Once upon a time, three decades ago, I lived for almost 15 years in a residential area in Rome, whose leafy streets were named after famous Italian writers. Our apartment was on the main road: Viale Cesare Pavese.
I was at first embarrassed to realise that while I had randomly read a few modern Italian writers, like Alberto Moravia and Italo Calvino, I had never heard of Cesare Pavese, considered to be one of the principal protagonists of 20th century Italian literature. Later, however, after delving into some of his books, and despite my admiration for his commitment against the Fascism of his times, I was disappointed to find him a writer of gloom and doom and existential angst, which went against the grain of my own temperament and the joyous years I spent at this address, raising a family and evolving as a writer in my own way.
Living in this neighbourhood gave me the map towards a familiarity with some of the most illustrious names among the modernist and neo-realist Italian writers. My daily routine and movements of that time would easily chart a path through the history of post-war Italian literature, taking me through lanes and by-lanes, streets (Via) and avenues (Viale), heralded by the names of Italian poets, playwrights and writers.
Every day, waking up to the warbling of birds on the lively street, I would walk my sons to their school-bus stop on Via Elio Vittorini, at the bottom of a hill gently undulating, to contrast, perhaps, the brisk, unadorned “Hemingway-esque” style of Vittorini’s prose (most famous example, Conversation in Sicily
). After my husband left for office I would go to my gym or my supermarket on Viale Salvatore Quasimodo, ironically a prosaic back street unsuited to this famous poet, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1959. Some days I met friends for a mid-day coffee at a bar on Largo Giuseppe Ungaretti, named after one of the leading Italian poets of the twentieth century. His most famous line from a WWI poem: La morte si sconta vivendo/ Death is paid by living
Since then I have embarked on another journey, going back to making a belated and deeper acquaintance of those writers, who once used to be just points of reference in giving me directions. Take a right on Via Emilio Gadda.
I had a wide network of friends and a web of social and domestic activities in those days that required me to stray
further afield, to Viale Carlo Levi (the author of Christ Stopped at Eboli
, a memoir of his life as an anti-Fascist exiled in a stark place in Southern Italy, seemingly forgotten by the world), or Viale Tomasi di Lampedusa (the princely writer of the famous novel, The Leopard
, made into a film in 1963), or Viale Ignazio Silone (the writer, whose courageous masterpiece, Bread and Wine
, exposed the brutality and lies of the Fascist state of Mussolini’s Italy), or Piazza Eugenio Montale (the other Nobel winning poet). And yet, so many other writers, and paths, were left unexplored. So many other roads led to my Rome of that time, my hood of heroic writers, whom I started to know after we had moved to another area in Rome.
When I came to Italy in 1978, I was more interested in English writers who had come to Italy. I loved to trace their footsteps in Rome or Florence, on literary walks. I didn’t have an interest in the Italy’s literati of the past, though I was always in awe of its long and rich literary heritage. Before I came to Italy, while a student of English and Comparative literature in the USA, I had studied mainly the classical Italian writers, such as Virgil, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante who wrote in Latin till he broke with tradition, using the Florentine dialect, which became the standard Italian language.
I knew some other famous names like Pirandello, from my theatre class; or Collodi, the creator of the Pinocchio of my childhood. Other Italian writers I was familiar with were contemporary international names, like Umberto Eco (who wrote The Name of the Rose
, which I loved; Foucault’s Pendulum
, which I wanted to like but hated, and The Island of the Day Before
, which was as delightful and intriguing as the title), or two of my favourite Italian authors: Natalia Ginzburg (Family Sayings
etc) and Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
and Invisible Cities
), among others.
Since then I have embarked on another journey, going back to making a belated and deeper acquaintance of those writers, who once used to be just points of reference in giving me directions. Take a right on Via Emilio Gadda. Hang a left on Piazzale Elsa Morante (Ah! Finally a female writer, famous in her own right, though married to Alberto Moravia). Now they are my compass on the endless route on which all of us writers, big and small, are fellow travellers.
Today, on an errand, I find myself back on Viale Cesare Pavese, and searching for a shortcut to a shop, I drive into Viale Salvatore Quasimodo, and notice that the Azaleas are in bloom. I stare at the transformed beauty of the place: It’s not such a prosaic street after all! Or perhaps, it’s just a luminous time of the day, this late afternoon stage of one's life, when every passing moment is beautiful.
“Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world/pierced by a ray of sunlight/and suddenly it is evening,”
Ed è subito sera
Neeman Sobhan is an Italy-based Bangladeshi writer, poet and columnist. She teaches at the University of Rome, La Sapienza. Her published works include an anthology of short stories, Piazza Bangladesh (Bengal Publications), and recently, a collection of poems, Calligraphy of Wet Leaves (Bengal Lights). She is presently working on her first novel, The Ninety-nine Names for Being.