“The keyholes are like little wounds where all the blood seeped out.”
— Yehuda Amichai, “I Walked Past a House Where I Lived Once”
1. Along the Bisenzio
This tributary of the Arno begins in the peaceful, once populous Tuscan-Emilian Apennines trodden by Etruscans, Romans, and Renaissance merchants. Dante sought shelter here but was turned away. Turn of the fourteenth century. Merchants moved art, arms, and embroidered cloths from here to Avignon and back. Fast forward six-hundred years, and German troops, retreating north, are tearing apart the mills and millworkers with bullets, murdering the men they suspect of being partisans and the women and children they believe are giving those men safe harbor. Part mill farm, part silk road, part theater of war. Now it’s a popular place to hike, and a path has been paved along the river that runs the length of the city of Prato, itself an urban tributary of Florence.
A friend, visiting from America, said that coming here he felt crushed by history. He preferred the mountains to cathedrals and frescoes.
COVID days. Most of us walking along the river are wearing masks, but a few of us have let them slip below our noses or removed them to make ourselves seen or heard or to breathe in the early spring air. A wall of jasmine, a spray of elderflowers.
Beyond the mountains is Bologna. To the west, as you walk north, the peak of La Calvana, its bald summit visible from a great distance—from the city below, from the banks of the river, or from the train station platform. Buried on another peak, out of sight, is Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957), author of The Skin, Kaputt, and Goddamned Tuscans. That mountain, Malaparte’s mountain, is known as Spazzavento. Windswept. Malaparte was the kind of writer who put himself at the political center of the events of his day and a version of himself at the center of his books—even those conceived as fiction—about fifty years before someone coined the term “autofiction.” He left this valley to join the French Foreign Legion in 1915, at the age of sixteen, and fought with the Italian army on the Western Front. And later, as a correspondent for the Fascist Corriere della Sera—as the fascist intellectual in Italy—Malaparte described what he saw on the Eastern Front, wrote of suffering and misery and the hypocrisy of the Bolsheviks, which makes his taste for glamour and luxury—for fine clothes and pomade and French literary salons, his movie-set house on the cliffs of Capri—almost understandable, almost an emblem of the defiant human spirit, refusing to give up on oysters and operettas.
Out walking, my friend pointed to these mountains and asked, “What is it about them makes us think they’re beautiful?” He was being serious. He found mountains beautiful and expected me to tell him why. Grandeur? Self-obliteration? Maybe they’re a means of escaping the grind of river towns and wars and the knowledge that some people get to go to La Scala and others report to plastic works factories. My wife’s aunt, for one; ten-hour shifts and comes home to her chickens.
Today the mountains seem not to hide but to bring into relief the news of the murder of a teenage girl out biking in the middle of the day on a pretty country road I imagine is like this one. The first poppies emerging. A stand of elms or poplars. One of the girl’s classmates, probably overlooked by the girl, followed her in his car. And when he saw it was just the two of them out on that road—he in his car, she on her bicycle—he drove straight into her, flattened the bike, and sent her into a ditch. Got out of the car and masturbated over her body as she lay dying.
Dramatized, not described. Malaparte dramatized what he saw. He is so sophisticated it is hard to imagine him ever having had a childhood. A flag on a pole reminds him of an Utrillo blot. The horses he sees all issue from the canvases of Delacroix; to him the horses’ hooves are “women’s feet.” He prefers embellishment to accuracy, set pieces to statistics, the grotesque to the here and now. Yet to read his accounts of war, though they strain credulity, is to tap the principal vein of war’s absurd cruelty. Dogs with their vocal cords cut. A young girl boiled and lathered with mayonnaise for supper. Neapolitan prostitutes wearing merkins because they believed (where did he/they get his/their ideas?) Black American soldiers preferred blonds. An early book, Blood, opens with the dramatic fall of a young woman in the city, her “chest bared, eyes crossed, hair matted, running toward me, her open mouth emitting no screams, a knife in her breast. Suddenly she falls and her head smashes against the pavement. To this day, whenever I pass by that street, I feel I might slip on the spot” (translation mine).
A nutria is emerging from his bandages of tall grass. The sun pours shadows over gallinules on the river, and the poplars in leaf on the other bank look like wads of cotton. Above the old walls, collapsed in places, brick condominiums (1960s) with half-moon terraces modeled on someone’s outdated vision of the future and the block-long neoclassical façade of the semi-abandoned wool mill (1920s). The old station house sticks out of the forest: a square of butter. On the river walk are runners and stretches of waist-high stone wall and sheep penned in an olive grove. Lovely to hear a Chinese-Italian girl trotting past drop her c’s—the Tuscan giveaway. Probably the granddaughter of immigrants who came here to study the textile trade that sprang from the small mills that sprang from this river.
When my friend pointed to the mountains and asked me why we find them beautiful, I thought just the opposite, I thought that we all have our own simulations of that word, that some of us find more beauty in the lavender pouches, say, my wife’s aunt keeps in her chest of drawers to get the smell of burnt plastic out of the wool. And I remembered that the painter Giorgio Morandi lived for a time in these mountains, in a house he shared with his sisters—none of them, I think, ever married. Morandi could see the mountains from his window yet spent most days painting bottles, jugs, and watering cans.
At the end of the Second World War, Malaparte switched allegiances. He became a liaison officer between the Italian army and Allied Forces. And after the war, fleeing, perhaps, retribution from a united Left in Italy, he went to Paris, where he had once been feted and thought he might be again. He thought he could prove to the French that he had, in his way, defied the Fascists. Could cite as evidence his having been exiled to Lipari. Could remind them he’d been placed under house arrest in Capri and, at various times, jailed in Rome. For, he claimed, criticizing Hitler. But in reality he was arrested or exiled because he had siphoned off public funds for himself and poked fun at Mussolini’s neckties.
The neckties may be an embellishment.
In France he began work on his Diary of a Foreigner in Paris, which he believed would capture an important turning point in the history of French civilization—one that happened to coincide with a turning point in his own life. The story is always centered on the character called “I.” But in Paris in the late forties, Malaparte found himself shut out of the salons, accused of being a Fascist collaborator, berated by a mother on a bus: “Italian? So you’re the one who killed my son.” When he met Albert Camus, the author of The Plague implied that Malaparte ought to be dragged before a court and shot.
In his diary, Malaparte says he is witnessing the emergence of a European character, as opposed to a French, Italian, German, et cetera, character, a change he took to be a sign of moral evolution. All his life, wherever he went, he wanted to see change. “What the wish wants to see, it sees” (Randall Jarrell). He died of lung cancer, a Communist. Or a Catholic. Maybe both. I can’t quite remember now. He was intelligent and self-justifying and what we now call problematic. He treasured his dog and got women wrong and pressed the real into the service of the imagination. In his diary he describes a large green cloud above the Seine as “an upside-down meadow” and the lights in the Place de la Concorde appear to him like the sea in Naples “when the fishermen emerge with glowing lamps swinging in the distance on the waves” (translation Stephen Twilley).
2. Tissues for Yellow Springs
I land in Columbus at the end of April. Heather has brought bananas, bottled water, and granola bars for the drive. After a year out of the country, I am touched by the Americanness of the spread. Shoptalk. She is working on a book about crying. As we drive past the horizontal Ohio landscape I remember from college—stretches of open tillable land, new metal roofs on old wood barns, giant satellite dishes—she describes her research into new methods of radical empathy, including a practice among archivists of providing visitors with a box of tissues. Reading the letters, the manuscripts, the notes passed from one author to another, an author’s notes to self—here she takes her eyes off the road to regard me—most visitors are moved to tears.
Now I’m off thinking about my own crying. The moment in The Elephant Man when John Hurt, through his white hood, says: “I am not an animal!” Or reading, at eight or nine, in the upstairs bedroom at my father’s house, a book called Stray, a novel told from the perspective of a cat that one day finds her owner has died in his sleep and must find her way in the world alone—one where she is subjected to animal testing, owner neglect, abusive alley cats. Schmaltz, probably, but what did I know then? Whatever prompted me to keep reading it, to indulge in a good cry, then feel ashamed for crying, then cry again, this time with a touch of guilt about enjoying the crying, Heather must have a name for. All that delicious crying.
The next day, driving back from Chris’s university, talking about Ted Berrigan’s catholic taste in poetry, an openness we both admire—he had defended, of all people, Ogden Nash!—and about how, at the end of our thirties, we have begun to make five and ten-year plans for the projects we had been sure would come naturally, that required no more than weekends off, we pass a pick-up truck on the opposite side of the road, idling on the shoulder beside an on-ramp, both windows down, and a kid—he can’t be older than Chris’s students I’d just read to, or than Chris and me when we first met—has his head planted in the steering wheel. Looks to me like he’s sleeping off one of those cross-state college drives. We’d made them. But Chris says, with a matter-of-factness that I mistake, at first, for a lack of concern, “OD.”
Waking the next morning to the sound of Harriet, their four-year-old daughter, in the room next to mine. She’s having a stern talk with her room. Why, she wants to know, is her babysitter—I think I hear her crying now—her babysitter who had been there just the night before, never there when she wakes up?