The Paris Review

The Joys of the Italian Short Story

One evening in Rome, in the kitchen of the Italian writer Caterina Bonvicini, I expressed a desire to assemble a collection of Italian short stories translated into English. It was March of 2016, during a brief trip back to Italy. Six months before, my family and I had returned to the United States after living for three years in Rome.

My life as a reader had, by that time, taken an unexpected turn; since 2012, shortly before moving to Rome, I had chosen to read only Italian literature, mostly from the twentieth century, and to read those works exclusively in Italian, a language I had diligently studied for many years but had yet to master. I was forty-five years old, and I believed, even before this new phase began, that I was already fully formed as a reader and writer. And yet I surrendered to an inexplicable urge to distance myself, to immerse myself, and to acquire a second literary formation.

It was one thing to read only Italian when living in Italy, where the winds were favorable, where my state of voluntary literary exile made sense. I read with an adolescent’s zeal, transported to another dimension, standing before a new group of gods. I had an Italian teacher who came to my home twice a week and, at the start, brought me chapters and excerpts equipped with footnotes for elementary readers. I befriended Italians who mentioned authors I had never heard of before. I began frequenting bookstores, especially those that sold secondhand volumes, combing the shelves for their works. I purchased them and read them, and copied down sentences by hand, taping them over my desk for inspiration. I realized that, for the first time in decades, I was reading to satisfy only myself. I was no longer influenced by the expectations and broader cultural consensus that dictate what one should be reading—such frames of reference had fallen away. The more people remarked on my new inclination—But don’t you miss English?—the more I clung to my newfound freedom, not wanting it to end.

But it did end; while in Italy, I was offered a job at Princeton University to teach creative writing, and so my family and I returned to the United States. Crossing the Atlantic, I read Primo Levi’s Se questo è (), a first book that recounts the eleven months that Levi, a young chemist from Turin who became one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, spent imprisoned in a German concentration camp before it was liberated in 1945. It was my first time reading that work in Italian, and the pure truth and beauty of those pages that transform one man’s experience of hell into a masterpiece of literature transformed not only the hours on the plane but also me personally, instilling in me an abiding awe—there is no other word for it—that even today governs my own newfound liberty as both a reader and a writer.

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