Israel | 2003
Dorit Rabinyan was born in Israel . Her first novel , Persian Brides
(1999), has been published in ten languages and winning the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Award. Her second novel is published in the UK as Our Weddings
(2001) and in the US as Strand of a Thousand Pearls
(2002). She lives in London and Israel .
A postcard from Santa Maddalena.
Imagine the postcard I would have sent you were it possible for the author to write these words on the blank back and simultaneously appear in the photograph on the front: a character bent over a writing pad is sitting among three sleepy dogs, crowned with bees and butterflies, circled with fruit trees in white and pink blossom. Use all the clichés in your romantic visual vocabulary to picture the 15th century Tuscan villa in the background, the stones covered with purple wisteria and the late March noon sun at the peaceful heart of blue skies. Now encircle the garden with a horizon of one hundred and eighty perfect green degrees of dense olive groves. See them silvering and turning mistier as the eye shifts further, envision it all as if you were watching it through a ripe – yet not dropping – tear.
It has been more than a month in which I keep on switching from being an object in this vivid postcard to being the subject who watches it. Reality would unexpectedly manifest itself in a caress of a light perfumed breeze, in a whisper of the Arno river stream. But the strange feeling of daydream would follow me to the dinner table, back to my room and to bed. It feels like being slightly tipsy, slightly in love.
The explanation has to do with the presence of nature, the generosity with which the landscape embraces Santa Maddalena, the magnifying glass set on the seasonal change. But there is something unreal about this place that goes beyond its beauty. My days go by here as if I had entered a parallel dimension, as if I am turning pages of a book. The three other resident writers, our hostess Beatrice, her assistant Alessandra, the cook and her family, the coming and going guests, even the dogs and myself – we all seem to be characters in a manuscript that I am reading while it is being written. Perhaps by the author Gregor Von Rezzori, Beatrice’s husband, whose ashes are buried in the garden? His spirit is surely sitting with us at the table. Perhaps it is an eternal talent of one of this couple’s countless writers friends who used to work in the house and its tower, that keep on inventing our present. In a place as fictional as this one any surreal idea is possible, including the one in which one of my diligent colleagues is in his room at this moment, typing the plot and the dialogue for the next lunch while the cook is boiling the water for today’s pasta.
Another possibility could be the impact of too much Italian red wine, naturally. Or the fact that I am writing for ten to twelve pure hours everyday like I never did before. My usual five hours of writing at home are an island surrounded with life’s non-fiction distractions. Any hint of actuality, even a phone ringing, is temptation I cannot resist. Here, for six weeks, literature has become an ocean of olive trees. Perhaps it is the daily concentrated practice of the imagination, which gives existence a dreamy quality. Perhaps I am taming it so intensively that it keeps on ticking during the breaks and colours even the short pieces of reality with its glow.
Again, it might be the candles’ light reflecting on the silverware. And this creative flood might be a symptom of this house rather than the cause for it to seem fictional. The fact is that in the past thirty-five years writers have been sitting next to the same desk and on the same chair in which I wrote forty pages. Trying to practice a bit of rationality, it is impossible for something as elusive and slippery as inspiration to accumulate in one place. Just as a hospital building cannot absorb the illnesses it had sheltered and a temple cannot become holy by honest prayers. Walls cannot speak and though I wished they could, those in Santa Maddalena cannot dictate. In order to turn four walls into a good room for writing, I believe it only requires a door. And a writer who tends to forget that this door can be opened.
As much as I try to remember a strange echo or unexplained sound of steps, there are no clues for the house being haunted by either ghosts or ghostwriters. It is true that whenever I open the door to my room, the window would open as well. But this is only the effect of air pressure, not any unseen presence of a past resident. The refrigerator in the kitchen does vibrate with a sudden shiver from time to time, but this is normal. And the howls seldom heard at nights are only a wild boar passing in the woods. No sound of a rusty typing machine, no papers crumpled in frustration, and unfortunately, not one single sentence I did not write found in my computer files.
The character who is writing this postcard is now raising her head and looking around without a blink. The smallest dog is following her gaze and returns to napping. Except for the birds gliding and the leaves growing, the postcard picture freezes again. She wonders if it is something else, beyond the beauty of the place that is so enlivening, so inspiring. She thinks as she signs her name at the bottom of the card, is it all just the pleasant hospitality, the peace and the isolation?
Dorit Rabinyan, 2003