Tag Archives: Rome

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.

 

 

Great Globs of Verbosity

She found this charming, and laughed. She looked so sweet—like the moon emerging from behind a cloud and showing her full face. Before long her words expressed what her wandering fingers were already demonstrating. 
—Petronius, translated by Andrew Brown,
Satyricon (122).

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Considering the fragmentary nature of Satyricon, with its myriad lacunae, absence of a clear narrative, compounded by seemingly jumping into the story mid-stream—it is quite fun to read.

And I think bees are divine little creatures; they puke honey…even though people do say they get it from Jupiter. And if they sting, well, that’s because there’s no sweet without sour (44)

The print I made above was partially inspired by the feast scene at Trimalchio’s in which the endnotes say that “damsons with pomegranate seeds” in the original Latin was “Syrian plums with Punic apple seeds.” In a long round-about way,  having to do with an annoying print I had made of apples, which I hated, and a lovely drawing my daughter had made for me of a pomegranate—the words “punic apple” simply solved all my frustration and  lit a minor fire under me until I ended up with the above.

Quite the astrologer.  And witty with it! We applauded (30).

Of course I am hardly the first to be inspired (however loosely) by Satyricon. After I finished the book I decided to watch Fellini’s Satyricon.  If I did see it in my youth all that was left in my head were still-images, which may have been all I had seen in the first place. But seeing it, perhaps again, I’ll just say—Fellini didn’t become an adjective for nothing. He takes the surreal aspects of the book and just runs with it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he leaves the humor in the dust. The thing that I liked about the book was the youthful view of the hoity toities, those bitchy-shallow-people who one is so immaturely excited to be deigned an invitation  to dinner with, but which turns into a wacky bender that doesn’t end. All the bits and pieces of the book  have a hilarious ridiculously-bad-night-should-have-stayed-home quality to the thing.

115. We heard a strange low noise and a stifled roar, like a wild animal trying to escape, from under the master’s cabin. We followed the sound—and found Eumolpus sitting there, filling a huge piece of parchment with line after line of poetry. so, amazed to see him able to find time to compose poetry with death so close, we dragged him him off, in spite of his vehement protests, and begged him to be a sensible chap. But he flew into a rage at being interrupted.
“Let me finish my piece!” he shouted. “I’m having a bit of trouble with the last lines!”
What a maniac! I grabbed hold of him and Giton to help me drag the petulant poet ashore (103)

The recent 2013 Italian film La Grande Belleza is very much a Satyricon-influenced film, it retains the ridiculous humor but it adds an element of modern angst bemoaning the ultimate emptiness of it all. There is none of that in the original Satyricon, nor does Fellini bother with that sort of moralizing either, but Fellini’s over the top surrealistic film is so heavy in a way…the tedium of these sorts of people is never lifted in the way that Petronius and Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Belleza manage, even when truly awful things are happening.

The sun shines on everyone. The moon, with countless stars in attendance, even shows wild beasts the way to their food. Can anything be considered more beautiful than water? And yet it flows for everybody. So shall love alone be something to be stolen rather than openly prized? (86)

Petronius (if that is who really wrote this vulgar epic tale—by which I mean both senses of the word “vulgar”) captures a swirling world, that doesn’t seem that different from some of the circles people race about in this day and age. That is the truly remarkable thing—very little changes.

*Title from page 3: “It’s great globs of verbosity, smeared with honey: every word, every deed sprinkled with poppy and sesame seeds.”

The Discarded

IMG_0702Walking through the El Anatsui exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art the first thing one encounters are massive veil-like curtains. Made of the bits and pieces of modern refuse, carefully folded into a loose color rich chain-mail, its delicate beauty and fragility envelopes. Close up the dazzling perfection of the crafted tapestries and sculptures imbue the viewer with a feeling that is all at once strength and grace. El Anatsui is an Ghanaian artist that creates works of art with what is unthinkingly thrown away. He works with collected bottle caps and metal wrappers, the tin tops and bits of wood that litter our every step and what he creates is Byzantine mosaic meets Medieval tapestry meets Gustave Klimpt meets material seduction, and global commerce. The results are stunning.

His work is site specific and the conceptual ideas flow through the entire exhibit: what moves, what changes, what we leave behind and how distance gains us a perspective and clarity of place while the intimacy of detail reveals tangible subtlety. His world view is one where nothing is fixed, there is beauty in the fluidity.

There are short films throughout that show in which Anatsui explains his process both practically (a typical wall hanging will take some 25 workers three months) and philosophically. My daughter ( an artist currently doing a turn as an art-world intern) and I wondered about the the more mundane aspects of the work as well: did he pay for people to collect the thousands of pieces of debris, if so how much? Were we right to feel discomfited by Anatsui’s use of unpaid interns- in a world that so freely abuses the rights of workers I balk at arguments that suggest “the honor” and “experience” of working for anyone is worth compromising our sense of what’s fair. Neither of these topics came up in the show, but a discarded argument has as much power as a discarded bottle cap when joined in powerful numbers.

El Anatsui’s work is still mesmerizingly beautiful despite the pragmatic musings of two pecuniarily pressured women. But having just finished Zola’s Rome, (despite never actually beginning it- but never mind that) the interior space of my head still rattled with Pierre’s lament, In a quivering voice Pierre was bold enough to answer: “I look for some kindness and justice.” (87)

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New State, Old State

Was this the woman who had shown herself so calm, sensible, so patient the better to ensure her happiness? […] He had hitherto seen her so reserved, so modest, with childish charm that seemed to come from her very nature! But under the threatening blow she feared, the terrible blood of the Boccaneras had awoke within her a long heredity of violence, pride, frantic and exasperated longings. – Émile Zola, Rome (12)

IMG_0676I must have some nomadic blood coursing through my veins, I’ve moved often enough. But if I do, it sours at the complex bureaucracy that governs our every action. Just the amount of stuff to transport is hard enough.  I am an absolute devotee of public libraries and still, I had to weed through some embarrassing number of books to make my move manageable. I went through them with lightening speed- “No. No. You had your chance to read that, no. No- just get at the library. No, Jessica. No. Oh I love this one- yes.” Down to four boxes (okay I am not including my children’s books which I dealt a much kinder cut to considering they read far less than I do and most of them are actually my own childhood books or books I read to them- but damn my relentless sentiment!)

“Oh those Frenchmen,” remarked Dario, to whom the mere idea of a cemetery was repulsive; “those Frenchmen seem to take pleasure in making their lives wretched with their partiality for gloomy scenes.” (37)

Because I have (relative to the average non-nomad) very little “stuff,” it took me all of 3 hours to unpack, hang paintings (with two of my son’s help), and admire my fine work. I found Zola’s Rome among my books, and there is nothing quite like a visit to the DMV to give someone ridiculous amounts of time to read…

Yes, a threat of doom and annihilation: as yet no people, soon no aristocracy, and only a ravenous middle class, quarrying, vulture-like, among the ruins. (52)

I don’t mind, terribly, confessing that it is actually a deep and abiding pleasure of mine to get rid of stuff; the part that is the cause of the searing pain in my head at this very moment is the red tape. Still, I try to have a decent attitude, after all, as long as I have a book to read I can suffer to jump through the endless paperwork hoops.

In his anxiety to bring things to a finish, Pierre wished to begin his campaign the very next day. (61)

However, as I read Rome, whilst waiting for my number A123 to be called, I couldn’t quite decide if I was impressed or bewildered by the manner in which Zola just dove head first into the story. Without any explanation of where, why and with whom I was dealing, I felt as though my foot had gotten tangled in his line and I was being dragged undertow- shut up and swim, Jessica… finally I gasped for breath around number A116 to ponder Zola’s  mad confidence in the reader to just hang in there, groping for the thread of the story. But, in full DMV-conciliatory mode, I read on, who was I to ask questions?

Habitual self-doubt and faith in my idiocy often manifest into a polite deference and acquiescence, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised, more than forty pages in,  as I was flipping back to the beginning to verify that I understood who one of the characters was, to discover that what I was reading was volume two of Zola’s novel.

Oh well, I reasoned, I’m about forty years into my life with volume two beginning and letting go of volume one of my epic is not entirely a bad idea, the important parts will let themselves known, so- I read on.

*translated from the French by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly