“Melville fell in love with the dashingly handsome older author the first time they met, and his forbidden passion drove him to create the symbol of impossible longing that now represents American literature to the rest of the world: the white whale.” On Herman Melville’s love for Nathaniel Hawthorne. Pair with a review of Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun.
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
Has there ever been another writer of dark, morbid, surrealistic fiction who is as warm and humane as Nathaniel Hawthorne? I just finished reading The Marble Faun, his final novel, and what struck me is how much he cares about the people in the story, how fully he feels their isolation and estrangement. From Poe to Kafka, from Melville to W. G. Sebald, alienation and the uncanny have usually come to us with a chill, a coldness that questions not only the nature of human relationships but even the possibility of them. So it was a shock to read this surprisingly rich story about alienated friends and lovers, who are eventually drawn closer to each other by the very coldness that has separated them during their heightened, trancelike experiences.
The Marble Faun was published in 1860, and it’s very different from anything in Hawthorne’s famous earlier novels – The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance. It deals with expatriates in Rome, and is generally considered the start of the “Americans in Europe” genre that Henry James would later develop.
It’s not a ghost story, and doesn’t draw much on the old gothic elements that Jane Austen, for instance, parodies in Northanger Abbey. The eerie, imaginative side of The Marble Faun comes less from the events than from the alertness Hawthorne brings to his characters’ perceptions. The novel is surreal largely because Hawthorne sees the world with disorienting vividness:
There is a singular effect, oftentimes, when out of the midst of engrossing thought and deep absorption, we suddenly look up, and catch a glimpse of external objects. We seem, at such moments, to look farther and deeper into them, than by premeditated observation; it is as if they met our eyes alive, and with all their hidden meaning on the surface, but grew again inanimate and inscrutable, the instant that they become aware of our glances.
This is a good description of how the novel works. Hawthorne catches his characters at the moments when they “look farther and deeper” into their surroundings, and then at the opposite moments when they feel everything grow “inanimate and inscrutable.” He is masterful at describing the psychology of guilt, the texture that despair can give to every detail. As part of this texture, he also excels at showing how the same street or statue or room can mean different things to different people at different times. Often the settings and the characters seem to seep into each other, merging and then coming apart.
The story revolves around a murder and its impact on the four main characters. Two American artists – the sculptor Kenyon and the copyist Hilda – become friends with the painter Miriam and a young Italian man, Donatello. Characteristically, Hawthorne describes Miriam, the novel’s heroine, as a walking illusion:
She resembled one of those images of light, which conjurors evoke and cause to shine before us, in apparent tangibility, only an arm’s length beyond our grasp; we make a step in advance, expecting to seize the illusion, but find it still precisely so far out of reach.
Nearly everything about Miriam’s past is unknown, and many important questions about her remain unanswered at the novel’s end. She has taken up a new identity in Rome after some unspecified involvement in some obscure crime. Hawthorne refuses to ever clear up the mystery, and pretends at one critical point not to know what Miriam is discussing with a monk who has started to follow her around the city.
Eventually, Donatello kills this monk because he thinks the man is persecuting Miriam and deserves to die. The murder – as impulsive and ambiguous as Billy Budd’s murder of Claggart – sets in motion the novel’s vision of guilt and despair passing from one person to another. Anticipating The Brothers Karamazov, Hawthorne creates a situation where everyone ultimately feels responsible for the murder, and where guilt spreads so wide and deep that nobody remains innocent.
Hawthorne traces the course of this guilt as it moves through the characters. The Marble Faun uses many of the techniques we find in self-consciously experimental fiction: unexpected time shifts, deliberately misleading narration, elaborate literary references, labyrinthine ambiguities, a constant awareness of conflicting viewpoints. Yet while reading the novel I never thought of it in these terms, because Hawthorne is so focused on using his techniques to deepen our understanding of the characters. It’s essential that the history of Miriam’s earlier guilt remain unclear, for instance, because this is how she experiences the past – she’s no longer able to say where her innocence ends and her responsibility begins. Similarly, Hilda develops a bizarre sense of complicity in the monk’s murder, even though all she did was witness it from a distance.
Hawthorne involves us in these changes with lavish conviction. I simply hadn’t expected the emotional and psychological fullness that the novel brings to the transformations of Miriam and Hilda and Donatello. The paradox of The Marble Faun is that it’s the most nihilistic of Hawthorne’s books at the same time as it’s the warmest and most sympathetic. The characters work their way towards each other through their worst encounters with desolation and self-doubt. As Melville recognized, Hawthorne is one of the great writers of negation. He is peerless at dramatizing darkness and loneliness and evil. Everyone in The Marble Faun becomes lost, wandering in destructive and hopeless alienation. Each character suffers from “an insatiable instinct that demands friendship, love, and intimate communication, but is forced to pine in empty forms; a hunger of the heart, which finds only shadows to feed upon.”
The novel offers no easy hope, no simple consolation. Miriam never escapes her guilt. Donatello goes to prison. Hilda’s doubts about her innocence and the darkness of the world stay with her forever. Yet the final paradox is that all the characters come together in their loneliness, and are united in their separation. They still have “only shadows to feed upon,” but they know this about each other, and they do their best to see beyond their individual tragedies and to share whatever comfort they can. Hawthorne loves them for this, and loves them for salvaging their humanity even after they’ve been broken by their nightmarish personal failures, and by the wild, irrational malevolence that haunts all the story’s events. The Marble Faun is intellectually rigorous in its refusal to surrender to the temptations of sentimentality, and emotionally rigorous in its even stronger refusal to surrender to the temptations of cynicism and despair.