UK | 2003
Rupert Thomson was born in England in 1955. His novels, which have been shortlisted for awards including the Writer’s Guild Fiction Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize and have been published in the UK and the US, include
Dreams of Leaving (1987),
The Five Gates of Hell(1991),
Air and Fire (1993),
The Insult (1996),
Soft (1998) and
The Book of Revelation (1999). He lives in Cheshire, England.
When I arrived at Santa Maddalena at the beginning of June 2003 it was with a slight sense of trepidation. I’m very particular about the way I work. I need to be out of range of human voices, for example. I need empty hours, the right kind of silence. I had been told on good authority that Santa Maddalena was a kind of sanctuary for writers, a temporary refuge from a world which often demands too much of them, but I had already found a sanctuary, albeit a far less glamorous one: for almost three years I had been working in a caravan in Cheshire, far from all my friends in London, far from all the city’s distractions and delights. At first, then, I resisted Beatrice’s generous invitation. I had already met her once, by chance, in the foyer of a theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, and I quickly realised that she was somehow at the centre of a galaxy of talented and fascinating people. This was terribly tempting, of course, but wouldn’t the time I spent at her retreat be too diverting, too much of a social whirl? Also, I wasn’t so sure that the company of other writers would be conducive to hard work. Surely we would sit up talking half the night – or until the wine ran out, at least…And then there was Italy itself, a country I have been in love with ever since I first crossed the border at Ventimiglia in the summer of 1974…How on earth would I get any work done? The irony is, all my anxieties turned out to be perfectly well-founded. Santa Maddalena is the most magical and seductive of places. We ate exquisite dinners on a stone table in the garden, with the full moon hanging right in front of us. We went swimming at midnight, when the water in the pool had finally cooled a little. Then up the grass slope to bed, through clouds of fireflies. Once, two wild boar crossed our path as we drove home from a restaurant…Yes, I stayed up far too late, talking and drinking (I think our record was five in the morning). Yes, I visited Florence (several times). And yes, I was entertained and charmed by Beatrice’s many friends – but here’s the miracle: I still worked the way I always work – seven hours a day, seven days a week.
I had arrived with two projects in mind – one at the beginning of its life, the other almost done. For the past five years I had been thinking of writing a novel about a Sicilian wax modeller called Zumbo (or Zummo). He was employed by one of the Medici princes, Cosimo III, during the last years of the seventeenth century, a time when Florence had lapsed into a kind of morbid decadence. Since Santa Maddalena lay just to the east of the city, I would be ideally placed to embark on some prelimin-ary research, and I soon discovered that Beatrice was eager to help in any way she could, offering constant ingenious suggestions, and even making phone-calls on my behalf. She put me in touch with, among others, an art dealer in Milan, and a curator at La Pietra, the villa which once belonged to Sir Harold Acton. What’s more, since the novel was set in and around Florence, I would also be able to weave things I observed into the very fabric of what I was writing – the way the rain fell on a certain stifling summer afternoon, for instance, or the sight of a snake stretched across my doorway at midnight…
My second project was a novel called ‘Divided Kingdom’. I had been working on the book since 1999, going through seven complete drafts, and now I needed to start editing. There was a lot to do. Not just cutting it back, but bringing clarity to areas which were too ambiguous. I would have to be ruthless. Utterly lucid. Within a few hours of arriving at Santa Maddalena, I realised that this was a place where, as Wim Wenders would say, ‘the eyes are more awake’. I remember noticing small things – the late afternoon sun dappling the pyramid that marks Grigor von Rezzori’s grave, the shadows of insects projected through an oval window on to the side of the bath, the resiny smell of the wooden staircase which leads up to the top of the tower – and I remember thinking that this appreciation of detail augured well for the meticulous work that lay ahead.
And so it proved. By the end of my time at Santa Maddalena I had edited almost half the book, and though it has taken me another three months to finish the job, those first four weeks were invaluable. They set a tone for the work I had to do, they ushered in a period of real discipline and focus, and, rather like someone who has achieved a meditative state, I was able to sustain that degree of attentiveness and care right up until the end of September – until just a few days ago, in fact. Divided Kingdom will be published in a year’s time, in September 2004, and Beatrice’s name will definitely be included in the acknowledgements. She played a vital part in helping me to finish one book and start work on another. For that – and for many, many other gifts (including two wonderful new friends, the writers Andrew Miller and Kamila Shamsie) – I thank her from the bottom of my heart.