A River Runs Through It

As a young woman in 1968, American Wallis Wilde-Menozzi moved to Rome, leaving behind a troubled first marriage and a tenured faculty position in the UK. In The Other Side of the Tiber, she reflects upon that experience and the decades that followed, in which she developed as a writer, married again and raised a family, and became acculturated to her new home. Her metaphor for remembering is the Tiber, the river that runs through Rome, carrying with it the residue of earlier times and civilizations. Like the river, she writes, one’s memories are always a fluid part of one’s present.

The book is not only a personal memoir, though. A major theme is the contrast between the American and Italian ways of doing things–between a Protestant, progressive, rule-of-law society that exalts individualism and looks relentlessly to the future, and a Catholic, traditional one that rejects the idea that people can disregard the past and create their own identities. (“There is no such thing. We are always accompanied by ancestors.”) Each way has advantages and disadvantages. Americans are often shocked by what they see as the casual lawlessness of Italian life–“there is a breathtaking gap,” she writes–“a metaphysical canyon, between what is considered moral and what is considered legal in Italy”–which, no doubt, contributes to economic and political stagnation. On the other hand, there are qualities of community and public forgiveness to compensate. Italians are dismayed by American free-market economics, which often seem heartless and uncivilized, and by Americans’ lack of real appreciation for history. One of the most interesting episodes in the book is Wilde-Menozzi’s account of teaching American students in Siena. The students seem unaware of even the recent history of their own country, to say nothing of the ancients. She attributes their ignorance to the cost, and emptiness, of higher education in the US.

Wilde-Menozzi often gets nostalgic for the leftism of her youth, when she read Gramsci and Pasolini, and she tends to find feminist implications in everything, from Etruscan statuary to the annual August holiday, the Ferragosto. But, ideology aside, her writing is often lovely, and her images remain with you. (She is admirably spare in conveying, without detail, the pain of the sexual abuse in her childhood and her tense relationship with her mother; the theme of mothers is a recurring one in the book). On sfogliatelle, the Neapolitan pastries that must be done in a certain way: they are “a conscious effort to deny time its novelty.” On the the mosaics at the fourth-century church of Santa Costanza: their creators “imagined permanence, and yet, how could they have imagined us, so far away in time, still delighted by them?” And on the infinite regress of memory: “Italy is a story that always starts with ‘In the beginning there was already something before what you think is the beginning.'”

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