UK | 2002
Matthew Kneale’s fifth novel,
English Passengers was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and received the 2000 Whitbread Writer’s Award. He lives in London.
I arrived at Santa Maddalena on a stormy day in February in a state of some desperation. I was trying to begin a novel. This may sound simple enough, but I had been trying to begin it for almost two years. It was not that I could not start. Quite the opposite. I had started far too much, and had written opening paragraphs and pages by the dozen, featuring different characters, locations, and dramas, none of which felt right. I had almost finished several first chapters, only to find each seemed to disintegrate before my eyes. What made this all the more annoying was that much the same thing had happened with my previous novel, which ended up taking seven years. I had no wish to go through that again. The previous months had been distracting ones, when we repeatedly moved home, and country, and had the excitement and chaos of a new baby. I had got into bad habits, almost forgetting how to work. Most of all I needed some silence, to force myself to concentrate.
If anything could do the trick, I quickly saw, it was Santa Maddalena. I was given a wonderful room to work in, at the top of the medieval tower, full of pre-Colombian figures, with a Miro on the wall, and a desk spacious enough to take any number of pages of jotted notes and bits of novel. Here was silence, with not a sound aside from birds and weather. Also there were long walks, through the forest and along the chasms, perfect to get the circulation gently flowing. By the time dinner came I was more than ready for some human company, in the form of the other three writers and our delightful hostess Countess Beatrice von Rezzori, who – with her greatly admired novelist husband Grisha – had created this haven, and who treated us to a wealth of fascinating stories about the art world, and of writers who had preceded us.
On the Monday I began. On the Tuesday I abandoned. On the Wednesday I began again. On the Monday I abandoned. And so on. I think in all I tried and despaired four times before, finally, I got going. But I did get going. That I did so at all was thanks to Santa Maddalena, as only that peace and isolation would have allowed me to persevere when everything went wrong.
Not that my stay was all serious. Along the way there were day trips to Florence and Arezzo, and expeditions to excellent local restaurants. There were the many delightful guests of the Countess who visited for dinner. There were evenings when we four writers read our work to one another and then, to recover from the shock, drank large quantities of wine. There was an afternoon purchasing excellent green tinged olive oil from the nearby farm. There was the delight of being in such a beautiful place as winter turned to spring.
Most of all, though, Santa Maddalena allowed me to take the train to Florence with a sense of work achieved, for the first time in many long months. For that I offer my heartfelt thanks.