Brenda LozanoSee all fellows >
Mexico | 2009
I wanted to write my second novel, but I began to look for nicknames for my fear. Days, weeks, months went by, and I went along finding ways to postpone the book I wanted to write. I always had work to do, commitments that kept me in shape, commitments that made me feel like an athlete who refused to sit down in a chair. But one of those days I received an email inviting me to Santa Maddalena, where I was offered precisely that: time to spend sitting in a chair.
I arrived at a place where everything was literature. In Tuscany, in a fifteenth-century tower, the first night, in the silence and the darkness of the night, lying in a big brass bed, I heard the wind blowing through the treetops. A sound exactly like waves. The coming and going of the wind, getting gradually louder, breaking in the treetops. In the morning the sound was still there. I looked around the place. An enormous bedroom, Turkish lithographs, antique mirrors, furniture from previous centuries. The bath. A hand-painted tub, a divan, a folding screen. A small studio and a big one. In the big studio Zadie Smith began her second novel, in the little studio, I was told, John Banville worked on such and such a text, as if that would encourage me to start. Who had made such a beautiful place? Beatrice Monti della Corte and Gregor von Rezzori. And, I believe, the sum of their reading. All the objects in this place, useless though they might be, were there for an aesthetic reason. Just like in the pages of Proust. The knives, for example, had no sharp edge but had marble handles and the inscription on every piece of silverware – made by the cutlers by appointment to her majesty the Queen of England – were reason enough to spend time in the kitchen. I wanted to spend time observing the details. It is the closest thing to being in another century or in the pages of a book, I thought. That book, Santa Maddalena, which I was getting to like more and more.
How was I supposed to open my blank notebooks in a place like this? And in addition there were incredible conversations with the other writers, the stories Beatrice shared with us over dinner. Beatrice’s friends who visited Santa Maddalena. And the books that were there. My notebooks didn’t have much hope of getting out of my suitcase. But one day out they came. I began to enjoy myself very much sitting in a chair. I soon adopted the discipline of an agricultural labourer. Time began to pass differently. I lost my sense of time. Maybe like a farmer who at the end of the day gathers a certain amount and not so much like an office worker who puts in so many hours.
We functioned like a commune. Or perhaps like an instant family with a complicity that seemed like we’d known each other for years. I treasure my conversations with Edmund White, to whom I proposed marriage in a fit of fondness. With Nam Lee. With Stefan Merrill Block, with whom I traded Cokes and cigarettes in exchange for good advice. With Richard Swartz. With Beatrice. When I returned to Mexico City I was tempted to begin my conversations with her phrases, but it was obvious that nobody was going to believe that my friend Philip Roth, Coco Chanel, Rothko or Rossellini, had told me this or that. I treasure all the stories Beatrice shared. I’ve stored up all her words in my heart. I bear them in mind.
Now it’s time for confessions. I hadn’t realized how good those six weeks had been for me, those six weeks of work, long conversations, laughter, anguish, doubts, getting myself out of my apartment in Mexico City, the sixty pages I wrote – a personal record – until coming out of a subway station one day a strong wind pushed me. Just like that, it picked me up and blew me a few metres backwards. My hair was messed up, I lost my umbrella. I don’t know how to say it, but perhaps it’s the closest I’ve come to experiencing that sentence of Chekhov’s in which a man is happy under an umbrella. I realized that before I’d been going in another direction. I was – there’s no way around it, I have to say it – happy for that instant. I realized how good my stay at Santa Maddalena had been. I am grateful to Beatrice and to all the other writers who accompanied me in my search.
Brenda Lozano (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean)