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And Ifrid the Fisherman began: "Know, O Demon, that in days of yore and ages long since past, a king called Yunan reigned over
Since my return from the hospital I've become aware how much my eyes have deteriorated. Writing and reading eighteen twenty hours a day and half the night (sleeping pills hardly do a thing anymore) have taken their toll. I don't want to get used to wearing spectacles all the time (my colleague Goethe didn't like them either). For short-range viewing they've been indispensable for years (as they were for him as well). Things look hazy as though they lay behind a pane of fogged-up glass. But my long-range vision always used to be quite good. Good enough at any rate to let me drive a little faster than most people. Now I'm beginning to wonder. And I'm not the only one. I've had quite a few comments lately on how heavy the traffic can be (as though I were already having to tap my way through it with a cane).
I've begun to play a game that keeps my mood appropriately bleak. A sort of auscultation of my existence in this world. When my eyes come to rest on some particular object--the huge insect skull of a biker veering abruptly around the corner a green left-turn arrow by the flashing red of a traffic light the white of the eye of a daredevil pedestrian in the metallic roar of the city's bedlam--I look at it distinctly but not as part of what surrounds it. It detaches itself from its context then becomes more perfectly isolated the more tightly I narrow down my lids to fix its contours. It presents itself in meaningless importance like a recruit who steps out of line bellows his name and then leaps back into ranks. He is announcing his own essential anonymity. It's only the categories that count.
At home I practice this game as a sort of optical calisthenics. Other sorts have been recommended to me: for example pumping away on a stationary bicycle to promote good circulation. Fortunately the bicycle is in the big house along with all the other fitness equipment. We live in the tower. Supposedly just for the time being. Though it's beginning to feel permanent. For my optical gymnastics it's just the thing. Each window offers a splendid view. The days are glorious: skies blue after gray weeks in which a wintry spring dabbed the countryside with stingy bits of green. Not what one would expect of Italy. But even changes of climate can be gotten used to. It's as if the weather were under EC jurisdiction. Naples gets the same as Scotland; one place is just like the other. Not long ago the nights were still frosty but now things are shooting up all over. A gleaming sun hidden intermittently by the diminutive clouds gliding past--all at once it turns bitter cold--coaxes up a glimmer of new grass whenever it reappears. Nature giving a polite biological smile as if to reassure us that it will be some time yet before we have the ozone hole gaping open directly above our heads. Suddenly flowers are everywhere--wisteria on the walls above the golden-yellow fields of rapeseed a froth of cherry trees in the vegetable garden--a horticultural hi-de-ho! Only the summery hum of insects is missing. The bees are dead. A plague wiped them out say the padres of Vallombrosa who lost dozens of colonies. (Colleague Milton's "Vallombrosa, where the Etrurian shades / High over-arched embower." Paradise Lost. No wonder: the fellow was blind.) Even so: the walnut tree doused with acid rain now has buds popping out of its unharmed limbs.
I direct my optical gymnastics to the south where you can see the farthest--nothing but forest. Or rather what goes in these parts by the name of bosco: a tangly profusion of stunted oak beech ash chestnut acacia. Nothing like a proper timber forest. No unicorns stepping out of the morning fog into the Caspar David Friedrich light. (Childhood's enchanted forest: " 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe . . .") To be sure, the view from above does give the impression of a woodsy mass thickly matted with an underbrush of laurel elderberry holly. Here and there interrupted by the yellow explosions of broom and ornamentally overgrown with the Art Nouveau tendrils of wild ivy anemones and blackberries. I take in the landscape in leaps and bounds adjusting my pupils from near to far and back and forth and to and fro darting from detail to detail as if twisting the lenses of a telescope into focus. The region is mountainous hilly--furrowed lengthwise with deep ravines where the earth has subsided into crevasses in which slender rivulets cut into the rock. The red clay walls are as steep as the cliffs of a coastline. They are what have saved the countryside for miles around from the construction craze that has taken over Italy's fresh-out-of-the-oven industrial society.
We live in the tower because the perpetual process of renovation and refurbishing has finally succeeded in transforming the big house into a junk heap of a construction site for the manufacture of its ideal form. I admit the house does invite tinkering. Like many others of its type--the so-called case coloniche being the homes of tenant farmers dating back to the period of Tuscany's settlement in the fourteenth sixteenth and eighteenth centuries --it was originally devised for two families who lived cozily with all their livestock beneath a single roof. It was half caved in when we took it over twenty-five years ago: bedded in kneehigh meadow grass beneath a snow of acacia blossoms. Swallows that had encrusted the roof with their nests swarmed about the house (as the bees had once swarmed about their hollow trunk). By the time we got it back in shape the nests had been destroyed and the swallows were gone leaving us with a maze of stables rooms hallways closets whose functions and furnishings are still under discussion. No sooner has perfection been achieved in one corner than something in the next is in need of repair and the mere thought of some necessary operation is enough to get B.'s aesthetic juices flowing. I keep toting my things from one niche to the other: the paradox of a domestic nomad. The swallows never returned.
The tower stands at a distance of one hundred paces from the house: the stub of a medieval signal tower one of whose missing stories we have restored. Furnished as a guest suite it has turned out to be much cozier and better suited to our needs than the big house. Bruce Chatwin wrote several chapters of his novel On the Black Hill here; he loved the tower. So do I. The only nuisance is traipsing back and forth to fetch the items I've forgotten to bring with me from pieces of clothing to reference books. But this too is secretly part of my strategy. I'm doing my best to avoid getting settled in one spot for good. Not only because the doctor has ordered exercise and the trips from tower to house and house to tower replace the walks he emphatically prescribed (I admit more symbolically than anything else) but also because I don't want to give up my freedom. An old man's hardheadedness, I know. In all likelihood motivated in part by superstitious sleight of hand. Overly rational systems of order make me feel rebellious. I shy away from all forms of planning; I don't trust them. All my life I've subscribed to the principle of carpe diem. Which doesn't mean my life was all luxurious leisure. (Is there anyone out there who remembers what this means? Leisure . . . how distant now is the age when days offered themselves up to us as vessels made of light that we might fill as we chose! . . . Does any such thing exist for young people today? I don't know. I don't know today's youngsters: I know only youthful oldsters and the sort who were old the day they were born.) In any case I've practiced carpe diem for three-quarters of a century. Not always in idleness. Not always at leisure (in the best sense of the word: having free time at one's disposal). But always on the alert ready to adapt to changing circumstances. This is a necessity. The second half of this century--compared with the first--was suspiciously quiet at least at the sites of major conflagrations. (Gathering strength for another shot at the Final Solution?) Now things are beginning to stir again. It's time to be on the lookout for surprises. The hours might change their shape and makeup without warning. The situation taxes one's existential adroitness. "Life is a white-water boat trip" my father used to say. Time whisks us through treacherous rapids shallows whirlpools. I like to think I've been a skillful canoeist. I'm not old enough to give it up yet.
Superstitious sleight of hand (I'm repeating myself) for conjuring up reality. Household magic. In Italian the word is scaramanzia: you speak of bad things to conjure up good ones. I'd like to preserve my youth by acting like a cantankerous old man. (Actually it's more the opposite: I behave in a rigorously youthful manner so as to cash in on sentimental credit for my age.) I accept the touching solicitude of the women in the house (Anna and Fedora and recently also Aisha and Leila from Marrakech) with the equanimity of a pasha at the same time making it clear I can be moody if provoked. Certainly I'll defend myself against crass violations of my property rights over my own physis. They've given up trying to ply me with miracle cures as well as belated prophylactic care. (It's alarming how obsessed German family periodicals are with this. The "strength and beauty" wave of my youth has subsided into a decaying emaciated corpus of homespun pointers on avoiding skin-cancer-promoting sunburn heart attacks sweaty hands and stress-induced ulcers. My colleague La Rochefoucauld says there is no more burdensome illness than constantly being concerned about one's health.) The hybrid blossom of natural medicine (correlative to the destruction of Nature). All wasted on me. I don't need herbalist quacks and thalassotherapists to point out that my body is showing signs of wear. Standard scientific medicine is quite adequate to the task. It has convinced me that my life hangs by a thread. Supposedly this thread can be lengthened by carting me from one operating room to the next. The operations produce so-called side effects. These must be eliminated with the help of additional operations (which in turn produce side effects). Tasks for a mechanic. For herb teas birdseed diets acupuncture and yoga eye hair and foot-sole diagnoses it's too late for me. I have also refused to change the position of my bed which is possibly located above a subterranean rivulet. Nor will I let them give me injections in my various scars to get the blocked circulation of vital magnetic currents flowing again. (What would be the point? A youthful blunder that landed me in a dueling fraternity left me elegantly carved up; though not nearly as generously as my recent encounters with surgeons. But as the Viennese like to say: it adds up.)
Nevertheless I am prepared to make concessions. Treatment by autosuggestion. (In my day this was called the methode Coue.) I tell myself I'm still hardy enough to withstand the next surgical procedure. Whenever I walk from tower to house--for instance to fetch a new stack of books to strain my eyes with--I thrust my shoulders back and my chest forward and take several deep breaths: the starting position for all calisthenic activity. That's plenty of activity right there. After all it's the psyche that produces the therapeutic effect. I do grouse a bit (recalling similar tortures in early childhood) when my clothing is laid out for me according to the weather reports on television (once it was the coachman's rheumatism). (B. displays an energetic decisiveness that would make her the envy of a Swiss social worker.) I drag my heels but in the end I'm grateful. I despise undershirts wool scarves warm headwear--but I admit they're warm. (Senile contradictions: I also hate nightshirts but have gotten used to them in hospital beds.) I don't make a fuss when they tell me how all these things are in my best interest and that I really must show some consideration for my advanced years and fragile health; and I do understand that taking one's pills regularly is a matter of conscience. I've also accepted the strict rationing of my alcohol consumption though I reserve the right to go just a bit overboard on occasion. But all the commotion about my deteriorating physis gets on my nerves terribly. I am more than just an ever more infirm body. Mythological phenomena can be observed in me. For instance the quickening of the spirit with Dionysian flames. So that extra drop is sometimes essential. B. takes it personally: she's being wronged.
I find all this doubly irritating since I am overly self-involved to begin with. Perhaps egocentrism is a sign of old age. Perhaps navel-gazing is the essence of a writer's existence. (The self as focal point for both short- and long-range vision.) At any rate my life these cool spring days is marked by an unambiguous symbol of dotage. Emblem of an old man's decrepitude and his right to special treatment: the bedpan. It is my own personal contribution to my senescence. I brought it back with me from the hospital (in Italian they call it pappagallo). It too is linked to many a childhood memory though it isn't the same as the good old pot de chambre ("Potschampa" we said in German) of weighty porcelain that became the object of the bitterest nursery-room power struggles between my sister and me and that modernday interior decorators purchase from antique shops to use as vases in their living-room designs (household gear of yesteryear). When I was a child the chamber pot was a standard feature even stowed beneath the bedside tables at provincial hotels where it summoned up visions of traveling salesmen's erotic exploits. (Voluptuous beauty in Victorian dessous squats barebottomed above it as the delighted voyeur observes.) Now this association-rich item has been replaced by a feather-light piece of plastic. (The pseudo-English governesses once sporadically involved in my education would have called it "flimsy"; but not only the material has been modernized but the design as well: the pappagallo is olive-shaped with a short tubular neck attached to one end; the Germans call it a "bed duck": Bettente--and indeed it does resemble an abstract duck by Brancusi more than the parrot the Italians see in it.) In any case: it says something that I use it with a bad conscience; my embarrassment further prodded by the shy ceremony with which Anna Fedora Aisha or Leila as the case may be slides the pappagallo beneath my bed at night then takes it away warmly filled in the morning after depositing my breakfast tray on my stomach. A fine testimony to the reverence and empathy mothers bring to the shortcomings of their charges--a specialty of Mediterranean women who have managed to remain naive. An archaic level of civilization. Folklore with antique-shop value. Sometimes it makes me want to box their ears.
In a word: I am adapting to my age of nearly eighty. Still there are my eyes. They sting when I open them. As I did not in my youth I now read far too much. (An utter mishmash: Norman Mailer and the Bible Panofsky and Handke and again and again Elective Affinities and The Man without Qualities.) I'm not sure if this is merely escapism or a full-blown addiction. (If I wanted to be thorough I'd read up on what colleagues Pascal Kierkegaard and Heidegger had to say about boredom.) In any case a certain loss of reality does result (with a gain of reality in another dimension). My reading glasses narrow down the concrete world to precisely the same extent that they offer me access to the abstract world of black on white. Now that I need glasses even for long-range viewing I worry about losing myself altogether as a sleepwalker in the never-never land of abstract realities. A belletristic existence. All my life I've found disciples of the printed page suspicious (the sort who read Proust at thirteen and devote the rest of their lives like colleague Borges to collecting literary rarities). Mandelstam's cultural pensioners. But what else is left for me to do? I've done enough traveling. Had enough chaotic love affairs. Truly worthwhile pastimes are hard to come by.
Naturally I'm not the only one inundated with unacceptable quantities of paper. The Brazilian rain forest isn't being razed for my sake alone. Printed matter is a hot consumer item. Without it our world wouldn't be what it is. (Bravo!) Let's not even mention literature and its hybrid proliferations. The amounts of paper routinely and daily consumed are staggering. During my sojourns in New York I'm always shocked at the hundreds of jumbo-sized pages in the Sunday edition of my newspaper. A heavy armful of paper black with printer's ink. An utter mockery of the laments about the dying forests in Maine regularly reported on in this most 'provincial of metropolitan papers. (And when it comes to the news the breakup of the U.S.S.R. is allotted twenty lines at the top ofthe page followed by a foot and a half of department-store ads. All the text is confined to a narrow strip atop each page. A sadist in Virginia slays seventeen black youths. Rarely anything at all about Europe. Seventeen death sentences in China. Scads of victims slaughtered in Peru in Chile in Nicaragua. The zoological species human being is hard at work on all fronts to complete the mission the Creator devised for it. Twelve full pages of film ads. Corruption scandals in the Senate. The news that red beets reduce cholesterol.) And this journalistic excrement isn't the only thing conjuring up a highly questionable reality. Every morning the mailbox overflows with a flood of mass mailings brochures circulars pamphlets announcements that sweeps away all doubts as to the reality of this "reality." (My colleague Nabokov says this word should be used only between quotation marks.) I too am susceptible to the hypnotic power of the printed word. These runes work a strong magic. I direct my revolt against their rapidly accumulating carrier the paper. At times the thought of this insane wastefulness can put me in a rage. I cram the fireplace with every kind of paper in reach (never books: they don't bum well). Struggling in vain with the smoldering bits that won't catch fire properly. My autosda-fe do not cleanse me. I remain a slave to the printed page. Even here in this Tuscan wilderness largely untouched by culture we subscribe to a plethora of periodicals three daily newspapers as well as four weekly and six monthly magazines. Often the day is over before I have absorbed its printer's-ink precipitate. On top of this I myself participate in the production of scrap paper. I too sully page after page on a professional basis. I too attempt to conjure up "reality" by means of runes. A self-consciously fictional reality to be sure (as if that made things any better). In any case I am one of those magicians who turn out fetishes with the help of the rotary press. It's my duty to take my magician's work seriously. I owe it to B. She loves me. (The writer.) The point of my striving to achieve a sensible lifestyle conducive to good health is to enable me to write as much and as well (and as successfully) as possible. I willingly submit. My writing is my life. Constructing a fictional reality comes naturally to me. A dreamer by temperament. A prestidigitator by birth (or vice versa). So I construct my own abstract world. Paper is patient. Over the years I've written my way to the professional title "writer." I'm very conscientious about living up to it. I write regularly (when I'm not reading).
To be sure there are moments or rather hours days weeks when I am incapable of writing. (When I was seeking the hand of my first wife Priska Klara in marriage--preparing for the miscarriage of a bourgeois existence--and was forced to confess to my father-in-law presumptive that I was a writer he gave a worried look down the length of his nose and said "And what do you do when you can't think of anything?") Today this is no cause for apprehension. Half a century of monitoring my own creative psychoses like an orderly at an insane asylum (that's how long I've been writing: half a century!) has taught me patience. B. is anything but patient which makes her tolerance all the more admirable. I placate her with parables (which she sees through). One suspiciously visual analogy was suggested by my pupil calisthenics. The hours and days marked by lack of motivation writer's block and empty-headedness (I say) are perhaps as beneficial to my creative powers as the ravines that protect the landscape here from the threat of cement and mortar. (An appeal to romanticism: B. is a Green Party advocate.) In reality the opposite is true. I fill up these sterile stretches of time with reading matter. Not sparing my eyes I pack sixteen eighteen hours of the day with the fictitious worlds of other prolihc navel-gazers. With no thought to what I ought to fear: literary infection. Fictions giving rise to fictions. Literature born of literature (preferably cribbed from the newspaper). Incestuous intellectual. (My colleague Gombrowicz once said he'd rather be seen as a false count than as an intellectual.) I know I'm a con man in the reality racket. I'm one of the shamans of the runic arts. But I wouldn't want to pull the usual sort of wool over anyone's eyes without at least getting in a wink or two.
This makes me think of Ugo Mulas. His obsession with cleansing photography of the photographic. Of the con game of fictitiousness that its nimbus of objectivity lets it play out even more deceptively than the other arts. (The unreality of reality.) He made prints not only of a motif but also of the image of the film on which it had been captured. He'd have liked best to have photographed the camera as well and behind it himself: as an informer denouncing the eye that kept the lens (the so-called objective) from being objective. I can rememberjust such a selfportrait. (I don't own it: I don't collect souvenirs.) His Etruscan head the almost Slavic boyish face with the full-lipped mouth the short tumed-up nose the high cheekbones and far-spaced gently slanting eyes ("his wide brow wreathed with curls of hyacinth" is perhaps how it goes). A young forest-dweller a faun. In the museum in Volterra such a head is on display. It crowns a narrow blade of green-patinated bronze. A well-developed sexual organ in front and in back the gracefully sinuous trace of a spinal column along with a naturalistic pair of naked feet at the base show it unequivocally to be the figure of a youth. Abstract and elongated like a Giacometti sculpture. It is called Ombra della sera--evening shadow--and there was something appropriately dusky about Ugo's sharp-eyed mildness: a slight sadness that could be brightened by his vivacity but never banished altogether. How amiable he was became apparent in New York. He had come there to photograph the protagonists of the American artistic epiphany: Rothko and Barnie Newman Stella Jim Dine Oldenburg and Rauschenberg Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns (Pollock was already dead)--in short the New York art scene of the 1960s. He spoke not a word of English and crept around their studios in the guise of a smiling camera-clicking deaf-mute and they all adored him and gave him their work although even in those days the zeros on their prices were beginning to proliferate like carp spawn.
He once told me the story of his father: a carabiniere who'd found his way from Sardinia to Lombardy and whose dream it had been to own a bit of land on which his family might prosper. The first part of the dream came true but he got into trouble with the other part. Sending his children to college proved to be costly and long before their educations were complete his property came under the hammer. Ugo described this with a smile: in his eyes that slight sadness that never left them. This was still in the days before his illness. Once he visited us here. The house was far from its recent state of imperfect perfection (before the start of the devastating process of perfecting it definitively). It still stood in the shade of two immense elm trees that eventually fell victim to Dutch elm disease in the late 1970s. The tower was a mere stump. Ugo walked around with his sharp-sighted dreamy eyes and almost forgot to take pictures. At the time there were still a few abandoned case coloniche left in the region (the tenants having traded country for city during the seven fat years of industrial prosperity). He toyed with the idea of buying one for his daughter. The only obstacle being that this would put her too far away from her schools. Soon after he fell ill.
My early companions here: Ugo and Bruce. Both died young. Both fulfilled their artistic promise at an early age. O.W.A.s: the Ones Who Achieved. Young sacrificial victims at the altar of the Great Fetish Art. But even so. (What am I trying to say?)
Among my friends there isn't a one who doesn't envy me for living here. I conduct every visitor to the highest room in the tower. The view there is stupendous. Undeveloped countryside all around; a scant handful of houses scattered in the direction of the Arno Valley the closest one a half hour's march distant.
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