after Katherine's death, and now we were finally in Italy together." 

This sense of ongoing heritage was part of his impetus to write My Two Italies. "With each generation, that way of life becomes more and more remote. I wanted to set it down before it was forgotten, before it fades away," Luzzi says. "I want my daughter to read this and think about where she came from, her people. I see the Calabrian in her, and I'm happy about that. There's a toughness, a resilience, that helped rescue me when this terrible thing happened—the pull of that closeness. That sense of family is a huge part of my life, il genio di famiglia. It translates as the spirit of family, but also the genius."

Joseph Luzzi will appear at Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck, 7/19 at 7pm; Tivoli Free Library, 8/4 at 7pm; Merritt Books in Millbrook, 10/4 at 2pm.

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