Stranger Among the Plants

There are times when I have an idea or desire that leads me to think I must be a little bit crazy. And then I read something in a work of literature, any kind of literature, where someone says they have same idea or desire. And I stop and read it again and at least I know that I am not alone in my craziness.

This experience is one of the treasures of the reading literature. And when the person who has written this confirming statement is a highly regarded poet or writer or commentator, then I can be sure that I’m not yet ready for the loony bin.

Recently at the New York Review of Books Blog, Charles Simic, former US Poet Laureate, wrote about the imaginary snapshots he has taken as he walks around the busy streets of the city. Mostly they are images of attractive women. This is the way it is for me, as well. Simic writes:

Here is a tall, well-dressed young woman with a look of utter despair in her eyes and an incongruous smile on her lips. In the next instant, she’s gone and we forget her as we busy ourselves with other things, except she may reappear later that day to haunt us, or in a month, or even years after, like some snapshot we found in the shoebox in the attic that we can’t stop looking at because we no longer remember who that person in it was or when or where it was taken.

It was the intensity of her gaze that caught my attention. She wasn’t looking at me rather it was the plants at the nursery where I found myself one day. She never looked up as she moved from one table of seedlings to the next, in search of a good specimen, reading the labels, I don’t know what else. She was relatively thin, with medium length black hair, streaked with gray. She must have been around fifty or so and she was married or had been.

Everything she was wearing was black—slacks, shirt, lightweight coat. From time to time she brushed the strands of her hair back behind her ears in that appealing sweep that women perform. I thought she was beautiful, obviously thoughtful, with a finely sculpted face. I imagined she was well educated, maybe an attorney or a writer.

I was fairly certain she was well read or hoped she was. I wanted her to smile, just once please. Where did she live? What did her voice sound like? How could I ever meet her? Would she rebuff me? Never once did she look up and by chance catch my eye.

Often I have experiences like this. Again I wonder if they bespeak of some kind of malady? Or is it fairly common among men and perhaps women too of my age or any age? Again Simic comes to my rescue.

Fifty years ago sitting in Washington Square park one warm spring day, I overheard a story on this very subject. Two old men were chatting about different kinds of women they knew in their life, and the various way in which they drove both of them crazy, when one said that his father told him before he died that the most beautiful woman he ever saw in his life was getting off the Staten Island Ferry just as he was getting on. Their eyes met and that was it. His father even remembered the exact date and the time of day, which as I recall was in the month of May in 1910.

Simic admits he carries around a collection of such random images and suggests they are kind of unintended autobiography of others too. One of the “others” is the poet Baudelaire, for whom he offers a link to three alternative translations of his poem À une passante. Here is one:

A Passer-by
The deafening street roared on. Full, slim, and grand
In mourning and majestic grief, passed down
A woman, lifting with a stately hand
And swaying the black borders of her gown;
Noble and swift, her leg with statues matching;
I drank, convulsed, out of her pensive eye,
A livid sky where hurricanes were hatching,
Sweetness that charms, and joy that makes one die.
A lighting-flash — then darkness! Fleeting chance
Whose look was my rebirth — a single glance!
Through endless time shall I not meet with you?
Far off! too late! or never! — I not knowing
Who you may be, nor you where I am going —
You, whom I might have loved, who know it too!


The Other Man

I am currently reading Flights of Love, a collection of short stories by Bernhard Schlink, the author of The Reader. And while I am reading the third story, The Other Man, I am wondering if I have read this before. I am certain I haven’t. Yet it seems so familiar.

The story describes a marriage between a man, whose name we never learn, and his wife, Lisa, who is dying of cancer. After her death, a letter arrives for Lisa from a man called Rolf. It is brief, he reads it and discovers it is from her former lover. Later he discovers a batch of letters written by Lisa and her lover over the long years of their affair

The letters unnerve the man. He thought Lisa was happy with him, happy in their marriage. “But now nothing was self-evident any longer.” He had believed everything was fine with his family but now he realizes he had probably only been deluding himself.

He begins to reply to the other man’s letters as if Lisa was still alive and for a while he, as Lisa, and Rolf carry on the exchange this way. Eventually he decides to visit the other man’s town and in due course tracks him down. They begin to meet in a café where they play chess and become friends of a sort.

He discovers the other man lives in a decrepit basement hovel and is really nothing but an impoverished braggadocio, a pretentious dandy, who lives on the generosity of others. He now understands why there was nothing left of Lisa’s inheritance. How could Lisa have preferred “this loser to him?"

Eventually he identifies himself as Lisa’s husband. The other man begins borrowing money from him. A letter arrives indicating Lisa will be visiting his town with the orchestra in which she plays first violin. The other man plans a reception for her but soon thereafter learns that she has died.

Nevertheless, he holds the reception anyway and delivers an eloquent speech praising Lisa’s performance of a Haydn’s string quartet. Her husband realizes that “the beauty he praised contained within it not only a higher truth, but a robust one.”

It was not that Lisa had been happy with the other man while being unhappy with him, nor had she been happier with the other man than with him. Lisa had shared her happiness in a variety of ways, had both happily received and happily given to others. The happiness she had given was not a lesser one, it was exactly the happiness to which his ponderous and peevish heart could open. She had held nothing back from him. She had given everything he had been capable of taking.

The story ends as the husband gets back on the train home. He would wake up, see the sun, hear the birds, feel the breeze, and it would all come back to him and it would be all right.

And then suddenly, as the story comes to an end, it dawns on me. With a few modern variations, this is the same tale enacted in the movie The Other Man that I saw on a DVD a few months ago. The film is clearly adapted from Schlink’s short story. What took me so long to recognize the relationship?

The movie featured Liam Neeson, now a computer software wizard, as the husband, Laura Linney, now a designer of elegant shoes, as Lisa and Antonio Banderas, still the same con artist, as the other man. They are all fine actors. Yet the movie is scarcely known with only a few reviews on the Web. It was never shown in my hometown but then it isn’t really a great film town anyway. I don’t know if it was shown anywhere for that matter. And Roger Ebert, who I always look to for cinema insights, had nothing to say about this one.

No matter, cordial thanks to Netflix and Bernhard Schlink and to the staff at The Paperback Exchange in Florence who very kindly brought me these versions of the story and its elemental truth.


Role of Place in Literature

In Florence I begin to wonder about the role of place in literature. So many writers have come to this city--Montaigne, Shelly, Byron, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Henry James, George Eliot, Goethe, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Dostoevsky.

Some settled here for long periods, others stayed for only a short time during their travels, and many have returned time and time again. More often than not they come to Italy and to this city in Tuscany to escape the cold, damp areas of the North and for some hoping that its sun and warmth will cure them of some ailment, primarily tuberculosis. However, once winter arrives in Tuscany they very quickly learn it can be as bitterly cold and damp here as it is in the North

How has living in Florence affected their writing? Would they have written differently had they remained in the city they left? If being here influences their work, does that depend on how long they stay?

Lawrence Durrell wrote, “What makes a “big book” is surely as much to do with their site as their characters and incidents." Eudora Welty agreed that, “fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?”

We know that Florence has been the setting of the many of the writers who have come here. One need only think of Forster’s A Room With a View:

“It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not, with a painted ceiling…It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine, with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.” Yes, very pleasant!

But what we really want to know is whether or not being here shaped their style or turned them in a new direction or solved a writerly problem they were facing. In general, is being here a source of literary inspiration?

Albeit a single example, I think the clearest answer to this question is provided by Dostoevsky, who came to Florence for the second time in 1868, then to escape the “damp and cold of Milan, where he and his wife [Anna] had been living for two months.”

In her Reminiscences Anna records how thrilled Dostoevsky was to be in Florence and that he was working productively on The Idiot. Yet, it did not take him long to realize there is more to writing than being in this benign place. He soon began to miss his friends or any form of congenial company. Anna writes in Reminiscences:

We did not know a single soul in Florence with whom we could talk, argue, joke, exchange reactions. Around us all were strangers, and sometimes hostile ones; and this total isolation from people was sometimes difficult to bear.

And in a letter to his niece, Dostoevsky wrote: I cannot write here. For that I must be in Russia without fail, must see, hear and take a direct part in Russian life; where’s here I am losing even the possibility of writing, since I lack both the essential material, namely Russian reality…and the Russian people.

Then the summer arrived and he and Anna found it almost unbearable to deal with ever increasing heat of this city. Some people seem to thrive in hot weather. Apparently Dostoevsky was not one of them for he found it almost impossible to write under such “hellish” conditions.

At other times he felt differently. When the sun shines, it is almost Paradise. Impossible to imagine anywhere more beautiful than this sky, this air, this light.

In A Literary Companion to Florence, a rich source of information for this post, Francis King claims that Dostoevsky not only completed The Idiot in Florence, “but also began the gestation of The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov.”

Let us just say, then, that being here in this Tuscan town can offer some writers a comfortable place to work and sometimes give spark to their work. But that these sparks can occur just about anywhere, regardless of place and climate.

The life that Dostoyevsky led in Russia gave him a subject matter that ultimately led to his masterpieces. However, he did not have to be there to write them, at least, not all of the time. Eventually, he needed to return to the source of his tales. And while he did not write novels about the people or places he knew in Florence, he was able to write well while he was here, but only if it wasn’t too hot.

In answer to the general question about the role of place in literature, let us conclude that, as with all general literary questions, there are no general answers. Place has a role, but its role is highly variable and dependent on so many other factors that is impossible to disentangle its effects from all the others that influence a writer.


Live from Florence

In these years he most often planned to go to Italy. He would look forward to the time when he had finished a book or a group of stories and he would be free. These plans were so much a part of his existence that he forgot them, changed them, remade them without consultation or hesitation. —Colm Toibin, The Master

I am staying now in the Oltrarno (other side of the Arno) area of Florence that according to one commentator is the most florentine and greenest parts of the historical center and where the real old and new florentines live, shop, eat and have fun.

Stretching from the Ponte Vecchio to the equally well-known Palazzo Pitti and adjacent Boboli Gardens, this neighborhood is among the most beautiful in Florence. It is also the hippest and most alive, especially around the Piazza Santo Spirito (a block from my apartment) encircled by cafes, “bars,” restaurants, shops, and where so many of the artisans in this city live.

Most of the following “pictures” are selected from my Italian Fragments published in Issue One, Travel Fragments at FragLit.

The Past
I am engulfed by history in Florence. Something extraordinary happened here during the Renaissance. How did it happen? Leonardo, Michelangelo, Galileo, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli, the Medicis—all working together, sometimes across the street from one another.

Many of the buildings date from the Renaissance and before. Some are beautiful palazzos or civic buildings, meticulously preserved and thoroughly modernized within. Others are still quite shabby and in need of repair. At first, I am put off by this. But then I am actually back in time, several hundred years. Wandering about the commune then, not now. In the country, the homes and public buildings are painted the most delightful shades of orange, yellow and pink. There are no gray buildings in Tuscany.

On every street there are many small shops, each selling only a few items. The pattern is repeated in the next block, as well as on the next street over. So everything you need—bread, fruit and vegetables, a book, hardware, an espresso—is close to where you live. You go from place to place, as I do with the florentines, gathering the things you need. And along the way, you exchange a few and sometimes many words with the people you know—that is, if they are not already chatting with someone else.

In every town there is a central square and many smaller ones. They vibrate with talk and music and the activity of the surrounding banks, restaurants, bookshops, churches, artisans and whoever else is fortunate enough to be there. The piazza is the heart of an Italian town and brings a sense of community to those who live there. It is the place to go and to be seen. For many it is their “Third Place.”

Here in Italy I am thrown back upon myself like nowhere else. There is no one to talk to. No one I can understand. No one tries to talk with me. The phone never rings. I think this is what it must be like in paradise. There are people everywhere. But you cannot speak to any of them.

Smoking & Talking
Not everyone smokes, but far more do in Italy than in the USA. And as you walk down the streets, you are struck by the large number of men and women of all ages puffing away. Or babbling on their cell phones which are also more prevalent in public areas than in the USA. People engage in animated conversations on the streets, in restaurants, in hotel elevators--everywhere. Yesterday I saw a man with a cell phone in each hand, talking alternatively with the two callers and moments later a woman came speeding by on her Vespa, trying to steer with one hand, while the other was gripping her cell phone as she was fully engaged in a conversation.

It is not surprising that Italians are so musical. It comes with the language. When Italians speak to one another they virtually sing, with a rhythm and gesture that is slightly operatic. Soon the words echo in your mind, although you haven't the vaguest idea what they mean. I doubt it would be difficult to learn Italian. It was not long before I found myself quite unexpectedly speaking an Italian word or phrase in a perfectly appropriate way. When most Italians talk, their hands are usually waving wildly, as if they were conducting an overture. I suspect that if you tied up their hands, they would simply be unable to utter a word.

Where did we go wrong? Where did we go wrong in America? I think it is the scale of things. You see that so clearly here in Florence, where everything is so much smaller than in the USA. The buildings are only a few stories high, at most. The stores are often nothing more than living room size. They sell only a few products and are ubiquitous throughout the commune. It is interesting that Florence has always been known as the commune, the community. It is really a community of small neighborhoods. The streets are very narrow, often barely wide enough for a small car. There are no broad highways crisscrossing Florence. I think that has made an enormous difference. Traffic is forbidden now in the central areas. The ancient cities were not designed for anything like the automobile. At times there is simply not enough room on the street for both car and pedestrian. Indeed, there is often a little fight for survival when the two meet. In a word, this city was designed to be lived in by human beings. I don't know who the cities in our country were designed for.

On the Language
Robert Penn Warren once said that he liked to write in a foreign country “where the language is not your own and you are forced into yourself in a special way.” A Paris Review interviewer asked Tobias Wolff: You’re just back from seven months in Rome. Why were you there?

Wolff replies: I had immediate reason for going. It wasn’t to do research. I speak some Italian, but living in a country where I can’t be completely aware of what people are saying around me puts this sort of bubble around the head, in which, for a time, not indefinitely, I find I’m able to work with more than the usual concentration and joy. I like not having a car, living in the center of a city where you can walk everywhere. All the errands that seem to consume one’s life become very few and you find yourself with great stretches of time for reading, wandering, and yes, working…it takes the rust off.


Nuggets on the Web

Wolfram Alpha
The quest for new search engines continues. Have a look at the recently developed Wolfram Alpha computational search engine. It provides results that are radically different than the standard search engines. An introductory video will make it clear what it can and can’t do. Testing it for a while both surprised and disappointed me.

Peaceful Coexistence
Are you thinking of buying a Kindle, an iPad, a Nook or any of the other e-readers that are about to make the scene? Does the temptation to buy one of these gadgets keep you awake at night? Or are you content to stay with the good, old-fashioned printed page? Anuradha Raja will help you to resolve this dilemma.

Traveling Books
If people are not going to the library or bookstore anymore, why not bring the books to them? In Argentina, a tank has been converted to a traveling bookmobile and in Chicago a generous soul travels around the city in his Book Bike giving books away to local book lovers. Bookmobiles are not exactly new but they do change the “business models.”

To Prove or Disprove?
Is it better to seek evidence that supports your views or contradicts them? I was raised by Karl Popper to believe that being wrong is the better method. So has Kathryn Schulz whose book Being Wrong is on my list to read. If you are only reading romance novels this summer, you can see her talk about the book or write about it at the Boston Globe.


Updike's Last Collection

I am sure John Updike, who died last year at the age of 76, never stopped writing until his last breadth. In his final volume of short stories, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, he does what every person his age does—reminiscences and ruminates about all those days “back then,” the process of growing old, and its miseries, if you will.

Updike always wrote ambivalently about the marriages and affairs of the people and places where he lived—rural Pennsylvania and suburban Massachusetts. Here they are viewed with a certain resignation and an increasing awareness of the imminence of death. If I can read this strange old guy’s mind right, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned. The world is being tended to, I can let go of it, it doesn’t need me.

Most of the stories in his last collection begin with the circumstances of his protagonist’s current life, a life when he is no longer young and frisky and then gradually slide into a recollection of some long-past event or person.

In Personal Archeology, the second in the collection, Craig Martin, finding himself idle on several acres of his Massachusetts land, begins to wonder about the traces left by its prior owners. Soon he begins to ponder his … increasing isolation—elderly golfing buddies dead or dying, his old business contacts fraying, no office to go to, his wife always off at her bridge or committees, his children as busy and preoccupied as he himself had been in middle age…

The realization that he is rarely invited anywhere now transports him back to the lively weekend parties that often led him astray: There were in fact two simultaneous parties, two layers of party—the overt layer, where they discussed, as adults, local politics, national issues (usually involving Richard Nixon), their automobiles and schools for their children, zoning boards and home renovations, and the covert layer, where men and women communicated with eye-glance and whisper, hand-squeeze and excessive hilarity.

Updike then returns Martin to his current marriage and the conversations that sometimes shook its foundations. I’d give anything not to have married you,” Grace sometimes said, when angry or soulful…”I shouldn’t tell you this, but at times I think I hate you.”… That’s what we’ve become, a show. All our married life, we’ve been a show.

But now viewing these exchanges from some distance Martin saluted the utterance as honest, gouged with effort from the compacted accumulation of daily pretence and accommodation. He reflects, As well as love one another we hate one another, and even ourselves.

And then there are the women, the wives and mistresses that often played such a central role in Updike’s fiction who are brought back to life once again in these stories. In The Full Glass a retired insurance salesman recalls a stolen day-off from work when he was with a woman who was not his wife. With his characteristic descriptive detail, Updike writes: Being with this woman made my blood feel carbonated. She wore a broad-shouldered tweedy fall outfit I had never seen before; its warm brown color, flecked with pimento red, set off her thick auburn hair, done up loosely in a twist behind--in my memory, when she turned her head to look through the windshield with me, whole loops of it had escaped the tortoiseshell hair clip.

This is soon followed by, …what I remember is being with her in the interior of the car, proudly conscious of the wealth of her hair and the width of her smile and the breadth of her hips…

These two stories reflect the themes that are reprised in many of the eighteen stories in this collection. There is a present, a once was, and then an understanding that comes with age.

Even though he was nearing eighty, Updike still had his touch. While admitting it’s all downhill at his age and seeing each day in the mirror his multiplying white hairs, his deepening wrinkles, and feel his shortness of breath after exertion, his stiffness after sitting too long in a chair or a car, there is nothing in these stories that strikes me as much different than those he wrote when he was on the upward slope, during a time that he thought the world owed me happiness.

For anyone close to Updike’s age these stories ring true. We brood about the past, experiences unexpectedly come to mind that unsettle us for days, we recall individuals who we have forgotten about for decades. Whatever happened to X? Is he still as clever as he was then? Is Y still as lovely as I found her then? Are S and A still married? Who would have guessed all this was coming?


Ciao from Italy

Florence is “earthly” heaven to me because I experience it, and long for it, more fully than I do any other place. David Leavitt

After a lapse of several years I have come to Florence once again. This time I have returned for a break and to recharge the muse if she will still have me. Of course, I have come back for the sun and for the warmth and quite simply just to be here, here in this place that never is without a surprise—an undiscovered piazza, a chanced upon gallery, a trattoria that I never knew was just around the block

It an article in the Times several years ago Susan Jacoby wrote of the same feeling I have each time I return.

But Florence feels like home, or rather, like what might have been home had I chosen a very different life when I was young. I know Florence well enough to know where to buy paper towels and cheap flowers, well enough to face a dental emergency with equanimity, well enough to be greeted with recognition (or feigned recognition, which amounts to the same thing) by certain shopkeepers and restaurant proprietors. I have never spent an uninteresting day in this city, never experienced small vicissitudes or deeper sorrows that could not be ameliorated by contact with the noble civilization of these stony streets.

I went to my favorite market yesterday to gather a few supplies. The lady who normally greeted me wasn’t there. I wondered if it was here day off or if she had moved on. And the newsstand where I went each morning to get the Herald Tribune had vanished. Things change I guess, even in Florence, where change always seems to be running in slow motion.

However, most everything else seemed to be as it always is. In his book The City of Florence, C. Lewis wrote, We became familiar soon enough with the best-known sites and monuments--….To these returned time and time again, as to old friends always there to be looked up and, as it were, chatted with after a period of absence.

In the Prologue to this volume Lewis expresses many of my own feelings about being here:

All we knew was that we helplessly loved the place, and did not pause to ask why….

Florence was where we were most contentedly living, and where I was working—on something entirely unrelated to Tuscany.

The life and look of Florence were composed of strikingly different elements— differing shapes and styles from historical periods over many centuries—that nonetheless fitted together, lived together, spoke to each other.

It is the city itself—the city understood as a self; as a whole, a miraculously developed design. It is the city as what Italians call an insieme, an all-of-it-together.

I’ve been walking everywhere, out and about in the sun. Previously I had written: Where did we go wrong? Where did we go wrong in America? I think it is the scale of things. You see that so clearly here in Florence, where everything is so much smaller than in the US. The buildings are only a few stories high, at most. The stores are often nothing more than living room size. They sell only a few products and are ubiquitous throughout the commune.

It is interesting that Florence has always been known as the commune, the community. It is really a community of small neighborhoods. The streets are very narrow. There are no broad highways crisscrossing Florence. I think that has made an enormous difference. The ancient cities were not designed for anything like the automobile. At times there is simply not enough room on the street for both car and pedestrian. Indeed, there is often a little fight for survival when the two meet. In a word, this city was designed to be lived in by human beings. I don't know who the cities in our country were designed for.

David Leavitt in In Maremma, co-authored with Mark Mitchell, wrote, After living in the Italian countryside, Florence seems more “the city” than any other metropolitan place in the world: more than New York, more than Rome, more than Hong Kong. Paradoxically, it seems this way because it is made to the measure of man—one can walk there.