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Joseph Luzzi Conjures Two Italies 

The Genius of Family

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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."

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