How tempting to describe Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s memoir Mother Tongue as a page-turner, as it surely was for me more than twenty years ago. But really, it’s a page-pauser. The instantly trustworthy voice invites the reader to slow into its fine focus, its acute parallels and oppositions, the deft leaps from the frustrations of a Renaissance abbess commissioning Correggio to paint her room in Parma, say, to the homely act of buying bread at the corner store in the same city almost five hundred years later. Much underlining, notes and exclamations crammed in the margins. I’ve been in conversation with this book for many years.
And now, yet again, with the undertow of the pandemic clutching Italy in its fierce grip, the book speaks. Wilde-Menozzi and her husband are “hunkered” (the new verb form of our lives) in Parma, where she continues to take her keen-eyed notes. In an email this week, she reports that the caskets wait in long lines and the nurses weep because they can’t find words to give to those who are frightened.
The signal of a reliable reporter—journalist, memoirist, poet, historian—is the capacity to see oppositions and contradictions with unblinking acceptance: this is reality. Finally, she writes: “All in all, though, spring is unstoppable—after all, it, as well as the virus, is part of nature’s ways. Italy is doing a good job, with many people making sacrifices and being selfless.”
Just now, in the midst of the growing pandemic, my latest consideration of her book underscores its uncanny immediacy. My enthralled first reading probably had something to do with its moment in modern literary history. Mother Tongue appeared in the early wave of personally voiced books in which the narrator is not a heroine, though she’s the protagonist, the seeking soul. This was nonfiction (wasn’t it?), but also lyric, essayistic, inquiring, thoughtful prose. Yet not dowdy “belles lettres.” Research underlay some of it, but it wasn’t scholarly—just reliable. There was even stealth poetry. A mind was revealing itself—to itself. And I, the reader, got to eavesdrop.
There was something intriguingly feral, without guile but with native intelligence, about the book. And all the more engaging for refusing the narrative device of plot, ascending the high wire of associative thought to spin across the trajectory of time. Astute asides about politics—Communism, the Catholic Church, past, present. A passionate inner manifesto was claiming the right to a personal “take” on the world. Yet how did it manage to avoid being self-regarding?
The book employed autobiography as a kind of scaffolding for the real subject, which was an account of an independent mind seeking meaning of and from the world, and from the milky reaches of history. There was a moral imperative at the heart of the enterprise. Heart is the right word for the pulse of feeling penetrating the thinking. It wasn’t just a “story.” Still, the book hoisted itself aloft with captivating vignettes from a supposedly ordinary life, translated improbably from a Wisconsin upper-middle-class Protestant girlhood to Italian family life in still very Catholic Parma, wartime desperation sharp in its memory.
Autobiography may be centuries older in the Western canon than the novel (Augustine sits down in North Africa in 397 to write his Confessions), but when Wilde-Menozzi was writing this book, the term “memoir” was newly adopted to label works that were not reminiscences or the bully tales of “great men” (or great lovers). She was one of the writers—often women—colonizing the dusty self-advertising form and turning it into the quest literature of the age.
Memoir, of course, remains a celebrity genre—apparently you can’t run for president without writing one or having one ghosted. But memoir as Wilde-Menozzi was employing it ceased to be an old-age summing up or an advertisement for the self; it turned into an urgent midlife project. Just as Dante, not all that far from Parma, began his exile quest: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, the straight way lost.”
History’s encounter with contemporary, immediate life is the lodestar and essential business of Mother Tongue. History with a capital H and other histories as well. The history of paper, for example, an early Parma specialty, leads to dismay that it has never been understood as “the embodiment of the infrastructure between private and public; it visibly holds thought.” There should be a Paper Age, the author feels, like a Bronze Age and an Atomic Age. Or the consideration of midday lunch in Parma—a hot sit-down meal, family together, please—a model of incontrovertible social control. On and on, the scalpel makes its meticulous nicks on the surface of life, opening, revealing.
This is not a how-I-got-to-be-me memoir. Those inevitable parental players—mother, father—do come and go here, ghostly Midwestern shapes moving through the mists of the life. They matter, of course. But the beloved daughter is a brighter star, growing up a Parma native as her mother never will be. Or the Italian spouse, a scientist who believes in the intelligence of poetry, for whose love her exile has been undertaken.
But always, the immediacy of history—the great abbess Giovanna’s convent a brief walk away from the Menozzi home, a Renaissance woman modeling early humanist thinking: cloistered, shut down, shut up. The injustice of her enforced silence simmers down the centuries to be protested here by this American woman with the birthright of free speech. Yet perhaps the greatest grandee of the spirit is Alba, her husband’s mother, widowed early, the lean embodiment of postwar labor and love: the hardness of her life, with her love at least as hard—and sharp.
I was heartened, on my first reading all those years ago, to see it was possible to “write a life” and yet not be hopelessly self-absorbed. That it was possible to think with emotion and to feel with intelligence. Here was a writer’s attentive curiosity, as engaged as a scientist studying a slide under the microscope, knowing this attention could lead not only inward, but outward.
Mother Tongue is “an American life,” as its subtitle says, lived in provincial, family-laden Parma (not international Rome, not the Amalfi coast, nor a restored Tuscan villa). This is a life knocked wonderfully off-balance (well, wonderful for the reader) to reveal an almost shockingly frank intelligence. A rare candor pervades and enlivens these chapters. No doubt its keen focus is bred of isolation, even loneliness. Such is exile. The job is to say what you see—inside and outside. It’s an act of faith in our supposedly faithless world.
The exile is not only geographic. It’s linguistic. This is an American writer; English is her business, but her life and the life around her is lived in Italian. “English carried me,” she writes in one heartbreaking line, “but it no longer exists for daily traffic.” She is alone with English, her mother tongue (not a bad thing, perhaps, for a writer). It’s clear she speaks fluent Italian, though we don’t learn how she acquired it, and she can argue with Italians. My favorite episode is her very American fury at the Italian linguistic stop sign: “Impossible.” Impossible, she is told time and again, the word employed to shut down—well, anything, including statements of fact. “Impossible” is a wall without a gate. She storms it, a can-do American. Not that she breaches that wall. “In Parma I have taken this word like a slap in the face, a punch to the stomach, an insult that I am unable to blast in spite of my protests.”
She is left with history, especially what it means to think about women’s lives over time and in time, and to acquiesce to daily life when nothing can be assumed as a cultural given. Assumption about the simplest daily gestures is erased, maybe left back in Chippewa Falls. Such is the fate of exile—the freight of uncertainty and the development of a necessarily keen eye and ear. For this is not an expat story, not about being a visitor observing exotica. Rather, from an American point of view, it’s a reverse immigration story: here the American is the alien trying to wedge into a deeply rutted, traditional way of life, yet determined to maintain her authentic self—whatever, whoever that is.
Her dislocation is often painful, but never expressed as a complaint. Love brought her to Parma, and to that fact—spouse, child, widowed mother-in-law—there is unbroken loyalty. This relentless attention requires radical honesty, a form of inventive humility. That’s what you get from this writer. No wonder I couldn’t put the book down.
Books seem permanent—there they are, chunks of effort, bound, stamped with title and author name. But they come into existence, like everything, in time. They are more likely to be ephemeral than eternal. Some books, initially ignored or even vilified, endure and become classics much later. Think Melville and Moby-Dick: “The style of his tale is … disfigured … hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed” (London Athenaeum, 1851).
Nabokov insists that rereading is the real reading. It allows for greater intimacy, but also for fresh judgment. Almost a quarter century (put it that way, and take a deep breath) has passed since this book was new. The bright daughter of this book, a child no longer, is a mother herself, and gone from Parma. Even the touching reference to the exiled writer’s passionate anticipation of “the feast of mail” arriving with the postman has been superseded by the flash-fluency of email. The Italian Berlusconi in the book now seems an unwitting harbinger of the American Trump. Yet Mother Tongue is now more, not less, “relevant,” to use a catchword from the era of the book’s first publication. Partly that’s because the questions the book engages are enduring, indeed eternal—the religious term feels accurate here.
Sensuous writing, the exactitude of metaphor—reading’s signal pleasures—are evergreen on rereading: the “forthright woman … round as an opossum, with permanents that made her hair look like grapes on her head,” and the streets of Parma, “often tucked in by wisps of fog, have a domestic, sleepy, elegant charm … ”
Beyond the elegance of its stone-cut language, the fact of exile envelopes the book. It’s even more eloquent today than twenty-five years ago. At no time in human history, we are told, have so many people been migrants. The exile, back turned from the language and habits of home, facing uncertainty, is the emblem of the human being in our world. And in an eerie turn, right now every “self-isolating” person has become a new kind of exile, sent into social detention where only fellow-feeling can meet and comfort one another. Relationships are no longer “in person,” but perhaps even more “in spirit” as Mother Tongue so often exemplifies in the heart of the experience of dislocation and isolation.
The value of “writing a life” that Wilde-Menozzi undertook, against great odds and alone in her exile language, is now the model to express our times. “Everyone who turns any light on herself,” she writes, “will find sadness and disorientation, ruins, missteps, as well as stupendous beauties and dreams. You change when you act, just as you exist when you stand your ground. The important thing is not to panic, not to give up what you can’t relinquish, and never confuse life with art.”
How strangely apt just now, this caution from a prepandemic life—not to panic. At the heart of this extraordinary memoir written a quarter century ago from “the middle of the journey of our life,” the straight way was—and remains—lost. Mother Tongue shares the personal and social vulnerability Augustine recounted as Rome shattered, and Dante affirmed in his exile. When a writer of such exceptional spirit comes to herself “in a dark wood,” the work becomes an act of surrender, the self giving over to the testimony of history played upon the pulses. Which is to say, the personal speaks for the commonweal. Hope is revealed not as pitiful wishfulness, but as solidarity.
Patricia Hampl is the author, most recently, of The Art of the Wasted Day.
Excerpted from Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy, by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi. Published by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 1997 by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi. Preface copyright © 2020 by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi. Foreword copyright © 2020 by Patricia Hampl. All rights reserved.