Roman Rapture

by Corby Rummer
byBarbara Grizzuti Harrison.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $19.95.
THE JOURNALIST and essayist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison has always been restless and judgmental, frank and seemingly dissatisfied. Now the object of her searches in previous writings, on topics including feminism, celebrities, and her and her mother’s time as Jehovah’s Witnesses, is made explicit. She is looking for her faith, for the ability to reconcile herself to the memory of her difficult parents, and for her soul’s rest.
Italian Days is a rich account of a long stay in Italy, visiting monuments, conducting brief and intensive friendships, eating, following the tracks of writers and historians, and everywhere looking for her place in the Church in which she was baptized but which she left in childhood, returning only as an adult. The search is easier than it would have been in America: “What a happy, human Church the Italian one is!” she exclaims. “When people think of the Catholic Church, and speak of it in fear, admiration, condescension, or anger, they never seem to be seeing this Church—the Church of family, community, simplicity, anchorage, and ease.”
Her stay will culminate in a search for relatives, in the south, but she starts in the industrialized north, in Milan, a city “impossible to love,” and proceeds to Venice, Florence, and Rome, where for her “Italy begins.” She goes on to the regions of the Abruzzi and Calabria, where she will find echoes of the beautiful mother who gave virtually no evidence of loving her and whom she did not love until death separated them, and the father she loved but had to escape from, a father who fainted at will and who was so upset by her leaving home that he actually left Brooklyn—something done in her family only under duress— and spied on her in the tiny apartment she took in Manhattan.
Although by turns a warm and a raw family memoir, the book is also a masterly evocation of the places she visits. Harrison has the capacity to let Italy enter her being, to sit in a piazza or a church for hours absorbing, even ingesting—“I could eat this light"—the scene. She captures the delight of discovery, of passionate attachment to a place formed in an afternoon’s wanderings. She can encapsulate Italy in one paragraph—for example, describing the landscape near the medieval Tuscan town of San Gimignano, with “gardeners turning over soil with gnarled, patient hands,” “showers of wisteria framing old women shelling peas in doorways,” and “laughing nuns pushing children on orange swings, their heavy habits floating on magnoliascented air.” The winding drive from Naples along the Amalfi coast is “fragrant, serpentine, Saracen, sunlit, kaleidoscopic.” She summarizes Milan, where her “irritable intelligence” is fully attuned to the humbuggery she sees around her: “The melancholy of Milan may be dressed to kill, it may be almost unrecognizable, but it is as pervasive as the diesel fumes, the staccato tapping of heels on marble. ”
Harrison is almost never without an opinion, and if one wearies of her as a companion, there are generous samplings of the travelers who for generations explained Italy to foreigners: Charles Dickens, H. V. Morton, John Ruskin, Stendhal, Montaigne, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Norman Douglas, Georgina Masson. She includes Italians, too—Luigi Barzini. Umberto Eco, and especially Giambattista Vico, an eighteenth-century philosopher and essayist who is fashionable today. Her explanations of history are not routine but instead charged by her interest. Dante and Saint Augustine are touchstones. She is especially taken by the lives of the saints, offering entertaining stories from this arcanum at the least excuse.
Harrison is constantly monitoring her own emotions, aware that the “sadness or loneliness” of traveling alone can be “the gateway to felicity or exaltation,” and she is constantly alive to the pleasures and pain of the people she meets. She has written before of the magnetic attraction she exerts on strangers, and it serves her well throughout Italy. Chance meetings lead to a charming report of a first communion in the Abruzzi, for example, and a merciless one of an aristocratic wedding near Naples. Some encounters are amusing and enlightening, others less so, but her ear is always accurate. “Nuns,” one friend, whose husband is unfaithful, says bitterly. “At least they’re married to someone they like.” When no one is at hand to provide material, she makes sure that she finds some. She not only eavesdrops on the conversations of others in restaurants but actually presses a glass to the wall of her bedroom so as to overhear what her neighbors are fighting about.
Harrison’s stories are uncensored— they have the day’s freshness, and she doesn’t second-guess herself or pull back from embarrassing revelations, like the glass against the wall. She mentions many stairways, at one point referring to the return of “my ghastly fear of steps.” Food is an “obsession.” She takes “comfort in chocolate” and ice cream and frequent large meals, recitations of which interrupt her narrative. (Harrison’s interest in food is more enthusiastic than scholarly or critical; a useful book to buy along with hers is the recently published Eating in Italy, by Faith Heller Willinger, an unvaryingly accurate and indispensable guide to the regions north of Rome.)
This very freshness and the need to record what she eats and exactly whom she meets point to the main flaw of the book: its disorganization and randomness. Like menus, accounts of current events are dropped into the text, providing a framework more tenuous than supportive with their maddening intermittence. Articles and short pieces of fiction that she has previously published appear without warning. A fondness for long parenthetical discussions often leads to an impenetrable forest of brackets. Necessary information about her family arrives too late and then, like other facts and observations, is repeated, seemingly unintentionally.
WHEN AFTER MANY false starts Harrison finally meets a fewdistant cousins, she feels guilty and confused. They keep asking why she left, although it was her parents who left, and when she will return. (Members of Harrison’s own generation do indeed come and go, however; this is still a distinguishing trait of Italian-Americans.) She makes promises to visit again soon, promises she knows she will betray. “We are missing links,”she writes, “we have broken the chain of human communion. We have inherited the sins of our fathers; our punishment is exile.” The most emotional meeting is with an old woman who seems to have been awaiting her arrival in order to be able to die in peace. Harrison doubts that they are actually related. Even finding a hut that was once her grandmother’s house fails to offer the mystical union she seeks. In the end she realizes that the search itself is misguided:
Nothing can make my father more real to me than he already is. . . . What I want to know is: Whom did he love? Did he love me? Was he ever happy (is he happy now?)? The answers to these questions are more likely to come to me in dreams.
The book’s true climax has come earlier, during Harrison’s residence in Rome, where “my body is completely happy.”Here she loves nearly everything and everyone she sees. She rehearses the way back to her apartment, delighting in the very names of the streets and piazzas she passes—“is Rome not too good to be true?” Her writing on churches and monuments is especially fine, if suffused with the “rapture" she feels at being there to observe them, a word to which she keeps returning even while apologizing for its bluntness.
And in Rome she is, at last, comfortable with herself and her faith. Her restlessness and irritability abate. One day she finds herself no longer “shopping” for people, places, and objects but simply going to church. She stops worrying about “a ‘place’ in the Church,”deciding that it is “as manyfaceted . . . and as unified as life itself.”Although she will travel further, in Rome she has found what she came for. “Italy offers one the most priceless of all one’s possessions—one’s own soul.”Anyone who has felt most alive in another country, especially transforming Italy, will recognize this as true.