We thought we were in the line for the flight to Rome where we would make connections to Palermo, but we were wrong. We were not the only ones to have found the signage (when did it become “signage,” and not just “signs”?) unclear; others traipsed after us to the new queue. The man behind us said something amusing about our situation, and we started talking when we settled into our new line.
He described himself as a “scholar.” He was a university professor from Naples. He had been visiting an ethnic center at the University of Minneapolis and had then spent a few days in New York City with his daughter who was traveling with him. They were now headed home.
His field was a new one for me—Italian-American literature. He studied American authors of Italian descent. When asked for examples, he offered Don DeLillo and Richard Russo. I was surprised. I have read novels by both these authors and had never thought of them as Italian-American. I regarded both as quintessentially American. Russo’s capturings of small-town life and academia just seemed to me to be, in the best sense of the word, Americana. DeLillo has portrayed other aspects of the country to me, often its paranoia, but again, I thought of him simply as an American writer, not an Italian-American writer. Standing in line to check in for a flight was not the time for a deep literary discussion, but in another setting, I would have liked to have heard the Neapolitan professor talk about how, if it all, he saw that the Italian ancestry of Russo and DeLillo influenced their novels.
In response to a question, the professor, without hesitation, said that Underworld was the best of DeLillo’s books. I told him that I had read the book twice. The first time I was mostly confused by it, but the second time I thought that it was a masterpiece. I continued that each time, however, I had considered the opening chapter marvelous—some of the best writing I had ever read. Its setting is the legendary playoff game that decided the 1951 winner of baseball’s National League, which ended with the dramatic home run by Bobby Thompson. The professor smiled and said that the chapter was just incomprehensible to him. I guess that one needs to know something about American baseball to grasp the genius of the piece.
We talked a little about some of the Italian authors the spouse and I have read. He speculated that the first of Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan books was written by more than one author. If so, the spouse and I had not noticed. The professor taught me how to pronounce the last name of Salvatore Quasimodo, the Sicilian poet who won the Nobel prize for literature, but I did not master it and asked my guide again in Sicily. The “s” sounds like a “z,” and the emphasis is on the second syllable, not the third as we would say for the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The professor’s daughter said that she was finishing college in the spring. She did not know what she would do then, but she was studying “languages.” As one who cannot speak anything other than English, I noticed the plural.
The professor said that he was now studying a John Fante novel. I stated that I had never heard of Fante, and the professor responded that he was mostly known for writing B-movie scripts, but that he had also written some outstanding novels. On one level, it was humbling to have an Italian inform me about an American writer; on the other, I like reading good authors whom I have not read before, and I have now vowed to read Fante’s Bandina Quartet.
As we finally made it to the head of the line, we exchanged contact information, and the spouse and I told the daughter she could stay with us if she visited New York City again, which seemed to excite her since she had enjoyed New York so much.
I thought that this was a good start for our trip to Sicily. Before even boarding Alitalia, I had had an interesting conversation and learned things from a person whose path I would like to cross again.
(continued November 21)