Saturday, December 14, 2019

Roland Merullo

Roland Merullo was born in Boston and raised in Revere, Massachusetts. He attended Brown University, where he obtained a bachelor of arts in Russian studies and a master of arts in Russian language and literature. The author of more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Breakfast with Buddha and The Delight of Being Ordinary, Merullo is the recipient of the Massachusetts Book Award, an Editors' Choice Award from Booklist, an Alex Award from the American Library Association, a Best of the Year award from Publishers Weekly, and was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award.

Merullo's new novel is Once Night Falls.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Stay with me here; I’ll get to the reading part.

I have had a very full and varied life (I’m 66 and not quite ready to write the last chapter yet). I lived in a tribal society (Peace Corps Micronesia, on a tiny atoll way out in the Central Pacific), in a communist society (28 months over 13 years, working on USIA exhibits in the former USSR), spent a lot of time in social democracies (many months on vacation and doing book research in Europe), and here in the heart of capitalism (well, sort of: Massachusetts.) I was born in the city and spent my youth there, but have lived in the country for the last thirty years. I’ve worked as a carpenter (seven years), cab driver (three months), professor (over ten years or so, all told), coach of rowing, private editor, truck loader, toll collector, swimming pool builder, temp worker. Raised two fine girls, traveled a massive amount, played hockey, baseball, golf, rowed crew, studied karate intensely for two and a half years in my forties. Been in two bad car accidents. Been healthy and active, and also suffered with various long-term ailments too boring to talk about. Watched my kids be born and watched my brother die. Been married to the same woman for 40 years, with some hard patches and a lot of smooth sailing. Slipped into Croatia during the war there. Slipped into Cuba to write a golf article. I have a lot of friends, but I’ve also had stretches of intense loneliness—long time ago. I suffered with a bipolar tendency that was cured by a four-decades meditation practice. Been around a number of people—close friends and relatives—whose lives have been torn to shreds by addiction. And I’ve known others who’ve had great success and 80 years of good health, mental and physical. I’ve published 24 books, some of which sold very poorly, and a couple that sold very well.

Not bragging, not at all. I’ve had as many mixed-up times, have as many regrets, and made at least as many mistakes as everybody else. I’m saying all this because I don’t have a bucket list, not really. I would like to learn to ride a motorcycle, and I would like to see my daughters grown and happy, that’s about it. Beyond that, if I did have one thing I’d like to do before passing on to the next life, it would be learning Italian. There was a point in my life when I spoke Russian fluently (too rusty to say that now), and spoke Trukese well enough to get by, and I loved the feeling of being able to express myself in a tongue other than English. Loved what it did to the brain, how it broke the world out of its word-limits, or at least expanded them. I’d really like to get to the level in Italian, a language I heard in my house when I was growing up, studied formally for one year in college, and have been pursuing, in hit or miss fashion, over the past thirty years.

So now, when I have reading time (and I write two or sometimes three books a year, so there isn’t a lot of reading time, and when there is, I often want to do something physical—lift weights, walk, bang nails, play golf, swim), I try to read in Italian. Natalia Ginzburg’s All our Yesterdays. Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli. Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. I go over them and over them, often with a dictionary nearby, making notes in the margins, deciphering the grammar and sentence structure, struggling to increase my vocabulary.

Maybe I should be filling in the blanks in my English-language reading. I’ve never touched Don Quixote or Middlemarch, for example, have read hardly anything of Shakespeare. I know I’m missing out. But when I have a half hour’s worth of energy at ten o’clock at night, after a day in front of the computer, or with a stack of pages in my hands, what calls to me is the Italian language. As a little boy, I lived with my father’s parents, who were from tiny villages outside Naples, and something magical happens when I hear or read or speak Italian now. A deep part of my brain is reawakened and I’m cast back in time. They were unusually kind, generous, and warm people, and these deep reminders carry with them a memory of their love, of my own worth, of a part of my life when everything was fresh and new.

So I wrestle with the Italian subjunctive instead of Middle English, tales of World War II in Italy, rather than tales of windmills and kings. It makes me feel good, which is, I believe, one of the reasons we read.
Visit Roland Merullo's website.

--Marshal Zeringue