This year at the Academy I have been working on a historical novel about Walt Whitman, in addition to a couple of stories and an unplanned, mammoth essay about expatriate writers in Rome and Venice and how artistic creativity is shaped by disorientation and displacement. The essay is informed by my experiences in Italy, which have helped me define and explore myself as a writer.
The following is a brief excerpt from this essay-in-progress:
Italy used to be where the well heeled and rudderless, the consumptive and the unattached, went to die. The Protestant Cemetery in Rome is full of them. Some died of fever or mishap; some took their own lives; others were already dying when they arrived. It was a place of dissipation and last gasps, a burial ground for people who belonged nowhere and to no one. Against a backdrop of relics and ruins they wandered. They were moved by what they saw. They were striving to be moved. But by coming at all, they had already made the choice to turn their backs on the future, to confront the origin myths of art and civilization and religion, as if in a fatalistically clear-eyed, eleventh-hour reckoning. They came to stare down the stony immortal patriarch, to solve the mystery of their foundational, primeval paternity, to claim heir to some fabled collective memory before they died.
There is another other myth of Italy, less morbid but equally sentimental: that of the scenic backdrop for self-actualization. It worked for the German writer Goethe, who recovered from a nervous breakdown in Rome, looking at art and hiding from star-fuckers. Fictionally, the perception of Italy as a rustic refuge may have first entered the collective consciousness via E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View and its portrayal of Tuscany as a sun-drenched oasis of sensualism, a destination for well-bred Anglos to dissolve their inhibitions. Assisting them in this task are lusty natives whose collective life-force is as uncompromised and unreflective and brutal as a swift current, whether they’re smacking their moist lips at a ball of fresh mozzarella or stabbing a friend over a 5-lire dispute. Henry James perpetuated this in Italian Hours, in which he regards the architecture, history and topography of the country as far more worthy of intellectual and emotional engagement than its vexing post-unification natives and their penchant for modernizing Rome’s roads, erecting new monuments, and limping around major sites with their hands outstretched, pretending to be crippled. In both books, direct interaction with Italians is negligible; all foreigners are securely tied, no matter where their wanderings take them, to an expatriate colony: the Cockney pension in Florence, the cluster of American villas in Palazzo Barbieri, the floating palaces of shabby-genteel exiles in Venice. The natives are an undifferentiated mass of local color and ancillary muscle; whether gondoliers, carriage drivers, or florid produce salesmen, they are noble savages or impish jesters, childishly inscrutable, with a child’s crude and transparent guile.