UK | 2001, 2004
Zadie Smith was born in North London in 1975. Her acclaimed first novel,
White Teeth, a vibrant portrait of contemporary multicultural London, won numerous awards, including the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It has been translated into over twenty languages, and PBS aired a television adaptation was in 2003. She recently published her second novel,
The Autograph Man, which won the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize for Fiction and was longlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize. She has just finished a year as a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. She returned to Santa Maddalena in 2004 and is now on the board of directors.
When I arrived in Italy, I was all washed-up. I hadn’t written properly for a year, I wasn’t reading, I’d stopped thinking. Despite every advantage in terms of money and support, despite some success and a lot of encouragement, I really thought I was all done. Me and words (even my grammar was shot) couldn’t get on with each other. At 25, and with only one novel to my credit, I couldn’t see myself writing another. Nothing I liked about it – about the practice of writing – was the same. What had been a hobby was now a job, what passed for a quiet life had turned all shouty, all busy, all screamy, all the time. Worst of all, the city I considered my tiny, perfect home, my own village, London, had turned huge and impossible. And by some weird process I can’t explain, the bigger the city got, the more I felt squished into one corner of it, terrified and unable to breathe. I felt an inching paranoia: that my strength was the city and now that the city and I had fallen out (who was cruel to whom first? I don’t remember), the words and me were finished too. Sort of like when you break up with a boy and off go his family – the father you liked and who liked you, the sympathetic mother, the pretty sister, the engaging younger brother – all spiraling away from you, destined to be somebody else’s in-laws. Me and the words had parted ways. Writer’s block – that’s what I mean.
Enter Beatrice Monti, stage left. With a simple offer, hand-written and passed through a friend. A very simple, very appealing offer. A 15th century tower, a lot of green, some running water, some fresh food, a few dogs, a tiny church up one hill, a Moorish castle up another. Books all about the place. And art. The occasional guest during the day; at night, a clutch of fireflies hovering the length of the lawn, useful when you forget your torch. Mostly, though, the offer consisted of a room of my own, a big desk, and the kind of solitude a lot of people will pay a lot of money for these days and the Baronessa will give you for free. In exchange for something she considers a gift and the writer considers a personal necessity – just a few words a day. And, you know, even on the days when no words turn up, writer’s block is infinitely more bearable when experienced in a Tuscan valley by a swimming pool, than in a dark office in ________ (fill in the urban centre of your choice).
For me, thank God, words turned up more often than not. If a writer is reading this I know they will pass over the flowery crap, eyes hungry for the figures, so here they are:
Rate of Production while on retreat:
Days spent on retreat: 62
Pages produced: 121
Word count: 32, 271
Average of words per day: 527
And I’m lazy. Too easily distracted. So, if a party of handsome Italian young people turn up one day, freckled and tanned, and ask me to come swim or look for deer in the forest, then I am bound to go. But imagine you are not like me. That you are disciplined and unwavering. That the thought of a drive to Florence to lean on marble things and eat ice-cream – that this holds no charm for you. Imagine if you come here and manage a perfectly reasonable 2000 words a day. Well, jeez: then we’re talking a novella by the time the maid knocks on your door and tells you the taxi’s arrived (yes, you will have a maid. Yes, you. A writer. A scummy writer who comes from nowhere and has neither social position nor practical skills. Isn’t it amazing that people are willing to give you time and space just because you write things down? That view from your window of the Tuscan hills – God’s own, perfect, scented billet doux to Europe – you will be offered this every day for free, and all because you are a scribbler of ideas!)
Santa Maddalena is a peach of a place. A peach. It is beautiful as only the most natural, soulful, unpretentious places can be; it is suffused with the spirit of
Gregor von Rezzori, a great writer and a peach of a man, who left behind a bag full of remarkable novels, around 300 pairs of shoes and one widow, Beatrice Monti, hostess and inspiration during my time at the retreat. The thing is this: though Gregor is gone, he and Beatrice fill the place in equal measure – so this is not a retreat to come to if your idea of a retreat is a formal affair, an institution with no life in it, apart from your words on a page. Santa Maddalena is a living place, filled with a history, covered in ideas and books and paintings and anecdotes and memories and dogs that were there before you and will remain after you have packed your bags. It is both a retreat, a pleasure, an education and an experience. It is also, if you are the sort of writer who thinks of things in this way, a great “source” for “material”. If you have any interest in the following subjects:
Capri in the mid fifties
Gossip from the golden age of Hollywood
Beauty (people, things, ideas)
Houses (doing up of, buying of, losing of)
Genius (curious nature of)
Bruce Chatwin (life and works of)
The Italian language
The Italian character (curious nature of)
How to swear in Italian (with hand gestures)
The precise definition of simpatico
Other Writers (gossip regarding, works of, clothing habits of, lovers of)
Then you should high-tail it to Donnini as fast as you can. From Donnini you turn right at the church (nodding quickly at the tiny plaster-of-Paris Madonna perched at a curious angle on the balcony), proceed down a stony track, past the last few houses, dodging deer, boar, rabbits, as you go; farther, yes, past the vineyard, with its twisted fists pushing out of the earth, gripping berries; through a series of hairpin turns until the road disappears and all you can see is tall grass and a far off tree heavy with swollen cherries. Keep going. Two hundred more yards and you’ll find Santa Maddalena. If you’re lucky, a dog will come bounding out of a huge wooden door, bark loudly until you bend down, and then lick your face. Dinner will follow, with cheese and wine and coffee – every Tuscan delight. Next morning it’ll be as it always is: white page, no words. Except there’s not a soul to disturb you and nothing but grass and water and trees and things. For miles. Meals cooked for you. Room cleaned. No TV (unless you want TV). So. No excuses. Do some work.
SANTA MADDALENA SPEECH
I first came to Santa Maddalena five years ago, when I was only twenty-three. To me – a city kid, barely an adult – everything was new: the constellations of fireflies, the fresco on the bathroom wall, a swimming pool with fresh river water in it, the smart conversation with smart people, conducted in many languages, at an outdoor table with the moon huge and watchful overhead. All of it was new and wonderful to me. But I assumed, at first, that Santa Maddalena itself was an old, celebrated establishment of many years standing, a familiar gem in the crown of Tuscan cultural life. I had no idea it had only opened its doors to writers the year before. The list of previous retreaters seemed already too long and spectacular, it included Pulitzer and Booker winners, there were Frenchmen, Indians, Spaniards, Irishmen, Africans. There were already several novels and poems that had assimilated the Baronessa as a character or slipped her little pug, Alice, into a supporting role. How could all this have been done in a year?
Two words: Beatrice Monti. Or if you prefer, seven: Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori.
The Baronessa is an impatient woman. She hasn’t time to wait around for traditions to establish themselves. Everything must happen at once. There can be no ‘lean years’ or time spent struggling in obscurity. If she were organising the Renaissance, she would have shoe-horned the thing in to five years instead of two hundred. So it is with Santa Maddalena. It was famous from the day of its inception; its guests were always of the highest quality; writers who left recommended that their fellow writers visit. With impossible speed you found you could speak of the Santa Maddalena retreat in New York, in Paris, in London, in Berlin and watch other writers sidle up to you, attempting to look casual while enquiring how they, too, might get an invitation.The answer is simple: write to the Baronessa, send your book, see what happens. Thus reassured, the enquiring writer becomes nervous: will they enjoy it? The answer to this, again, is simple. Santa Madellena is not for everyone. You must like informality. You must enjoy the six varieties of Tuscan gossip: local, political, sexual, personal, infamous and intellectual. You must like dogs, both small, medium and enormous. You must forego the pleasant English dream of a fried breakfast. It helps if you swim, eat carbohydrates and confront the reality of mosquitoes with the spirit of the Stoics. Most of all, you must like your fellow writers. You must like them on their good and bad days, when they have written two thousand words and when they have written nothing at all. You must pour a generous glass of Grappa for the man who has checked his e-mail and discovered his worse enemy has been given the Nobel. You must not balk when you see last year’s winner of the Prix de Goncourt in his speedos.
It’s a wonderful thing to see a tradition being born, to feel yourself a part of something that creates its legacy daily, in stories and memories and, of course, in books. It will be a scholar’s job, some years from now, to seek the faint watermark of Santa Maddelena rising through the pages of so many different writers – a lizard on page 65, a dog on 32, a pretty girl from Donnini skipping lightly through chapter three, to arrive at chapter four, as our heroine. Santa Madellena takes writers out of themselves, out of their habits and tastes, their libaries, their towns, their literary parties and even their reputations. It strands them in a Tuscan valley where their only indeifying characteristic is their talent and what they are able to do it when there is nobody around to distract them. What kind of a place is Santa Madellena? A noble enterprise, an indulgent fancy, an important meeting of minds, and a decadent literary house party. It is all these things. And it is also a place where work gets done. Three writers who have worked at Santa Madellena our now going to share with you a little of what gets achieved at the retreat in between swimming and eating and getting drunk. Colm Toibin, Atiq Rahimi and Anita Desai.