Professor of Italian Language and Literature and of Comparative Literature
Sabbatical Spring 2013
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Among the 55 cities described by Italo Calvino in his Invisible Cities is Baucis, an abandoned city whose inhabitants fled their homes years ago and now live in houses perched on stilts. Calvino writes, "with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining [their city], leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence." I've always cherished this image, not only for the strong autobiographical connections it has with Calvino, but also for how it illuminates my own personal and academic life.
Although I was born and raised in Italy, from my teenage years I aspired to become a foreigner. Literature offered me the opportunity for a different kind of estrangement, similarly dizzying in the discomfort it produces. I found in the written world a lens through which I could telescope reality and see it from the outside. The study of comparative literature fascinates me not only because it gives access to unfamiliar cultural worlds but also, and foremost, because it gives me a convenient observatory from which I can observe my "Italianity." Like the inhabitants of Baucis, I find estrangement the optimal position for understanding a culture, particularly my own. As Edward Said pointed out, secular humanism is based on the antinomy between self-knowledge and self-criticism.
My training in comparative literature started at the University of Geneva (Switzerland) and continued at the University of Turin in Italy (Laurea in Lingue e Letterature Straniere Moderne), in France, England and the Netherlands before I finally landed in the United States, where I received a doctorate in comparative literature and literary theory from the University of Pennsylvania. Here at Smith, I shuttle between the Italian department and the comparative literature program with forays into film studies. For comparative literature I teach a course on the postmodern novel, which, each time I've taught it, has allowed me to reflect on different works and issues. In its latest incarnation, "Open Encyclopedias," the course explores how postmodern narrative explores methods of acquiring and systematizing knowledge. I also teach two more sociologically oriented courses; in each case, literature is used as a lens through which the history of the Other can be better understood. "Europe on the Move" is an interrogation of contemporary European identity in light of the fall of the Berlin wall and the recent immigrations from the South and the East. "Writing and Rewritings: The Mediterraneans" investigates a closed sea of intimate contacts which has generated a radical mixing of cultures and ideas yet has also been crossed by wars, crusades, colonial empires and postcolonial diasporas.
My areas of research are contemporary Western literary theory, modern and postmodern literatures, and Italian literature and cinema. I have written on authors such as Italo Calvino (Calvino Newyorkese, 2002), Perec, the Ou.Li.Po., Celati, Tabucchi, Campo, Kristeva, Jarmila Ockayová, and Predrag Matvejevic. I also coedited the collection of essays, Scrittrici eccentriche del Novecento (2003). My book Open Encyclopedias: Narrative Tactics and Postmodern Narrative is forthcoming, and my new project is a study of the Mediterranean and its plurality of identities (Liquid Modernity and Solid Mediterraneans).