In her epic trilogy of strong women, wars and love, Professor Emerita of Italian and Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Columbia and Barnard in New York City, Maristella Lorch stitches memory into history for a compelling reflection on the personal and the public in the 20th century. I had the privilege to reach Professor Lorch via email to ask her about her process in writing Beyond Gibraltar as well as on the benefits of travel and valuing an education in language and culture.
Writing comes naturally to Professor Lorch, even as far back as "from the very moment I could write a sentence that reflected a moment of my life." And it was familiar subjects that drew her attention: "Nothing attracted me more than writing about a family that flows in its many ups and downs, without regard for borders, oceans, countries or families themselves that move from place to place, as my family did." Her passion for life and for recording it shines through in the trilogy, as she says, "Each part of the book evoked a moment of my life which seemed to produce new life on top of what had come before."
One event, though, set in motion Lorch’s life’s journey and still marks her to this day: The death of her father while she was still a young child. Before he died, five years into his marriage with her mother, her father often spoke of education. This was a character trait which, she remembers, her mother “ingrained” in her children. “My own education depends very much on how my father ideologically had requested I pursue it." "When he married my mother he had in mind a very special family." He met her upon returning from America, sick with tuberculosis and left disappointed by a marriage to a dancer, which didn’t work out and he felt was a failure for not having produced any children.
Lorch’s mother had kept her future mother-in-law company and took dictation of letters written to her favorite son, the locally renowned Gino, which the latter remembered when he arrived back in Tajo. In Lorch’s to-be-hometown tucked into the Italian Alps, her father was eager to meet this much-talked about young teacher who had been helping his mother. Despite being a woman of the lower classes, Lorch’s mother had gained a reputation as an educator in the Valle di Non, where she was “dearly loved by the lawyer Augusto [Maristella Lorch’s grandfather] and adored by his wife.” The marriage was truly founded on a sense of the importance of education, where her father "considered his children as the heart of the family” and with her parents' joint idea that “ the focus of the family should be the education of the children.”
Lorch credits, however, the “truly herculean work of my mother who, left buried in debt as a young widow, took it upon herself to work numerous jobs on top of teaching and never let us lack anything in our lives.” Even though Maristella Lorch was in possession of such dramatic and inspiring material for a book, her trilogy almost never came to be. It was the end of the Cold War in 1990, political upheaval and criticism from her Italian colleagues at the time of her husband Ray Lorch’s death, that spurred her to put pen to paper. “At the point of despair,” she pinpoints a car ride with her daughter Lavinia in Upstate New York to pay a speeding ticket that the younger Lorch had received, when Lavinia asked her mother why she wasn’t writing the novel she had always wanted to write.
Determined, Lorch began in inspired fashion while teaching in Brazil (where she was also pushed to write by the Brazilian novelist Nelida Piñon), imagining the "intellectual and brazen adventurousness of Homer's Ulysses and his comrades" as a forebear to volume she initially titled "Crossings". To become the second book in the series, this memoir would cover leaving the Old World for the New, which Lorch calls "perhaps the most difficult part to write. From the purity of the snows of the Alps to the sunsets in the Catskills when the sun seems to melt in the lake under the hill of my house." She realized early in the process that "I had to go back to my mother, to telling her story. My story was intricately and intimately connected to hers. It would not have existed were it not for her." "In many ways, the trilogy is a hymn to my mother; to her grit, to her love, to her resilience, to her devotion, for over half a century, to her dead husband and everything he believed in." This propelled her to write a book that assuaged her bollenti spiriti, her boiling spirit, which would be Mamma in Her Village. She strove to treat both of the subjects in the title individually and in terms of their intersection.
One aspect of writing this book that surprised Lorch was that "my mother's world–of the tiny Alpine village–was much richer than I had ever thought. Lorch, now a centenarian, admits that "writing, besides remembering, becomes more and more challenging as the years increase on my shoulders." She continues, elegantly describing the writing–-and aging–process. "Ideas are so labile; they are like clouds–so beautiful and shapely in the blue sky, and when you try to reach for them, they dissipate, intangible. It requires an intense effort to grasp and recreate them." Though writing is never easy, she says, "I cannot live without it." "I write like I breathe." "Pleasure in writing, as in so many things in life, comes from the feeling of having succeeded in grasping that evanescent cloud; that image, that idea." "It is a struggle, as if with Proteus, to capture and translate into words that ever-changing form. So, perhaps it is the very difficulty of the writing process that gives me pleasure today."
Order Maristella Lorch's books
Beyond Gibraltar: https://tbr-books.org/product/beyond-gibraltar-paperback
Mamma in her village: https://tbr-books.org/product/mamma-in-her-village
The Other Shore: https://tbr-books.org/product/the-other-shore