Monday, May 6, 2013

The Bella Lingua

My brother bought me The Stories of John Cheever for Christmas. I have another copy of the book, dog-eared, but I left it in Alaska with my sister. The one I have now has that exquisite smell of a newly-printed book, which is something I missed.

I read most of the stories in the Eighties, but reading them again so many years - and so much living - later is like reading them for the first time. So far I've savored "Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor," "Clancy in the Tower of Babel" (both of them about an elevator operator), "The Chimera," and "The Bella Lingua". The last one is about an American expat in Rome named Streeter, who works for an agency identified only by its acronym F.R.U.P.C. His life in Rome is diverting enough, but because he spends all his time among other Americans, and because he's convinced himself that a firm grounding in the "bella lingua" is all that stands between him and the people and culture that surrounds him with its impenetrable and inexplicable emotional force, he is making a determined effort to learn Italian. Once he has accomplished this, his sense of being an outsider in a country not his own will vanish and he will understand not just what everyone is saying on the buses and in the streets, but he will "understand Italy."

As anyone who has ever lived the life of an expat must know, Streeter's conviction that all that stands between him and Italy is a language barrier is painfully romantic. When he visits a villa outside Rome with some friends, he is overwhelmed and bewildered by the beauty he finds there. Cheever outdoes himself:

"The beauty of Italy is not easy to come by any longer, if it ever was, but, driving to a villa below Anticoli for a weekend with friends, Streeter saw a country of such detail and loveliness that it could not be described."

That is Streeter's whole problem - he can't find the words to describe the world around him. In the morning, he watches a barefoot maid picking roses and singing a beautiful song:

"Streeter found his Italian still so limited that he couldn't understand the words of the song, and this brought him around to the fact that he couldn't quite understand the landscape, either. His feeling about it was very much what he might have felt about some excellent resort or summer place - a scene where, perhaps as children, we have thrown ourselves into a temporary relationship with beauty and simplicity that will be rudely broken off on Labor Day. It was the evocation of a borrowed, temporary, bittersweet happiness that he rebelled against - but the maid went on singing, and Streeter did not understand a word."

When Streeter's Italian teacher, an American widow named Kate Dresser, is confronted by her uncle from Krasbie, Iowa, demanding that she come home, and her young son Charlie tells her he's homesick, she tells him:

"'Homesickness is nothing. It is absolutely nothing. Fifty per cent of the people in the world are homesick all the time. When you're in one place and long to be in another, it isn't as simple as taking a boat. You don't really long for another country. You long for something in yourself that you don't have, or haven't been able to find.'"

Her uncle tries to explain to her: "'It's crazy, Katie. You come home with me and Charlie. You and Charlie can live in the other half of my house, and I'll have a nice American kitchen put in for you.'"

But Kate quickly replies, "'How in hell do you think America would have been discovered if everybody stayed home in places like Krasbie? [Nothing] will keep me from wanting to see the world and the different people who live in it'"

Her uncle takes Charlie home. Kate stays in Rome. And she compliments Streeter on the progress he is making in his Italian. His progress in making sense of Italy was left, by Cheever, undocumented.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In "The Bella Lengua," I would love to know what the ending passage in Italian means when translated into English. It seems significant to Streeter's lesson. Not his Italian lesson, but his larger life lesson.