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"The "fascinating and irresistible" portrait of a great but difficult man and a legary island."—The New York Times
On a December morning of the late 1960s, I was sitting by the windows of the Gran Caffè in the piazzetta of Capri, doing the crossword in The Times. The weather was wet, as it had been for days, and the looming rock face of the Monte Solaro dark with rain. High seas, and some consequent suspension of the Naples ferry, had interrupted deliveries from the mainland; and the newspaper freshly arrived from London was several days old. In the café, the few other tables were unoccupied. An occasional waterlogged Caprese—workman or shopkeeper—came to take coffee at the counter. There was steam from wet wool and espresso; a clink and clatter of small cups and spoons; an exchange of words in dialect. It was near noon.
Two tall figures under umbrellas appeared in the empty square and loped across to the café: a pair of Englishmen wearing raincoats, and one—the elder—with a black beret. The man with the beret was Graham Greene. I recognised him—as one would; and also because I had seen him in the past on Capri, at the restaurant Gemma near the piazza, where he dined at a corner table with his companion, and great love of the postwar decade, Catherine Walston. That was in the late 1950s, when I used to visit Naples and Capri from Siena, where I then spent part of the year. One knew that Greene had a house in the town of Anacapri, in the upper portion of the island, which he had visited faithfully if sporadically for many years.
On that damp December morning, Greene and his dark-haired friend came into the Gran Caffè, hung their coats,and sat down at the next tiny table to mine. I went on with my puzzle; but it was impossible not to overhear the conversation of my neighbours—or, at any rate, not to hear one side of it. Graham Greene certainly did not have a loud voice, but his speech was incisive, with distinctive inflections, and his voice was lowered only in asides or to make confidences. It was an individual voice, developed before the great British flattening, when one's manner of speaking might, beyond any affectation of class, become personal speech: one's own expressive instrument casting its spell in conversation. I would in any case have noticed what he was saying, because he began to quote from a poem by Robert Browning called "The Lost Mistress." The poem opens:
All's over then: does truth sound bitter ...
but the passage that especially interested Greene comes later:
Tomorrow we meet the same, then, dearest?
May I take your hand in mine?
Mere friends are we—well, friends the merest
Keep much that I resign ...
He went on to quote the poem's concluding verse, but could not recall the last line. The lines he recited, and repeated, are
Yet I will but say what mere friends say,
Or only a thought stronger;
I will hold your hand but as long as all may—
And then he could not remember the very end. He recurred to this several times, trying to draw it up from his memory, but did not manage it.
When I had finished my coffee and my puzzle, and had paid, and had taken my raincoat and umbrella from the dank stand, I said, "The line is
"Or so very little longer."
I went away at once, back under the rain to the Hotel San Felice—where we used to stay on visits to Capri until, soon after that December trip, we rented, in an old house, a simple flat that became our Capri perch for the next quarter-century. Francis—my husband, Francis Steegmuller—was waiting for me. And of course I told the story, which had already become a story. Francis had met Greene years earlier, in New York, when Graham, with his wife Vivien, was on a postwar trip to America of which he retained few good impressions. Later, Francis and Graham had briefly corresponded. The morning's encounter on Capri seemed to me, and seems still, like an incident from a novel: from a real novel, a good novel, an old novel. And I imagine that it appeared so to Graham also.
That evening, as we arrived at our fireside table in the inner room at Gemma's restaurant, Graham, with his friend Michael Richey, stood up to greet us. We dined together. And so began our years of seeing Greene on Capri.
A day or so later, Graham asked us to lunch at his house in Anacapri. In rather better weather we took the bus up the vertiginous road of the Monte Solaro, the island's presiding dolomitic mountain. Getting out in Piazza Caprile—a farthermost enclave of the little town of Anacapri, which runs along a ridge of the Solaro slope—we walked the couple of hundred yards to Graham's gate. Il Rosaio, as the house is called, sharing its name with an adjacent property, dates in present form from about 1922. It belongs to a period when the ancient rustic architecture of Capri, compact, domed, and curved, was taken up by certain of the island's more worldly residents—and in particular by an entrepreneurial mentor of Capri, Edwin Cerio—as a basis for constructing charming houses: white, but not starkly so; well made but never massive; not luxurious, but comfortable, and appropriate to climate and surroundings. A score or more of these houses, each different but linked in style, are scattered through the island, most of them still in private hands. The danger of such emulative architecture—that it may seem coy, or toy—has long since been exorcised by the Capri climate, which, through seasonal alternations of scorching and soaking, weathers any tactful, durable structure into authenticity. The island's prolific growth of flowering plants, shrubs, and vines does the rest.
The wrought-iron gate of the Rosaio is set into the arch of a high white wall and provided with a bell and bellpull. You walk into a secluded garden reminiscent of Greece or North Africa, and characteristic, even today, of many Capri dwellings where the island's history of "Saracen" assaults by sea, and its once imperative climatic needs, linger in structural patterns common to all the Mediterranean. Intersecting paths paved with old rosy bricks lead, as in a childhood dream, to the obscure front door. The slight suggestion of a maze would have attracted the author of Ways of Escape. The house is small, its ground floor having four rooms and the upper storey consisting only of a single ledge-like space. (At a later time, Graham had a portion of the roof fitted up as a sheltered terrace that looks down the island's long western slope to the sea and over to the cone of Ischia on the horizon, providing vermilion views of extravagant sunsets.) The entire space of the property—imaginatively expanded, by censorious writers on Greene, into a site of sybaritic luxury—is that of a suburban English cottage with its pleasant plot of ground. The core of that particular criticism may be that the Rosaio is not suburban: it is on Capri.
Posted October 17, 2010
No text was provided for this review.
Posted October 14, 2010
No text was provided for this review.