Giovanna Calvino is the author of the book My Inner Witch and the producer of a web series called Amateur Thursdays. She is an adjunct professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at NYU.
I’m 18, slumped in a folding chair on the lawn of my family’s house in Tuscany, reading Proust in the Pléiade edition, oblivious to the 20/20 visual acuity that such an activity presupposed and that twenty-five years later my bespectacled middle aged self can’t help but regard with a discrete amount of envy. Envy but not nostalgia, for, as I experienced it at the time, that was a miserable summer, although it didn’t even compare to the darkness that awaited us one year down the road---by us I mean my nuclear family composed of myself, my mother, father and older brother (to an outsider the latter might have seemed better equipped to weather the events that were going to befall us, in the sense that he had recently become a father himself and one might –erroneously-- suppose that his new family could serve as an island of sorts, a momentary refuge from bereavement; which it did not, I think he was hit as hard as anyone, albeit in a different manner; and each of us walled him and herself in their own particular form of sorrow, and was cut off from the rest, unable to communicate, to help each other in any way.) But when this snapshot of me with my face squashed against the back of the chair, was taken, none of this had happened yet. Proust was a revelation, I gobbled up the whole thing and thoroughly absorbed it until three months later I came out at the other end partially transformed . My writing style changed, my capacity to think and articulate ideas increased; I became temporarily more intelligent, long enough to be admitted a few years later into a PhD program in the States, in spite of not having completed my undergraduate degree.
I quit university three times before embarking on (and eventually obtaining) my doctorate. The summer of reading Proust was after the first drop out. Nobody, myself included, could quite figure out what was wrong with me. At the time I thought I was unhappy because I believed I was fat. There was an ideal version of myself, slender and coolheaded, which frowned from above upon the amorphous, floundering self I awoke to every morning. As a result, I spent as much time as possible in my inner world, which encompassed the fictional geography of the Recherche -- and as little time as was strictly necessary in the other world, the one where my family (the aforementioned one minus the brother, who was in Paris at the time, and unconnected to the prevailing madness) lived and behaved erratically to an unprecedented degree; the same world, furthermore, in which my father would a year later, without any prior notice, drop dead on us. Or such is the story I told myself for a long time and which I have only recently begun to alter, as I am now willing to acknowledge that there actually were warning signs but we either a) were unable to recognize them, b) ignored them or c) in the case of my father, were clear-eyed about them but decided to withhold the truth from the rest of the family. As an aside to the aside, it’s funny how these recollections of mine keep swerving off from their intended course; there is something about parroting the proustian syntax that helps loosen my tongue; the stretching sentence, permissive and accommodating, that doesn’t mind making room for yet another subordinate clause, has on me the effect a non-judgmental parent, patiently hearing me out as I stumble my way through an improvised soliloquy.
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