A (Silent) Window into the Past

Genoa 1916

Note: after a hiatus in which I was buckling down to finish my new book, I am back at my blog and hope to be more consistent from here on out. Today’s story is a good one to start back on, I think.

Something truly amazing happened in my Italian literature workshop last week. I’ve designed it in the format of a survey course, so after a long sojourn with Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch, Pico della Mirandella and Machiavelli and the Renaissance writers, we’ve slowly made our way up to 19th century romanticism. After a couple of sessions spent soaking in the lyrical pessimism of Giacomo Leopardi, we took a breather and turned to some of the stories Edmondo De Amicis included in his children’s novel Heart: Diary of a Child.

Mind you, I am no fan of De Amicis. I tried to read Heart several years ago and the sheer weight of so much moralizing forced me to put it down. But I was keen to include an example of children’s literature in the course, and one of the stories I chose, “From the Apennines to the Andes,” was ideal for introducing the topic of the Italian diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which saw the emigration of some 16 million Italians to countries such as the US and Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Australia.

My grandmother, Giuseppina Veronesi née Cosmini, was among those 16 million. Born in the village of Roncaglia in the Italian Alps, she emigrated together with her grandmother in 1916 to join her parents, who had sailed on ahead to an uncertain future in Connecticut. I have copies of their exit documents, which showed that they were given permission by the government to emigrate due to their comprovata poverta’, that is, demonstrated poverty. The story she told me as a child was gripping: when she and her grandmother made their way to Genoa to board the ship to New York, the shipping company representative asked if they would be willing to give up their berths to a young couple that had to reach New York by a certain date in order to board a connecting ship bound for California.

“But we don’t have any money,” my great-great-grandmother said.

“We’ll pay for your room and board. There’s another ship leaving in just three days,” said the company representative.

My great-great-grandmother agreed. What they did not know, during their short hiatus, was that the ship they were to have traveled on was sunk by a U-boat. This was World War I, recall, and the Atlantic Ocean was yet another battlefield. The two boarded their new ship three days later and traveled without incident to New York, only to find nobody waiting for them: my distraught great-grandfather had received news of the sinking of the original ship but, when he did not find his daughter and mother-in-law’s names on the list of the ship’s manifest, did not know what to think or where to turn. After several days spent on Ellis Island, the situation was resolved, happily in the case of my grandmother, tragically in the case of that young couple. History’s wheel of fortune. I had meditated for years on that story, told it many times and made the obligatory visit to Ellis Island, all the while wondering what it would have been like for a girl of seven, who spoke only the dialect of the village she had almost certainly never left, to have experienced such a dramatic uprooting.

In the De Amicis story, a boy of 13 sets off on his own to Argentina to search for his mother, who had traveled to Buenos Aires to work as a domestic but whose letters to her family back home had abruptly ceased arriving. When he arrives, he finds that the family his mother was working for is no longer there. This sets off an odyssey which takes the penniless boy from the capital to the cities of Rosario and Cordoba, all the way to a villa outside of the remote city of San Miguel de Tucumán, where his mother is gravely ill. The surprise arrival of her son convinces her to undergo the operation she has been resisting and – children’s story, after all – she is saved. As I read on, I began to see several parallels between this story and my grandmother’s: the departure from Genoa as a child, the hoped-for reunion with her mother, the unforseen difficulties along the way that hold up the reencounter. But the most startling parallel of all was yet to come.

While researching the story in order to present it to the class, I discovered that a silent movie version of the story existed. The title was the same, Dagli Appennini alle Ande, and when I looked at the year it was made, I was astonished to find that it was 1916! The same year as my grandmother’s emigration. And, what is more, the first scene of the movie takes place in the same port of Genoa she departed from (I can only hope that it was filmed on site)! I found myself looking at the most unexpected window into history: same year, same port, the same view young Giuseppina would have had upon boarding the ship, the same view of the port of Genova receding into the distance. For all I know, my grandmother and her grandmother could have strolled by as extras during their three-day layover. And, thanks to the good graces of the Bologna Cineteca’s film archive, the movie can be seen right here. Even if you don’t have a relative that traveled from Genoa in 1916, it’s a valuable piece of cinema history that’s well worth a viewing.

On Solitude

solitude

By whatever tripartite cocktail of nature, nurture and culture, it has fallen upon me to be a person who spends a great deal of time alone. This is a necessary condition for a writer of course, our occupational hazard, and one that I have learned to approach with the requisite dosage of amor fati. In the best of times, my solitude spreads itself out before me, inviting me to loll on it like a blanket of infinite possibility, my time to be allotted and dispensed as I see fit. I awake without an alarm, roll from one side of my bed to the other without risk of jostling a grouchy sleeper, and, once fed, clothed and groomed to the liberatingly minimum solitude standard, set about to beckoning the muse by dint of sheer, inspired kinesthetics. I work and write, laugh and cry, putter and pace to the backdrop of the day’s chosen soundtrack, the ideal intermingling of autodidact and anarchist, a dynamo of learning and leavening and sublimated libido.

Then solitude decides to swipe the blanket away, leaving me suspended above the abyss like a Jonathan Edwards-style sinner (a simile I come by honestly, having come of age in post-puritan Connecticut). My two rooms morph into a warren of claustrophobia, my lack of grooming and nutrition into both a reflection of my paralyzed state and a pretext for its perpetuation. Loneliness pervades my body, leaving it a limp, rag doll. Learning and leavening, in a neat one-for-two, become exchanged for languishing. I yearn for company while impressing myself into the labor of keeping it out. I stare in diligent self-hypnosis at the intermittent lights of my computer screen, playing the same song over and over as if skipped records were back in style and cursing Sundays, when they cycle around, with all of the diminished powers at my disposal.

When it comes to sussing us out, solitude is extremely sharp. If we are capable of some feat, it will reveal it to us as if it were the bestower of our own boon. If we are stumbling towards a fall, it will stick out its leg. Solitude is protean, crafty, osmotic, a creator of weather fair and foul in which to clothe itself as friend and foe. Embracing us non-locally with its massless arms, it caresses while stifling, nourishes while depriving. It brooks no rival and gives no quarter.

But I hyperbolize. Wisened by the years, I have learned neither to deflect solitude’s presence by means of manic bouts of Calvanist-seal-of-approval industry (Connecticut again, alas), nor to lie prostrate like a dog before its alpha leader the moment solitude sees fit to bare its existential teeth. As in the proverbial encounter with the bear in the woods, I have trained myself, through years of despair-soaked tenacity and scorched-earth depressions, not to cut and run. The result of such training is he who blogs before you today – if not a paragon of equanimity, then someone who can move into and out of solitude as it is given me to do. Someone who can stare down the bear.

The sun sets at six o’clock on this second-shortest day of the year. Tonight, there will be reading and a movie, moments of contemplation, the joy of thought, another degree added to the arc of my lifespan. Alone.