An introduction by Edvige Giunta
“Every memoirist is a ghost writer”:
Louise DeSalvo Four Years after her Death–and the Posthumous Publication of “Sister 5”
It seems appropriate that the first writing by Louise DeSalvo to be published since her death almost four years ago appears both in the original, unedited English text and in a new Italian translation. As an American writer, DeSalvo wrote in English, yet in her many works of creative nonfiction and memoir, she grappled with and embraced a cultural identity that straddles the United States, where she was born, and Italy, where her grandparents were born and where she traveled often to remake a relationship disrupted by immigration.
DeSalvo spent most of her writing career exploring the nature of memory work, in her textual scholarship and biography of Virginia Woolf but also and especially in the large body of memoir she published between 1996 and 2018. This work testifies to the vitality of the memoir as a genre that rewards authors committed to deepening its exploration by writing multiple memoirs. There is not one singular way to remember the past. As DeSalvo knew, shift your vantage point and a new story is born. From the coming-of-age narrative of Vertigo, to the intergenerational narrative of Crazy in the Kitchen: Family, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family, to the historical narrative of Chasing Ghosts: A Memoir of a Father, Gone to War, to her last magnificent book, The House of Early Sorrows: A Memoir in Essays, in which she circles back to the ur-texts of her own memoirs, DeSalvo’s engagement with the genre is brilliant, relentless, and instructive, illuminating a path for memoir writers determined to push the bounds of the genre.
On September 28, 2022, we gathered to celebrate Louise’s birthday at an event hosted by Strade Dorate. This month, a large collection of DeSalvo’s papers has been donated by the Louise A. DeSalvo Literary Estate, LLC. to the Rutgers University Libraries, where scholars will be able to consult the Louise DeSalvo papers, including her diaries of the last forty years, starting in 2028, ten years after her death. The papers will be housed in the Special Collections and University Archives of Rutgers University Libraries.
This month, too, we enjoy the privilege of reading for the first time an excerpt from DeSalvo’s unfinished manuscript “Requiem for My Sister,” published here with special permission from the Louise A. DeSalvo Literary Estate, LLC. The excerpt has been translated by Caterina Romeo, who brought Vertigo to Italian readers with her stunning 2006 translation. In “Requiem,” DeSalvo returns to the memoir of her sister, having begun it in Vertigo, especially in the unforgettable chapter “My Sister’s Suicide.” As she teaches us, the work of the memoirist does not end the first time a story is written: a first memoir only begins the work of excavation. And so here it is, a return to the unfinished excavation site with “La valigia,” a title aptly chosen by Romeo. We have decided not to edit or title the original English text. Instead, we have left the title that appears in the original file, “Sister 5.”
As I reviewed unpublished manuscripts, I was fortunate to be in constant conversation with Ernest DeSalvo and Jason DeSalvo (whose touching pieces about Louise also appear here) and with my friend and colleague Nancy Caronia, with whom I edited Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Louise DeSalvo. We chose this excerpt from “Requiem for My Sister” together, each of us experiencing differently the responsibility and significance of publishing Louise’s writing—her exquisite, unfinished writing—now that she is no longer here. I have also been treasuring my little visits with Louise—the writer, the writing partner, the friend. I trust all we have learned from her is guiding those of us committed to caring for her literary legacy.
Louise would have turned eighty on September 27. In the past four years we—all of us in her wide circle of love and writing—have grappled with her loss and the reverberations of her physical absence—I say physical absence because her presence remains, tangible in the lives of so many people, including those who only met her through her writing. “A timeless mentor,” my student Julia Scott called her during a class discussion in my new course on Virginia Woolf and Louise DeSalvo. Julia is a young woman who never met Louise in person, but she clutches her copies of The Art of Slow Writing and Vertigo as trusted guides. “A timeless mentor”—I was so moved by her words that I shared them with Ernie and Jason, and Julia’s words resonated for them: Louise is that—a timeless mentor, in her own family as well. Four years of reckoning with her loss, juggling mourning and tribute, the disorientation of her absence and the plenty of her gifts. This year, there is a shift, as we turn our attention to the future of Louise’s legacy. It is appropriate that an organization like Strade Dorate hosts a celebration of her birthday and the posthumous bilingual publication of “Sister 5,” bringing us full circle, like Louise did, in her work and in her life, back to the mother country, the ghost country, the beloved country.
From the unpublished manuscript “Sister 5“
by LOUISE DE SALVO
She used to walk around the house when she was a little girl, my sister, carrying a tiny suitcase fashioned out of plywood that my father made for her. He found the directions in one of his handyman magazines, decided to make it, went to the lumberyard to buy the wood, then to the hardware store for hinges and a brass closure. I overheard him tell my mother that he’d spent far more money on the project than he thought he would, but that he knew it was worth it. He told her that he wanted to make something that would please my sister, and he thought that this might do the trick.
In the weeks before Christmas—for the suitcase he was making would be one of my sister’s presents—our basement was off limits. We knew our father was making something, but we didn’t know what it was, and she didn’t know who it was for. After supper, we could hear him sawing and sanding and hammering. And sometimes we could hear him cursing, and this meant that his work wasn’t going as well as he wanted it to.
For a few days, my sister and I took turns trying to imagine what he was working on and whose present it would be. I knew it was for her but I didn’t tell her. It isn’t that I wanted to ruin the surprise, it’s that I didn’t want to be yelled at for ruining it.
I don’t remember feeling jealous. I figured that whatever it was that my father was making couldn’t be all that wonderful. He was a good enough carpenter, yes. He’d made a corner cabinet in our kitchen, covered its surface with linoleum. And shelves that fit over a repurposed chest of drawers to hold the decorative pieces of pottery my mother had collected. But as young as I was, I knew that they looked homemade, makeshift, even though they were serviceable.
After awhile, we gave up trying to guess what my father was making and, in the days leading up to Christmas, settled back into our usual after supper routine of me doing my homework at the kitchen table, and my sister, sitting across from me, pretending she had homework to do and bothering me. After awhile, I’d tell my mother to make my sister leave the room so I could concentrate, but my sister would refuse to leave until my mother picked her up and carried her out of the room and took her upstairs to bed.
The only time I could get free of my sister without argument was when I was doing homework, and so the more homework I had, the happier I was. And on the rare occasions that the nuns didn’t give us any homework, or not very much homework, I’d invent a task that I pretended they’d assigned (pick five words you don’t know from a book you’re reading, look them up in the dictionary, and memorize the meanings; pick a country of your choice, go to the library, and be prepared to discuss that country’s major exports).
That year, my sister and I helped our parents trim the tree. It was a miracle of a Christmas. There was no fighting as we helped hang the ornaments and the tinsel. Our father untangled the lights without flinging them across the room and breaking a few of the bulbs. Our mother had wrapped the little statues for the crèche so well the year before that none were broken. The tree stood proudly upright without leaning to the right or to the left, without necessitating countless adjustments until it was just right. My sister and I collaborated on a colored paper adornment for the tree without incident and without argument and although it meant we couldn’t have the lights on as long as we wanted, because my father as a fireman knew that it might put us at risk for a Christmas tree fire, we were proud of our handiwork and happy to see it hanging on the tree.
On Christmas Eve, my sister and I sang carols as we faced the lighted tree. Even then, young as she was, she had an angel’s voice, her musicality inherited, as my father said, from him. And sometimes, but not all too often, we would hear her singing as she played with her dolls, and we knew that she was happy.
When my sister and I stood and sang in front of the tree on Christmas Eve that year, I noticed that when I gazed into one of the glass Christmas ornaments hanging on the tree, a red one, our faces were reflected back to us, distorted, macabre, horrifying. I didn’t point this out to my sister, and it seems that she didn’t notice, and I was glad. For if I did, I’m sure it would have ruined our evening, for anything the least bit out of the ordinary could make my sister cry.
I remember the two of us being truly content, for once, on that night, with the anticipation of Christmas morning, even though we suspected we’d get the usual sensible presents—some new underwear and socks; a bathrobe; a pair of pajamas—and not the fanciful ones we’d hoped for and dreamed about, surely not the lavish gifts of jewelry or clothing or money that some of our friends asked for and bragged about receiving. But still, we said, as we each settled into our side of the double bed we shared, there was that mystery present. Maybe it was for one of us. Maybe there were two, one for each of us. But then again, it was probably for our mother, something for the kitchen, a little shelf she could hang next to the window for the new ceramic salt and pepper shakers we’d given her as a gift for her birthday.
On Christmas morning, my sister and I descended early. And under the tree, there it was, a little plywood suitcase with brass hinges and a brass latch, finished with a mahogany satin stain, a red ribbon tied round its handle. My father was proud of his handiwork, and as he presented it to my sister, he told her how he’d made it, told her how many coats of stain the plywood required. Unlike me, she liked hearing how he crafted his projects, and she listened as he showed her how he’d affixed the hinges that joined the lid to the body.
It was, she told him, the very best present.
But then he turned to me and said he’d decided to make me a present, too, but not for Christmas, for my birthday, which was in September, because it would give him enough time. He’d decided to make a triangular desk with a drawer that would fit into the space at the top of the stairs so I could do my homework there without being disturbed by my sister. And he did, and the desk was ready for my birthday, and I took it with me when I got married, and I placed it in the corner of the bedroom of our first apartment in Jersey City, used it for years after.
Now all these years later, and knowing what happened to my sister, as I remember that Christmas Day and my father’s present to her, I wish he hadn’t talked about what he was going to make for me. I wish he’d let her have that moment of feeling special, singled out, taken care of, even though, quite likely, he didn’t want me to feel jealous because of his gift to her.
My sister was five at the time. And when my father asked her what she’d use the suitcase for, she told him she’d take it with her on imaginary journeys.
I thought I knew my sister well. But I’d never heard her speak of this before, never knew that she pretended she was ever any place other than where she was, usually with me. Still, that Christmas Day, I wasn’t interested enough in her internal life to ask her where she was going and what she thought she’d find when she got there.
Weekend mornings my sister would pack her little suitcase with bits and pieces from her or our mother’s wardrobes—a scarf, some underwear, a little purse, a set of socks. And if it was one of those dismal rainy days that prevented either of us from leaving the house (about which I was delighted, for it meant that our mother couldn’t chase us outside, couldn’t require me to take my sister wherever I was going—to a friend’s, to the Catholic schoolyard, down the hill to the Sweet Shoppe to buy some candy or gum), my sister would carry her little suitcase from one room to another and up and down the stairs, like a tiny displaced person looking for a safe asylum. She’d put it on the coffee table in the living room, or on the dining room or kitchen table, or on her side of our bed, and she’d unpack whatever she’d placed in it before, and scrutinize it, and decide, by some rule of logic that I couldn’t understand, whether the items were suitable for whatever destination she had chosen or whether they wouldn’t do and had to be returned to the places where she’d found them and she’d have to start searching for things to pack all over again. But sometimes, no matter how hard she tried, nothing seemed to satisfy. And at those times, she would cry.
If my father was home, if he wasn’t down the firehouse where he spent so much time, he’d try to reason with her, tell her that whatever she’d chosen was fine, that it didn’t matter, that she was just playing after all, and couldn’t she pretend that whatever she’d packed would be suitable, and if he’d known the suitcase he’d made her would cause her such distress, he never would have bothered.
My mother would sometimes try to help, and offer a trinket, a piece of costume jewelry, a pair of gloves, but she’d give up if her first attempt at consolation didn’t work.
So the present my father had worked so hard to create didn’t make my sister happy. And perhaps it’s because she knew my father would be making me something bigger and better. But maybe she’d gleaned a hidden meaning from that present of a suitcase. That my father didn’t want her to stay with us, that he wished that she would pack up and move away.
Which is what she did as soon as she could after she graduated from college. She married, packed up, and moved often, to wherever her husband’s studies and livelihood took him, to the Midwest, an island in the Caribbean, an island off the coast of California, the Pacific Northwest, and none of us knew until after she died that every time she moved, she took her little wooden suitcase with her, for there it was when her personal effects were returned to our parents, and though there were scratches on its surface, the brass hinges and latch still gleamed as brightly as they had on that Christmas morning. Which meant that through all those long years, my sister had continued to polish them.
This excerpt from “Requiem for My Sister” is published here with the permission of the Louise A. DeSalvo Literary Estate, LLC and may not be reprinted elsewhere without permission from the Estate.
On the cover: illustration by Barbara Di Bernardo – Bidibì Design
Louise A. DeSalvo, An Incredible Scholar, Mother and Human Being
by Jason DeSalvo
There is precious little that I can add to a scholarly discussion of my Mother’s work, but knowing her as well as anyone now living other than my Father and sharing many of her personality traits, perhaps some insight into how she worked and balanced her extraordinary professional output with being the head of our Family (sorry Dad!) and a cherished friend might be of some value.
Although she was exceptionally well educated, she was also an autodidact. Mom was reading, journaling and studying all of the time. She had a mind that never stopped and whether it was about Wolf, Hawthorne, World War II and the Italian Diaspora or pasta, restaurants, ways to stay healthy, museums and wool, the approach was always the same – find the best minds on the subject (alive or dead) and read everything they have to say. And when I say “everything,” I mean literally everything – published books, magazine articles, blog posts, web sites, newspapers, scholarly journals – the works. Although I was conscious of this growing up, when I recently combed through hundreds of boxes of source materials for her books in preparation for our family’s donation of these materials, to the Rutgers University Library, the sheer volume of what she read, learned and was then able to synthesize into unique and powerful new insights on her subjects was astonishing.
Mom took being a subject matter expert very seriously – a trait that I happily share and that she inherited from her Father, Louis. When I recently worked to build a new Net Zero Energy house with my wife Deborah, I was often educating our contractors based on things I had studied and read, not the other way around. One of my great laments was that Mom was not still around to watch this project unfold because she would have undoubtedly offered unique insights based on things that she would have researched and read – just to be a supportive Mother and friend. She was like that and all of us – with whom she was close – cherished that about her. She took any issue that I was dealing with personally as if it were her own. Whether it was a loving conversation with thoughtful advice or books and articles – on the proper diet for competitive cyclists (when I was racing), lists of the best restaurants in Paris (when Deb and I were going there on vacation), or how to diagnose and treat Lyme Disease (from which everyone in our family except Dad has had to recover) – you could always feel the love she was showing you and the incredible power of her mind.
This was a human being of endless depth, passion, love and complexity – and I say that not just as a loving son, but objectively, as someone who, like Louise herself, is often plagued by seeing the one flaw in the otherwise perfect. I deeply hope that as the years march by through events like this, the stories about her from those who knew, loved and were mentored by her along with the ability to access her scholarly work at Rutgers, that her legacy will not only live on, but grow.
A Few Things About Louise
by Ernest J DeSalvo
(husband, father of our children, resident literary assistant, and life coach)
For those of us who were close to her and knew her well, Louise was more than a writer or teacher or professor. She was also a wife, mother, cook, knitter, artist, friend, and traveler. And, under all of that—at the deepest level of her identity—she was an Italian American woman raised by complicated and troubled parents who left an indelible imprint on her personality. She was, to put it plainly, a middle-class, hard-working second-generation Italian American woman.
Louise discussed much of this openly, or alluded to it in her memoirs and essays; but, in her currently available writings, she rarely discussed the impact that this amalgam of realities—her intense work ethic and quasi-maniacal insistence on truth, accuracy, and literary structure—had on her personal life and the lives of those she loved. I will share a bit of that with you.
Louise liked to make a mess.
Whether she was cooking, writing, knitting, or planning made no difference. The evidence that such activities were occurring did not require incredible acumen. It was as if she were in a frenzied trance. There was no outward evidence that the rational mind was at work. Piles of dirty dishes, measuring spoons, reams of assorted written or typed pages in no rational order, hundreds of balls of wool strewn all over the floor of her working spaces, and endless lists of “Things to do Today” were all part of the family’s reality of our creative mother/wife.
What was evident was that she was in the moment, happily and diligently creating. It made no difference if it was a new bread recipe or a deep analysis of textual materials: it was a rapturous event that tolerated no interference.
No interference, that is, until whatever she was cooking, writing, knitting, or planning was finished! Then she would look at the results (devastation?) of her creative endeavors (which may have taken hours or months to complete) and meekly ask me if I would help her clean up or organize the resulting product.
From this, I extracted the first article of the “Louise Compendium of Laws of Dealing with Creative Persons”: Keep out of their way until asked for assistance. I cannot count the number of times I was told to “Get the fuck out of my kitchen and leave me alone!” I took that seriously as this was a Napolitana woman with a knife in her hand. It was for this reason that I asked her if she realized that she was crazy in the kitchen and that this was my professional diagnosis as a physician!
In her writing, Louise cared about order only after the creative act was complete.
One must consider that completion for Louise was a relative term; there existed the concepts of proximal completion and final completion. Proximal completion occurred at some point known only to her as the writer. It came about from some unexplainable knowledge that what had to be said had been said. The product often appeared as a mountainous pile of papers with numbered headers. It all looked quite impressive until the unsettling fact was made known that the writer wasn’t exactly sure that the order of the “chapters”—or, indeed, of the pages—was correct.
Here we have the “kitchen problem” taken to the “word processor level.”
When she would ask me to look through them, the finding was obvious: Louise would have had a deep insight, a feeling or distant image of what she would finally transform through her beautiful prose; but it did not chronologically or even logically flow from the previous insight. It was just like her cooking: a thought had to be realized with no connection to a diet plan, weekly food plan, or anything else. It sprang from her urge to create.
So, we had as many as thirty or forty tranches of brilliant writing, often with no logical connection between them. The saving grace was that most of these were related to the main theme of the contemplated work—but not always: in one such collection, I found enough tranches to make two separate books!
All of this needed a real-world solution. That meant examining every tranche by laying them out in some logical order. This required my first reading each tranche with her to get the scope of the editing and organizing project. It was clear that neither our kitchen nor dining room tables could accommodate the work, so off we went to my company’s office, where we used the 12-foot board room table. There we would lay out the tranches and I would read each one. She would have some certain knowledge of the order of some of the tranches, but almost never were there linking elements that allowed a smooth flow or transition for the reader.
Of course, we always solved the problem. I learned so much about how her mind worked and, more importantly, how to deal with a creative person.
These examples make up a small fragment of the many wonderful (and sometimes not so wonderful) moments in my fifty-five-year relationship with this remarkably complex, intelligent, loving woman. Not a day goes by without vivid memories of Louise: some make me laugh and some make me cry, but all of them underscore what an incredible person she was and what a gift it was to share our lives.
My remarks – a note by Caterina Romeo
Vertigo was the first long text of creative writing that I translated in its entirety. It was 2006. I felt and still feel privileged to be Louise DeSalvo’s Italian translator. Privileged to be able to lend Louise a voice in the language of her ancestors. Privileged to transfer Louise’s narrative into a cultural system that is no longer that of her ancestors, but it is grounded in it. I felt privileged but I did not know at the time how complex the process of translating would be. I learned back then, and I was reminded of it days ago while translating this excerpt, that, as a translator, you need to ask yourself a number of questions, ethical questions.
When Edi asked me to translate “Sister 5” – for this is the title of the excerpt I was sent – I wholeheartedly accepted. After so many years from my translation of Vertigo, this time I already knew that the process of translating would leave me deeply satisfied and frustrated at the same time. Because, as Umberto Eco reminds us, translating always means “dire quasi la stessa cosa” (saying almost the same thing). Because translating is not a transparent process. You need to make choices, add words, cut words, change the punctuation, the verbal tenses, while all the time staying as close as you can to the original text. Refining a translation is a much longer process than actually doing it. What I always tell my students on the rare occasions when I teach translation is, remember that this is not your text. And yet, is it not? What does the process of lending your voice to another writer entail? How much of your presence as a translator can be tolerated in a text? How much of your presence is ethically acceptable in a text? At the same time, if all writers are embodied subjects who have a specific positionality in a social, historical, and geopolitical context, so are translators. Translating means transferring, as the two terms have the same Latin etymology and the same meaning: to take across. This is, we could say, a translator’s task: taking the reader across languages and cultural systems while being at the same time present in and absent from the text.
While I was translating “Sister 5”, I felt deep respect for the intimate memories I had been entrusted with, which I was called upon to take across languages and cultural systems. Translating memoir, especially Louise’s memoir, is a complex and difficult process in many ways. One of the aspects that I found most challenging in “Sister 5” is temporality. Verbal tenses are not always in the right consecutio temporum. Louise oscillates between past and past perfect. I tried to reproduce such non-linear temporality by deploying both passato prossimo and passato remoto. Such temporal incongruence causes the reader to pause. Ruptures, disruptions, interruptions, are necessary in order to signal the fragmentation of the writing subject. And yet this time more than ever, I had to resist the temptation to fix the incongruences in verbal tenses. As if fixing such incongruences could also fix lives. As if a coherent narrative could bring Jill back. Could bring Louise back.
As Loredana Polezzi has recently argued, “The itineraries we uncover through [the process of translating] are far from simple journeys from one location to another. They entail multiple movements, refractions, remediations, across both space and time. In the process, languages are not just replaced but also juxtaposed and mixed, memories are made and circulated across geographic and generational boundaries, a sense of self and of community is produced, reinforced, manipulated or transformed .” (In Transnational Italian Studies, 45). I hope I was able to do all this. I hope I was able to do “Sister 5” justice.
Read all the texts in italian by clicking here