Reconciliation in Italy

Monday Book Reviews

October 08, 1990|By Mark A. Sargent

ITALIAN DAYS. By Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 477 pages. $22.95. THIS IS an audacious book, starting with its title. "Italian Days" calls to mind Henry James' "Italian Hours," the great novelist's own evocation of the spell that Italy had cast over him. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's style also hints of James' influence. It is copious, not spare, oblique and elliptical rather than direct, suggestive rather than declarative.

The author's audacity is also implicit in her intolerance of standard genres. This is a travelogue, but it is much more. It is an emotional tale of a sometimes painful spiritual journey, but one that contains menus and excellent hotel recommendations.

The travelogue is relatively accessible -- at least if you already know Italy -- as Grizzuti Harrison describes her experiences during a lengthy stay in Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples and parts of the rural south. She draws vivid pictures of places and things that modern tourist culture has left too familiar and stripped of emotional content. The fresh eloquence she brings to her descriptions of the Pantheon, the Roman Forum and the Spanish Steps is a marvelous surprise and rescues these places from the banal.

She accomplishes all this through the relentlessly personal tone of her descriptions. You never forget that it is Barbara Grizzuti Harrison speaking, and that it is her memories, her sense of loss and vulnerability -- or joy -- that infuse these ancient and trivialized stones with new life and poignancy.

That tone darkens, however, when she leaves Rome and heads south, first to Naples and then to her family's ancestral homes in the Abruzzo, Puglia and Calabria. For Italian-Americans, the Italy with the greatest personal resonance is not the Italy of Caesar or Michelangelo or Bernini. It is the south, the Mezzogiornio, the bitter lands from which their grandparents and parents emigrated in the hundreds of thousands so many years ago. Returning to the south is not at all like "returning" to Rome or Florence. Grizzuti Harrison visits her family's hills and villages with the most profound ambivalence, as the subtitle of the chapter on Molise and Abruzzo suggests: "The Mother Country . . . Blessing and Bondage."

The ambivalence flows not so much from the conditions she encounters in the south, but from the way in which the very feel of these places plunges her back into the memories of her parents and family in Brooklyn, the type of obsessively familial Italian-American family that simultaneously supported and smothered, and from which she felt compelled to escape. She thus feared Calabria, much as she feared her Calabrian father's suffocating love.

For all of her ambivalence, however, the journey south turns out to be a journey of reconciliation. On first hearing the language of the Naples waterfront, she remembers the dialect spoken by her immigrant family. She recalls that the language she had come to love in Rome "because of its generosity, its round, open vowels, its rolling consonants," here sounds "always angry . . . crude, excitable, abrupt, dismissive and whiny, too." Naples thus draws her, unpleasantly, back to Brooklyn, but she tells us it also "enlarges my idea of family," and once "one begins to understand, one begins to forgive, and once one begins to forgive, there is no end, one rewrites the story . . ." Eventually, Calabria sheds its terror for her, and she can face her feelings for her mother and father, in all their mingled asperity and sweetness.

The book ends on this same joyful note: "Among the worn coins of sadness and despair is the gold coin of happiness, inexhaustible." The patient reader of this wonderful book will be exhilarated by the tale of a journey through Italy -- and Brooklyn -- to a final reconciliation.

Mark Sargent teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law.

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