Finding Love, Healing and Joy in Italy—and in Shakespeare
With death at the edges, a man discovers how to spend his days at life's center.
Posted Mar 30, 2018
"Maggie, typically, as well as clearly and boldly and smartly and bravely, started on her work of recuperation almost from the day of she arrived here," writes the narrator of a new brilliant, unsentimental and deeply poignant memoir. Talking about his wife's cancer and their journey through--and their life after--her diagnosis, John Glavin tells us, "I am beginning to realize I have to do something similar. I can’t share her path but I have to follow her example. I am also, in a sense, a survivor. I have to make myself become well."
“Becoming himself” is what the first-person narrator, a professor of English at Georgetown, allows us to observe, intimately and wonderfully, in his powerful book "The Good New: A Tuscan Villa, Shakespeare and Death," published earlier this year by New Academia.
Nicknamed “Freud’s nephew” by his fierce yet fond family, Glavin’s autobiographical account of one year in Italy will be of particular interest to those of us who are fascinated by the intersection of psychology and language, psychiatry and literature, therapy and critical theory, narrative and the construction of identity, spirituality and society, and the ways in which the roles of teacher and therapist overlap—and divide.
“The family joke,” about being Freud’s nephew, the author explains, is rooted in the fact that "because I am fairly good at interpreting texts I have convinced myself that I am an equally good interpreter of lives: hence, the not entirely friendly nickname Freud’s Nephew. But life, Maggie has been warning me for almost thirty years, does not work like a novel or a play. Life is altogether cruder and more basic.”
But it is many other things as well.
Not a tour of Italy but a dazzling tour de force, “The Good New” is more than any one of its themes, and its themes are abundant: it’s a book about triumphing over fear, about facing illness, about love, about adult children, about the pressures of family, about the joy of teaching, about the pressures faced by elite students and their instructors, and about the challenges and glories of living abroad. But what it is truly about is seeing an older self in the mirror: Glavin write about seeing mirror “not a man moving into middle age but a man moving past the meridian, the midpoint, moving from that time in life when you take control to a time when it is wiser to be open, to make the most of what comes. Pay attention and prize what’s on offer.”
Glavin provides a rare glimpse into the life of an American man in transition: a man in the middle of his life who is suddenly facing the possibility of overwhelming loss, who must face the fact that “the time for that long repressed grief has returned. This isn’t mere melancholy. This is sorrow. Genuine sorrow. A complex, omnivorous, paralyzing sorrow, and it is coloring everything I see and feel and do.”
More than a book about teaching, it is a book about the discovery of self through story. As their work progresses, the students, for example, learn to “See the self as a form of script, a text waiting for performance, not a single coherent identity but a host of roles pushing toward performance.”
More than a book on Tuscany, it is a book on Italians and Italian Americans. In a passage that could be right out of The Sopranos or a novel by Mario Puzo or Rita Ciresi, Glavin explains the nature of “blood relatives” in his own Italian American family: “I was raised by my Italian grandparents always to guard the line marked by blood. My uncles’ wives were my aunts, but they were not family. They didn’t share our blood, and they could never be trusted completely with the real family secrets. In fact, with any sort of information. Over and over when I was young I would be told, after one of my uncles had visited us: Remember, don’t tell your aunt. That aunt being his wife. Italians feel they need nothing and no one outside the family.”
Glavin, whom I have known for years as a well-respected scholar of Victorian and modern British literature and his sharp and perceptive vision is manifest throughout “The Good New.” Focused on the changing relationship with his wife (“Ever since I first met her Maggie has made everything in my life not only good but better”) since her cancer diagnosis and on his extended American and Italian families (children who are choosing their destinies-- and cousins who are being threatened, and more, by gangsters in Rome:”Italy is a much more dangerous place than tourists ever realize”), the book also presents with the lives of the students who are spending their time during study abroad and figuring out Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and Othello, among others plays. Because of Glavin’s irrepressible talent as a writer of dialogue, all of these characters become vivid, memorable individuals who breathe deeply on the page.
It’s unsurprisingly that Glavin has been teacher and mentor to many of today's successful screenwriters, authors, directors and comedians (including but not limited to “Westworld” co-creator and “Dark Knight” writer Jonathan Nolan, Jordon Nardino, co-executive producer on “Star Trek: Discovery,” and comedian/writer Mike Birbiglia, a frequent contributor to NPR's "This American Life”).
“Everything I know about drama I learned from John Glavin,” said Nolan. Glavin, who learned to speak Italian before he learned to speak English, is fluent in many languages indeed: he has mastered not only Italian and English, but the languages of the page, the screen and the stage and of the heart and the mind as well. “The Good New” is an ideal read.