Sicilian Wedding

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Segesta, a view from the wedding reception. As the sun set, we could see the temple illuminated on the hillside. It stood silent and mysterious at 1 am as we boarded the bus back to Carini. Are there important historical sites in the land of your ancestors?

 

“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”Linda Hogan, as quoted in Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web, by Sandra Easter

In May, after researching my mother’s family ancestry in Sweden, I went to Sicily with my husband for a family wedding, to ancient Carini where my father was born.

Sweden and the gracious Swedes were new to me. Going to Carini was like coming home.

One of the best decisions my husband and I ever made was to travel to Sicily with our boys to reconnect with my father’s family in Carini. Over the years, we went back when we could – a couple of times with my father, and once with extended family. We watched my cousin Giuseppe grow up, along with several of his cousins.

Last spring we were thrilled to receive Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding invitation in the mail. Since the wedding was to be shortly after my Sweden trip, I decided to make it an extended journey.

Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding reception was within view of Segesta, built around 420 BC and one of the best preserved Doric temple in all of Europe. Overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare, the temple is a mystery, because it appears to have been abandoned before it was completed. And although the Greeks claim it was built by an Athenian architect, during that time period the area was likely inhabited by people indigenous to Sicily, and not the Greeks, though they were elsewhere on the island.

(Some scholars believe that parts of the epic Greek poem the Odyssey are set in Sicily – that Odysseus encountered Cyclops off the eastern coast, for example, and Scylla and Charybdis in the Strait of Messina.)

At any rate, I was thrilled to see the temple of Segesta once again; our first time in Sicily, in 2001, Giuseppe’s family took us there on a sightseeing trip. At the reception, the sun setting behind the illuminated temple gave an air of timelessness to the festivities. I could imagine the spirits of the ancients looking down on us as we celebrated with Giuseppe and Eloisa, and their friends and families.

 

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Carini, Sicily, where my father was born. “We need to see where we have been before we see where we should go, we need to know how to get there and we need to have help on our journey.”Vine Deloria, as quoted in Jung and the Ancestors.

 

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Carini has its own castle and a scandalous story connected with it. The Baroness of Carini was murdered at the age of 34 by her father in 1563 for committing adultery. Her story has become part of Italian poetry and literature.  My son, who was learning to play the violin on our first trip to Sicily, composed a musical score inspired by the castle.  If you look at the literature of your ancestry, you’re sure to find intriguing and inspiring stories.

 

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My cousin has this drawing of the Baroness Laura Lanza with her lover, Lodovico, who was also murdered, by either Laura’s father or her husband. Many years ago, my cousin showed us Laura Lanza’s death certificate, preserved in the town’s historical records.

 

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From the castle, a view of Carini and the sea beyond

 

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Our first visit to Sicily, in April, 2001. 9/11 happened five months later.

 

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Angel’s trumpets in Angelo and Piera’s garden.

 

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This is thought to be my father’s birthplace in Carini.

 

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Portrait of an ancestor, Katarina (my grandfather’s sister)

 

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I was thrilled to meet a beautiful family brand new to me on la mia nonna’s side. Here we are on a picnic in Carini. Concetta, third from left, corresponded with my grandmother for many years. Rosaria, second from right, is a teacher and an avid reader. I loved discussing literature with her. She has fond memories of the Easter baskets filled with chocolate kisses my grandma sent from America every year.

 

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I was so surprised when I met the twins, Alessia and Erica, who look like my niece in America. They are about the same age, too! I hope the three of them can meet one day –  that Malena, my niece, can travel to Sicily and that we can welcome the twins to America.

 

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We had a wonderful time in Palermo with Concetta, Rosaria, and their family. Here is Teatro Politeama, home of the Sicilian Symphony Orchestra. The bronze quadriga (chariot drawn by four horses) depicts the Triumph of Apollo (the god of music and dance) and Euterpe (the muse of lyric poetry).

 

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I loved the church in Palermo where Giuseppe and Eloisa were married, Basilica della Santissima Trinità del Cancelliere, “La Magione” (the mansion).

 

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Giuseppe and Eloisa, our future! She is a journalist, he an interpreter and translator. They currently live in Palermo. (Giuseppe has tirelessly interpreted for us on our visits with family – his English far exceeds our Italian.)

 

Reception

Angela and Pepino, my father’s cousin.

 

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Rosalia and Enzo, my father’s cousin. Pepino, Enzo, and Angelo (see Angelo in photo below) have passed down to us so many family stories. Thanks to Enzo, I know that when my grandparents went back to visit Sicily, my grandfather’s family made rice pudding for his birthday celebration, his favorite dessert. An entire wheelbarrow filled with rice pudding. In the telling of this story, a heated argument ensued as to whether the pudding was made from sheep’s milk or cow’s milk.

 

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Amate e bella famiglia, celebrating a 60th birthday. (l. to r: Eloisa, Giuseppe, Pino, Vita, Piera, and Angelo, my father’s second cousin.)  A beautiful evening, just like the wedding reception.

 

This is what I read when I was in Sicily:

 

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I figured if Elena Ferrante liked it, I would too, and I did.  “’I don’t feel like seeing Procida grow distant and indistinct…I’d rather pretend it didn’t exist. So until the moment you can’t see it anymore, it’ll be better if I don’t look…’
And I remained with my face against my arm…until Silvestro shook me gently and said: ‘Arturo, come, you can wake up.’
Around our ship the sea was uniform, endless as an ocean. The island could no longer be seen.”

 

L'invenzione

If I ever get back to learning Italian, I’ll read this collection of essays by Elena Ferrante I bought in Palermo. The essays are about a page each, manageable for a language learner.

 

Our airbnb was in the old city of Carini. It had a small, shuttered balcony that opened to the noisy, busy, colorful street, almost like another room. We made friends with the neighbors across the strada and chatted with them from our balcony in the evening. Here, a mamma and her figlio, with the neighborhood dogs chiming in:

 

 

We’ve been lucky to have been able to travel to see extended family and our ancestral lands.  I feel as though I have a second home far away and a fuller, more complete identity, anchored in a specific time and place in history. I hope we’ve given that to our sons, too, and that the younger generations – in Italy and Sweden – will someday come to visit their cousins in America.

 

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Grandma and me, Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1960.

 

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Sicilian sunset

 

“Take a moment and look at your life from the perspective of being an ancestor. You are with those who came before you and those yet to be born looking back at your descendants as they live their lives moving forward in time. Imagine that you can see your entire lineage from the first born to the last in your line. Imagine yourself as an ancestor, one of the thousands whose love expresses itself and is embodied now in your descendants. Who we are at this moment in time is a result of the countless generations that have come before and a response to the generations that will follow…..  –  Sandra Easter, Jung and the Ancestors

Closing 2015 with The Story of the Lost Child

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Little girl at Casa Guidi

 

Opening 2016 with a poem

I ended 2015 reading Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, and this first week of 2016, a poem of mine, “At Casa Guidi,” was published in Loveliest Magazine.

Italy. Children. Creativity. I hadn’t planned this, but the poem and Ferrante’s novel have these in common. (The similarities end there – Elena Ferrante is a world-renowned author; I’m a novice poet.)

First, the poem. Some years ago I traveled to Florence with my sister-in-law, and we visited Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in the Oltrarno quarter, where many artists and writers lived. Later, recalling our visit, I was inspired to write “At Casa Guidi.”

Loveliest Magazine, a new venue “for storytelling and togetherness,” caught my eye when I read the words “slow-lifestyle” and “literary” to describe its cross-genre purpose. That’s me, for sure, so I thought my poetry might be a good fit. Beautifully written and produced independent literary and lifestyle publications such as Loveliest often look for good fiction, poetry, and essays; if you’d like to see your work published consider submitting to these in addition to traditional literary journals.

 

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Little boy at Casa Guidi

 

If you are ever in Florence, be sure to visit this quieter part of the city, the Oltrarno, which literally means “beyond the Arno River.” In addition to the must-see attractions and many great works of art, Oltrarno streets are lined with stationery stores featuring the things writers love: Italian-made note papers and leather journals, ornate fountain pens, inks in every shade and color. When I was there, I bought a small, leather-bound copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese, and my sister-in-law bought a print of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Closing 2015 with Elena Ferrante

I’ve written about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in a previous post.  The Story of the Lost Child is Ferrante’s fourth and final novel in her Neapolitan series. The books are a probing look at the inner life of a writer; a family saga; a soap opera; a history of Italian feminism, culture and politics; and more.

So much has been said about these singular, internationally bestselling novels and their mysterious author, who publishes under a pseudonym, that I’ll simply add my thoughts here. (That we don’t know the identity of the author adds to the power of her work, in my opinion.)

If you look at the book covers you’ll see dreamy, idealized illustrations that are misleading: the story of the lifelong friendship between Lila and Elena, born in Naples just after World War II, can often be raw, brutally honest, and bleak. The book covers belie the content, but perhaps that was intentional, as if to say: think again if you expect a story filled with roses and happy endings….

I wouldn’t say I was always entertained by the books, because they can be relentless in their depiction of Napoli poverty and the battle between the sexes in an era when feminism blossomed. But, as many readers do, I became obsessed with Lila and Elena and had to keep on reading to see what became of them.

  • Ferrante’s work is especially meaningful to me because my father was Sicilian. Now I better understand the values, traditions, and struggles of my Italian ancestors and how these may have had an impact on my own childhood. The cultural history of Italy and its focus on family reminded me of one of my favorite Italian movies, The Best of Youth. Although I have not yet read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgard, it sounds as though Ferrante’s penetrating look at the psychology of growing up and growing older may have similarities with Knausgard’s autobiographical series.
  • As a writer, I was especially taken with Elena’s love/jealousy/hatred of her friend, Lila. Though Elena was the outwardly successful one, with several novels published and lauded as a scholar of literature and culture, she always believed Lila was the more talented of the two, the one with wildness, fire, and true originality.  It’s often a struggle when I write to break out of my safe, everyday self and give creativity free reign. The genius of the Neapolitan novels is that Elena and Lila’s story can be read as the author’s own creative struggle with a psyche split in two.

 

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Elena and her friend, Lila, are strong women, survivors. Here is Elena during the earthquake in Naples, 1980:

“I felt that fear in me could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery stream of melting matter settled in my mind in orderly sentences, a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, where I was always and no matter what at the center. Everything that struck me–my studies, books, Franco, Pietro, the children, Nino, the earthquake–would pass, and I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm.”  – The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

 

My Brilliant Friend book coverThe Story of a New Name book coverThose Who Leave and Those Who Stay book cover

Literary Blog Hop Book Giveaway

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Welcome to The Literary Blog Hop!

My Giveaways: The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

(I will ship to international addresses.)

Books Can Save a Life is participating in the 2015 Literary Blog Hop, hosted by My Book Self.

Between now and midnight on Sunday, April 12, you can hop over to a dozen or so blogs, all offering giveaways of books, book gift cards, or bookish items. Click HERE to see the many fabulous blogs participating in this hop!

My Giveaway

I will be giving away two works of literary fiction by renowned authors. (One book each to two lucky winners.) Just leave a comment about books on my blog (see left sidebar) between now and April 12 and you’re eligible. Winners will be notified via email and will have 48 hours to respond or an alternate winner will be selected.

The Story of a New Name book coverAccording to The New Yorker,Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s best-known least-known contemporary writers.” An international literary sensation, Elena publishes under a pseudonym, so her identity remains unknown. I’m pleased to offer The Story of a New Name, the second in Ferrante’s best-selling Neapolitan trilogy. You’ve just got to experience her remarkable voice! Click HERE to read a previous post about Ferrante.

Ian McEwan has long been one of my favorites. The Children Act is the haunting story of a teen-age boy with a life-threatening disease who refuses medical treatment on religious grounds.The Children Act book cover

Anyone can enter The Literary Blog Hop. You do not need to have a blog or follow my blog, but if you find Books Can Save a Life of interest, please become one of my followers by email or on Facebook or Twitter.

Oh, and please share this post on your favorite social media!

The Literary Blog Hop ENDS:

MIDNIGHT EST April 12, 2015

Thank you for visiting Books Can Save a Life. Remember, leave a comment if you want a chance to win, and then start BLOG HOPPING!

Mysterious Elena

“I concluded that first of all I had to understand better what I was. Investigate my nature as a woman. I had been excessive. I had striven to give myself male capacities. I had thought I had to know everything, be concerned with everything. What did I care about politics, about struggles. I wanted to make a good impression on men, be at their level. At the level of what, of their reason, most unreasonable. Such persistence in memorizing fashionable jargon, wasted effort. I had been conditioned by my education, which had shaped my mind, my voice. To what secret pacts with myself had I consented, just to excel. And now, after the hard work of learning, what must I unlearn. Also, I had been forced by the powerful presence of Lila to imagine myself as I was not. I was added to her, and I felt mutilated as soon as I removed myself. Not an idea, without Lila. Not a thought I trusted, without the support of her thoughts. Not an image. I had to accept myself outside of her. The gist was that. Accept that I was an average person. What should I do. Try again to write. Maybe I didn’t have the passion. I merely limited myself to carrying out a task. So don’t write anymore. Find some job. Or act the lady, as my mother said. Shut myself up in the family. Or turn everything upside down. Home. Children. Husband.”      Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend book cover

 

I don’t often read books in translation, but when I visited Sicily this summer I decided to bring along a contemporary Italian writer. I chose Elena Ferrante and her trilogy of Neapolitan novels – a fourth novel will be published next year – not realizing what an incredible reading experience it would turn out to be.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. The author of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay does not grant in-person interviews. She does not do book signings or promotional tours. Even her translator, Ann Goldstein, has never met this international literary sensation.

There is a rumor that Elena Ferrante is a man, which many female readers find absurd. A myth, they say, spread by condescending males who think a woman wouldn’t write about male-female relations in the way that Ferrante does. I would be surprised and disappointed if Ferrante is ever revealed to be male. Certainly, such a thought never occurred to me as I read her novels. To me, she seems authentically female, though one who is remarkably uninhibited and self-revealing: a kind of brutal honesty born of the harsh, corrupt city where her novels are set.  It could be that professional anonymity gives Ferrante the freedom to write in this unfettered way. But I have the feeling that Ferrante’s strong, unusual voice would prevail regardless of her circumstances.

The Story of a New Name book coverThe Neapolitan novels span the 1950s to the present, depicting the fraught friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, who live on a violent, poverty-stricken Naples stradone, and the fates of their neighborhood friends. Elena manages to become educated and lift herself out of poverty. She writes a bestselling novel, marries an esteemed professor of literature and “escapes” the old neighborhood. Lila, who Elena views as the more brilliant and talented of the two, is not permitted to attend school beyond the fifth grade. She fashions a very different kind of life that remains enmeshed in the corruption and conflict of Napoli.

The friendship between these two women is arresting, electrifying. Lila and Elena love each other but visit treachery and betrayal upon one another, too.  Lila takes the lead with bold, unconventional action; Elena reacts, making important life decisions almost in the wake of Lila. Elena senses Lila is the true, more talented writer, the one more deserving of success; she consciously crafts her own writer’s voice from a story Lila wrote as a child. No one knows Elena better than Lila, and vice versa. If one woman were to die, the other would lose her identity, and her life would be stripped of much of its meaning.

These novels remind me of the movie The Best of Youth in its depiction of an Italian family caught up in the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Feminism is a strong theme, but as the decades pass, in these Neapolitan novels, men and women do not seem to make any progress understanding each other. Do you remember the vitriolic scene in The Godfather when Connie (Talia Shire) hurls the wedding china at her husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo) and they scream at each other? I thought of them when I read Ferrante’s riveting depiction of Lila’s wedding night. Returning from her honeymoon with a black eye, Lila visits her mother, who looks the other way, saying nothing. Such a thing was not out of the ordinary.

If you appreciate complex psychological portraits of women and female friendships, you will like these novels. I enjoyed them, too, for their depiction of Elena’s emotional and creative challenges as a writer, and because they helped me better understand the problematic history of women’s roles in Italian family and culture. The novels will resonate for anyone who has reinvented themselves through geographical distance or education or immersion in a different stratum of society.  We see Elena renouncing the rough dialect of Naples for cultured Italian, yet reverting to the aggressive language of her childhood when she’s angry or upset. Elena hovers between two identities: alienated from her people and place of origin, yet never really at home in her new life.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay book coverThis article in Slate is one of the better reviews I’ve read of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There is an excellent discussion of Elena Ferrante by her translator Ann Goldstein and others in this New Yorker: Out Loud interview.

I plan on reading the fourth novel next year when it is published. Have you read any novels by Elena Ferrante? If so, what do you think?

 

 

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