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Violations of Light

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“…Now, here is a simple, ordinary English script of the purest sort: elegance can go no further, everything here is lovely, a jewel, a pearl; this is perfection; but here is a variation, again a French one, I borrowed it from a French traveling salesman: this is the same English script, but the black line is slightly blacker and thicker than in the English, and see—the proportion of light is violated; and notice also that the ovals are altered, they’re slightly rounder, and what’s more, flourishes are permitted, and a flourish is a most dangerous thing! A flourish calls for extraordinary taste; but if it succeeds, if the right proportion is found, a script like this is incomparable, you can even fall in love with it.” — The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), p 34

When I read a book I always mark it up: turning up the bottom corners of pages that have a word, line, or passage I love and then sometimes putting a mark in pencil alongside the words so that I don’t have a what the hell did I find so interesting about this page?! moment when I go back to it. Some books I read have many such markings, but some get none. It doesn’t always mean I didn’t like the book if I don’t mark it up, only that there were particular concise arrangements of words that struck me hard as either funny, moving, philosophical, or all of the above that I will want to return to some day. My copy of The Idiot does not have many upturned pages and only one that is marked. That is the above passage.

As I go back over the book to think through my impression of it, I wonder at the general lack of upturned corners. As well, considering the rather somber message of the story, I also note the seeming randomness and levity of the one quote I marked. I know why I marked it, I take a particular interest in the topic…but, also, upon further reflection, I found I enjoyed stretching the metaphor out a bit. In a way, the quote is wonderful because it nearly says everything about the book at once—and, truly, who can resist a paean to scripts? Surely not me.

Reading The Idiot was often like watching a film at one and a half speed that went something like this—a group of people crowd into a room, much passionate talk ensues, the group all depart at once, stumbling out into the hall or street and then it happens all over again for more or less 600 pages. It’s all very amusing on that level. Crazy people all hot and bothered over all their crazy concerns. These personalities are the flourishes and the flourishing abounds. Unreserved, unrestrained, unadulterated flourishing, in their own hand. It can be a mess. I read in some analysis of the story (I can’t remember where now) that the plot was not in fact plotted—Dostoevsky let the story unwind by itself. It did feel that way.

But, like nearly everyone else in the novel, my heart was moved by the dear Prince. Lovely light of a man. He tries ever so hard to find the right proportion. In his way he tries to avoid flourishes, but people read them in anyway. The articulation of that very human condition, in which one thinks one is saying something in the plainest way possible but in which one is instead heard to be meaning something else is at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novel. We are all taken, most all of the time, to be thought of as manipulating our text, as it were. There is no tolerance for innocence. Bad motives are the only possible explanation. I have taken to sometimes prefacing a question by saying, “this is simply a question, I mean nothing other by it than to ask the actual question…” just to make sure the flourishes of someone else’s life doesn’t spill over and warp a simple point of clarification on my part.

This seems more prevalent today than ever, although Dostoevsky obviously exposes the lie of what something feels compared to what something is. Clearly if he is writing on the subject 100 years before my birth, then what I feel is not necessarily what is so. Perhaps we can say that it’s amplified today—what is social media if not a mega-soapbox of the professionally aggrieved and willfully offended? No question is innocent, everyone is a troll, and it goes without saying that everyone’s motives are evil.

The Idiot has no answer to this dilemma.

You acknowledge that society is savage and inhuman because it disgraces a seduced girl. But if you acknowledge that society is inhuman, it means you acknowledge that this girl has been hurt by this society. But if she’s hurt, why, then, do you yourselves bring her out in front of that same society in your newspapers and demand that it not hurt her? Mad! Vainglorious! p 285

It’s only the tragedy and hypocrisy of it all that can be expressed. We all bring our own flourishes when we endeavor to communicate with others, but they are dangerous things, and the meaning or intent can get lost when we imprint our own neurotic or damaged histories. Maybe, if we could agree that it is right to take care in how we talk to and treat others on a personal and societal level—and how we respond to others, that is to say, tastefully—without leaving a bad taste—we might begin to have something beautiful, something one could fall in love with.

 

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Just Another Lover

“[…], and normality, needless to say, means, purely and simply, dying when our time comes. Dying and not getting caught up in arguments about whether that death was ours from birth, or if it was merely passing by and happened to notice us.”
—José Saramago, Death With Interruptions (79)

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Poor death, she just can’t get it right. But in José Saramago’s lyrical book Death With Interruptions she is a character with whom the reader can not help developing a feeling of deep sympathy. The novel opens when she impulsively decides to suspend killing people which causes endless chaos and palpitations within the government and religious institutions, not to mention the undying and living. The philosophers are the only ones that get any satisfaction from the predicament, as is usually the case, I think.

“It’s called metamorphosis, everyone knows that, said the apprentice philosopher condescendingly, That’s a very fine-sounding word, full of promises and certainties, you say metamorphosis and move on, it seems you don’t understand that words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves, you’ll never know what their real names are, because the names you give them are just that, the names you give them,” (76)

Saramago takes his time describing the consequences of death’s whim. The story is told from a narratorial voice of an omniscient we. It’s unnerving. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that when death finally makes a personal appearance as the protagonist heroine of the story, the reader, or at least this reader, is happy for the intimacy.

When death comes to understand the complications that have ensued from her decision to put an end to her work, she resumes her defining job, but with the small added curtesy of notifying each individual with a week’s notice of their impending end. Her endearing attempts to be polite and get it right are not appreciated, alas. But what does death know of the livings’ attachment to life?

“Meanwhile, in her hotel room, death is standing naked before the mirror. She doesn’t know who she is.” (229)

How death comes to be in a naked body standing in front of a mirror is the second half of the story. And it is a love story. Death’s awkwardness and insecurity as a lover is pure Saramago genius, speaking to the awkward insecure lover in us all. Saramago’s scenarios are Borges-like, but his temperament is his own: gentle, unassuming, and heart-achingly sweet.

Death With Interruptions is a tender and moving tale which centers life—life which we of course understand is always already a sort of dying—on love. It is love, Saramago whispers into our ears, that interrupts death.

In the Sweet

I have always been particularly attracted by happy lovers and attached to them: Lawrence and Frieda were more than twice as attractive to me together than they would have been separately. 
—David Garnett, from the forward of Love among the Haystacks by D.H. Lawrence

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The concluding book of my trip to Rome this summer was D.H. Lawrence’s Love among the Haystacks. I bought it in an English-language used book store in Trastevere. The book itself was appealing. A yellow paperback of old thick paper stock. It was published by Phoenix Public Co Ltd out of Berne and on the bottom of the front cover was printed, “not to be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.,” which I read on the tarmac of JFK, so maybe not technically U.S.A.?

During my time in Rome I took many photos. I was alone after all, and through my lens I relished being the observer and used my photos to communicated to my friends at home. When I read the above quote in the forward of Lawrence’s charming book, I realized that I too have always been particularly attracted to happy lovers. The proof was there to see in my photos.

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We were both still. She put her arms round her bright knee, and caressed it, lovingly, rather plaintively, with her mouth. The brilliant green dragons on her wrap seemed to be snarling at me (“Once” 173)

I had not thought I would get to this last book in my plastic bag, but events overtook me. We took off an hour late from Stockholm so landed at JFK at 9pm instead of 8:00. An hour before landing, the airline brought coffee and some packaged bread-like substance to wake us up. I was seated in the middle of the middle of the plane and when the steward reached over to put my coffee on my tray I had a moment of distraction and suddenly the cup was sliding down, off the tray, onto my lap. The hot coffee scalded my legs and I hopped (as much as one can hop while seated and pack like a sardine) and quietly (so as to not wake the baby sleeping in her mother’s arms next to me) cried out “oh! oh! oh!” But what could I do, really? I was trapped in my seat until everyone else was finished and had their trays cleared. So I sat in a literal hot mess for about 30 minutes.

There it was damp and dark and depressing. But one makes the best of things, when one sets out on foot (“A Chapel Among the Mountains,” 115).

Finally, I was able to get up and retrieve my bag. I went to the bathroom, changed my pants for a skirt, asked for a blanket to cover my wet seat and sat back down. It was at this point that I settled in with Lawrence. I thought I might just get a few pages in, but reading is my relaxation go-to.

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His lips met her temple. She slowly, deliberately turned her mouth to his, and with opened lips, met him in a kiss, his first love kiss (“Love among the Haystacks” 98)

I was very much mistaken however, because the night that I landed in JFK was the night that the terminals were shut down due to rumors of a shooter. We sat for hours on the tarmac before anyone even told us what was going on, although, as we all had half-dying cell phones we knew something was up.

The young woman looked at Geoffrey, and he at her. There was a sort of kinship between them. Both were at odds with the world. Geoffrey smiled satirically. She was too grave, too deeply incensed even to smile (“Love among the Haystacks 63).

I ended up reading the entire book. We sat in the plane for just under seven hours. Seven hours. Seven. Luckily, Love among the Haystacks is a collection of endearing love stories. Endearing, that is, in Lawrence’s usual strangled way. Lawrence’s lovers are never fully able to express the raging waters in and between them. Their attempt are often thwarted, frustrated, bitter, and even angry. But when the waters meet—it is sweet.

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All that and a bag of books

Oedipa headed for the ladies’ room. She looked idly around for the symbol she’d seen the other night in The Scope, but all the walls, surprisingly, were blank. She could not say why, exactly, but felt threatened by the absence of even the marginal try at communication latrines are known for.
—Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (65)

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I brought Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 with me to Italy. It met all the requirements: it had spent way too much time on my book shelf unread, I had never read Pynchon and felt the need to remedy that situation, and my paperback copy was small and lightweight. This last point was actually the sine qua non of my reasoning as I had a 10 kilo limit on my carry-on and no check-in luggage in order to save a few bucks.

I left Rome at 5:00am on a Sunday morning. I flew out of CIA which is like a domestic airport except it does travel to EU countries. It was the day before fiere which is when the entire country takes a two week holiday. I had the feeling I was leaving in the nick of time as all the local stores I relied on for nontourist-trap foods (read—fruits and vegetables) were closing, but the airport was a madhouse which was lucky for me since the check-in man was so flustered he forgot to weigh my bag.

I didn’t get to Pynchon until I arrived around 11:00am in Gothenburg, Sweden. I was mildly surprised to find myself in Sweden because I had only paid attention to my airline: Norwegian Air, and so had figured I would be going to Norway first before my second layover in Stockholm. Needless to say, traveling produces a lot of anxiety in me and traveling alone is about 17 times harder than having someone to helpfully say, no idiot—we are on Norwegian Air but going to Sweden! Not that it matters much, one airport is like any other, although Swedish airports do sell a bevy of those cute orange horses and I am after all half-Swedish so I recognized my people straight away and was glad I was a proper Scandinavian and had not been tempted to be overly friendly or talk to my fellow travelers commenting about how beautiful Norway was! Lesson learned:look at other info provided on ticket besides flight number. So, it was there in Gothenburg, in a haze of acute travel panic suppression, that I began The Crying of Lot 49. 

Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (13)

I managed to make my connecting flight to Stockholm by sitting patiently in a glass box of a waiting room hoping that the glass wall which was standing between me and my departing gate would magically open. After about two and half hours, it did. I got to Stockholm around 2:00pm and upon disembarking the plane, stood in the middle of the terminal, which was in constant, steady motion with two thoughts in my head: 1) I have been traveling for 9 hours in the opposite direction to my final destination and that is depressing; and 2) Do I want food badly enough to justify torturing my shoulders and back with these over-packed and yes! I admit it and I am sorry! over-weight bags—it was so bad I had a third bag, a cheap plastic bag with five books in it that I figured I could sacrifice if called upon to do so. And I didn’t even buy that much stuff while there—true, I have five children so just buying them little trinkets at the excellent Porta Portese flea market did me in, and then, yes whatever—there were the few books I bought—but I had also LEFT books in Rome too (and that was a project! No one wants free books it seems!). My bags could not fit so much as a sewing needle by the time I was done, so the books were in the sacrificial bag. At least that was the plan. In reality I would have descended into a pit of madness without a book to read all the long hours of sitting and waiting for tubular flying machines to take me to the next sitting and waiting place. So it was a ‘no’ to food.

Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD or other alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed density of dream; onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system; maybe even only a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know, and you too, sweetie. Or you are hallucinating it. Or a plot has been mounted against you, so expensive and elaborate, involving items like the forging of stamps and ancient books, constant surveillance of your movements, planting of post horn images all over San Francisco, bribing of librarians, hiring of professional actors and Pierce Inverarity only knows what-all besides, all financed out of the estate in a way either too secret or too involved for your nonlegal mind to know about even though you are co-executer, so labyrinthine that it must have meaning beyond a practical joke. Or you are fantasying some such plot, in which case you are a nut, Oedipa, out of your skull (165/6).

And I think that pretty much sums up international travel on the cheap these days. As I mentioned, I have had this book hanging around for years waiting patiently, as books do, to be read. So the fact that I eventually read it in Sweden—or better—in that never-never abstraction and parody-land of international airports—was so brilliant on my part I could not have actually planned it. The craziness of the Pynchon perfected a loop in my head which was struggling mightily to make sense of the mystery, quagmire, and relentless conspiracy to frustrate and discomfort beyond human endurance—that thing we prettily refer to as flying. Trying to solve Oedipa’s puzzle was a highly entertaining and magically perfect thing to do at the moment I was doing it.

By 6:00pm I was on the plane waiting for take-off to New York. I finished The Crying of Lot 49 and decided a little sleep (such as it was crushed between a nice woman and her near tw0-year-old baby on my left and a man and woman who had presumably said goodbye to his mother, perhaps for the last time judging from his tears, to my right). What happen next, I’ll save for the last book I had yet to read in my pseudo-sacrificial book bag.

*photo is actually taken over England on my way to Rome, but since I was in the middle of the plane, on all three flights coming back from Rome, this photo will have to do.

 

 

In the Minds of Others

so I argue within myself whether to take my shoes off or not, and of course I could not ask him if I’m to take them off or not however it doesn’t seem right to me to begin analysis proper with a question of this sort especially since I have trouble becoming intimate with people, even with my father there was no intimacy, and in conclusion since hesitating any longer could also look insulting to him while he waits and perhaps doesn’t understand I resolutely take off my shoes…
—Giuseppe Berto, incubus (269)

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While I was in Italy a friend of mine posted a Facebook game in which all participants were to reach for the closest book, turn to a certain page, and write down the fifth sentence they came upon. I did not even need to decide if I wanted to participate because the book I was reading at the time, Giuseppe Berto’s incubus doesn’t do sentences. Written in 1964, and leaning hard on the conceit of a session at the analyst’s office, the exposition of the central problem of the narrator’s life (father issues) is very nearly a 383 page stream-of-conscious work. It is a tour-de-force of a study in modern angst as well as a fun and fascinating read.

my God I’m not fourteen yet and already I have such a great longing to die, what am I doing in this world what am I doing, I love love love so wretchedly and immensely that I don’t have the courage to decide on an object for my love, and then mine is love in bitterness love in renunciation, now houses and human beings are far away and I can sing without anybody hearing me Lovely liar beauty of an hour your lips are like a poisoned flower….(304)

The protagonist, a writer living in Rome, tells the story of his life and consequences of being the son of a father unable to show any love towards him. It is at once funny and tragic. A sort of Italian Catholic Woody Allen flinging himself from one illness to another, some real and some imagined.

he wants me to dig up in the Gospels or some sacred text or other article of faith whereby a person that has nobody to weep for him on earth cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and for the hundredth time I explain to him that such an article of faith doesn’t exist because it isn’t in accord with the ethical principles of our religion, nor of any other religion in the world I’m sure, however I believe he needn’t worry about this since it’s a film he’s making and not a theological treatise, and since the gimmick involving Gennerio is poetically valid according to me he can proceed freely with out articles of faith, but since I have used pretty obscure words like ethical principles and theology and poetically valid he looks at me like I’m trying to put something over on him…  (186–7)

I found this book in a used-book shop in Trastevere and I was happy to discover it. It kept me company when I took breaks from walking and looking and thinking. Although my trip was truly wonderful, I was also quite alone (when I wasn’t working, and even much of the time then) and as in all lonely periods of my life books afford me time out of my own incessant internal dialogue. This book was particularly interesting to me not only because it was set in Rome, the city I stayed in for over a month, but also because it took place in someone else’s mind. Someone else’s fears, foibles, and fables mercifully quieting my own; giving me someone besides me myself and I to listen and talk to.

Throughout all of the struggles of the unnamed protagonist in this tale, one thing becomes painfully clear to both reader and hero—while there may indeed be no article of faith that prohibits a person from entering heaven if no one weeps for him, the knowledge that no one will is the most wretched sort of life one could endure. My loneliness was temporary. The disorientation of being in a foreign country with middling fluency in the language gave me the freedom and a silence created by the remove of social interactions to fearlessly examine my past and my future hopes. Berto’s hero was not so lucky. He worked himself up into a froth of incurable isolation. It was heartbreaking to witness.

*Published in Italy as Il Male Oscure. This Penguin Books edition translated by William Weaver.

 

The Common Good

Momina was younger than I, but not by much: she dressed very well, a gray suit under her beaver coat, her skin massaged, her face fresh; she took advantage of her nearsightedness by passing it off as detachment. I recalled her violet dress on the first night and looked at her naked ring finger.
—Cesare Pavese, Among Women Only (207)

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The final two stories in The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese are similarly structured: the first “Among Women Only” is told from the point of view of the solitary Clelia: a dressmaker returning to her hometown of Turin to set up a shop for her boss back in Rome. All of Pavese’s stories touch on issues of class and money in post-war Italy. Clelia, an independent working woman, tries to balance the necessity of tending to her clientele, with a mild disgust for the upper-class in which she navigates through the story.

Mariella was by no means a fool; she was the presiding hostess and had been born to such talk. I wondered if she would have known how to make out if she had begun at the bottom like her grandmother (200).

The story is unusual for several reasons, not least of which is that it is compellingly told from a female perspective. I don’t simply mean that the protagonist is female—that is easily enough done for many good writers male or female—but it is a distinctly female perspective. It matters that she is a woman. The nuances of a woman traveling alone, of being single (particularly for this era—although an era with a distinct loosening of conventions), of simply being in a female body. Without being ham-fisted in any way, Pavese tends to the details of that reality.

Like all of Pavasese’s stories, not much in the way of action happens, although this story does center its emotional tone around an attempted suicide by one of the young women traveling in the “fast” crowd. Pavese manages, through sober character studies— from the inside out—to touch upon issues of class, depression, sexuality: both heterosexual and homosexual, as well as his abiding theme of psychological isolation.

If you thought about it, it was terrible to have her with us this way and talk this way, terrible but also ridiculous, comic. I tried to recall what I was like at twenty, at eighteen—how I was during the first days with Guido. How I was before, when mother used to tell me not to believe in anyone or anything. Poor thing, what had she got for it all? I would have liked to know what advice her father and mother gave to that only daughter of theirs, so crazy and so alone (270).

We never do find out exactly who Guido was, but Clelia’s references to herself in terms of before and after Guido are telling, and, to this particular reader at least, very moving.

I could not help thinking, while reading this story, that it may have been the most personal and revealing of Pavese himself. His power of observation, his ability to express isolation both externally imposed and internally, and his ability to create richly nuanced glimpses into the lives of complex but ordinary people is quite astounding.

The last story in the book is “The Devil in the Hills.” This one focuses on a group of young men, or boys really, wandering the hills. It is told from the perspective of one (unnamed—I think) boy who is still young enough to simply crave the hills, swim naked, and enjoy long aimless exploratory walks.

“That’s one thing,” I said, that can’t be done—stripping naked in the woods and filling up with wine.”
“Why not?” Oreste said.
“No more can you make love in the woods. In real woods. Love and drinking are civilized things. when I went boating…”
Pieretto interrupted: “You’ve never understood anything.”
“When you went boating…” Oreste said (334).

Pavese never attempts to make his protagonists the smartest or most insightful or most reliable narrator—but in this way he engenders enormous sympathy for the figure that is telling the story—after all, who among us is all that?

As in his other stories, the “devil” seems to refer to the festering money-ed class: the nouveau riche as hanger ons to the old riche. The lack of guile with which the young protagonist finds himself in a very different world from his former cloistered student-days is endearing. Pavese is gentle with his characters, never hurried to tell the story, always tender and subtly told. He has a way of dropping seemingly insignificant details to signal changes in his characters:

I’d forgotten the blond honey of the head, her bare, sandaled feet, and her air of always being on the verge of leaving for the beach” (348).

The woman being observed is Gabriella, wife of the degenerate Poli. The boys are transfixed by her and also fascinated by her relationship with their husband which they struggle to understand. Pavese seems to deeply understand and communicate the ways in which people are often misunderstood, as well as the ways in which people often misunderstand themselves.

Except for the work in the library of The American Academy in Rome I have been doing here, I have been alone for my time in Rome and that may be why these stories have so strongly affected me. As I walk the labyrinth streets, observing all the people and their interactions with each other,  it is very much like the experience of reading: a solitary, and even isolating, activity, and yet, one that makes me feel more connected and empathetic to others.

In one of the early stories of the book Pavese writes something like, I like Italians; I don’t like Italy. It is a line that stays with me. I read it in its larger sense and see it as a mark of a true humanitarian. Someone who clearly wants to understand others and who can’t help loving people. Not countries, or religions, or politics or any other tribal designation: just people and a common goodness, a common struggle, that unites us all.

 

 

Grasping Truth

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When I came to the sea, I was afraid I might have to spend whole days with hordes of strangers, shaking hands and passing compliments and making conversation—a regular labor of Sisyphus.
—Cesare Pavese, “The Beach” from The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese (22)

Once I got settled into my room and daily life here in Rome, I knew I had a problem. The book I had brought with me to fill in the hours I was not at my internship was all wrong. I don’t often give up on books, and it was not as if it was a bad book—it simply was not the right book.

I spend my hours on the weekends and after work walking the city. It is not unusual for me to get back to my room having walked ten miles or more (lately, a little more often on the less side of ten as I become more familiar with the labyrinth streets and therefore spend less time doubling back upon my lost way). But even I can not walk all day, and so, once I knew my reading situation was in a bad state—the book, being set in an even more foreign setting increased my feeling of disorientation, I could barely find the will to get ahold of the specific nomenclature of the trades and dialects discussed and I had no feeling for the characters and so nothing at all to hold on to in my own state of loneliness in a foreign city. What I wanted was someone here to speak to me. I headed to the first bookstore that came up on google—a far walk but well worth the effort. As soon as I began reading I knew I had found a friend.

I was finding my boyhood just to have a companion, a colleague, a son. I saw this country where I grew up with new eyes. We were alone together, the boy and myself; I relived the wild discoveries of earlier days. I was suffering, of course, but in the peevish spirit of someone who neither recognizes nor loves his neighbor. And I talked to myself incessantly, kept myself company. We were two people alone (66 “The House on the Hill”).

I had not heard of Cesare Pavese’s work before I picked the book up off the shelf: an acclaimed Italian writer and influential translator who lived from 1908–1950, but he is the one keeping me company now. His stories, mostly set in his hometown of Turin, in and around World War II are beautifully told. There is a melancholy I respond to here in my own isolation—which is to some degree self-imposed by my rather reserved personality which sees in Pavese a kindred spirit. As well as a familiarity and sheer interest of reading stories set in the country where I am, once again, temporarily situated. Having lived in Italy for a short while over ten years ago, but now here alone, I found myself getting lost in the labyrinth of my own mind. Feeling lonely, yes, and deeply reflective, but also the wonder of it all—the beauty of the sights, sounds, and energy of this ancient city.

The second story in my book of selected works is The House on the Hill. It is one of the most accomplished anti-war stories I have every read. Most anti-war stories can hardly avoid glorifying the very thing they are critiquing, but not Pavese’s. There are no heroes, just people—people who get tangled up in the war in the middle of their own already tangled lives.

They promised punishments, pardons, tortures. Disbanded soldiers, they said, your fatherland understands you and calls you back. Hitherto we were mistaken, they said; we promise you to do better. Come and save yourselves, come and save us, for the love of God. You are the people, you are our sons, you are scoundrels, traitors, cowards. I saw that the old empty phrases weren’t funny any more. Chains and death and the common hope took on a terrible daily immediacy. What had once floated around in the void, mere words, now gripped one’s insides. There is something indecent in words. Sometimes I wished I were more ashamed of using them (126).

Corrado is the emotionally distant protagonist of the story. His elegiac telling of the chaos and danger in the period of Nazi withdrawal and fascist defeat of Italy is terrifying. Not just because it is terrifying, but also because it is so hard to imagine and at the same time, given the recent lean towards neo-fascsim in the world—all too easy. And that is preciously the same feeling that Pavese relates in the midst of it all—does one worry about having a coffee in the morning, or whether or not the son of a woman whose heart he broke is his? Or does one worry about being arrested, murdered—or worse evading arrest when all your friends are taken? Life is big enough for all those worries at once. And then:

I came up below the spring, in a hollow of thick, muddy grasses. Patches of sky and airy hillsides showed among the trees. The coolness there smelled of the sea, almost briny. What did the war, what did bloodshed matter, I thought, when this kind of sky shone amid the trees? (92)

But, of course, it does matter, and it all begins to lose sense in the senselessness of war.

It wasn’t discomfort or the ruins, perhaps not even a threat of death from the sky; rather it was a final grasp of truth that sweet hills could exist, a city softened by fog, a comfortable tomorrow, while at any moment bestial things might be taking place only a few yards away, things people only discussed in whispers (125).

As I wander, mostly in a wonderful, timeless, aimlessness around the city of Rome, I can not help but be struck by the beauty, yes—but also by the ravages—the evidence of the rise and fall of empires, religions, individual fortunes, even the Tiber itself.  “At any moment bestial things” have and are still taking place. We are all human beings on this planet, and so, for Pavese, “every war is a civil war” and every victim of war a body that calls us to account.

Pavese’s voice comforts me in a cautionary sort of way, and gives context to the country that I am immersed in. Of course I am watching my own nation’s news from afar. So while I  worry about where to get coffee without getting lost and missing my loves while relishing being here, I also read the news and worry about whether or not the unimaginable will happen….because we must grasp the truth that it can.

*The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese is translated by R.W. Flint