What (Books) to Pack for Italy

By Jennifer Levasseur

Whenever I think of making a ten- or five- (heck, even a two-) year plan, I remind myself that while I’ve prepared and created various contingencies—multiple university degrees, residencies in several countries—nothing in my life has worked out the way I expected. It’s turned out to be a series of exciting surprises, many of which I’d have turned down if I were following a set list.

Today, when I cracked open Tim Parks's A Literary Tour of Italy, his introduction comforted me. Parks, born in Manchester, has lived in Italy since 1981, the country where he’s spent most of his adult life, a place he “never really planned to live.” I understand that feeling, both the shock and the delight.

On this basis—and because I’ve loved the few books of his I’ve read—I chose him as the first of my dedicated guides for our next visit to Italy, which begins on June 1.

The first time you visit a country, you spend much of your days reconciling your expectations with reality; it takes a while for long-held beliefs (even if they’re based on nothing more than whim and impression) to shift or shatter. The second or third allows a more in-depth relationship: you’re less enchanted, more focused, primed to take more in. As I learned through Joshua Foer’s entertaining study of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein, you have to know something before you can learn more about it. It seems simple, but it’s transformative: you need a steady foundation before you can build on your knowledge. You need to embed hooks in your memory on which to hang new information.

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On our first visit to Florence, I read Pirandello, who won the Nobel Prize in 1934. While I had few, if any, contemporary Italians with which to compare him, he had a connection to my main literary crush at the time, Stefan Zweig, which gave me a comfortable framework. I’ve read several other widely translated Italians: Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Cesare Pavese, snippets of Dante and Leopardi. I’ve begun to brush up on my foreigners who created formative Italian-based works: Henry James with Daisy Miller and The Aspern Papers, E. M. Forster with A Room with a View. More recently, Elena Ferrante forced me, like many other readers across the globe, to believe that Naples is the center of the world.

Now that we’re returning to Italy for a few weeks—Venice and the Veneto, to be exact—I want to fill out and shade my literary knowledge of Italy. I want more hooks so that I’m not just smiling at the beautiful architecture or inhaling gelato (though I want to do that, too). I want to feel the ideas on which this society was built and continues to grow. I want to live inside the lives of Italians throughout time, to feel those lives brushing around me.

Parks says something similar in his introduction: “As I grew into Italy through the 1980s and ’90s, I became powerfully aware that … context is vital to understanding literature, and that the novels themselves mean more and are more rewarding when seen together, read in relation to each other and to the world that produced them.”

On our last trip to Italy, we stayed in an apartment across a courtyard from a delightful family of three. Every morning, Papa sliced a dozen oranges and hand-squeezed the juice. He brewed coffee and poured hot chocolate. I watched him lay the table with decorative mats and flowers. He ladled the yoghurt into dessert glasses and sliced fresh bread. All of this performed with practiced, gentle, unhurried hands. All the while, his little girl drew pictures and sang songs next to him. They saved the beautifully set breakfast until Mama entered in her bathrobe at 11 a.m. to hugs and kisses, at which time Papa began to prepare lunch, peeling a great mound of potatoes while the three of them talked. I don’t know the real story of this family (Did Mama work the night shift? Could Papa have been an opera singer on hiatus?), but those simple, everyday interactions that we spied day after day for a month gave me the same truth we hunt in novels. Here is how these three people live, here is how they love, here is what they value and what makes up their day. Here is a window into another life.

We’re looking for more windows, more lives.

We’re going to Italy. Tim Parks is helping me cover Montale and Moravia, Morante and Tabucchi.

We’d like other readers to point us to their favorites, too. What else should we read?


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