A REVIEW OF JOSEPH LUZZI’S MY TWO ITALIES Add Joseph Luzzi’s recent work to the list of American memoirs that explore a particular strain in the Horatio Alger mythology. It’s the story of the son (or daughter) from immigrant parents who can’t quite believe that they have far surpassed their parents’ hopes and expectations to find prestigious jobs in science or industry or higher education. Americans whose parents were born in the shtetels of Eastern Europe teach literature at Columbia and develop patents at Bell Labs. Luzzi, one of six children of Italian immigrants who were part of the last wave of Italian emigres (they came to the states in the late ‘60’s), is now a Yale-educated teacher of Italian at Bard College.
It’s heartening to read these stories of upward mobility at a time when, as sociologists and trend spotters conclude, it is harder than in the past for an individual from the lowest quintile to move into the higher classifications. America may be as socially stratified and frozen as Italy.
Luzzi’s is a story of the benefits and the costs of his own social mobility. The benefits (professional stature, opportunities for travel, leisurely scholarship) are assumed. It’s the costs that Luzzi is most interested in.
The “two Italies” of the title refer to the practically irreconcilable images of Italy that Luzzi carries around in his head. The first Italy is the Italy of the South (the Mezzagiorno, the boot south of Naples) from which his parents come. It’s also the Italian enclave of Westerly, Rhode Island where his parents settle shortly before his birth. Leaving Italy before the boom of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, Pasquale and Yolanda live their hardscrabble, agricultural-based lives with four children in tow (Joseph is one of two children born in the US). It’s a place where the manual of animal husbandry has been passed down and where patriarchy is unquestioned. It’s a place where the codes of behavior (affecting domains from food preparation to treatment of adulterers to relations with the clergy) are rigid. The ability to do physical labor is prized. The raising of children rather than intimacy and personal growth are the essential goals of marriage.
Although the economic opportunities are greater in America, Luzzi’s parents transplant old world ways to the new continent. They gather for the ritual butchering of pigs and the utilization of the animal from snout to tail. Luzzi is able to go to college – he goes off to Tufts despite some resistance from his parents who worry about him attending a demanding and costly school – but his sisters are barred from higher education. His parents make minimal efforts to learn English and his tight-lipped father clings to his regional peasant dialect. The isolationist family hunkers down in their basement redoubt to eat their pasta with red sauce. This professor of literature is a good amateur anthropologist.
Luzzi’s adolescent rebellion is compounded by his growing realization that his first Italy – the one of his parents – is an inferior Italy. For the second Italy is both the Italy of the more industrious, more sophisticated North, but it’s also the Italy of the great works of the Renaissance, the much praised beauty of Italian painting, sculpture, architecture and literature. In this regard, he’s been like the English poet Shelley and other 19th and early 20th century Northern Europeans who, drawn to a fabled, sun-drenched Italy, found myth-destroying squalor and political dysfunction.
A junior year study abroad first brings these other Italies into sharp focus and creates the first fissure in what will become a growing gap between him and his parents and their culture. When he tells a snobbish girl from Turin that his family is from Cosenza in Calabria, she tells him, “that’s not Italy, that’s Africa.” His contact with the Tuscan dialect (via Dante) attunes him to the many dialects of the peninsula but it also leads him to categorize his parents tongue as coarse and vulgar. It will take him awhile to realized that his learning of and preference for a more polished Italian means the separation from that which is “most magical about my culture.” The middle-aged, well-established teacher believes that he’s found some resolution to the tension. Perhaps he has achieved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence, someone who has the “ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Grafted on to this “coming-into-wisdom” story are a number of related commentaries and well-integrated digressions.
There’s some measure of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, and Love and Frances Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun in Luzzi’s work. It’s partly a story of recovery from a painful event, one in which the narrator finds purpose in passing on both family history and the love of Italian literature to his young daughter. The work ends with the hope that the daughter may be able to find the harmony that escapes her father.
Gilbert finds immersion into sensual Italian food culture as a pathway to redemption but rejects it before setting out for India and Bali. Luzzi’s work finds Italian food culture, especially the “slow food” movement, important components of his idenity. He’s like food critic Mark Bittman who can wax enthusiastically about how even the soppressata, a salami made of “unwanted parts” can be heavenly. When on a sabbatical at the American Academy, he gets confirmation that his latent culinary DNA is intact. Working in the kitchen with the Academy’s chefs, he discovers that his knife skills applied to the deboning of a pig’s leg come naturally.
He also brings into his exploration of personal-family identity key figures in Italian and Italian-American political and popular culture. Although he has a little too much to say about the appeal of the scandal-ridden but enduring Silvio Berlusconi (he served nine years in three different terms as Prime Minister), he could say more about the New Jersey (by-the-way-of-the-Mezzagiorno) Italians Tony Soprano and Jersey Shore Snooki. He lampoons their indifference to and confusion by Italy when they make a trip to “the old world.” Clearly Luzzi is a different kind of Italian-American than these cultural figures.
The last chapter in Luzzi’s work is a reflection on the city of Florence. It’s doubtful that Luzzi’s little work is going to find a wide audience and thus increase the tourist traffic around the Duomo. It’s with some regret that in the practically 30 years between his first encounter with Florence and his most recent one, the town has been transformed, and not for the better, by tourists. There may be a horde of tourists between you and Michelangelo’s David, but at least you can still find a quiet place to read Dante, and better if you can read him in Italian where the soul of Italy can truly be found.