Denmark | 2002
Jens Christian Grøndahl is one of Denmark’s leading writers and the author of
Silence in October and
Lucca, his tenth novel, will be published internationally in 2003. He is also renowned as an essayist and is a former Chairman of PEN in Denmark. He lives in Copenhagen.
If on a Winter’s Night a Writer
It was raining and getting dark already as the train to Arezzo belatedly pulled out of Firenze SMN late one afternoon in February. I didn’t quite know where I was going and I came to think of Italo Calvino, another friend, as I was to learn, of my hostess-to-be. All I had was the informal invitation forwarded by my publisher to get on this train and remember to get off at a place called Sant’Ellero. Never heard of it but the prospect had sounded like something out of a novel: six weeks in a medieval tower overlooking the Arno Valley, the novel being my own, waiting to be completed in the rural tranquility of a landscape which has always sent my imagination wandering. So, if on a winter’s night a traveller like myself happened to feel like a character entangled in his own fiction, I couldn’t be blamed.
Noone else was getting off but me, with only the weight of my luggage to remind me that I was not dreaming. On the platform, under a red umbrella in the torrent, a smiling lady wearing dark sunglasses was waiting to pick me up. A friend of Beatrice’s, who was due to arrive from New York a few days later. All I could see from the car was that the winding road went up and up, through a tiny village, past an illuminated bell tower and onto a dirt track flanked by olive trees, vines and forest, going on endlessly it seemed, until a house appeared in the headlight. Old weather-beaten stones around a bright doorway leading to a cluster of friendly faces, inquisitive but approving dog snouts, burning logs in an open fireplace, and a hearty Tuscan meal.
To begin with I had no idea where I was the next morning as I woke up in a gigantic brass bed and looked at the dark roof beams, the framed pages of Arabic calligraphy on the walls, the Ottoman furniture, and the naked branches of a fig tree outside barely penetrating the fog. It seemed as if on that winter’s night I had been transformed into some kind of Aladdin. The feeling stayed with me as layer upon layer of bluish green, overgrown hills emerged from the whiteness. It never left me during the following weeks, as winter gave way to spring days of work and walking in the sharp sunlight among the cypresses lining the roads and tracks between hills chequered with vines and glowing with the silvery leaves of olive groves and fruit trees blossoming white and pink. This wasn’t a novel after all but the best possible backdrop for the making of one. My splendid isolation was not that isolated either. The company was great, and I fully realized what it means to be among the happy few.
Places reflect the people who have lived in them, and Santa Maddalena resonates and shimmers with the echoes and reflections of a life spent loving beautiful things. This much I sensed from the very first moments of my stay but not until Beatrice joined our little group did I begin to understand that I was not merely a guest in a beautiful house in an astonishing landscape. I was also invited to join and add to a web of anecdotes and people, a castle of crossed destinies, like another baron in the trees reminiscing about the invisible cities of memory and imagination. Beatrice is a light-hearted, clever, witty and generous lady, a left-wing aristocrat, an anarchist with style, unsentimental and still crazy after all those years. A hellbent traveller and prolific storyteller driven by the indomitable curiosity of those who have known since they were children that the world is exactly as adventurous as children take it to be. But I was not only the guest of ”la baronessa”, as they call her in the village. Someone else was around me as well, with equal wit, worldliness and high spirits, and my only regret is that I shall never be able to thank him for his hospitality, the man residing under the red marble pyramid below the tower.
It was an additional gift to meet an author I had not yet read or even heard of.
Gregor von Rezzori was the cynical yet emotionally acute and intellectually incorruptible chronicler of a lost world, that of his native Bukovina, once part of Austria-Hungary, a European if ever there was one. And if the Europe of his youth only survives in his books, well, there it is for you to savour, just as he is still there, at Santa Maddalena, invisibly but perceptibly, in the atmosphere surrounding and sustained by the extraordinary woman who was his wife. In a late interview with German television the elderly, extremely elegant Grisha explains how the anecdote was for his lost multi-ethnical corner of Europa what myths were to the Greeks. A way of sharing your humanity with those who seem too different to be human. Mind you, a light-hearted way, subtle and offhandish, devoid of pompousness or ill-suited abstractions. His Memoirs of an Anti-Semite are the loving, headshaking, deeply sympathetic remembrances of someone who was everything but that. A true cosmopolitan and poet for whom nothing human was too holy or too ridiculous to be embraced by his easygoing, unpretentious yet deeply wise and funny writing.
Beatrice told me that Grisha wrote his last book at the desk in the room where I was working on my own latest effort, looked down on by the old Venetian etchings of Abdul-Hamid and other Turkish notorieties. Curiously enough, this didn’t strike me with awe but with a strange confidence and conviviality. Colleague Rezzori was smiling at me, and I was smiling back. The novel I was finishing is yet another highly Scandinavian and Protestant, ruefully introspective tale of domestic spleen and middle-class anguish but it was my intention, this time, to open a window or two onto a wider historical context. I come from a part of Europe which was only grazed by the terrors of the century now past us, making for a strangely naive and unreal innocense which has always made me suspicious and ill at ease. In my new book I was going to include my own mischief towards the culture I am part of in a more outspoken way, and look at it with a critical, ironical and somewhat foreign eye. I felt that Grisha helped me in this. Reading him, and sitting in his tower overlooking the seemingly peaceful, seemingly untouched valley where so many soldiers and artists have passed throughout the centuries, I felt closer to a sense of history which is larger and deeper, more sad but also more joyous and spiritual, more aware of the cruelty and beauty of the world, than people usually are in the wintry welfare paradise of my Nordic homeland.
A recurrent theme in my book is that of belonging and the growing feeling, in my middle-aged, middle-class protagonist, of not belonging anywhere at all. This alienation is reflected and deepened in the story of her unknown father whom she finally meets late in life. A Jewish musician who has travelled the world and the century, at turns trying to escape and assert his identity, never feeling quite at home anywhere except in the abstract, fugitive beauty of music. I was struck by certain similarities between him and Grisha who also saw his old world come apart, finding his new home in those invisible cities of literature, a citizenship he was too worldly and to ironical not to have his doubts about. But he was more lucky than my Jewish musician, for he had his Beatrice at his side, she blessed his fictitious journeys into the past with her graceful presence, and with her he found a happy exile in their Tuscan dwelling.
I feel lucky myself to have shared their congenial company like so many other friends and fellow travellers, finding our way through life only by singing our inner worlds into existence. Santa Maddalena is more than a marvellous place, it is a crossing of songlines.
Thank you, and arrivederci!