Nonna knows best

Galen Strawson begins his essay “The Unstoried Life” with a sequence of quotations, of which this, from Charles Simic, is: “We make sense of our lives… by turning them into typical stories.” Thea Lenarduzzi – a commissioning editor at the TLS and a host of its podcast – makes much the same point, citing Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories to live.” But there is a fundamental difference. Strawson’s quotations are preceded by the line: “Here are some claims that I don’t believe”. The past is always with him, he accepts, but not as a narrative – rather, it inhabits him in much the same way as countless hours of practice inhabit the mind and body of an accomplished musician. He has no sense of himself as a narrative construction. He is what he terms an “episodic” (as am I). Lenarduzzi is of the opposing persuasion. Stories, for her, are the matrix we need to make the mess of life intelligible and to secure our identity. Dandelions is a virtuosic exercise in narrativist life-writing.

Much of the fabric of Dandelions is spun from the memories of Lenarduzzi’s beloved grandmother, her Nonna, who enters the book picking dandelions with her son, on wasteland in Manchester, in the 1950s. The scene is something of a family fable, and is freighted with symbolic significance: the dandelion is unlike an emblem of the downtrodden and marginalized, of the emigrant experience (dandelion seeds can travel hundreds of miles), and of cultural difference – the British, Italians know how good these weeds can taste. Nonna Dirce had first come to Britain in the 1930s, when her father, Angelo, who had relatives in Sheffield and Manchester, relocated his family from Maniago, their home town in Friuli. After Angelo’s sudden death his widow and her two children returned to Italy. In 1950 Dirce, now married, returned to Manchester with her husband, Leo, and their son, Manlio, named after Dirce’s brother, who had died as a child.

Loss is a constant undertow in Dandelions. In school, back in Maniago, Dirce is asked to write a short essay on “What would you do if you were rich?”. Her answer: “I would go to see my father’s grave in Sheffield, because I don’t believe that it exists.” It takes a long time to accept that he has gone for ever. In Manchester, where she works in a sweatshop, Dirce loses a child at birth and suffers a breakdown. When electroconvulsive therapy is prescribed, she takes a long trip back to Italy instead, which proves effective. Leo, who had thought that “we can do better, much better” in England than in postwar Italy, is now drinking too much. Dirce’s mother, Novella, who has worn nothing but black since the day of her husband’s death, does not brighten the household. An inveterate bearer of grudges, always quick to see the worst in people, Novella is rarely in accord with her unloved daughter, but, like Dirce, she doesn’t want to leave Manchester when Leo decides it’s time to relocate to Maniago. His and Dirce’s sons – another Manlio and John, Thea’s father – have now left home, and Leo has suffered a heart attack. He does not want to die on the foreign soil in which other men of the family are buried.

Dandelions is much more than a family history – the ramifications of the personal stories illuminate the societies in which they are embedded. Dirce’s favorite writer was the bestselling Amalia Liana Negretti Odescalchi, Italy’s Barbara Cartland, better known as Liala, a title bestowed on her by d’Annunzio to embed the word ala (wing) in her name. Many of the heroes of her racy romances were aviators, the exemplary heroes of Mussolini’s machine-age Italy. The book is strewn with insights into life under fascism. When young Leo first greets Dirce he uses bondì, a Veneto word – it’s a gesture of cultural self-definition, as Mussolini had banned the use of regional languages ​​in public. The fascist-era reclamation of malarial swamps is another notable wide-focus episode (it segues into the Italian fetishization of fevers and the country’s history of “rampant recurrent disease”), as is the section on the image of Italy promoted in documentaries funded by Marshall Plan money – Maniago features in one called Ritratto di un paese, in which the town is presented as the home of admirably self-reliant artisans, working in factories built by the rising generation. There’s an anthropological dimension to many of the book’s elaborations. Dirce plays a version of solitaire that her unlovable mother played, a detail enriched by information on the regional differences in the designs of Italian playing cards. The quasi-folkloric stories told by the elderly Leo are linked to the researches of Carlo Ginzburg (whose mother, Natalia, of course appears here too), and to the Friulian spirits known as cialciùtwhich in turn connect with the author’s troubled sleep.

Frequently switching location and period, Dandelions is an immensely complicated structure, and Lenarduzzi’s control of her material is remarkable. At times, as she acknowledges, her rage for order gets the better of her. A discussion of the design of dandelion fountains involves the American sculptor quite-designer Harry Bertoia, who, she is delighted to discover, was born near Maniago and emigrated not long before Dirce’s father. She feels there is “some higher, intangible meaning” to this coincidence. She wants her mother – Liverpool-born, transplanted to Italy – to accept that there’s a special significance in the fact that she works for a company that specializes in “transplanting homes”. It concerns her that aspects of her family story might have “no overarching pattern” without her intervention. Looking at the photos that Angelo had taken in England, she finds evidence of his “anxiety of choice”, an unease that mirrors her own anxieties. As a student in Paris, she feels more acutely than ever that “I was not English enough to call myself English but not Italian enough to call myself Italian.” Her own voice troubles her: “I sound as rootless as I often feel.”

Nonna tells Lenarduzzi that her father, in England, was “forever telling me to read Cuore”, a children’s book, first published in 1886, that came to be regarded as a primer in patriotism. (His favorite chapter was the one on Garibaldi, whose life touches the author’s in an extraordinary plot twist – Lenarduzzi’s first home was the former quarters of the servants of the Odescalchi family, facing the chapel in which Garibaldi was married, very briefly, to the illegitimate daughter of Raimondi Mantica Odescalchi.) Dirce’s father wanted his daughter “to keep Italy in her heart”, and her granddaughter, in recording Dirce’s memories and creating this book, is endeavoring to do the same. Since 2004, when she left Italy for England, she has had “a more or less constant sense of having forgotten something important”. At times she feels her Italianness “draining out of her”, and writing is a way of slowing the loss, or even reversing it.

There are many exquisite evocations of the past in Dandelions. Some are semi-fictional, as Lenarduzzi projects herself into the lives of her forebears, imagining the texture of their days. Others are vividly documentary – she describes, for example, the bar in which her grandfather plays cards with his friends, all of them speaking in Friulano, a language that’s only intermittently comprehensible to young Thea and her sister, and makes them feel like foreigners, although they are at home. An account of visiting the home of Dirce and her husband is thrillingly exact in its sensory detail – the chestnut-mushroom color of the steps going down into the cellar, the overlapping aromas of “sour and soily” flowerpots and molding leather and sweet-scented old paper Nostalgia permeates Dandelionsbut this is a book that, for all its warmth and tenderness, is never marred by sentimentality.

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