A Room With a View

All we knew was that we helplessly loved the place, and did not pause to ask why. C. Lewis The City of Florence

The apartment I’ve rented this year in Florence is located on the Lungarno Grazie, not far from the historical center of Florence. From its tall windows, I look out at the Arno, the hills across the way, dotted with trees and villas.

Higher up, I see the Piazza Michelangelo with is panoramic view of the entire city of Florence, the Brunelleschi’s Dumo and Giotto’s bell tower.

Even further up the hill is the Basilica of San Minato al Monte at one of the highest points in the city and is among the most beautiful churches in Italy.

On the other side of the Arno, down a few blocks, is a beautiful park, where I take a picnic lunch to each day.

It was always difficult, she said, to come home. She adored Italy. Apart from everything else, it was one of the few places where one’s hopes for the future could be restored. Beautiful, unspoiled fields and hills. Great houses that families had lived in for five hundred years. It was deeply consoling. Also the general sweetness of the people. James Salter All That Is


Two Italian Tales

The ending of Marco Vichi’s, Death in Florence was such a letdown. I was hoping for a happy one. Fifty-six year old Inspector Bordelli did not capture the culprits of the crime he was investigating.

The young boy who had been missing for days was killed. Two of those involved committed suicide. Two others began their own vendetta. His young lover leaves him after an excruciating experience, for which he had not taken steps to prevent. He turns in his badge and Beretta and retires to the countryside. He has failed, failed his lover, himself and colleagues.

The novel takes place in 1966, the year of the massive floods that ruined parts of the city of Florence and its historic treasures. The streets were filled with mud and the litter of the rampaging Arno. The rain never stopped. Food was scare, so was water, there was no electricity, heat or telephone communication.

The city seemed ruined. Bodcelli was ruined. And the pleasure I had in reading the novel left me somewhat ruined too. It will pass for me. But not for Inspector Bordelli. “He didn’t feel like asking himself any more pointless questions. It made no sense. He should let whatever happened happen.” He was alone again.

“…the nobility and greatness that are at times hidden within mental illness.”

Giuseppe Pardo was an Italian Pardo, a leader of Jewish individuals in the community of Pisa. He lived there at the time of Nazi Germany’s occupation of the country during World War II.

Silvano Arieti, now an American psychiatrist, also lived in Pisa then and was a member of the Pardo’s synagogue and a close friend. Arieti describes Pardo’s life in The Parnas, A Scene from the Holocaust.

It’s a short book, primarily focused on Pardo’s great fear of animals, especially dogs whenever he went outside. The origin of his serious phobia is unknown and, while Arieti attempts to give a psychoanalytic interpretation, it isn’t very persuasive.

“I am constantly in a state of expectation that animals will come after me, jump on me, bite me, torture me, or even kill me.”

Arieti makes clear that Pardo was at his best, quite normal, with the group of individuals who gathered in his home. “No trace of his illness remained in him when he was with them. He was no longer the afflicted man, but a much respected person…” This was particularly true of the young people who were part of his group and with whom he engaged in debates both as leader and peer.

What’s important in Arieti’s account is that Pardo refused to leave his home for a safer place as the Nazis retreated from the advancing American troops and began to wreck havoc on the towns in Italy they left. Eventually they discovered Pardo and remaining friends, all of whom were killed during a Nazi raid.

“Am I more afraid of my illness than of the Nazis? Is that all there is in this matter and no more? Had I not been ill, probably I would had left.”


Recycling in Florence

Not so long ago in Florence, you took your trash to big containers somewhere near your home or apartment. If neither of these were nearby, you simply tied the trash bag as tightly as you could and left it outside the door, where the collectors who routinely drove through the neighborhood would pick it up.

There isn’t anything like the big trucks that drive through the major metropolitan areas of this country to collect the trash and now some recyclables. In Florence the streets were never designed for trucks or for cars either.

It depresses me every time I realize what the cities of America were designed for.

However, throughout Florence now you begin to see these nifty recycling/trash collection containers. There are three types--one for organic materials, one for non-recyclables and one for recyclables.

A set of these containers is located just across the Arno from my apartment. A short walk across the Ponte Alle Grazie and I am there.

Florence is said to have the highest rate of recycling of any Italian city.

According to former mayor, now Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi: In Florence the cost of waste disposal is among the lowest in Italy; separate trash collection and separation has reached 47%, which becomes 65% with the new underground containers around the city and a massive 78% with the new San Jacopino ecological stations.


Florence Parking Lot

Do you remember two lines of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”?

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.

Mitchell says she wrote the song during her first visit to Hawaii.

I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart... this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song.

There is nothing like that, nothing close to that in Florence. Instead, gradually, street-by-street, the Centro is being closed to automobiles. Instead, this is what you are likely to see:

I took the photo as I was walking along the Arno one sunny morning. Off in the distance to the far left, is a section of the Ponte Vecchio, while closer to the left, behind the row of scooters, is the Museo Galileo.



I am going to take a summer break from blogging for awhile. I’ll be traveling, so any reports will be intermittent, if that. Meanwhile, I hope to be reading more than usual, including as many of the following books as possible:

Ayelet Waldman Love and Treasure

Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Aharon Appelfeld Suddenly, Love: A Novel

Kate Pickett & Richard Wilkinson The Spirit Level

George Packer The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Bernard Ingram Unfinished Symphony

Laura Morelli The Gondola Maker


Is it OK to Write?

In an article I first read in "Aeon Magazine" (March 2014) Rhys Southan raises a subject that is hard for me to ignore. He wants to know if writing makes the world a better place. He puts the question more generally: “Is it OK to make art?”

And in the next breath, he answers his question: “If you express your creativity while other people go hungry, you probably don’t make the world a better place.”

How can I possibly answer this question? The obvious answer would leave me up the creek. Down the drain goes the past 20 years of my life.

But really what can I do now at the age I am to improve the world? I taught for many years and I thought I was doing something worthwhile. I did laboratory research all those years whose results I thought might clarify an idea or two and later, field research I thought might in some small measure conserve energy resources.

As I think back on this work, I have to admit none of this research made the world a better place. It is rarely cited in the journals and even it is, it might be read by a half dozen students, at most.

The question, (“Is it OK to make art?”) was posed by Southan as he was about to finish a screenplay he was working on. He decides to travel to a retreat in East Devon with a few other friends who happen to be members of a growing activism movement called Effective Altruism (EA). They tell him its goal is doing as much good as you possible can.

So like Southan, I begin to wonder if anything I’ve written has done any good and by “good” I mean reduce hunger, eradicate disease, improve the world, that sort of thing. Of course it hasn’t. Southan begins to think the same, as he realizes Effective Altruism’s goal threatened to undermine the very purpose of his trip.

“As EAs see it, writing scripts and making movies demands resources that, in the right hands, could have saved lives…From this point of view, the importance of most individual works of art would have to be negligible compared with, say, deworming 1,000 children.”

As I become more and more unsettled in reading this article, I recall something Henry Perowe said about reading great novels in Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday.

“Henry had read the whole of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, two acknowledged masterpieces. At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp, after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so.”

I wonder what Tolstoy or Flaubert would say when asked if their novels made the world a better place or if literature, in general, benefits humanity in any way. Yes, novels may be a pleasure to write and an equal pleasure to read and once in a while enhance the coffer of authors.

Perhaps a few readers were able to make a major change in their life after reading a novel and some may have no doubt learned something or chanced upon a truth that led to a fruitful line of inquiry. But beyond these few individuals, how might literature make the world a better place, as the Effective Altruists ask?

When I was a young man, I learned about an oath that every Athenian male swore to as they graduated from the Ephetic College that was required to become a full citizen of classical Athens. Among other things, mostly military matters, you pledged, “to transmit this city, not only no less, but far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

I’ve never forgotten that oath, believe it applies widely, and now, in the context of this article, feel that at least in terms of all I’ve written, none of it leaves the city or any other part of the world, any better than I found it.

Once in a while a novel will be written that really does make the world a better place for a wide segment of the population. Upon Sinclair’s The Jungle is the one I recall most vividly. I led to a radical change in the meatpacking industry in this country and subsequently to the Meat Inspection and Food and Drug Regulation Acts.

And Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is credited with promoting the abolitionist cause and all that ensued from that. Upon meeting Stowe, Lincoln is said to have declared: "So this is the little lady who started this great war." (I also think of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, which isn’t a novel, but none-the-less played an enormous and continuing role in promoting the environmental movement.”)

And while John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, may have wrestled with the life of impoverished families in the Great Depression, nothing much changed in the life of the poor as a result of it. I don’t know of any novelists today who are writing about the plight of the poor.

At the end of his article, Southan admits he, along with everyone else, could do more than they currently are. “For now that will have to be my justification. I’m not ready to give up writing. I’m not ready to take up some high-paid job that I’d hate in order to reduce the world’s suffering. Maybe that will change.”

My immediate response is: I doubt it will. I suspect every writer will continue to write, as they always have, regardless of the compelling goals of Effective Altruism. Novelists don’t write books to change the world. Why they do is another matter.


The Other Language

Everything was the same but nothing was the same anymore.

The characters in each of the nine stories of Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language, are displaced or unmoored in one way or another. They are in a different city, country, or time in their life.

Time takes its toll, you are a different person, nothing is the same, you can’t go back. “It’s always a disappointment.”

In “Big Island, Small Island” a woman flies to a tiny island off the coast of Africa to see an old boyfriend. But he is not the boy he once was, has grown a long beard, lives in a hut with a native woman, the rapport they once had is over, as are the daring views he used to express

He is a different person in this new incarnation—that cool aloofness, that lightness of touch he had when I knew him, seems gone.

In “The Presence of Men” a divorced woman moves to a small Italian village where she restores an old building. After several years there she grows restless and returns to Rome. But now she feels out of place, an exile. She couldn’t resume her previous life in Rome, “she couldn’t find her center any more.”

In the title story an Italian teenager and sister travel with their father to a Greek village by the sea. There they meet some young boys from England. The older sister wants to speak to one of them, but knows no English. Many years later she moves to New York, where she starts a new life. But even though she now speaks English fluently, she feels out of place, an outcast in a land where she has no past, no roots.

In “An Indian Soiree” a couple travels to a luxury resort to try to restore their marriage. In a dream one night, the woman recaptures the passion she once felt for a former lover. During an exotic dance performance the man becomes enchanted with the lead dancer.

At breakfast the next morning, they realize their marriage has come to an end. The woman flies to Paris to meet her lover; the man arranges to have dinner with the dancer. But both their romantic fantasies were disappointing. The damage had been done, they were now adrift, unable to “take shelter” anywhere.

It took a surprisingly short time for sixteen years of marriage to come undone.

There is a deep longing and loneliness in each of these nine stories. They are beautifully written, a pleasure to read, and be surprised by the chance encounters creating the dilemmas in each of them. The struggles of her characters have a generality that captures the reader, captured me anyway. They also focus on the places where her characters find themselves and the effect it has on their lives.

"Yet a foreigner always remains a foreigner, no matter how long he’s been away from his native place."


All the Light We Cannot See

The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is beautifully written. At times it is almost lyrical, both in language and storytelling. The sentences are short, so are the chapters, the central characters, a young French girl and equally young German boy, are appealing, intriguing, memorable. …there are none so distant that fate cannot bring them together.

They are caught in the horror of World War II. Marie-Laure Le Blanc is the daughter of a skilled locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Werner Pfennig lives with his sister in an orphanage in a German coal-mining town.

When she is six, Marie-Laure becomes blind, her father builds her a scale model of their Parisian neighborhood so she can learn how to navigate its streets. The young Werner, a technology prodigy, builds a short-wave radio and together with his sister they listen to the science tales of a mysterious Frenchman.

When the Nazi’s invade France, the war takes control of their lives. Nothing is the same as before.

Silence is the fruit of the occupation; it hangs in branches, seeps from gutters. …The smoking, ruined villages, the broken pieces of brick in the street, the frozen corpses, the shattered walls, the upturned cars, the barking dogs, the scurrying rats and lice…

Marie-Laure and her father flee to Sant-Malo, where they live in the home of her great uncle, the reclusive Entienne, who turns out to be the Frenchman broadcasting the science tales, as well as coded messages to the French Resistance. Her father builds her another model of the streets of Sant-Malo, but soon thereafter is captured by the Nazis.

Meanwhile once Werner’s scientific skills are recognized, he is sent to a rigorous but cruel, elite Nazi training school. Because he is adept at finding illegal radio transmissions, he is assigned to a team that searches for them throughout Germany and Poland and, eventually, in Sant-Malo.

However, Werner is not at ease at being a Nazi soldier and is sickened by their treatment of his best friend. His doubts express themselves by the acts he doesn’t perform and in the words Doerr gives him on the page.

Werner is succeeding. He is being loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good. And yet every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.

Do you see where this is headed?

And looming in the background throughout this tale is a priceless, diamond stone, The Sea of Flames, hidden in a series of locked cabinets deep inside the Museum of Natural History. Marie-Laure’s father is entrusted with the stone’s safety, only he and the Museum Director have the set of keys required to unlock the cabinets.

When the Nazis invade Paris, copies of the original stone are made, each one given to Museum staff member, including Marie-Laure’s father. Who has the original? Where is it? A Nazi officer has been searching everywhere for the treasure, including the very house in Sant-Malo where Marie-Laure lives. The stone is said to carry a curse that allows the keeper to live forever but also brings misfortune to those close to the person who has it.

Reading All the Light We Cannot See is an adventure, a long one as it is a 500+ page novel, but from start to finish I found it a genuine pleasure. It will surely be among the best of the year.

…his model of their neighborhood makes little sense to her. It is not like the real world. The miniature intersection of rue de Mirbel and rue Monge, for example, just a block from their apartment is nothing like the real intersection. The real one presents an amphitheater of noise and fragrance: in the fall it smells of traffic and castor oil, bread from the bakery, camphor from Avent’s pharmacy, delphiniums and sweet peas and roses from the flower stand. On winter days it swims with the odor of roasting chestnuts; on summer evenings it becomes slow and drowsy, full of sleepy conversations and the scraping of heavy iron chairs.


Late Bloomers

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made.

Robert Browning

Why is a person’s most creative work done when they are young? The French poet Arthur Rimbaud was published at 15 and then disappeared into Africa. Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto No. 9 at the age of 21. Herman Melville completed Moby-Dick when he was 32. And in 1905, when Einstein was 26, he laid the groundwork for the Special Theory of Relativity that he completed ten years later.

In contrast, a great many artists and writers took much longer to do their best work. Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe when he was 58. Joseph Conrad published his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, when he was 54. Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness followed a few years later.

In Late Bloomers Brendan Gill, long-time New Yorker writer, briefly describes the work of 75 artists who did their best work relatively late in life. He says, “I never dreamed I’d write a book that would be regarded as inspirational…But the geriatric set is going full tilt…”

The late boomers in his book are artists, writers, musicians, dancers, fashion designers, motion picture actors and directors, etc. Of the 75, I have made note of writers who Gill reports wrote their most well-known or first book when they were well past their youth. They include the following ten:

Isak Dinisen: First novel at 49, Out of Africa at 52

Michel de Montaigne: First essay at 38

Jean Jacques Rosseau: Confessions at 70

Edith Hamilton: First book, The Greek Way, at 62

Harriet Doerr: First book, The Stones of Ibarra, at 74

Miguel de Cervantes: First volume of Don Quixote at 58, second volume at 68

Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels at 59

Ian Fleming: First book, Casino Royale at 44

O. Henry: First collection of short stories at 47

Lawrence Sterne: First volume of Tristran Shandy at 47

Perhaps you can think of others? According to Gill, the qualities that late bloomers share are “energy, high intelligence and discipline.”

It is clear that some truly creative individuals do their best work early in their careers, others, many years later. Consider two painters: Picasso was an early prodigy, while the opposite was true for Cezanne.

Cezanne was a late bloomer. Malcolm Gladwell claims that the paintings he finished in his mid-60s are valued fifteen times more highly than those he painted as a young man. On the other hand, he says a mid 20s painting by Picasso is worth an average of four times as much as one done in his 60s.

“For age is opportunity, no less than youth itself, though in another dress.
And as the evening twilight faces away, the sky is filled with stars, invisible by the day.”
Henry W. Longfellow