Urbino, a Renaissance jewel in central Italy. My first visit there in many years. I knew no one there, nor was I in touch with anyone from my grandmother Antonia’s family—assuming any were left.
One evening, as I was ascending a cobblestone street towards the city’s outer walls, I noticed a group of people gathered around an uncovered manhole. Intrigued, I moved closer. A group of amateur speleologists was about to begin a nocturnal exploration of underground Urbino; to my surprise they asked me if I wanted to join them. Squeezing down the manhole’s narrow, vertical, metal stairs, I found myself in a long tunnel. The guides began talking, but I wasn’t listening, mesmerized by the scattering flashes of their helmets’ lights. I felt I was physically penetrating the past—an imagined past. My father’s city’s past, unknown to him and to me.
This happened about four years ago. Asdrubale, my father, has been dead for thirty years. He was a figlio di n.n., a man without a known father. Born in Urbino during World War I, he was named Asdrubale by his mother, Antonia, from whom I took my own first and last names. One can’t find many men named Asdrubale in Italy. My father owes the name to the brother of General Hannibal Barca of Carthage, who battled Rome’s hegemony over the Mediterranean several centuries before Christ. Although protected by God (so the name says), Hasdrubal, or Asdrubale, was killed by the Romans on the Metauro River near Urbino—at that time a mere village.
My father didn’t have enemies, apparently. Yet because of his origins, he had little chance to make a life in his hometown without being labeled a bastard. He left as soon as he could, and never went back. My grandmother Antonia began spending more time in northern Italy after her thirty-year-old son settled there and married my mother—a young woman of nineteen, who, in the previous decade, had lost her thirty-six-year-old father to sudden illness and her family home in Milan to war: it was bombed in 1944 by the Americans.
Antonia eventually left Urbino for good, and rarely returned there. Cremona, the Lombard city where I was conceived and born, thus hosted my grandmother, my parents, and myself as newcomers—immigrants who didn’t choose to be.
“Identity [is] nothing other than a kind of bag or tube in which … fragments of identity are part of ever-greater orders of identity.”
Those words, written by Italo Calvino (in Civiltà delle macchine, 1977), have stayed with me since I read them, forty years ago. They surfaced when I read Elena Ferrante many years later: “We are tornadoes that pick up fragments with the most varied historical and biological origins. This makes us—thankfully—fickle agglomerations that maintain a fragile equilibrium, that are consistent and complex, that can’t be reduced to any fixed framework…” (from Frantumaglia, 2003, a collection of Ferrante’s letters and interviews). Ferrante later developed those thoughts in the voice of Lila, one of the key female protagonists in her quartet of novels: “[W]hat a fuss for a name, famous or not, it’s only a ribbon tied around a sack randomly filled with blood, flesh, words, shit, and petty thoughts. … I untie the ribbon … and the sack stays there, it functions just the same, haphazardly, of course, without virtues or vices, until it breaks” (from The Lost Child).
What a fuss indeed. Although Italo Calvino’s works, particularly his Invisible Cities, are an open door to their author’s identity, Calvino rarely spoke about his private life. Ferrante has tried even harder to protect herself—her personhood—from being alienated and exploited as a marketable commodity. And yet, twenty-five years after she made her choice of pseudonymity, it has paradoxically turned into an additional source of book sales. Ferrante is now known worldwide as “the” unknown writer. That wasn’t enough for an investigative reporter who recently claimed he’d “discovered” Ferrante’s “true identity” as Anita Raja, the wife of Domenico Starnone, a well-known writer born and residing in Naples till he moved to Rome (where he and the putative Elena Ferrante now live). In 2011 Starnone published an intriguing metafictional novel, Autobiografia erotica di Aristide Gambia [The Erotic Autobiography of Aristide Gambia, not yet translated], in which the narrator complains how ridiculous and unbearable it is to be pinpointed as Ferrante.
In any case, the journalistic scoop hasn’t added anything to what the author has already told us—indirectly through her novels and directly in Frantumaglia—about herself, her education, and her weltanschauung.Yet it turns out that Ferrante’s “true identity” can’t be determined or controlled by the author herself.One doesn’t get to choose one’s identity, it would seem. Identity is essentially an accidental relationship—oscillating between body and brain and among memories, emotions, and memories of emotions—with places we happen to be born in at a certain time, and live in, leave from, migrate to, or fantasize about at other times. Certainly, identity is not to be found in a nostalgic locus amoenus, a site of supposedly hidden or preserved lost roots. It is a process we track, if we wish, as we reckon with our own ever-changing existential status.
Eleven years ago, there was a caesura in my life: Valeria, my beloved partner of forty years, died prematurely. Our grown children were struggling with their own lives. I suddenly found myself alone. I could have stayed in the provincial city where I’d lived for almost sixty years, working first as a high school teacher and then as a bookseller. I might have cowered in a cave of reassuring habits, pretending to preserve myself from the unknown. Yet things went differently: I fell in love with an American friend of ours, and I wanted to be with her, as she did with me, not separated by time and space. So I left, trusting that both grief and memory would nourish me. In moving to New York, I was doing something many people I knew found hard to accept. Close relatives and friends told me later that they’d felt forced to ask themselves what they’d have done in my shoes, and they got scared. They thought I was losing my identity and would regret my choice.
I still don’t. Though it is true that something changed in the way I listen to the spirits of the place I left.
After resettling to New York, I began to explore both my new city and my status as a newcomer. I didn’t have a car, so biking became my way of connecting with my new place. Traveling only a little faster than walking, I felt I was allowing the city and myself more time to know each other through physical contact.
One day I decided to check out the Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens. My bike’s tires drummed on Carroll Street’s lift-bridge over the Gowanus Canal—less a canal than a swamp, an old abandoned bathtub full of dirty water, each of its banks a constellation of broken glass, rusty beams, broken tools, and bricks, carcasses of collapsed factories, some graffiti and murals the only touch of color in that lightless Styx. Here and there, new buildings cropped up like scattered mushrooms, the avant-garde of an urban speculation not even Hurricane Sandy could stop.
Turning a corner off Union Street, I was startled by a life-size statue of a Madonna placed in the garden of a small apartment building. Some vaguely Italian words emanated from a ground-floor space whose front door was open. I got off my bike and entered. As in a film’s fade-out, I found myself in a dim bar full of men playing cards and gushing in a southern Italian dialect. I greeted them and immediately left, unnerved by an almost imperceptible movement of their eyes as they scanned me. What the hell are you doing here? they seemed to be asking me, even though I hadn’t uttered a word in my northern accent.
I needed a haircut, so I went into the barbershop next door, which then became a monthly destination. I’d return to Domenico’s shop just to hear his fantastic “Calabrenglish” and his dramatic tales of fleeing Italy as a young communist, hoping to escape the suffocating embrace of the ’Ndrangheta, the local mafia. Now, Domenico told me proudly, his son was a subway conductor and his daughter a kindergarten teacher. And now (he didn’t say, but I could tell) he could barely understand his kids’ “good” English.
There is always a cost to pay. Domenico has remained a stranger in his own new territory, like most male emigrants of his generation who worked hard and then played cards, smoked, and drank coffee and wine, chatting and yelling in dialect at their social club as if they were at their local bar in Italy. (As in Italy, the women stay safe at home while the men check in with one another in their exclusive social spaces—and the Madonna, placed in the garden, occupies a symbolic space in between.) I imagine Domenico would feel a similar estrangement were he to go back to Calabria after forty years in the States.
As I pedaled around the city, I would sometimes take my bike on the subway. There, people sat in silence, as if meditating on the upper world. Looking at their faces, I’d try to dig into their thoughts. Perhaps they were mentally wandering around those places they knew they’d surface to—worrying or reassuring as those places might be. I always relished the weird excitement of resurfacing with my wheels, and finding myself somewhere entirely unexplored.
“Not knowing how to orient yourself in a city doesn’t really matter…. But getting lost in it as you lose yourself in a forest, that’s really something you have to learn,” wrote Walter Benjamin in a famous passage of his Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Ferrante cites those words in Frantumaglia. “For years,” she says, “I found [in them] all I needed.”
As for myself, I adopted a couple of sentences of Calvino from an interview he gave in 1976 about his Invisible Cities (“La Città del Futuro” in Sono nato in America, Interviste 1951–85 [my translation]): “New York is a sort of ideal city. Perhaps because of its geometric map, it’s crystal clear, past-free, fathomless, apparently without secrets … the city I can cajole myself into mastering [my italics], handling it all in my mind in one moment.”
I knew I’d never be a true New Yorker, if there are any such people. Still, while exploring my new city, I dug into layers of my past as I got lost in a new life, and this made the unknown all the more intriguing.
During one of my bike-wanderings, I happened to stop at a streetlight. With one foot on the curb, I glanced at a bookstore window. The whole display was dedicated to Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet—two shelves: one for the Italian edition, the other for the American.
I’d just finished reading the four novels with the voracity of most of her readers. Gazing at the books, my thoughts triangulated among awe, uncertainty, and skepticism. In Ferrante’s shoes, would I maintain my anonymity? Wouldn’t I gladly float on high waves of popularity? Either option would definitely bear upon my identity. I wondered how Ferrante was dealing with the unveiling of her purported identity, despite her choice of anonymity.
The streetlight changed to green. I pressed my bike’s pedal, and immediately focused on navigating safely through the motorized fleet. In my new city, bicycles are merely tolerated, like dual citizens by the U.S. government. Drivers often don’t “see” them, and when they do, they mistrust them.
A few days later, skimming Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, I resumed the musings I’d interrupted while biking, and recalled a detail in that bookshop window display. In the Italian edition, the word geniale appears in the title of Ferrante’s first book, L’amica geniale (translated as My Brilliant Friend) and is repeated in the subtitles of the other three. In Italy, Ferrante’s saga is known as La quadrilogia dell’Amica Geniale (The Brilliant Friend Quartet)—Napoli is never mentioned—while in the English editions, the subtitles are Book Two, Three, and Four of the Neapolitan Novels.
So, I wondered, why all that focus on the word geniale? Geniale comes from the Latin genius, an original, generating, and protective stamina or force inherent in the existence of anything and anybody. A person has her own genius. And places, too, have their own genius; the Romans called it genius loci—in English, “the spirit of the place.”
The association of the adjective geniale with the noun amica (“friend”) is not usual in Italian. Whether the author’s or the publisher’s choice, the use of geniale lends the noun amica the special meaning of a person who draws energy and knowledge from her own constitutive vital principle, her own genius, inevitably related to a certain spirit of the place in a certain time.
All this got me thinking that a person’s identity is related to the time she spends in a certain place. And a place, too, works out its own identity, sensitive to the people who happen to live in it at various moments. A symbiotic, ever-changing relationship.
In 1964, after breathing the same provincial air for the first sixteen years of my life, I plunged into an entirely new place on another continent. For a year I lived in Corona, a then smallish town in Southern California, with a family in which I was considered (and felt myself to be) the third child. Edwin, my American “father,” a Marine in World War II, clung to his conservative values and perhaps also to his traumas. Joyce, my American “mother,” on the other hand, was an unshakeable idealist and earnest believer in Kennedy’s New Frontier who wanted her kids to open their minds to the world; having an exchange student in the family was an affordable means to this end. I still think of Edwin Junior, Eddie, two years younger, and Gayle, five years younger, as my siblings, so natural was the bond we had.
My actual parents hoped my stay in California would empower me so I’d come back stronger and build a stable career—in my father’s fantasy, a lawyer or magistrate. They never imagined that, thousands of miles away, I was learning how to enjoy solitude and get lost. Just as one cannot choose one’s identity, one’s parents cannot chose it on one’s behalf, it would seem.
I was seventeen by the time I left California. During my happy time with my American family, I wasn’t aware of tensions in the U.S. related to race or immigration. That could be said, I think, of the majority of my peers in Corona and of the community as a whole, which perhaps was trying to conceal such issues from itself. A similar collective impulse still rules my native provincial place, Cremona, where the fog—a recurrent presence in winter—is the perfect metaphor for the disguising of every source of potential destabilization.
A few months after I left Corona, the Watts riots burst open in Los Angeles, just about forty miles away. There was only one black student at Corona High School, no Asians, and only a few Mexicans. As far as I can recall, these students took basic shop and/or home-ec courses, not the honors classes reserved for the whites. Or they looked for a sort of redemption in sports like football and baseball, less frequently in basketball. They never played tennis or surfed, which I could do (as well as honors courses), despite my Mediterranean complexion, since I was a “special” foreigner.
I had, however, the vague perception that even certain American friends and members of my extended American family considered me a kind of reformed guido. In turn, I had to conceal a kind of superiority complex, after comparing Corona to my native place. Corona was founded at the end of the nineteenth century, a mere circle in a desert land. When I was there, almost all its twenty-five thousand inhabitants lived inside that circle. Today it has more than 150,000 residents and is considered a suburb of Los Angeles. In contrast, Cremona was founded two centuries before Christ by the Romans as a bulwark against the “barbarians,” who then (of course) couldn’t be contained. My city shared the destiny of the Roman Empire, but in the Early Middle Ages flourished again with a new life. Back then, its population was seventy thousand—as large as it is now, and the same as it was fifty years ago, while I was in Corona. The number holds steady today only thanks to immigration, since the city’s birthrate is close to zero.
Different places may generate the same kinds of prejudice, which only experience and education are able to erase. It wasn’t till years after leaving Corona that I realized two landmark pieces of civil rights legislation had been enacted during the time I’d spent there. I don’t remember being involved in any special discussions in school or in my American family about those historical achievements. All I knew about social-political tensions at the time was that in my family, Mom beat out Dad in voting for Johnson against Goldwater, and I was glad, not because of any sociopolitical awareness, but because I loved her.
My American parents’ perception of place changed, however, after the Watts riots in Los Angeles. They were both Protestants, yet they decided to send their son to Loyola Marymount, a Catholic Jesuit University in Los Angeles, the big dangerous city. They thought doing so would keep Eddie safe from the student uprisings that started in 1968. Maybe it did, though as it happened, Eddie, deeply influenced by his new experience, converted to Catholicism.
My first brief visit to New York City, in the summer of 1965, began at the end of a three-week, coast-to-coast ride on a Greyhound bus with all the other exchange students from Southern California. For a few days I was hosted by another American family in Scarsdale, just north of NYC. They struck me as unusually rich. We rode in a Jaguar with a wood-and-leather interior; I remember touching the seats to feel what wealth was like.
One day they took me to the top of the Empire State Building. From up there, I saw the Italian ocean liner Raffaello docked on the Hudson River, awaiting its final cruise. In a few more weeks I was to return to Italy, where I was expected—and expecting—to build my future in Cremona. Close as I was to the end of my yearlong stay in la-la land, as I watched that old cruiser at the end of its life, a shadow of sadness hovered around me. More than half a century later I can still remember it… or am I recalling it now because I’m living in New York? Is it one of those inverted déjà vu moments, when one imagines a future that could’ve happened but never did? What would my identity be now, if, and if…?
A large city often publicizes clichéd images of itself, as if seeking to conceal something shameful behind them. Ferrante tells us what’s behind Naples without falling into gloomy platitudes about the city’s dark side. With her writing in my mind, I was trying to look behind the superficial myth of the Big Apple, to see the great restless metropolis, the less glittering aspects of New York that are integral to its ever-changing identity.
“To see a city,” Calvino writes, “it’s not enough to keep your eyes open. First you have to discard everything that impedes your seeing it, all the impressions and images previously received and collected. Then you have to simplify … choosing and connecting … all the positive fragments, all the glimmers of a better world that shine through today’s city…. [W]e have to pass through the monstrosity, the crisis, in order to get out of them as soon as possible” (Sono nato in America). My admiration for my favorite Italian writer grew when I found out that more than twenty years earlier, as an editor at Einaudi, Calvino had praised and published a collection of stories set in Naples, written by Anna Maria Ortese (Il mare non bagna Napoli, now translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee as Neapolitan Chronicles). Calvino understood how, with her wild-eyed gaze upon Naples’s monstrosity, Ortese had developed an unconventional and necessary consciousness.
Ortese’s Naples is rendered in its most disgraceful aspects. Even family affections can be bought, and sexual love is degraded to animal-like copulation. No candor can be seen or found, even in children’s eyes. “There was nothing childish about these kids except their age,” we read in “The Involuntary City,” a hallucinatory story of a trip into the hell of the Granili—an enormous building where thousands of people lived in dehumanizing conditions after their homes were destroyed by bombings in World War II. “[T]hey were already little men and women, aware of everything, the beginning and the end of everything; already consumed by vices, idleness, the most unbearable poverty, their bodies sick and their minds twisted, their smiles corrupt or moronic, cunning and depressed at the same time.”
It’s not lost on Calvino that as she reports with unflinching fidelity on the truths of Naples’s life, Ortese is also capable of unexpected leaps of surreal lightness, discovering glimmers of profound sensitivity in the human “larvae” she observed. Ortese hated the fatalism of a mythologized Napoletanità (Neapolitanness) celebrating the pretentious treasure of Neapolitans’ resourcefulness and resilience. She accused her male colleagues of sharing that fatalism. They in turn dismissed her literary outcry, disparaging it as the hysteria of a woman too weak to bear the harshness of urban life, and they made Ortese pay for her impassioned accusation. As friendships and work opportunities vanished, she had to leave the city she’d loved and tried to understand and help.
Calvino’s admiration for Ortese’s work is shared by Ferrante. “As for Naples,” she wrote in Frantumaglia, “today I feel drawn above all by the Anna Maria Ortese of ‘The Involuntary City’ … if I managed again to write about this city, I’d try to craft a text that explores the direction indicated there.” In Frantumaglia, Ferrante refers several times to the novelist Elsa Morante as another strong source of inspiration. “I love Morante’s books,” she wrote, “and many of her words and phrases have remained with me.” Although she never declared it directly, I am inclined to imagine that Ferrante was impressed by the insight of Morante’s young protagonist, Useppe, in History: A Novel. This little boy knows nothing but devastation and violence. Around him, evil takes the shapes of war’s bloodbath, the genocide of the Jews, and brutality in ordinary human relations: his mother was raped by a German soldier in 1943 and gave birth to Useppe nine months later. In him, sudden suspensions of “normal” sensitivity and breakouts of ecstasy are the effects of the “grand mal” seizures that will ultimately lead to his death, yet which seem to work in him as an irrepressible sap. His primordial sensitivity allows him a surreal perception of himself as part of nature, whose language he understands and speaks. The beautiful calls of birds distract Useppe from his own anguish, reassuring him like a caress: “It’s only a joke, a joke, it’s only a joke.” He holds dialogues with Bella, the female dog who safeguards him during their fabulous jaunts along the river. They both draw from “a strange, vagrant, thousand-year-old memory that suddenly would make them sniff in a marshland the scent of the Indian Ocean and the scent of the Maremma.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Lila, the most powerful and brave character in Ferrante’s quartet, displays a sensitivity that recalls Ortese’s neurosis and Morante’s visionary mind as rendered through the character of Useppe. Lila’s life is a terrible sequence of verbal and physical violence, harassment and sexual assault, work exploitation, and excruciating loss. Hers is a voyage to hell that enables her to perceive what happens behind the veil of reality, as she experiences smarginatura—a dissolution of borders that Ferrante’s Lila describes as “an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self. … [E]verything I’d learned to control, from the first year of life until now, would start fluctuating on its own, dripping or hissing out of a body becoming a thing, a leather sack leaking air and liquids.”
Lila finally realizes that only by moving deeply into and through Naples’s monstrosity will she find a way to build a new relationship with her city. At the age of fifty, Lila goes to libraries and begins excavating layers of abuse and violence, digging into memories of places where historical and natural events have carved swathes of destruction and regeneration. She discovers that, in her city and its bay in the heart of the Mediterranean,“everything was built and everything was torn down…. Vesuvius reminds you every day that the greatest undertaking of powerful men, the most splendid work, can be reduced to nothing in a few seconds by fire, and earthquake, and ash, and sea.”
“When I was a child,” wrote Ferrante in 1995, “I got to know a Napoletanità that was not camorrista [referring to the local mafia], though at risk of being so. I felt around me the easiness of passing the border, as if the jump to criminality were prepared for in some ways, in addition to misery or loss of precarious possessions, by the popular mentality that considered it a possible and normal fact.” Curiously, this passage was cut from the English translation of Frantumaglia, including the strong statement: “Naples has a long history of decline; it’s a metropolis that has anticipated and anticipates the troubles of Italy, perhaps of Europe” (my translation). Naples thus becomes a paradigm of the distorted development of urban communities—not only in Europe, I’d add.
In a 2002 interview now in Frantumaglia, Ferrante wrote: “Individuals and cities without love are a danger to themselves and to others.” Drawing from Dido’s story in Virgil’s Aeneid, she places us at the origin of Carthage, the city from which Hannibal (and Hasdrubal, his brother) set out with the goal to destroy Rome. When a refugee from defeated and destroyed Troy, the fascinating Aeneas, shows up on the shores of Carthage, Dido falls in love with him. The queen of the North African city wants to stop the violence that has left Tyrus, the Phoenician city of her murdered husband, soaked in blood. She deceives herself that together they will build a new city, just and lawful.
“The city would continue to grow powerful and happy if Aeneas stayed,” writes Ferrante. But he leaves to fulfill the will of the gods by founding Rome, a new city on the shores of the Italian peninsula—the future caput mundi. As a result, “Dido, the happy woman, becomes furious, raging … and the blood that [she] has left behind returns to stain the new city.” Dido ends up killing herself with the sword Aeneas has left her as a gift, and Carthage becomes a city marked by hatred and the urge for revenge—Rome’s mortal enemy in the years to come. With a final bitter curse, Dido dismisses the possibility of a just polis: Nullus amor populis nec foedera sunto.“No love between people, no accords: the two things go together,” quotes Ferrante from Virgil.
More than ten years after that interview, Ferrante actualized Dido’s drama in the last book of her quartet, creating a new modern myth. Lila, the amica geniale, enacts her author’s need to imagine a different fate for Dido and a new foundation for Naples. Lila is desperate, tired of fighting; everything around her seems to have lost its boundaries and become worthless, senseless. Yet she doesn’t give up. Having reacted instinctively, ever since her childhood, againstthe monstrosity of her local rione, she undertakes a search for some glimmer of residual humanity in her city. Gradually making her way through the urban labyrinth, she commits to what her friend Lenù calls an “oversized project”: a methodical exploration of Naples, reading books, retracing the city’s history, walking everywhere, trying to uncover what has been hidden, transformed, or forgotten during centuries of ruin and reconstruction. At the same time, this project constitutes a rebuilding of Lila’s own identity.
The art of getting lost requires incessant imagination, she reminds us—and, too, a keen openness to the future. Lila intends to teach Imma, daughter of her lifelong friend Elena, how to find the thread of love that will allow her to get lost, yet still make her way through Naples’s labyrinth. She plans to introduce Imma to “a permanent stream of splendor and miseries … [to] palaces with paradisiacal gardens [that] fell into ruin, grew wild … [and to] a famous building inhabited by spirits … [telling her that] spirits were also in other buildings.” To Imma’s question of whether such spirits really exist, Lila answers that “[t]he spirits exist, but not in the palaces, or in the alleys … they exist in people’s ears, in the eyes when the eyes look inside and not out, in the voice as soon as it begins to speak, in the head when it thinks.”
Like Ortese’s magic animals and Morante’s Useppe, who talks with the dog and birds, Imma, educated by Lila, will be able to speak a language of peaceful connection in a world of violence. She will help fulfill the wish of Virgil, who, moments before his death, ordered a close friend (who fortunately didn’t obey him) to destroy the manuscript of the Aeneid. Virgil couldn’t bear to think that the narrative foundation he’d laid for Rome’s genius loci—which is also a celebration of the Emperor Augustus’s Golden Age—was based upon a violation. He refused to endorse the idea that the arcana imperii, the exigencies of power and authority, were incompatible with love. Lila, too, refuses this—and wants Imma to continue resisting.
Not too long ago a team of archeologists discovered fragments of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius’s poetical celebration of Epicurean philosophy, among papyruses miraculously removed from the muddy ashes of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, on the periphery of Naples. Before Vesuvius’s formidable eruption in 79 B.C., this famous villa was the site of a great Epicurean school. Perhaps Lucretius was there when he wrote his hymn to nature, an invaluable summa of the materialistic tradition—right at the foot of Vesuvius, yet within a serene oasis of pleasure reachable through “living in obscurity,” free from the fear of death.
For centuries all the papyruses were covered by volcanic ash. Existing manuscripts of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things suffered both secular and religious censorship. All power, it seems, dreads those who “live in obscurity” and practice the art of getting lost in imagination’s labyrinths. Like an underground stream of pure water, Lucretius’s masterpiece survived in hiding until the early 1400s, when a humanist intellectual named Poggio Bracciolini found a copy of it while digging in the library of one of the largest monasteries in Europe.
Ferrante’s Lila chooses “obscurity,” wanders around Naples, alone, like a neo-humanist, digs into libraries, and discovers the unknown Naples—the New City (Neo-polis), founded by Greek emigrants in the third century B.C., that would become the center of Greek civilization in the Mediterranean, a place where different cultures could mix and transform into something truly novel. Lila knows that the spirits of places speak to people willing to dig deeply not just into history but into themselves, even to the point of extinguishing earlier notions of their own identities. Being nostalgic for an imaginary past or desperate about an ominous present makes it impossible, she realizes, to perceive signs of potential change. Thus do injustice and violence persist, veiled by bitterness and fatalism.
My paternal grandmother knew what it meant to live in obscurity. She knew, too, what spirits to listen to in a place where people whispered nothing but public shame. In her Urbino of 1916, she was an anomaly: an unmarried woman who gave birth at age thirty-eight. It’s possible everybody in her small community had figured out who the father was. He didn’t have to hide, after all; he wasn’t the sinner.
While in the tunnel in Urbino, I recalled what my mother unexpectedly revealed to me, shortly before dying, about Antonia and her man: “They didn’t even allow her to see him when he was at death’s door, not even in his coffin. She was knocking her fists on the door, but she couldn’t get in.” Antonia had loved him, and perhaps he’d loved her, but their relationship wasn’t allowed—not then, not ever.
When I was five or six, my mother and father got into one of their frequent fights. I don’t know what this particular scrap was about, though I do recall my grandmother was implicated. One word of my mother’s still stabs me: “Bitch!” After that fight, my otherwise beloved mother’s face was imprinted in my memory as an image of hate. And even when dying and in pain, as she described her mother-in-law’s despair, my mother’s face was impassive.
Had the legendary Hasdrubal survived, I imagine he’d have followed his brother Hannibal’s dream. Perhaps they’d have conquered Rome and changed the course of history before Rome razed Carthage to the ground. And perhaps my father would never have been given his strange name.
Or perhaps the early Hasdrubal knew the story of the queen who’d founded Carthage, and would’ve harbored another dream: to do justice to Dido rather than take revenge. Perhaps he’d have adopted Dido’s “oversized project” of building a new city in which violence and hate would be banned. Perhaps he’d have offered the world a model of citizenship that wouldn’t seek expansion through exploitation and warfare.
Perhaps Antonia had a dream, too, about all of that. Perhaps she gave her son the name of Asdrubale as a tribute to a young stranger killed on the Metauro River by the Roman conquerors. Hers was a refusal of a heartless tradition so as to create a new possibility: that the words bastard and bitch would cease to exist.
Some archeologists have uncovered a set of underground passages in Cremona. One day I’ll go back there and descend into them—an emigrant returning to a place he no longer pretends to know.
Will I be able to enjoy getting lost in those tunnels as I did in Urbino, urged by an unconscious desire as well? What will I learn about myself, listening to spirits I’ve never heard or even wanted to listen to, till now? I see myself in there, with Elma, my three-year-old granddaughter, a little bomb of energetic curiosity. She’s fearless, drawn to both joy and disappointment out of pure fascination. She’ll pull me through the tunnels. But she’ll want to hold my hand. She trusts me, sensing I know the answers to her questions—answers she doesn’t even need to wait for. Just asking (and being asked) is reassuring.
Perhaps, in those underground passages, I’ll discover what I missed, misunderstood, or avoided when I lived on the surface in Cremona. When Elma asks me about the past—I know she will—what story will I produce to nourish her imagination, so she can glimpse flashes of light I may not be able to see? In that transient moment, on the narrow path between disenchantment and love, I’ll be revealing my identity to her and myself. So I’ll need to master the art of getting lost. I don’t want to lose her.
Antonio Romani is an essayist and translator whose writings and co-translations have appeared in A Public Space, AGNI, The Common, Tin House, The Southampton Review, and other literary journals. His essay on Elena Ferrante was a Notable in Best American Essays 2016. His co-translation (with Martha Cooley) of Antonio Tabucchi’s Time Ages in a Hurry appeared in 2015. Since 2014, he has led a “What’s Italian?” reading group at The Center for Fiction (NYC). He is currently working on a novel.