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Sunday, March 12, 2023

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Italy recently.

(Random photo of mine. When taken? Why?)

My visits to Italy happened through the magic of books, of course, and here are three that transported me to places I’ve never been before.


(1)       Spender, Matthew. Within Tuscany: Reflections on a Time and Place


As potters are often secretly obsessed not by ceramics but by fire, so sculptors are sometimes obsessed not by carvings but by stone. And the craftsmen who work in quarries do not think about stone, they think of the mountain. In all three cases it is a question of sublimating a mean passion for a grand one. Man makes his little artefacts, but it is the live material as nature brought it forth that remains the challenge.


Anyone who has ever traveled or lived in Tuscany or dreamed of so doing will want to read this book, but it will have special meaning for artists (as the quote above makes clear), horticulturists (olive harvesting and oil processing are described in great detail), historians and lovers of ancient history (the author is fairly obsessed, to use his word, with the elusive Etruscans), and anyone who has ever read Dante at all seriously.


Sculptor and painter, as well as writer, Matthew Spender and his wife, Maro, came from London to Siena in 1967, intending to live there for “a year or two,” but life had other ideas in store, and before they knew it they had established an Italian life. With their two little girls in school, Spender joined a community band (a clarinetist, he says unkind things about violins) and researched several aspects of Tuscan history, along with pursuing his art. Matthew Spender is the son of poet Stephen Spender. Maro, an artist herself, is the daughter of painter Ashile Gorkey, whose biography Matthew Spender authored. The family backgrounds of both Maro and Matthew are complicated by dysfunction and sparkling with famous friends, but if a reader knew nothing at all about the author or his family, Within Tuscany would still be fascinating and beautiful reading.


It is a somewhat strange book. Part memoir, part historical commentary, the author reveals his own occasional awkwardness pitilessly more than once. His lens is at other times a long one, focused on previous centuries, before turning back on himself in close-up. But always, the writing intoxicates. Musing on Bruce Chatwin’s dream of death and how not even the art we make, though it outlives us, is destined to be immortal, Spender writes of these art objects:


For a while they can act as shields against total annihilation, our death first, their death and the eventual death of the planet as it whirls around an exhausted sun, awaiting its own eventual extinction, each finality fitting in the other like Chinesse boxes. For me, the outstretched hand of painted flesh from a painted sleeve will do, stretching to support me as I approach the tunnel, before the blinding light. 


I don’t fit into any of the categories of readers I said would love this book, but I did love it and highly recommend it. 



(2)       Leon, Donna.  My Venice and Other Essays


Donna Leon is an American writer who has lived for many years in Italy. She writes murder mysteries set in Venice. That’s all I knew when I picked up this book. 


My dream city is Paris, although more than one friend feels the same way about Venice, which has never been on my short list at all. But reading about Venice? I’ll do that. 


What a surprise this book was! I adored and delighted in this opinionated group of essays and how the author does not pull a single punch! She says she will never live in the U.S. again, but she does not see her adopted home city or country through rose-colored glasses. 


It is difficult, even in the midst of my thirty-year love affair with them, to say that Italians have anything that could even vaguely be called a civic sense.


Much as I loved this book and highly recommend it, however, I’m finding I don’t want to say too much about it or quote too heavily, because you need to discover it for yourself: Some of you will love it, some might outright hate it. (This I infer from the review I read after writing how I loved it. Not everyone did.) I’ll warn you that Donna Leon calls dogshit shit, not poo, and when one of her essays is titled, “It’s a Dick Thing,” she means just that, but she doesn’t hate dogs or men, never fear. Give it a try -- and get back to me with your impressions, please! 


Inspired by her essays, I’m now reading one of her murder mysteries now, Doctored Evidence, which in turn was inspired by an annoying neighbor, in real-life Venice, who kept her television at an unbearably high volume, night and day, despite repeated complaints….



(3)       Smith, Mark Gordon.  Tuscan Echoes: A Season in Italy


Mark Smith’s story is closer to that of most American visitors than the two foregoing books, in that he did not make a long-time home in Italy. That is, he had lived in Italy as a child, with his family, in the 1950s, but only after many all-too-brief visits as an adult was he able to arrange to live in Florence for 18 precious weeks, beginning on the first of May.


Time became the gift that provided opportunities to take in quiet moments and places, to capture the special essence of Italian life. Even now, I need only close my eyes to feel the heat of that Tuscan season. There were days when an infinite clear blue sky soared overhead, hot breezes shrilled the cypresses of cloisters, olive trees shaded fields of straw punctuated by bright red poppies, and aisles of Chianti grapes marched forever up every hill. On every day, in every corner turned, a new discovery was made; with every museum entered or church visited, there were thousands of other events that reached out to be remembered. As the seasons turned, leaves blew at my feet and, eventually, the rains of fall arrived. 


I don’t know how to interpret breezes that “shrilled the cypresses” and can’t help wondering if he was really looking at “fields of straw” (perhaps some grain?). I do recognize that sense of discovery, every day, around every corner, familiar to me from my own first month in a rented room in Paris, venturing out every morning safeguarded by talismans from friends, armed with maps and high school French, coming “home” at night to sit at the dining table with my landlady, each of us with paper and pens and dictionaries at the ready in case of a communication puzzle. One month for me, eighteen weeks for him – time enough to settle in and feel deliciously at home, reveling in the “gift of time.”


And yet -- I was disappointed in Smith’s book. To me it read like  letters written to family back home rather than personal diary entries or letters to a close friend. Also, all three of today’s books were written in the first person, so why did only this one strike me as relentlessly “I, I, I”? There were too many unnecessary details about “heading” here and “heading” there and turning corners and sitting down and not nearly enough detail about, for instance, what he had for dinner at the fabulous restaurant mentioned. And while I wouldn’t have wanted him to be curmudgeonly or dissatisfied, was every single moment of those eighteen weeks golden? Unlike Spender and Leon, a reader has little sense, from his writing, of this author's character or idiosyncrasies or his life apart from these eighteen weeks.



My advice: If you want a happy tour guide, take Smith; if you want opinionated irreverence from an insider, Leon is your woman; and artists, you will definitely find Spender the most revealing of what concerns you most. But perhaps you have favorite books on Italy to recommend yourself. Or another part of the world. 

Where have you traveled lately through the magic of books?

Meanwhile, as we ease into spring here in southeast Arizona, this is right where I am when I leave the books behind and step out my door.


Karen Casebeer said...

I'm interested in what you think of the Donna Leon mystery. Meanwhile, I'm staying right in Bisbee with Joanna Brady.

Mark said...

I really appreciated your reviews, and I think Spender will be just my style! I don't know if you have ever read "Naples '44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy" by Norman Lewis, but it's a bit of a masterpiece.

P. J. Grath said...

Mark, I've not read that particular book but have read and loved others by Norman Lewis.

Karen, I enjoyed the Donna Leon enough that I would read another. But I still have no desire to go to Venice!