by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
The ways in which we come to know other people can be truly strange and alluring. As those interested in the past, and as readers more broadly, we naturally get to know in these unusual ways not just people who are still living but those who have passed on to ethereal climes. Can we sometimes come to know them better than others still with us, whom we have known for years, or than we would have known them too if they were still living?
During my Fulbright semester in Rome, as I tried to suggest in my previous posts from here, I was blessed in too many ways to mention. But one of those deserving pride of place is, precisely that, place. For these last four months I have been Rome, in large terms. But on a smaller scale, closer to home, I have been laying my head to rest, as we all must, in a particular place. And that place has had everything to do with the quality and even nature of my experience here. Although I look forward immensely to returning home and reuniting with loved ones, this is a place I will leave only with sadness when tomorrow, June 14th, brings to a close my adventure here–at least this chapter of it–and I return home to Syracuse (New York, not Sicily).
From the start, it was clear the place I was staying had a special charm. As the taxi drove up the one-block street just northeast of the historical center of Rome, it had an unidentifiable attraction. Its beauty–the faded dusty golds, yellows, and creams of the buildings, little balconies giving onto the street or side gardens, wrought iron fences, orange trees with fruit on them even in January–made it seem we had walked onto a movie set or were living in a dream. The driver had taken us by the Forum on the way, and its sudden emergence right before our eyes, larger and closer than could be believed, had already catapulted me into the realm of the unreal. My new Italian neighborhood in the full Roman sun was so pleasing to the eye it was almost blinding.
Little did I know that one of the experiences that would, oddly, make my home away from home most real was awaiting me inside. Once within the apartment, I felt I was walking into someone’s warm, familiar embrace. Along the entire hallway and into the study/living room–what we came to call the library–were books lining the walls from side to side and floor to ceiling. And when I say ceiling, I am talking about a rather expansive space, twelve to fourteen feet high.
What is it about someone’s library that feels almost sacred?
After an ill-advised but glorious nap that helped stall my adjustment to the time change for weeks, I met the owner of the apartment: a lovely English woman who had come to Italy to live with her new Italian husband right after WW II. On a fellowship in England, he was then classified as “enemy alien.” In the least self-aggrandizing way possible, she explained that the books had belonged mostly to her husband, the literary scholar Georgio Melchiori, who died in 2009. And these are only a remaining portion of his books. Hundreds are at the homes of other family members, and his substantial Shakespeare collection went to one of Rome’s libraries.
Only as time went by and I met more people who had come into contact with this remarkable woman, her late husband, and their family did I fully understand just how many fine ripples they had added to the unparalleled reservoir that is Italian letters (and to British letters as well, also not too shabby an enterprise). From all quarters I learned that Barbara Arnett, also a scholar and professor, and Giorgio Melchiori, were not just mainstays of intellectual life here through their prodigious writings, but were beloved by colleagues and generations of students, many of whom were close friends.
A couple of weeks into my stay, I sat in the audience with retired Professoressa Arnett at a conference on James Joyce at Rome Tre, where I taught graduate seminars this semester. Here’s the link to this superb conference.
As the conference opened, from the initial remarks onward it became clear that Giorgio Melchiori was considered one of the most important Italian scholars of English literature of his time, particularly of James Joyce, but also of Shakespeare, Yeats, and others. His name came up in paper after paper, including that of the renowned Dante scholar Piero Boitani, showing the degree to which Melchiori’s words had affected the scholarship. Though he died four years ago, it was clear he clearly still figured prominently in the intellectual lives of others.
In the meantime, back at home in the apartment, I had become infatuated with Melchiori’s library. Like someone pursuing a secret love affair, out for an illicit kiss at every opportunity, I looked for moments, usually before other family members woke up in the morning or after they fell asleep, in between work and home responsibilities and seeing the glories of Rome, just to be in and with this library. Communing with it as a whole or browsing more concertedly among the books, sometimes in topics with which I was already familiar and sometimes in those I knew nothing about, I began to learn a lot about Giorgio Melchiori from this rare vantage point. It was a rich solitude that wasn’t really solitary at all.
I wasn’t alone. Everywhere there were signs of the library’s…what is the right word? Creator, collector, guardian, guiding spirit, genius?
One learns about another person–in the case of what soon became clear to me was a multitude of shared scholarly interests–in such a fine-grained, even intimate way by admission to his library. What areas of study interested him? Within a subject, what books did he find interesting enough to acquire? Did he receive a book as a gift, or was its inclusion the result of an accident or temporary urge? Was it anomalous or in with others like it? Which did he read cover to cover and which are still uncracked, even if physical evidence suggests the book was around for a long time? Why did he choose to read certain books and not others? The deeper you get, the more questions arise.
Many are the answers to be found. When a book was most likely obtained. When he collected in a certain subject area and when in another. If you plumb the hidden depths by reading whole or parts of the books, you can begin to surmise why. Then your own response to the material takes over and you see another level of engagement altogether, separate but connected to his. He is leading you, teaching you. Intentionally, unintentionally. His notes in a book speak to you. A piece of paper flutters out as you open it and you replace it with reverence, protective of his placement of things, tokens of the unplanned orderly disorder that is the daily meandering of one’s inner life, as you would be if he were here. It interests you whether he found passages worthy of underlining or remarking upon. What specific point did he make? Is it similar to or different from your response to that very passage? Does the theme reappear in his published writings too?
But much remains mysterious. It’s not just that questions remain unanswered. There are things no library can answer. Only the person in the flesh could venture to help us out. Even then, his answer could be impenetrable. Or it could elude him too. We think people have the answers about themselves and interviews will root them out. They often don’t.
It’s also that answers themselves can be mysterious. Ultimately, perhaps more important than the partial knowledge brought by the definitive answer to any one of my individual questions, is the fuller grasp of what it is to be acquainted with the holder and beholder, the assembler and arranger, of these physical-abstract entities that lead, each one, into worlds of their own and, taken together, give us this gift of overlapping worlds. One stands back from friends and acquaintances to know them as a whole, not just a conglomeration of their parts. Giorgio Melchiori left many great works that give us this gift more publicly. As cited in his obituary on the Shakespeare blog, his attainments include Commander of the British Empire, Fellow of the British Academy, Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Roma Tre University, Fellow of the Royal Academy, Accademia dei Lincei and Accademia delle Scienze (Turin), Life-Trustee Shakespeare Birthplace Trust…and the list goes on. And on.
Trained philologist, translator, editor, and author, he edited the nine-volume annotated edition of Shakespeare’s plays (English texts with Italian translations) for the classic Meridiani edition published by Mondadori in Milan. He produced the definitive revision of the Italian translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, also with Mondadori, and founded and edited the annual review Joyce Studies in Italy in 1984. His books include, among many others, The Tightrope Walkers: A Study in Mannerism in Modern English Literature (London: Routledge, 1956), The Whole Mystery of Art: Pattern into Poetry in the Work of W.B.Yeats (London: Routledge, 1960), and, with Barbara Arnett Melchiori, The Taste of Henry James, published in Italian by Einaudi in 1974 (its initial English version). He wrote Joyce barocco, Baroque Joyce (Italian, Bulzoni, 2007). See a complete bibliography in the Italian Wikipedia entry and, for much more information on him, you can search his name on the website of the James Joyce Foundation, or begin with this volume of essays in his honor, which includes an incredible resource, a full bibliography compiled by his daughter, Miranda Melchiori, who is an active English-Italian translator (see her website here).
Readers of a blog for U.S. intellectual history might meditate with me on concerns many of them perhaps share which were raised by my experience beginning to get to know the Melchiori family. Just briefly: What are we losing if we leave the collection and preservation of personal libraries like this one behind? Aren’t we abandoning the ways in which the lives of important scholars continue even after their deaths and the strange and alluring ways we have of getting to know them? Is our current bureaucratic structure of intellectual life, especially in the modern research university, foreclosing important elective affinities that might lead to a whole different nature and quality of writing and make for more enriching experiences in the more intimate dimensions of our intellectual lives as well?
They might add to their meditations something Barbara Arnett said to me at some point in these last four months as our friendship began. We may have been walking on the beach in Fregene near Rome near the couple’s cottage where she now lives, where she and her husband did so much work together on weekends, leaving the activity of Rome for the peace of the seaside, where she continued to minister to him valiantly, from all accounts, in his last years, and where he died.
In her usual understated fashion she confided that she wondered about the wisdom of separating the study of American literature from the study of English literature. She herself is a scholar of Henry James, among others, whose works include The Taste of Henry James (above), Browning’s Poetry of Reticence (Oliver & Boyd, 1968), and Terrorism in the Late Victorian Novel (Croom Helm, 1985), and other works too numerous to mention. Her writings invariably convey deep insights with an elegance and scintillating clarity not only about the texts at hand but life in the largest sense.
She is right, of course. Postmodern professional compartmentalization belies the reality that American intellectual history intersects at too many points with British, and even European, literary history and thought. Even if scholars choose a future without the enriching interaction with those looking at the same themes we are but from vantage points from their location in other places in the world, they cannot choose the past.
I, for one, choose a future in which I would have the privilege of getting to know the Melchiori family. And that is what I would choose for USIH, this remarkable new organization that emerged suddenly yet surely, like the warm, familiar embrace of Giorgio Melchiori’s library. We may not know someone in the literal sense of knowing them while living, but we still might need his or her sensibility and spirit as much as food and shelter. This is the case for me when it comes to a man, having lost a leg to cancer at forty and faced blindness in his eighties, who would write, in his final years, a book entitled The Music of Words. More than any one volume on his shelves, a small snapshot of which I share for your viewing pleasure here (thanks to Paul Arras, my close friend and doctoral advisee in recent American cultural history at Syracuse University, for the photography), it is the loving approach he brought to his life and work that, when I stand back to look at the greater whole, overwhelms me with its beauty.
Getting to know Giorgio Melchiori was not the only true delight of my stay here. But the strange and alluring way I got to know him and of him must stand in for my experiences with others, whose friendship has been lifechanging. You know who you are. It is only possible for me to take my leave of you and return to the warm and familiar embrace of my own library because all of the libraries you have opened to me are now safely and inseparably ensconced within.
From Rome with love,