In 2013 we lost two Nobel laureates, a revered editor and teacher, plus writers of crime fiction, literary fiction, poetry, history, essays, biographies, screenplays, mega-bestsellers, movie criticism, and memoirs. Here is a highly selective compendium:
Evan S. Connell
While it may not be accurate to pin Evan S. Connell with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer,” it is probably fair to say that his restless intelligence and refusal to settle into a niche prevented him from attracting as large an audience as he deserved. Connell, who died on Jan. 10 at 88, produced novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and biographies. He wrote about repressed WASPS, a Navy pilot, a rapist, alchemists and Crusaders, cowboys and Indians, and he was equally at ease writing about art, religion, science, and history. He didn’t enjoy his first commercial success until he was 60, with 1984’s Son of the Morning Star, a non-fiction exploration of Custer’s Last Stand. Until then, due to his books’ modest sales, he had supported himself with some not-very-odd jobs, such as reading meters and delivering packages.
For many readers, Connell’s most indelible novels are Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969), about the airless world of the country club set in his native Kansas City, Mo. Wells Tower has noted that the short story that presaged the novels, “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” is a series of “mosaic tile vignettes” rather than a conventional narrative. The vignettes accumulate force until they quietly outdo all the screaming and plate-smashing, the drunkenness and infidelity and angst of so much suburban fiction. In the Bridges’ world, as Tower noted, “the wisdom of Emily Post seems to operate as Newtonian law.” Furthermore, “In the vacuum of Kansas City, no one can hear you scream.”
Mrs. Bridge tried to do everything the way it should be done. Mrs. Bridge did not like to hurt anyone’s feelings by making them feel inferior. Mrs. Bridge had always voted the way her husband told her to vote, but one day she starts reading books about political issues and since she believes in equality she decides she must persuade Mr. Bridge to vote liberal. Here’s what happens at the end of the story when she prepares to confront her husband:
She really intended to force a discussion on election eve. She was going to quote from the book of Zokoloff. But he came home so late, so tired, that she had not the heart to upset him. She concluded it would be best to let him vote the way he always had, and she would do as she herself wished; still upon getting to the polls, which were conveniently located in the country club shopping district, she became doubtful and a little uneasy. And when the moment finally came she pulled the lever recording her wish for the world to remain as it was.
Connell never married, never owned a computer, never sought notoriety. In the cheesy parlance of our age, he declined to become a brand. It’s downright un-American, and quite possibly heroic. “I hate to be recognized,” he once said. “I want to be anonymous.”
Chinua Achebe exploded on the world literary scene with the 1958 publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, which invoked Ibo voices from his native Nigeria, boldly challenged European concepts of Africans, and in a single stroke anointed Achebe the father of African fiction. Published during the twilight of British colonial rule, the novel set out to show, as Achebe put it, “that African peoples did not hear of civilization for the first time from Europeans.”
Achebe, who died on March 21 at 82, produced five novels and many short stories over the next three decades. He did not let his fellow Africans off lightly. His satirical fourth novel, A Man of the People, exposed the corruption and irresponsibility of many post-colonial politicians, and it ends with a coup much like the one in 1966 that plunged Nigeria into a devastating civil war. Despite a period of writer’s block brought on by the war, Achebe went on to produce essays, poems, and memoirs, and he oversaw the publication of more than 100 texts that made other African writers’ work available to a worldwide audience. A car accident in 1990 left him paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, yet he continued to write, travel, teach, and lecture. Perhaps his most appropriate epitaph came from Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5. “There was a writer named Chinua Achebe,” Mandela wrote, “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
I suspect I was not alone in assuming that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who had an Indian name and wrote so knowingly about India, was a native of India. She was not. She war a German Jew, born in Cologne and educated in England, who married an Indian architect in 1951 and moved with him to Delhi, where they raised three daughters and she began writing fiction about her adopted homeland.
Jhabvala, who died on April 3 at 85, started by writing fiction that trained a satirical, Jane Austen-ish eye on the modernizing Indian middle class, its struggles to balance old and new ways, what E.M. Forster called “the unlovely chaos that lies between obedience and freedom.” In time her gaze grew more acid, especially when she was describing sham gurus, Western seekers, and anyone who tried to deceive themselves and others. Her eighth novel, Heat and Dust, won the Booker Prize in 1975, and in all she published a dozen novels and eight collections of short stories.
But it was her screenwriting, particularly her collaborations with the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, that brought her widespread fame. Their first project was an adaptation of her own 1960 novel, The Householder, and many of her other two dozen screenplays sprang from literary sources, including the novels of Henry James, Peter Cameron, Diane Johnson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jean Rhys, and Evan S. Connell (she conflated Connell’s novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge into Mr. and Mrs. Bridge in 1990, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward). Jhabvala won two Oscars, for her adaptations of Forster’s Howards End and A Room With a View.
Though the headline on her obituary in The New York Times read “Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Screenwriter, Dies at 85,” she made no secret that she regarded screenwriting as secondary to the writing of fiction. In her Who’s Who entry, the “recreation” category says “writing film scripts.” And as she once wrote to a friend, “I live so much more in and for the books.”
When I heard that Elmore Leonard had died on Aug. 20 at 87, I salved my sorrow by re-reading one of his Motor City masterpieces, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. It opens with a dry description of a juicily corrupt judge that resonates on several levels. Goes like this:
In the matter of Alvin B. Guy, Judge of Recorder’s Court, City of Detroit:
The investigation of the Judicial Tenure Commission found the respondent guilty of misconduct in office and conduct clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice. The allegations set forth in the formal complaint were that Judge Guy:
1.) Was discourteous and abusive to counsel, litigants, witnesses, court personnel, spectators and news reporters.
2.) Used threats of imprisonment or promises of probation to induce pleas of guilty.
3.) Abused the power of contempt.
4.) Used his office to benefit friends and acquaintances.
5.) Bragged of his sexual prowess openly.
6.) Was continually guilty of judicial misconduct that was not only prejudicial to the administration of justice but destroyed respect of the office he holds.
I read those opening lines, originally published in 1980, as a thinly veiled portrait of the man then serving as mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, who was every bit as profane, nasty, and corrupt as the fictional Judge Alvin B. Guy. But another Detroit writer, my pen pal Loren D. Estleman, set me straight on this, informing me that Leonard’s Judge Alvin Guy was actually inspired by a notorious Detroit judge named James Del Rio, who packed a pistol under his judicial robes and once presided over a shootout in his courtroom that left a defense attorney dead. No matter. The important thing is that those opening lines of City Primeval, like so much of Leonard’s fiction, were not only timely, they were timeless: they illuminated the eternal venality of the human soul, which was Leonard’s inexhaustible subject.
To wit: Two months after Leonard died, another corrupt former Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for an array of misdeeds that would have made Alvin Guy, James Del Rio, and Coleman Young proud, including racketeering, extortion, bribery, fraud, income tax evasion, and putting friends and family on the city payroll. Elmore Leonard always nailed it, whether he was writing about crooks in his primeval hometown of Detroit, or crooks in Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Djibouti. R.I.P., Dutch. You are missed.
In 1995 Seamus Heaney became the fourth Irish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, following in the outsized footsteps of his countrymen William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett. The fact that neither Flann O’Brien nor James Joyce made the cut speaks to the magnitude of Heaney’s achievement. (Oscar Wilde died a year before the first Nobel Prize was awarded to Sully Prudhomme.)
Seamus Heaney (pronounced HEE-nee) was born in rural County Derry in Northern Ireland to a Catholic family, and his poetry was forever veined with the physical world of his childhood — he could remember interiors without electric lights, farmers plowing with horses, women churning butter until their hands bloomed with blisters. But Heaney, who died on Aug. 30 at 74, was no pastoral nostalgist. Beneath his rural tableaux runs a river of sex and violence, even in poems written before the Troubles washed his homeland in blood. He carried contradictions with a velvety ease that echoed the sound of his velvety voice: he was a Romantic realist, a rural cosmopolitan, an archaic modernist, an atheist who welcomed miracles. He regarded words as “bearers of history and mystery.” What could be felt (and done) with the hands was every bit as important to him as what could be seen with the eyes. His poetry was pungent, physical, earthy.
In the poem “Seed Cutters,” he makes explicit that the people of his childhood linked him to worlds past:
They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.
In the poem “Digging,” from his debut 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist, Heaney revealed how his poetry sprang from the soil:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging, I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through drills
Where he was digging…
By God, the old man could handle a spade
Just like his old man…
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Heaney’s translation of Beowulf became a bestseller, and in 2002 he brought out Finders Keepers, a collection of previously published essays and lectures. He described the book’s entries this way: “They are testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for.”
The Beats were basically a boys’ club, their moveable frat party open to few females. One who made it past the bouncers was Carolyn Cassady, the second wife of Neal Cassady, that “western kinsman of the sun” who became Jack Kerouac’s muse and the kinetic character Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Carolyn Cassady, who died on Sept. 20 at 90, became the character Camille in the novel, by turns a thrill-killing shrew and a dedicated wife, the woman who dutifully stayed home to raise Neal/Dean’s children whenever he and Kerouac/Sal Paradise hit the road in pursuit of a fresh dose of enlightenment, girls and kicks. At her husband’s urging, Carolyn also became Kerouac’s lover.
Carolyn Cassady produced two memoirs, Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal (1976) and Off the Road: My Years with Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg (1990). She said she wrote the books as correctives to the notion, so widespread among young people after the 1957 publication of On the Road, that the holy troika of the Beat generation led lives of unfettered bliss. “I kept thinking that the imitators never knew and don’t know how miserable these men were,” she once said. “They think they were having marvelous times — joy, joy, joy — and they weren’t at all.”
Neal and Carolyn were married in 1947, when she was several months pregnant with their first of three children. Being married to Neal Cassady — street kid, jailbird, car thief, serial philanderer, aspiring writer, and irresistible volcano of energy — cannot have been a day at the beach. Here’s how Kerouac describes a typical Neal Cassady eruption in On the Road:
I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947; he got a job on the railroad and made a lot of money. He became the father of a cute little girl, Amy Moriarty. Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ’49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll. He bought the car on the spot. Ed Dunkel was with him. Now they were broke. Dean calmed Camille’s fears and told her he’d be back in a month. “I’m going to New York and bring Sal back.” She wasn’t too pleased at this prospect.
“But what is the purpose of all this? Why are you doing this to me?”
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing, darling — ah — hem — Sal has pleaded and begged with me to come and get him, it is absolutely necessary for me to — but we won’t go into all these explanations — and I’ll tell you why…No, listen, I’ll tell you why.” And he told her why, and of course it made no sense.
Carolyn believed Neal had a split personality — a hard-working family man at war with “a wild nature driven by sexual desire.” She divorced him in 1963 and five years later he was dead at 41, his body sprawled beside a Mexican railroad track, full of alcohol and drugs, dehydrated, flat worn out. Kerouac, bloated and alcoholic, followed him a year later. But Carolyn, the product of a conventional upper-middle class family, lived on, designing theater costumes, painting portraits, writing her memoirs, and observing the indefatigable juggernaut of the Beat Industry with a jaundiced eye, even though her two books were inarguably a part of the juggernaut.
During the 1978 filming of Heart Beat, starring Sissy Spacek as Carolyn and Nick Nolte as Neal, Carolyn told The Washington Post, “Sissy’s got me all cleaned up, I’m the most wonderful heroine. I go through everything and come out unscathed. I saw the dailies the other day and I cracked up. Everything was so romantic, I was crying. It could have been like that, but it wasn’t at all.”
And she didn’t even try to hide her disdain when director Walter Salles brought On the Road to the screen in 2012. She dismissed the actors cast to play Jack and Neal, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, as “wimps.” To make matters worse, chirpy Kirsten Dunst played the role of Carolyn/Camille. Carolyn Cassady did herself one last favor and declined to see the movie.
Tom Clancy created his very own genre, the “techno-thriller,” and loaded it with high-tech military hardware, virtuous Americans, cardboard villains, and stories that never stopped galloping. Clancy’s was a chiaroscuro world of vivid blacks and whites: capitalism is good, communism is bad, the C.I.A. wears shining armor, and the world would be better off without politicians, liberals, terrorists, drug cartels, reporters, and Hollywood. While working unhappily as an insurance salesman, Clancy sold the manuscript of his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, for $5,000 in 1984. It became a bestseller after winning the endorsement of President Ronald Reagan, who called it “my kind of yarn.”
Clancy, who died on Oct. 1 at 66, was rarely accused of being a masterful prose stylist — one reviewer dismissed his writing as “the verbal equivalent of a high-tech video game” — but there’s no arguing that Clancy knew how to connect with an audience. More than 100 million copies of his books are in print, 17 reached #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and an A-list of Hollywood actors (Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford) have played Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, in assorted blockbuster movies. And perhaps as a retort to that sniffy critic of his prose, Clancy happily arranged for his thrillers to be turned into video games.
Clancy made a silo full of money off his writing and he knew how to enjoy it. He bought a piece of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and he lived in a 24-room mansion on the Chesapeake Bay with an indoor pool, a gun range in the basement, and a World War II-vintage M1A1 tank parked on the lawn. A reporter once asked Clancy if he ever drove the tank.
Too dangerous, Clancy replied. “It’s essentially a lawn ornament.”
Oscar Hijuelos’s greatest hit, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, unspools like an extended, ecstatic song, full of horn blasts, the patter of congas and bongos, the whirl of frenzied dancers. It is narrated by the broken-down Cuban bandleader Cesar Castillo, as he sits in a shabby Harlem hotel room drinking whisky and remembering “those glorious nights of love so long ago.” He also remembers life’s sensual pleasures — the food, the cars, the music, the streets, women’s hats, women’s underclothes, and, above all, the many women he loved. Much as he’d like to, he can’t forget his life’s many missed opportunities. The novel is a sad sexy dream.
Hijuelos, who was born in New York City to Cuban parents, suffered a heart attack while playing tennis on Oct. 12 and died at age 62. He grew up speaking Spanish at the family’s home in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan, and acquired English during a long hospital stay when he was three years old. He wrote in English, producing eight works of fiction and a memoir, all of it a way of wrestling with the immigrant experience and his feeling that he was an outsider in his own culture. He was more American-Cuban than Cuban-American, and the sensation of feeling stranded between cultures caused him no small amount of pain. “I eventually came to the point that, when I heard Spanish, I found my heart warming,” he wrote late in life. “And that was the moment when I began to look through another window, not out onto 118th Street, but into myself — through my writing, the process by which, for all my earlier alienation, I had finally returned home.”
Hijeulos was working at an advertising agency in 1983 when he sold his first novel, Our House in the Last World, but success, including a 1992 movie of Mambo Kings starring Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante, eventually allowed him to write full time. In 2008, after being “gainfully unemployed” for 20 years, he started teaching at Duke University and discovered, to is surprise, that he enjoyed the job. “I have to say, I love the kids,” he said. “It’s a joyful thing to see the future sitting before you.”
Before his death on Nov. 16 at 89, Louis Rubin may have done more than anyone to prove that New York City does not own a monopoly on quality book publishing in America. Rubin, a revered teacher and prolific author, co-founded Algonquin Press in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1983 as a springboard for writers, especially young writers of the Southern persuasion who’d gotten the cold shoulder from the insular New York publishing world. Rubin’s students included John Barth, Annie Dillard, and Kaye Gibbons, and Algonquin published a small army of celebrated Southerners, including Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, and Clyde Edgerton, as well as one native of Canada, Sara Gruen, whose third novel, Water for Elephants, was turned down by her New York publisher. After Algonquin published the novel in 2011, it sold millions of copies, became a #1 bestseller, and was made into a major motion picture. It was not the only time Louis Rubin had the last laugh at New York’s expense.
Doris Lessing, who died on Nov. 17 at 94, will be best remembered as the author of The Golden Notebook, a novel as free-wheeling and unconventional as the woman who wrote it. She produced a staggering body of work in her long life, including novels, science fiction, memoirs, essays, poems, even a libretto for an opera adapted from two of her books, with music by Philip Glass.
Born in Persia (now Iran) to British parents, she grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), married young, had two children, divorced, had another child, then left for England to pursue her literary dreams. She was an iconoclast who railed against racism and sexism, a Catholic who became a Communist, then an anti-Communist, and finally an atheist. Eventually she abandoned all -isms, never apologizing or looking back. It was a life both chilly and inspiring.
In this age of literary careerists panting for praise and prizes, the thing I’ll remember about the free-spirited Lessing was the way she greeted the news that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007. When she climbed out of a taxi in front of her London home and got the big news from a squadron of reporters camped on her front stoop, she said, “Oh, Christ! I couldn’t care less.” Then she added, “The whole thing is so graceless and stupid and bad mannered.”
Oh, Christ, how refreshing!
This list is, by design, selective, but I want to mention a few other noteworthy writers who died in 2013. In alphabetical order they are: the renegade preacher and novelist Will D. Campbell, the biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Ben Cramer, the art critic Arthur C. Danto, the film critics Roger Ebert and Stanley Kauffmann, the historian Stanley Karnow, and the author of young-adult novels Ned Vizzini.
Through your words you will all live on.
Images courtesy of Bill Morris.
Rome is an overwhelming city to live in. A friend, an Early Christianity scholar, walks the cobbled streets with a map from 300 CE in her head. When she looks up and sees a Renaissance palazzo instead of a domus, she has to realign herself to her actual time and place. Like Goethe said, “Rome is such a great school” and once I think I’ve got a grasp on a building, a fresco, a ruin from some time period, it merges with another and I’ve lost it. Because it’s not only my impressions and knowledge I utilize to “read” and understand this city, but also the impressions and knowledge of the hundreds of others who came before me.
When I narrow down Rome to what she molded then fired in the breasts of foreign writers, I’m still overwhelmed. It’s easier to ask the question: What writer has not spent time in Rome? Has not viewed the Forum from the Campidoglio? Has not stood between the embracing arms of Bernini’s colonnade in the Vatican? When approaching Rome from a foreigners’ literary direction, especially in the 19th century, she appears to have been woven into writing’s very process, from germination to production.
Unlike the aged books and dead writers who have come to Rome, current writing by foreigners about or set in Italy tends not to add to my knowledge or interest me. Judging by the bookshelves, Rome has been condensed into a mere repetition of themes: what tasty food, passionate people, beautiful art, ancient ruins, and history! Is that all there is to Rome? Nothing could be further from the truth. Then, I wonder, why do writers tend to jump into the same old rut?
The foreign writers who have spent time in Rome fall into two categories: the Claude Lorrain type, the Romantics, Rome’s idealizers, effulgent singers of history and art; then there are the “realists,” those who see Rome as a city before a museum, who see Romans, not as stereotypically passionate food-driven people, but as people. Many writers fall neatly under the former label, while the others waver to belonging more-or-less in the latter.
The writers’ penchant for romanticizing Rome began with the Grand Tourists and was sublimated by the Romantics: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Goethe. I’m not sure how long Keats can be considered as having lived there, as he spent most of his three months dying. But he is Rome’s most memorialized writer. His house by the Spanish Steps, and his grave in the Protestant Cemetery under the shadow of the pyramid of Cestius, have no doubt contributed to the writer’s image of a Rome for the Romantics. Since 1821, writers have made pilgrimages to the room Keats died in — now a reconstruction — and to the cemetery. Oscar Wilde famously knelt before the slab of stone and declared it, “the holiest place in Rome.” There is a solemnity slinking around these places, a consciousness of tragedy that gratefully resists melodrama because of the greatness of Keats’ poetry.
Later in the 19th century, Victorian writers came bundled snug in their coaches; they rode in through the Porta del Popolo straight down the Corso for a quick round of the Colosseum, then trotted off to the Vatican. At that time, Mussolini’s ostentatious roads didn’t exist — the Via Conciliazione of the Vatican and the Via Fori Imperiali of the Forum and Colosseum — so the gargantuan monuments rose from the narrow spaces between medieval streets. George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Henry James, Dickens, Thackeray, Hans Christen Anderson, Longfellow, Stendhal: all spent time in this city, for a short season or to live. Most of them wrote about Rome, in travel memoirs or fiction. Rome in literature was as hard to avoid as the foreign writers in her streets.
In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote, “What is there in Rome to see that others have not seen before me?” I appreciate his irony where some of his contemporaries tend to bore me. I find it difficult to stomach Henry James in Italian Hours or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun: two flowery versions of the city. Goethe’s Italian Journey riveted me because of his unquenchable curiosity and his quests for understanding Italian flora and fauna, the sculptures and paintings.
Nikolai Gogol came to Rome in 1837. Nabokov wrote in his odd biography, Gogol, “Seeking a kind of relaxation from his own distorted and dreadful and devilish image of the world he pathetically endeavored to cling to the normality of a second-rate painter’s conception of Rome as an essentially ‘picturesque’ place.” Gogol never idealized Ukraine or Russia, but once in Italy, he heaped sweet praises on the tone of the blue sky through the arches of the Colosseum. If Gogol was being too sentimental, his writing did not yet show it. In his apartment on the Via Sistina, Gogol completed the first part of Dead Souls and began the work on the latter two parts that would drive him insane. He also wrote “The Overcoat” and “Nights in a Villa,” a difficult find in English.
Maybe, when Gogol replaced Russia’s dark and snowy winters with the mild Mediterranean climate, when he replaced Northern seriousness with Latin sensuousness and laissez faire, Rome became a welcome elixir. Or were Gogol’s gay observations the first symptoms of the religious fervor and changes of morality that would plague him and his writing until he died of tuberculosis? We’ll never know and neither did Nabokov, who felt betrayed at the commonplace awe of Rome that came out of Gogol’s pen.
Is it possible for a writer to come to Rome without becoming an instant victim to the city? Are writers more sensitive and in tune, therefore more susceptible to swooning over Rome’s charms? They are certainly more verbose about it. Maybe Rome arouses a sense of mortality that is of interest to the writer: the beginning and ends of things are easily conjured with the rubble of a fallen Empire. Or as a writer friend rationalizes her obsession: Rome is a city of empathy.
It can’t be denied, Rome dazzles; the city is a living monument. When I first came to Rome — me, from a family farm outside a small Michigan town — it took two months to admit that I wasn’t going to leave. On the summit of every hill I wiped away maudlin. I went for sunrise walks along the Forum of Augustus and Trajan and though I didn’t have any notions about column chunks or any intimations about an ancient capital city (God bless American education!), I was at its mercy, swept away by those histories and past personalities who had also come to gape at crumbling wonders.
Walking in Rome, at almost every step I have to bend over and collect myself. I can’t ignore the Colosseum when I walk to the grocery store, because the Colosseum, especially at dusk, is vibrantly fortifying. Sometimes, if I keep my sight set on the twilit arena raised before me, everything happening below and around its crumbling arches — the insane traffic billowing black pollution, the restaurant hawkers, the lecherous old men — is rendered as somehow less important, as disconnected in time and place, so that I could be walking towards a gladiatorial game instead of making a very banal run for dinner ingredients.
Writers are only a few out of millions of tourists who stream in and out of Rome each year. Glistening group tour buses careen down slender streets, destroying their shocks on the cobblestones. James Joyce — who did not like the city — said, “Rome reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting his grandmother’s corpse.” Martin Parr’s photography book, Tutta Roma, does a better job than anything I can write of describing the tourist in Rome. Parr’s garishly saturated photos of brightly dressed visitors are a perfect commentary on the hustle of tourism and the difficulty of deep appreciation when marched around in less than a week from one old thing to another. But Tutta Roma is also about how Rome’s ostentatious exhibitionism depends on the impressions of her voyeurs.
An unstoppable interest, alongside romantic clichés, have created ripe ground for the contemporary Italian travel memoir targeted to non-Italians. These memoirs are a long way from Stendhal and Dickens, who at least had a thick background in Latin and the Classics; the worst of them only evoke a surface relationship with Rome by aggravating outdated praises of her features. Two unavoidable books are Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun. These two books wring out Byron’s “Oh Rome! my country! city of my soul!” to produce far more sticky and sickening juices. Italy idealized; Rome as only saturated postcards of photoshopped wonders, Roman Holiday, the singing language, fashionably beautiful people, pasta on a candlelit table with the Quattro Fiumi gurgling in the background: how boring! I suppose there are readers who can’t get enough of that stuff, but I am not one of them.
I also become skeptical when I come across a book written by a foreigner that boasts to unveil the “real” Rome in its blurbs. For some reason, I trust only Italian writers to tell me some nitty-gritty about the city. But a few years ago, I read a book that I thought succinctly crossed the divide: Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous. Amara Lakhous moved to Rome from Algeria in 1995. The plot of Clash of Civilizations revolves around a murder that occurred in a palazzo in multicultural Piazza Vittorio. Through discussions about the murder and the building’s elevator, Lakhous draws a cast of characters that represents varied spheres and personalities of modern Rome. Lakhous calls Piazza Vittorio, “a kind of laboratory for the future, the prototype of intellectual cohabitation.” Piazza Vittorio, a short walk from the Colosseum, can wipe away any romantic preconception of the Eternal City. It is about the only place in Rome where I am more drawn to its diverse people than to an architectural or artistic aesthetic.
Zadie Smith recently spent a year living in the Monti district. She was asked by an interviewer whether we can expect a book such as Room with a View about her time here. She answered: “I guess that’s not the aspect of Italy that interests me. The piazzas and the romance. That’s not Italy – that’s an Englishman’s vision of Italy. I sort of see it more as a speculative fiction place – like, what would happen to England if media regulation disappeared, the BBC went, Murdoch had the terrestrial channels and the fourth estate collapsed? People wrongly believe Italy to be a backward country. Actually Italy is a vision of what’s coming.”
Smith’s answer thrills me as much as Lakhous’ “laboratory of the future.” These forward-reaching writers toss out Mark Twain’s past-bent skepticism. Once one stops looking at the same monuments and paintings, piazzas and churches, sculptures and charming Italians, then a Rome opens up that has not yet been discovered, and that is an observation that I greatly appreciate in this city of the well-trodden.
Living in the center of Rome, the past becomes an active part of my present. The past — and its repetitions of beauty and grandeur — cannot be stripped from the city; but neither is my perspective bound to a single interpretation. Eight years ago I came to Rome then stayed. Since then, its cityscape has worked into me without losing much of its first impact. As much as I don’t want to lose my sense of wonder, I don’t want to sound like a broken record when I write about this city that I have tenuously begun to call home. Sometimes I wish I had been born with Jean-Paul Sartre’s eyes, able to see the bare part of everything. But I have always had to learn and to experiment and fail, and then, finally, I am better able see the thing for what it is.
My friend, whom I mentioned in the first paragraph, experiences a day-to-day Rome that is more than what it seems. There are old stories galore in the streets, told by the history books, the Victorian and Romantic writers. But there are also new stories, and that is the Rome I want to uncover, and to be uncovered.
Image credit: Simon Griffee
Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels. I am prone to the use of superlatives, fits of florid enthusiasm, and weeping, so I have dozens of favorite novels, songs, and movies. I also have a lot of mortal enemies (mostly from the parking lot) and several best friends. Both my cats are my favorite. There are so many things to love (and loathe). Let’s say that I am catholic with my affections.
The people in Brideshead Revisited are also Catholic with their affections, but for them it means something different, namely that they are crazy. Or not crazy, exactly, but capable of nuances of feeling, infinitely tied to a class and place and time, that seem no longer to be part of anyone’s emotional spectrum. These feelings do not register on the brute psychic seismographs of today; they require some exquisite baroque device, ancient but extraordinarily sensitive, sitting under a drop cloth in a crumbling country estate. I think this is why we must read novels; we need them to exercise emotional muscles rendered vestigial by work, or poverty, or Real Housewives of Bachelor Island.
For all that I cannot quite grasp the inevitability of breaking up with one’s lover because, ostensibly, my lapsed-Catholic father crossed himself upon his deathbed and I inherited an enormous mansion and all of the servants and furniture, I find so much to love in Waugh’s superb style that it doesn’t matter. It’s the same way with A Room With A View–I don’t understand why everyone gets so mad when they run off at the end, but I find it a delicious, uplifting read nonetheless.
In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh, relaxing some of the savage facetiousness of his earlier novels, allows himself to get emotional, without sacrificing a pungent sardonicism. I’ve read Decline and Fall and A Handful or Dust, and I recall them as being comic but brittle; Brideshead Revisited has laughs, but is full of a sincerity which palpitates my overwrought heart. To view the progression in his oeuvre in modern terms, Waugh is like an emotionally unavailable love interest, who wounds with bitter jokes and soothes with mixtapes and your own endless optimism. And then one day he stops messing about with humorous Tumblrs, writes the great American blog, gets a tattoo of your face, and says he wants a baby. In sum, Evelyn Waugh is your bi-curious hipster boyfriend. Maybe modern life has its own incomprehensible manners and modes of feeling.
Brideshead Revisited is mostly about things being over. Waugh embellishes his story of Charles Ryder’s lost love (Sebastian) and lost lover (Julia) with lost buildings (stuffed with soldiers, pulled down to make blocks of flats), lost generations (blown up by mortar or age, replaced by the hapless Officer Hooper), and lost lineage (the male line stymied by a déclassée widow, the great house going to the girl). Even Charles himself, an architectural painter of country houses and jungle ruins, is the chronicler of things going and gone. Like Anthony Powell, Waugh meditates on the intersection of personal and cultural loss, although each writer’s sense of humor saves his respective work from maudlin, lost-empire ruminations.
Still, out of all this wreckage, language survives–beautiful, deliberately old-fashioned language:
He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long-forgotten sounds–for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.
Language, survives, and another thing. I don’t know why Waugh’s cast of largely unlovable characters compels me so; they are snobbish and emotionally bankrupt, unkind to one another and alienating in their privilege. But there is an obscure something in Waugh’s elegant prose that makes it greater than itself, something that breathes a real and honest sentiment into his flawed flock. Waugh names the something “a small red flame–a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs . . . I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.”
It’s my vague understanding that Brideshead Revisited is supposed to be Waugh’s conversion novel, which would make this strange, value-added something Religion, or Jesus or somebody. But religion at its best is simply a permutation of love, and love, squandered and thwarted and disappointed as it is, animates Waugh’s characters and his story. I think Brideshead Revisited is a love story, and one that even dares, for all its urbane weariness, to believe in the remote possibility of a happy ending. Maybe it’s my own sentimental organ getting the better of me, projecting romance and Jeremy Irons onto fallow ground. Even if that is the case, with Brideshead Revisited, Waugh joins Philip Larkin, that other bitter wit and chronicler of loss, in proving “Our almost-instinct almost true/ What will survive of us is love.”
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.