Friday, September 16, 2011

Italian Days!

Our book today is Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's magnificent 1989 masterpiece, Italian Days, a reliable entrant on my list of Top 50 Nonfiction Works of the 20th Century (I realize Modern Library also compiled such a list, but much as I love them, we don't always agree). There is an alchemy that transforms the best 'travel writing' into something more than the usual 'if it's Tuesday, this must be Waziristan' rigmarole the afflicts the genre, and that alchemy is everywhere in evidence in this big, wonderful volume. Harrison toured Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, Naples, the Amalfi Coast, and of course Calabria, and she wrote pieces on each location for whoever was paying - Harper's, Lear's, the Iowa Review, etc. But she was one of those mysterious writers whose every published utterance is actually a fragment of one enormous ongoing narrative, so they all fell together into a remarkably cohesive whole when the possibility arose of welding them into a book. The central unifying factor is not tone or word-count but Harrison herself, the bruised and wise and beautiful tone she maintains through every word and phrase.

She tips her hat to all the great writers who've gone to Italy and partaken of its inspirations. She mentions Goethe and Stendahl and Henry James and Hawthorne and all the rest of the usual subjects, but she comes closer to the mark when she acknowledges the great H. V. Morton, whose massive volumes of travel-writing ought to be perpetually in print, and whose A Traveller in Italy and A Traveller in Southern Italy were clearly templates for Harrison's own work.

But the cut and lyricism of her prose makes Morton seem like a plodder. Harrison's book is as rife with apophthegms as a Montaigne essay- if you underline them as you go along, you end up with an entire commonplace book. We're told "You pay a double tariff for great hotels: Hauteur goes with the cosseting."

"I have sometimes been ungenerous in my mind to expatriates," we're told, "and that is because I love another country better than my own."

"A group of giggly Italian schoolchildren pass the relics, pausing no longer than a minute," we're told, "it is as difficult for the young to believe that they will someday be old as it is for the old to believe that they were one day young."

Sometimes, her exquisite summaries are blinkered, other times biased. For all her ferocious study (this is one of the most literate, allusive books ever written for a wide audience), she can be wrong and not even guess it. "After the third or fourth day in Venice," she tells us, for example, "small pools of light in the side canals - lights filtered through shuttered windows - are ineffably sad. The magic of Venice contends with the accumulated sadness of centuries." Something of that is undeniably true, but it only activates when you know you're leaving Venice soon; tourists feel this way about the light all around them after three or four days, not longer-term residents. In this instance (and it happens again in her pages on Florence, and in her separate book on Sicily), Venice is paying an unfair price for the date stamped on Harrison's return ticket.

But it scarcely matters - the book is so gracefully powerful in all its descriptions that the reader doesn't care how long Harrison stayed wherever she went - there's just the happiness that she went at all ... and came back to share her often odd, tangential observations. Innumerable travellers have described these same works of art and architecture, but there's no mistaking Harrison's particular twist:
Michelangelo's David, washed in lovely light at the Accademia, is a different matter from the hefty women resting on the Medici sarcophagi. His youth and slim, tensile beauty are so much more than the sum of his parts - pendulous testicles, scrolled pubic hair, supple wrists, purposeful hands, curiously small ears, the tender line of his jaw, the very nearly coy tilt of one hip, the look of blank inward concentration ... Sublime, but not necessarily lovable. And one does wish one didn't know that Martha Graham once told her male dancers, "Now, dears, I know you've all just come back from Florence, but I want you to forget that ..." because one does know exactly what she means.

"This is how memory works," she tells us. "It curls, it is baroque." And she practices what she asserts - in the strange loops and adagios of Italian Days, we follow Harrison's often labyrinthine mental wanderings. It can be disorienting, but it is always, always a stunning, memorable experience. You'll be reading along as she deadpans on bad bathrooms or rickety elevators, and then suddenly you'll drift into a passage of startling beauty where you least expect it, as in this, what I consider the finest written evocation of Rome ever written in English:
... swallows wheel against the lantern of St. Peter's at dusk; cascades of green and star jasmine on ocher buildings, a flight of warm and curving shallow steps; unexpected, unexplained fragments of white statuary, marble busts, in bowers of oleander (apricot, rose, lavender) on terraced rooftops on the leafy Lungotevere as I drive by on a moonlit night, the Tiber smelling green; a small burnt-sienna house, green shutters, a cozy flight of outside stairs cluttered with the impedimenta of daily living - a broom, a mat, empty tins - and home to pots of straggling basil, thyme, geraniums, an umbrella turned inside out; fountains: water patiently following orders for a thousand years; a wheelbarrow in an ancient square piled high with new fruit ... the grand and the domestic present to the senses, at ease with each other and at once, as they are in dreams; the wild and comfortable logic of belfries and multilevel roofs; a blanket of rosemary in a ruin; ... honeysuckle, clumps of weeds growing from the Pincian wall, anointed by moonlight; and none of these things alone but all of them together, each separate part declaring the permanence of beauty ...

The light ravishes.

The light isn't the only thing that ravishes here. Whether you know Italy with long familiarity or have only been there in your dreams, you should find this book.


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