Saturday, April 4, 1992

Letter from Rome

A memoir of writing "The Passionate Pilgrim." Written for Delta-Sky Magazine, 1992. 

It is a mistake, perhaps, to have a favorite hotel.  No stay there can be as fine as the first.  The concierge who proved invaluable has retired, the beautiful tobacconist is married, this time your room has no view.  Each successive visit the place seems worse, until that original memory hurts like an insult.  For though we travel, as V.S. Pritchett says, to “un-self” ourselves, we return to beloved foreign places to find the selves we left behind there.  No, one should not cling to a favorite hotel, not today.

But I have stayed more than a dozen times now at a particular small hotel in Rome, up on the Aventino—the hill that rises behind the Pyramid and the Protestant Cemetery where Keats and Shelley dream on nightingales and skylarks in an Italian eternity.  And not once has the hotel failed to renew itself to me, to have improved:  three fading villas among dignified palms, hidden past ruined ancient walls.  These steep streets were home for the city’s aristocracy for twenty centuries—patrician lives behind statue-studded gates and high shutters, their gardens quiet.

In India, in Polynesia, in Syria, in the most unlikely places, I have met others who frequent this hotel.  (Over the years it has gone from being Rome’s best-kept secret to very well-known indeed.)  Each time we make the same conspiratorial jokes about not telling.  And if I am not forthcoming, it’s because the hotel has a special, private meaning for me.  On one of my first visits I stayed for two weeks.  I wrote a short story; it was published, my first.  Is it any wonder I continue to go back?

1983: I was on my way to Bahrain, in the Arabian Gulf, on assignment. I was twenty-five.  It was April, a curious season in Rome.  The light has a tangible newness, as if spring is an unexpected miracle that can still slip from one’s grasp.  Business was slow and the hotel gave me a room at the top of it lesser villa, beside a school.  Each morning I was awakened by the children assembling in the street, by the Piazza di Tempi di Diana; I knew it was eleven when several primary classes came out yelling for recess; at lunchtime I let the children leave first.

I doubt any of the other guests paid much attention or even noticed the children.  But I was in Rome not on business, or to sightsee, but to bone up on the Middle East and rest after a difficult New York winter.  My personal life was in disarray and I felt ill-prepared to write about a new part of the world for me.  I was out of my depth, and knew it.

Arbitrary schedules suit the mental life of a writer.  They lend organization to a day too easily left blank, time and pages waiting haplessly to be filled.  Thanks to the children, I knew I had nearly two hours of unbroken silence in the morning, an hour around noon after a short recess, then a long break while I and a few hundred hungry Roman kids took lunch.  Just down the Aventino, along the Piazza Albania, were a number of neighborly trattorias; I feasted, read, and tried to convince myself that all would go well.

After lunch there was the long slow calm of the Roman afternoon, the heat becoming acute every day, the light more direct; a time to nap or listen to the BBC World Service via my short-wave.  Those weeks it was Great Rivers of the World.  Stuffed with pasta, I went down the Nile, the Ganges, the Amazon every afternoon, then failed miserably at those literary quiz programs the British seem to invent to reassure themselves.  And as a kind of solace for being a good student myself, I started writing a short story.

My villa, square and stolid and russet-colored, wore its age like elegance.  One entered the garden via a heavy tall black iron gate.  There were always three or four cats yawning at my return.  White glass-top tables and curvaceous chairs sat neatly in the little garden.  Every morning I would sit there for two hours over tea, reading Graham Greene’s essays and worrying about how I would write about the Arabs.  My inexperience made the upcoming assignment seem not quite real, like a misfortune about to happen to someone else.  The clay-faced woman who brought me breakfast and clucked at me as if I were an incorrigible son supported this notion:  the Middle East, she said, was an invention of the newspapers.

But the incomparable beauty of my sixth-floor room was that the villa had only five floors.  The tiled roof was a great terrace that none of the other guests had discovered, and rising from the terrace was a compact stone tower with a brief outer staircase: this was my room.  Inside was a bed, a writing table, a bath with tub and shower, a couple of guest chairs—and out my windows on both sides with shutters flung open, Rome basking like a lion in the April sun.

And up there, in an eyrie the Brownings would’ve loved, my short story wrote itself.  I had already a couple of unpublished novels behind me, but a novel sprawls as it grows and takes up most of the available space in one’s life, like a messy house-guest who installs himself and refuses to leave.  I wasn’t yet familiar with the compact directness by which a short story can offer itself.  And no story had ever offered itself so easily as that one, written looking down on that glorious domed city, and no story has been so easy since.  Each morning after Greene and tea, or each afternoon after lunch, I climbed the six flights to my private study and got to work.  Sometimes my bed would’ve been made by the elderly major-domo of the villa, sometimes not.

It didn’t matter to me.  Each day, the next scene of the story seemed to be waiting in the room for my return, dancing patiently in the air above the portable manual typewriter that I balanced on one chair.  Dialogue had never suggested itself so painlessly, so of its own accord.  I had only to listen to the characters talking, and set down their words.

Afternoons I’d wander down the other side of the Aventino to look in at the Protestant Cemetery, one of my favorite places in Rome.  Most cemeteries seem designed to help people forget rather than remember, but this one, sequestered happily behind high walls and the huge white stone Piramide, feels almost lighthearted, and memorably eccentric.  Each gravestone is individual and remarkable.  Its inhabitants are nearly all foreigners, guests who chose never to leave Italy.  Shelley, or his heart (all that was salvaged from the shipwreck) lies there:  Cor cordium the inscription, “heart of hearts.”  And in a far private corner, thinking his green thoughts in a green shade, Keats, “whose name was writ in water.”

There were always a few doleful pilgrims around Keats’ memorial, usually American female grad students.  I preferred to think of the story of him in his last days, in the now-famous Roman apartment.  Taking his landlady’s horrendous food—she wasn’t about to waste good meat on a dying Englishman—and struggling to the window, coughing blood, Keats sent the tray and muck clattering down the Spanish Steps.  They leave this lesson in Italian manners and English resourcefulness out of the guidebooks.

I go back to the hotel at least once a year now, usually en route through Rome to somewhere else.  The hotel is an excellent decompression chamber from both directions.  It attracts an international crowd, few Americans.  The other guests are usually former clients or their friends; the hotel doesn’t need to advertise.  But why be coy?  Anyone who has read this far deserves to know:  the hotel is the Sant’ Anselmo, on the Piazza Sant’ Anselmo, tel. (39 - 6) 57-81-325 or 57-35-47.

I dream, naturally, of having more than one night there, and in my tower again.  (It’s always taken when I go back.)  I have tried all three villas, and each has its charms.  But in my dream I would have at least three months in that tower room, to take me from winter’s end through spring and into summer.  Enough time for a novel.  That sort of wish is a mistake, too greedy—like having a favorite hotel.

1 comment:

  1. Yes but you have not told us the name of the Hotel - it sounds wonderful