Panagiotis Kehagias


GREECE | 2023

Panagiotis Kehagias is a writer, editor, and translator based in Athens, Greece. His first book, the short story collection Final Warning (Antipodes, 2016), was shortlisted for the Greek National Book Award and the Balkanika Prize, among other nominations. His translations include William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, Greg Jackson’s Prodigals, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Joshua Cohen’s Moving Kings and The Netanyahus, Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, as well as a new critical translation of E.A. Poe’s “The Gold-Bug.” In the past, he has been a fellow at Art Omi (2015 and 2023), Sangam House (2017), and the Chennai Mathematical Institute (2020).


The world is full of noise: car alarms, wailing babies, rave music aficionados, industrious jackhammers, milk trucks gunning on the incline, screaming arguments from the floor above, someone just beginning to play the violin, the TV switched on at any station. The worst kind of noise, by far, is mental: cellphone notifications, emails, deadlines, weddings, births, and deaths—all clamoring to be attended—viral articles, the US elections, Ukraine, the Middle East, nuclear war. Well, that escalated quickly. The writer needs calm and peace, even of the island variety: an island of calm and peace in the middle of the raging ocean that is everyday life. Three weeks. Three weeks would be enough, I told myself. I would escape my life as a burglar escapes the house he’s in the process of robbing. I would lay down the foundations for my next project, which was still in the very early stages. Three weeks in a remote part of Tuscany. Beatrice Monti della Corte, the baronessa of Santa Maddalena—the residency which took its name from a small bell bought at a yard sale—had graciously offered me this time, in this place. And so I came to her house—because it is first and foremost a house: her house, painstakingly engineered over five decades, half a century, to act as an accelerator for stories and as a frame—gilded, oriental, and modern—for its lady. I came to the house I imagine as many others had come before me. Without knowing, that is, what to expect. An Italian palazzo, butlers, a Rolls in the driveway? (A fawn crossed the headlight beams as we got near the house on that first night.) (I don’t believe in omens.) (But perhaps I do, after all.) And how does one address a member of the aristocracy? Are there special rules at the dinner table, arcane cutlery to be fathomed and mastered? And what about lunch? As it went, as with many things in this house, once you take your first step inside, everything resolves quite simply and easily into ever complex forms: the house is a lovingly restored Tuscan farmhouse; the mind that decorated it is in possession of a taste as impeccable as it is idiosyncratic; the servants and the butlers coalesce in the face of lovely, smiling, competent Rasika; la baronessa proves to be both haughty and entirely approachable, frail but with amazing reserves of energy and will; the walls are full of a who’s who of 20th century modern art. Italy, Florence, even Tuscany, they all shrink and fade away outside these walls. Only the Valdarno remains in the distance, shimmering beyond the trees that Beatrice planted here half a century ago. The grounds, of course, resemble the house. There are juxtapositions, parallels: the yard could be a living room, the olive grove a great ballroom, the pool a spacious, luscious bathroom to have affairs in. Many leafy corridors and hallways connect them. Instead of modern art, the primeval art of botany and garden-making. Trees and flowers, bamboo groves, bushes, pots in the shape—please, you have to believe me, these are not the musings of a fabulist but the account of a war correspondent—of Medusa heads. The grounds are staring into a mirror and there they see the house—or the reverse. Here you wake up at dawn to the silence of screeching owls, to the silence of many small animals moving furtively, to the silence of the vast conspiracy of trees, some mornings to the phantom sound of the bell that begins in silence, comes from silence, from within it and outward emerging, a companion to it or an ingredient itself. This is not your normal residency. It is, like others like it, remote, yes. Beautiful, yes. Entranced by its own aesthetics, true. But there is also something deeper at play here. A chord that rouses the creative mind, the mind that only wants to sleep, it rouses and then summons it, like that silent sound of the bell hanging from the tree. When my three weeks were up, I left Santa Maddalena in the middle of the day, under the golden dome of Tuscany sunlight. The house with its ivied walls receded in the rearview mirror. I left like a burglar leaves the house he’s in the process of robbing, or like a sleeper vacates his green and golden dream. Much progress was made here, and still my work is in the very early stages.

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