Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On Pilgrimage to Wellington: The Road to and from the Shire

Imagine a park high above the city of Wellington, New Zealand, a hemisphere and two seasons away from home.  There was a place where you stand on a woodland trail and look over and up through a canopy of trees into gray December light—it was gray that day, even if the season in the Southern Hemisphere was late spring. 

Wellington slopes as steeply as any city I have visited.  The incline leads from a kind of windy pinnacle (at least in the area where we stayed), the home of colleges and hospitals, down to a bright blue harbor and museums and level ground.  Your legs ached from walking the long journey, and the way back to where we stayed was strenuous as most mountain hikes.

Mount Victoria was our principal hike when my Tolkien students and I visited Wellington.  Small by mountain standards, it lies well in walking distance from the city, and upon its slopes lay the spot where, early in the Jackson movie, Frodo looks down the path, sees the air buckle and blur, and urges his companions to get off the road.  It was a moment in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, and consequently, a moment on that hill took me back to another occasion, many years before and much closer to home.

A moment that, like so many good moments, had begun with a gift.  Bed fast for a summer because of a baseball back injury, I was lucky to have a pair of cousins, both wiser and more hip than I could hope to be; they set before me a copy of  Lord of the Rings—a long book, they told me, to shorten the summer boredom.  And shorten the boredom it did: I read the trilogy three times that summer.  But during that first reading, there was an instant of awareness that sealed a summer’s (and a lifetime’s) devotion to that book, to fantasy literature, and to reading itself.

In chapter 3 of the Fellowship, at perhaps the first iconic moment in the trilogy, the hobbits are leaving the Shire on a mission that none of them truly understand yet.  They encounter the first of the Black Riders, the reconnaissance of the Dark Lord of Mordor.  That moment I remember distinctly, as the hobbits slide off the road into cover, as the Rider paces above them, sniffing for them in country forever transformed for them.

And for me.

My eyes lifted from the page, and I emerged from that world knowing that this story meant business.  It was not the first serious story I had ever read, I am certain; however, it was the first time I had understood the seriousness of a story.  All of a sudden, the elements of the fantastic that had offered escape in the other books I had read no longer offered the same refuges.  They were no longer a departure from reality—not even merely a commentary on reality—but a reality unto themselves, thresholds to a way of apprehending things that transformed me forever and entirely. 

I gave myself to that story at that moment.  To fantasy fiction.  To story in general.  It was life-changing, and I hope all of you have or have had a moment like it, the start of an adventure that tells you who you are.

Thirty-five years later, I would find out some interesting things about that scene.  In a 1938 letter to his publisher, Tolkien maintained that in this very chapter, the story had “taken an unpremeditated turn”.  I can’t imagine that the turn did not lie in this moment,  that it surprised him just as much as it surprised me.  Just as much as it surprised and drew in two of our New Zealand guides—Colin Bleasdale from Flat Earth New Zealand Enterprises, and Hammond Peek who had both worked on the movie (Peek won an Oscar® for sound mixing on Return of the King).  Both told us that this was the moment in the film that sold the story to them,  that drew them into Jackson’s world and Tolkien’s behind it.

Of course, the place was really decades and continents away for me.  A summer, sunstruck and tedious, when it hurt to move and when the only real joy felt like Middle Earth.  It struck me in Wellington how the act of pilgrimage was simply the wedding of yearning and place, that the shrine could be Jerusalem or Canterbury or a tree-hooded road in a park you had never imagined when the journey began.  The journey was always one of soul and heart; yes, it was the travel more than the destination, as wise pilgrims are fond of saying, but there needs to be a place where soul and heart can rest and take sustenance, where they look back in wonder and tell you how far you have come.

We did the obligatory pictures.  I huddled with my students at the spot where Elijah Wood and Sean Astin had eluded Jackson’s Dark Riders, and comedy crept into the journey.  I was reminded that part of the wonder of the stopping place was how things beckoned you not to take the destination seriously, that its greatest importance was, like all other places, as a signpost for where you have been and where you are going.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Friday, November 28, 2014

Of New Zealand, Tolkien, and Pilgrimage

The act of pilgrimage takes a number of turns across a lifetime.  Sometimes you embark with the destination in mind, as medieval pilgrims did to Jerusalem or Rome or Canterbury, and sometimes you find out (as I imagine some of those medieval pilgrims did) that the meaning of the journey lay in the process, in what you encountered along the way. 

We have all heard versions of that simple (and simplistic) “either/or”; it’s not much more profound to say that every pilgrimage is a combination of both the planned and the accidental, the destination and the getting-there.  What interests me today, though, is a different take on pilgrimage—one that arises from both these categories and yet veers away from being comfortably either or both.

Sometimes you are on a pilgrimage, and you don’t notice until you get there.

It’s been eight years since Rhonda and I made the journey to New Zealand, along with several colleagues and a handful of remarkable students from the University of Louisville’s Honors Program.  It was a journey to be envied, if you asked a number of my writer friends: a Tolkien seminar that included The Lord of the Rings, then Peter Jackson’s movie treatment of the great novels, would be followed by two weeks among the film sites in New Zealand.  We carefully selected these students, guided (at least in my case) by their love of the books.  We passed over worthy candidates in a search for those whose application essays showed a respect, a curiosity, and an affection for Tolkien’s work, so in some cases the almighty GPA was less a factor (though these were Honors students with excellent grades) than a passion for the subject. 

It was a good standard to apply.  We chose excellent company—bright and creative, irreverent and intellectually engaged.  I don’t remember what the grades were (A’s and B’s, no doubt), but I remember the people and their work with fondness, as the class evolved into a mutual labor of love.
The trip was, as you might imagine, a kind of crown to the experience.  Yes, they were supposed to work in New Zealand, but I kept assignments feather-light, the idea being to leave them to their resources, to let them become a Fellowship.  All disciplinary matters were in the capable hands of my colleagues, John Richardson and Luke Buckman, and to this day I have no idea whether any student was upbraided or even corrected.

The travel experience was not uniform.  There was pleasant and funny testament to this (one young woman boarded an airplane for the first time, and her exuberant whoop when it lifted off the ground kept me smiling from Louisville to Chicago on the first short leg of the journey), and there were circumstances more perilous and accidental: my passport was “inquired into,” as my name is not the most uncommon in the world, and one young man implied, loudly and teasingly and in the middle of LAX airport, that the inquiry had to do with “alleged connections to the IRA”.  Those connections were so deeply alleged that he had made them up on the spot, but the post 9/11 discomfort in an international airport was, believe me, very real. 

Despite my close brush with cavity search, the rest of the trip to our destination went according to plan.  And here we return to the subject at hand, because it was on a hilly little farm near Matamata on New Zealand’s North Island that it became clear to me how I had been a pilgrim all along.
Some of you may know this story, but when I was fourteen, a baseball injury placed me on my back, more or less, for an entire summer.  It turned out that the problem rose from my having a mild and undetected spina bifida, apparently more common in our region than was known at that time, mostly (oddly enough) in males of Welsh descent.  While I was laid up, my cousins Tom and Gary (two other males of Welsh descent) introduced me to the trilogy in the hopes that a long book could tide me over in a long, inactive summer. 

It did just that.  And in addition, it redefined me, as epiphanies are supposed to do. 

The revelation came for me, as I will tell in the next entry, in the third chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring.   For now, it is better to consider where it led me.  For after having read the trilogy, I knew that my story would center on stories, on reading them and telling them.  I would discover in the years to come that stories were my principal way of understanding the world, of vesting it with meanings both evident and veiled, both communal and deeply private.  Myths were stories, after all, and through telling tales we brush the edge of myth, even now in a world where the most simplistic among us pride themselves in being myth-free. 

It was a lesson I took with me, through college and graduate school, to my stay in publishing and on into writing, through my conflicts with fellow academics who considered the trilogy a “children’s book” without having read the trilogy (or, I would guess, much children’s literature), and who considered me (verbatim) “not a real writer” for embracing Tolkien, heroic fantasy, speculative fiction in all its shapes and forms.  Things have changed with the academicians, and with me as well, because it took me a while to realize that my journey and its branching, resultant conflicts were all pilgrimage as well.

On the Matamata farm it hit me.  This was a place Jackson had negotiated with a sheep farmer, who refused to speak to the eminent director until a contested televised rugby game was complete.  This was the place that housed the movie’s version of Bilbo’s Party Oak and the opening scenes set in the Shire.  Green slopes tumbled down to a fence row and a small, weedy pond not much bigger than the one in my grandfather’s east field, visible from the house in which I had read much of Two Towers.  The smell rose in the warm December air, fragrant and fresh, though there were sheep turds underfoot you’d have to watch for.  One of the students sat on the slope above what had once been Bag End, which was now a white oval framework bedded in the bright green of the hill, and he leaned on his knees, quiet and teary, on the edge of being overwhelmed by his emotions, fixed to this spot he was no doubt coloring and peopling in his memory and imagination. 

I sat down by him, put my arm around his shoulders.  Cautioned him that, if he started to cry, I would, too.  We looked off to the west, at the tree and the pond, each imagining a different Shire that was our mutual destination and home.  One of the young women produced a recorder and began to play the soft, solitary theme song of Jackson’s trilogy, and it never sounded so good and so lonely and so transformingly communal. 

It was, indeed, the stuff of pilgrimage.  The search for meaning and healing, in which the destination is less the goal than the place you set down the things you carry.   ©2014 Michael Williams

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On the Pont d'Aël and the Colossal Wreck of Time

It was 40◦ C in Aosta that afternoon.  I was afraid to do the computations, and I wasn’t yet aware that this would be the night I spent in a lawn chair on the balcony of the flat, hopeful for breezes and night air. 

After helping grade the examinations in what would be my last duty of the term, I took off up into the Alps with my colleagues and friends, Anna Anselmo and Rosie Crawford.  We were headed toward the bridge at Pont d'Aël, the largest and most formidable of the bridges in the region. 

 I was assured that at that height the temperatures would be more forgiving, and Rosie drove us smoothly over the narrow, winding roads, pointing out the occasional sites of stories that were what I would call “Italian Gothic”—tales of child-murder and isolation, strewn with public and private tragedy.  We stopped for a drink part of the way to the site, as Rosie parked the car with magnificent disregard for traffic laws and we headed to a little pub equipped with good beer, a friendly Corgi, an overlook of Alpine meadows, and a cool late afternoon that gave respite from the heat in the town.

We were hastened, not rushed.  Most Italians are not rushed.  But if we were to meet our colleagues for dinner at Taverna di Gargantua (which was, by the way, a remarkable little restaurant back on the outskirts of Aosta), we would have only a small space at Pont d'Aël.

It was to be an exalted space. 

We walked out over the bridge (which had served as an aqueduct in the first century of the Christian era).  It spanned the rapid current of the Torrente Grand Eyvia, a stream or creek full worthy of the name Torrente.  The Grand Eyvia rushed south under the bridge, its roar audible even from the great height of the  Pont d'Aël as it was lost in the narrowing tunnel of bluff and pine and bright deciduous green.  Again I thought of Shelley’s brush with the sublime at the foot of Mont Blanc, not an hour from where I stood:
                                Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness…

It was Anna, more compassionate than I, who speculated as to how had many lost their lives in the building of this structure.  She was right, of course, but it was a thought lost to me in the huge sublime of history.

This bridge, like all Roman structures, was built as a show of imperium.  Of course it provided transport and water—I’m not denying that—but the idea of it all was more than pragmatic: it was a footprint, a sign or presence and dominance, and as I thought that, Anna’s observation resonated in melancholy and irony. The inscription on the bridge attributes its making to a Caius Avillius Caimus, who, along with Augustus himself, are the names commemorated on the structure, while hundreds, perhaps thousands, labored in anonymity on a span that is nearly lost now, the roads to it obscure and narrow and winding, the woods encroaching to claim it.  The Pont d'Aël, Rosie told us, is relatively unknown even by the neighboring school children, though efforts have been made to acquaint them with the history of the region. 

I thought of Shelley again, a line from another famous poem: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.  We took a selfie atop a 2000 year old effort at permanence, at the longevity of names and images.  I think we were aware of the ironies.  At least Rosie, who knew the valley the best, mugged amusingly as the day slid into evening for us all.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On the Roman Bridge in Aosta

Next to the other two bridges I consider in this triad of entries, the little Roman Bridge in Aosta is smaller, more sunlit, more wed to the business and architecture of the town that grew up around it.  Small enough to be considered charming, lined with 17th century shops and dwellings, it is domesticated unlike the bridges at Pont d’Aël or Pont St. Martin. 

And yet a message survives in its making, its orientation—difficult to translate at this late date, but still apparent if you simply follow your gaze west through the town.

The little bridge empties on its western side at a spot where you can look across a leisurely circle of road, neither compact nor businesslike enough to be called a roundabout.  The circle hedges in the great Augustan Arch of the town, and standing at the foot of the bridge, looking through the arch, you can catch a glimpse of further structures—the Praetorian Gates, and to the right of them, scarcely visible above the rooftops, the ruinous scaenae of the Roman theatre.  It is a rhetoric of arrivals, far smaller and less intimidating that the paths to the Fora in Rome, but a formidable approach nevertheless.

The terms under which you make the journey have changed in two millennia: time was when you were to be awed by Roman power, here at a far-flung outpost where the builders would no doubt have been insulted to hear their bridge described as “charming”.  Instead, they would have thought in terms of imperium, that quality, according to Cicero, sine quo res militaris administrari, teneri exercitus, bellum geri non potest (which, if my Latin is not far more ruinous than the bridge, translates to something close to “without which military matters cannot be governed, the army cannot be held together, and war cannot be waged”). These days imperium is masked by the layers of years, but a straight arrow shot by an archer more powerful than we could imagine could carry through two arches toward the far end of Aosta, where Mussolini’s wolves, symbols of two imperial visions layered atop each other, would mark the end of the line.

This is not an elegy about Time’s erosions.  Things have worn away, indeed, but what interests me is what is still there.  Imperium remains by implication.  You have to look for it in a latter day, removed from the time in which it towered in front of you in confrontation. Instead there is the loud daily life of the town, giving the impression of variety and scarcely guided chaos, as the souvenir shops clamor for your attention in the streets and you have to look and dig, intuit and guess, before you can see the direction of it all, the map that underlies generations of maps, the history that still shapes us as we travel unaware.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On Bridges #1

They figure largely in the stories I know and love, from the Billy Goats Gruff through Horatius at the Sublician Bridge.  Concord, Kwai, Remagen, and Khazad-Dum.  Almost always at a moment of reckoning, in a crucial juncture in some history. 
Of course, we wouldn’t know these bridges were it not for what happened on or across them.  But they are a transitional structure, liminal and also rhetorical in their insistence that they are the one and only way across a stream, a river, a gorge or chasm.  Perhaps we make them beautiful because they embody a language of connection—of links between what we know and what we have yet to discover.
Among its Roman ruins, the Aosta Valley contains three notable bridges: the Pont de Pierre in the town of Aosta itself, the Pont-Saint-Martin, and the Pont d'Aël.  All are remarkably preserved—the Pont de Pierre a bit occluded and domesticated by the late medieval buildings that surround it—but each suggests at more than a simple overpass or viaduct.  They are part of the Roman language of conquest, if you look at them carefully and consider what you see.
Of the three bridges, the Pont-Saint-Martin (built probably sometime in the 1st century BCE) is the most famous.  A medieval legend has attached itself, and it goes something like this: Saint Martin, the Bishop of Tours, was returning to France, but found his way blocked by the river Lys, which had swept away the only crossing passage during a flood.  The resourceful saint cuts a deal with the Devil, who promises to build a bridge over the river in exchange for the soul of the first one to cross it.  Martin accepts the proposal, but in a nice reversal of the “devil in the details” stories we all have heard, triumphs on a technicality: he throws a piece of bread across the river, enticing a hungry dog to cross, thereby foiling (and infuriating) the devil, who vanishes in the river with a sulfurous explosion, leaving the bridge behind.  The carnival at Pont-Saint-Martin celebrates this confrontation, and concludes by burning an effigy of the devil under the bridge.

A fanciful story, its rhetoric evident.  The Romans and their culture translated into devils and demons, the bridge baptized in a display of Christian ingenuity.  Christ supplants Caesar in the clear-cut dynamic of good and evil, the burning effigy a fire ignited early, not long after the great transition of Constantine and Rome’s official embrace of the Faith (both Constantine and St. Martin are 4th century figures).  The Pont-Saint-Martin spans an historical era, the passage from one world to the next.  Of the three bridges, this one has the clearest argument: you have to look closer to read the others.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Saturday, August 9, 2014

On Visiting and Staying: A Reflection

Everyone recognizes that our style of living when we travel is much different than when we stay at home.  The anonymity of the hotel room, the level of observation when sights and sites that are everyday to a resident are things that we, as visitors or vacationers, see for the first (and possibly the only) time.  Understandably, there’s a tolerance (especially in tourist areas) toward the blunders and misdirection of strangers: despite American tourists’ return to the States with horror stories about our mistreatment at the hands of resentful locals, I’ve received far ruder treatment from my countrymen than I ever do from people I meet abroad (though I’m sure the Italians have their share of inhospitality, you’re not very likely to find it in a tourist area, where livelihood depends on courtesy to strangers, and sometimes even the most discourteous ones).

So it’s different when you travel from when you stay.  But when have you ceased to tour and begun to take up residence?  I think I have a domestic streak that finds myself at home readily—a lucky quality to have as a traveler.  When I return to lodgings after only several days, there is a sense of gaining my bearings, as though some interior sense of balance is restored in the play where I am staying, the vestibular system signaling my acclimation, the road anxiety kicking back into my recesses.  The flat in Aosta with its long corridor, bulky, almost monumental furniture, and glimpse of the Alps over the rooftop (I've inserted pictures of both), became home within the week, and the neighborhood became my neighborhood (after one irritating and hot afternoon of getting lost only a block or two from the place).  I adjust easily: as habitual as the old man I am becoming, my first trepidation at any change falls away quickly, and I find the routine in the strange and set my feet there.

But how does the transition go?  When do we stop visiting and start staying? 

You begin to stay, I think, when domestic tasks return to your daily patterns.  You cook at home, clean the apartment, shop for groceries and for little, temporary items (a paring knife, a cheap alarm clock) unavailable in the place you are staying. The curiosity of Italian supermarkets—handling the fruit and vegetables with plastic gloves, large butcher shops and a dearth of pre-packaged meats, the glory of an extensive wine aisle—becomes customary eventually, and you adopt a version of the pattern you had at home.

You begin to stay when you learn your neighbors.  When you have neighbors, actually. The woman at the laundry who knows no English and negotiates task and cost through signs and pantomime, the brilliance of her invention a source of marvel to you at first, but customary as you return.  The barber who slyly compliments your virtually non-existent Italian, and reveals on the second visit that he was a jazz drummer back in the day, in Greenwich Village, showing you his CD, where his own able compositions are fitted among popular standards like “Over the Rainbow” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”.  The lovely green-haired young woman behind the counter in the bakery, who begins to use your visits as an opportunity to learn English and progresses remarkably as the weeks unfold, her learning curve a product of intelligence and youth, but also an intense curiosity about the world around her.

You begin to stay, oddly enough, once the wanderlust returns.  When there’s a part of the town or the region that provokes another curiosity, sets your steps away from the neighborhood—your neighborhood by now—toward a new street, a new stop on the rail or bus line, toward a land you have heard of.  You begin to stay when you become restless, and in that sense, staying is a prelude to wandering once again.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Saturday, July 26, 2014

On Owning Up

I’ve told my travel writing students to check facts.  It’s not simply a matter of honesty, though.  Very often questions of courtesy arise out of the impulses of responsibility, and the issue is not only one of truth but of an even wider integrity.
Which is why, today, I am owning up about my Ljubljana entry late last month.  That it was an honest error I hope you’ll believe.  But I stand here corrected nonetheless, and in a way I hope will enlighten some of you as it did me.

A while after I posted the article about our Slovenian trip, I received an email from my friend Vlado, who corrected—with his typical graciousness and good humor—a mistake I made in the chronicling.  Let him speak for himself, in the words of his amiable letter:

by the way - got a phone call from Slovenian president (it is a small country!) and some "anonymous threatening letters" (probably nationalists) about that "jeans matter”

Typical of his humor—sly and playful—but he goes on to make a point about a situation that at some time I had known, but had conveniently shed the knowledge as I wrote my entry on Ljubljana:

former Yugoslavia had quite open borders and also all same/similar consumer goods as in Italy/Austria and rest of the Europe (of course there were some import restrictions as well, but only for very special goods or quantity limits for personal import)... so - no typical "border bribes" in form of jeans.   I'd been talking about Czechoslovakia and Russia (Soviet bloc - no jeans or jeans factories there) - former Yugoslavia was not in the same bloc.

Yes, I’d known about Yugoslavia’s non-alignment under Tito and after, known that the more open borders and the dramatically varied terrain had served as locations for U.S. and Western films as varied as Kelly’s Heroes to portions of Fiddler on the Roof.  But one border story—Vlado’s about crossing into Czechoslovakia in the old days—had dispelled my previous knowledge and pushed me back onto the stereotype of my American raising: how everything behind (or even remotely around) the “Iron Curtain” was barbed wire and statues of Stalin, tinted in relentless grayscale and sunless because we chose to see it that way.

And Vlado, gently but with a focused wisdom, pointed to the heart of the error:

seems in the rule, "the big one" or isolated countries don't have much or correct information about the rest of the world (or perhaps even about real situation in their own country - who knows)... on other side small nations/countries collect all possible information and learn as much as they can about big countries - what do you think?

Well, Vlado, I think you may be right.  Bargaining and traveling from a tradition of economic and global privilege that has lasted my life, my countrymen are too ready to assume that the world is the way we see it, forgetting that we bring the vision, the outline, the colors of the country with us on our journey.  We characterize others according to the images we have nurtured and often distorted for generations (and I believe other countries more economically powerful do this as well—particularly Russia and China at the moment) and are surprised when others don’t match our assumptions.  And yes, smaller countries do this as well—it’s all part of what Richard Pryor used to characterize as “a lot of people getting together to not understand each other,” and therefore part of a human condition.  But maybe people in power tend to misunderstand more because the margin of error is greater. 

What to do about this?  Listen, read, and be willing to stand corrected—all difficult activities for most Americans I know, and I trust the resistance can be found in  other countries as well. But you can still be who you are, stand in integrity, and do those things.  Some of our biggest mistakes come when we think we can’t.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On a Side Trip to Ljubljana

I remember a melancholy conversation, twenty-five years ago or so, with a dear friend of mine who had spent a large part of his childhood in Mexico.  He was telling me about a recent trip there, and about his return, standing at the very edge of Texas and looking south across a rather sparse and forbidding landscape.  Thinking of Mexico, thinking, I wish, just once, that God would bless this country.

There are places throughout the world where that thought arises, and at the time when we were having that conversation, Slovenia was one of them.  Part of what we called “the Soviet bloc”, it was lumped with a dozen or so areas in Eastern and Central Europe that the American schoolchild was hard pressed to distinguish or even identify—which one, after all, was Estonia among those former republics along the Baltic?  They were the villains in our Cold War mythology, or at best the unwilling but submissive assistants to the villain—a villain who wore Khrushchev’s or Brezhnev’s face, and had promised to bury us just as it had buried them.

You could see traces of a sorrowful history in the small antique market set up on Sunday morning along the banks of the Ljubljanica: from the imposing Habsburg architecture to the medals adorned with the SS runes and the swastika, the Soviet red star. 

Surely, after of centuries of this, God would bless this country.

And sure enough, the signs are there.

Traveling north with Vlado (whom we met before in Prague [see the January 19th entry] and Rudi, our Slovenian friends, we watched the landscape change from the dry, poplar-studded Italian terrain to something more mountainous, thick with evergreens, familiar sights to those whose vistas include the American North.  A terrific ice storm had struck this region in late winter, and all around lay the wreckage of trees, and far from the highway, the occasional collapsed roofs of older buildings.  But it was a healthy land just dealt a punch, by no means a chronic condition.

And that health extends to the human landscape.  As we neared the Slovenian border, Vlado, always one for smart (if prankish) humor, asked us if we had our passports.  As I reached for mine, he broke into a grin, announcing, “Because you don’t need them!”  This not only marked what I really did not realize until this year—the friendly and convenient fluidity of European borders—but also was the occasion for our friends’ recounting of times they passed through checkpoints when they were twenty-five, thirty years younger.  Apparently, those gates were not manned by Kalashnikov-toting party faithful, but usually boys like they were themselves back then, sleepy and bored and bribable, Vlado assured us, for a pair of Levis.  He said that you never knew, the fact that I was wearing jeans that day might end up coming in handy.

Embarrassing as well, I thought.

After my travels in Budapest and Prague, I had suspended most preconceptions as to what I would find in a Central European capital.  Even so, Ljubljana is a fresh and beautiful surprise.  Its central city reminds me of Dublin’s for some reason—curled around the banks of a quiet river, a wedding of 18th century streets and modern boutique commerce.  The weekend we were there was a bit overcast, but I’ve found that the clouds and the banked sunlight evoke the brighter colors in older areas of European cities—Dublin and Venice and Prague and now Ljubljana, all of which emerge beautifully in a grey day.  If you take the funicular—one of the inclined railways you see on occasion in this part of Europe (though this is one of the nicer ones)—you arrive at Ljubljana Castle, where a once-military view of the city, where the brick-red roofs of the central pedestrian zones give way to a modernized, extraordinarily new-looking expanse of cityscape.  You wonder how Western attention has passed by this beautiful place, and part of you suspects that the oversight hasn’t been the worst thing in the world for the city.

In its central areas, Ljubljana is a community of statues.  Poets and artists, for the most part, and it was humbling to realize that 1) these were exactly the people I always maintain a city should honor, and 2) that I recognized so few of them.  Among them were France Prešeren, a Romantic poet known for historical and mythic narration as well, and Jože Plečnik, an architect who virtually defined the look of this city.  Prešeren is for another time, perhaps: I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read a line, and therefore have nothing yet to say.  As to Plečnik, my lack of knowledge is a hindrance here as well, but the buildings make immediate statement to the eye, and what struck me was something that lingers in my thoughts of Ljubljana—its brilliant eclecticism.

Plečnik’s buildings sit side by side with the city’s Habsburg imposition—the monumental, 18th century Viennese declarations of dominance and power.  I mentioned to my resident Plečnik expert, the remarkable 17-year-old David (Rudi’s son and Vlado’s nephew—see again January 19th entry), that the Habsburgs “had a habit of sticking their nose into things,” to which he slyly responded, “and we Slovenians have a habit of complaining about them.”  It was David who pointed out the mix of design and medium that characterized Plečnik’s work—from the wedding of brick and stone in the National Library to the church Rudi took us to at the margins of the city. 

And this quality, above all others, was what struck me about Ljubljana, as well.  The brilliant, improvisational nature of its tradition, both historical and contemporary: from its integrity and artistic rebellions against the cultures that overwhelmed it by force but not by genius, to its transformations within our lifetimes from a world where young men bribe border guards with Levis to beautiful, open-air cafes, where at least half a dozen languages can be overheard at late dinner, it seems to have wedded tradition and change like Plečnik’s merging of brick and stone—a young old city in lovely and fascinating transition.  ©2014 Michael Williams

Thursday, June 12, 2014

On Mussolini's Wolf

Alongside the Roman ruins in Aosta, not far from its crumbling medieval and Renaissance churches,  the Piazza della Repubblica frames a fairly busy intersection, a roundabout on the Via Vodice, a number of vending stands, restaurants and bars.  All kinds of bustle that, if you’re an attentive pedestrian trying to avoid being run over in a crosswalk, might distract you from a good look at the piazza itself, famous for its Fascist architecture and sculpture.

We get uncomfortable with the word “fascist”.  Justifiably, it draws forth nightmarish associations.  Less so in Italy, where the films of Mussolini are generally those of him speaking from a balcony, clownish and overwrought, mugging for the crowds and the cameras.  Our associations are those of totalitarian darkness, wrongful imprisonment: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Pinochet—though not all are technically fascist, we have come to lump their crimes together, and we know them, to some degree, for who they were.  And the art of the totalitarian state has something coercive about it, from Riefenstahl’s breathtakingly beautiful (but malign) Triumph of the Will to the drab depictions of a Worker’s Paradise in Soviet Socialist Realism—all of it, whether technically brilliant or ham-handed, pushes us toward embracing an ideology, a compelled way of life.

But I’ve been struck by the Piazza della Repubblica, and by the revelation that, in this case, I find the fascist art appealing. 

Give me a minute to explain.

Art that enforces an assumed point of view is almost always far down the list of my preferences.  It’s why I never liked Alice Walker, too, by the way (sorry, friends on the Left): when ideology trumps exploration and discovery, when art confirms whatever conclusions you’d already drawn before you encountered it, it loses one of the ways it can best catch on to our imaginations: the challenge of making us consider otherwise. 
Photo: Morgana Germanetto
And the thing about the fascist art of Piazza della Repubblica is that it enforces less than it inveigles.  An obvious thing about the Mussolini period is its adoption of Roman symbols, very often the animal symbolism that accompanied the legends of the empire.  The she-wolf—the legendary creature who nursed Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome—stands atop a column, perpetually framed by the Alps and the deep, bright, merciless Italian sky, so that from a distance she is all the nursemaid a demi-god would want.  But with a closer look, she seems ragged---much more like a wolf in the wild than a symbolic wolf, a mythic wolf.  She is frail up against that deep sky, her legs spindly and braced, both to nurse and simply to stand in two worlds—that of legend, and that of an observed and vulnerable nature.  
Photo: Chantal Piscetta

And the same goes for the eagles facing her, the totemic birds that perch along the gate to the old army barracks, the Caserma Testafochi.  In deep focus behind the guardians of the gate you can see the Roman eagles, symmetrical and abstract, fit to top the standard of a legion, but the guardians are bedraggled, all gristle and feathers, looking back at their ancestors on the cornices of the building, as though they are measuring themselves against the ideal birds, as though they sense the gap of 2500 years.

Photo: Chantal Piscetts
And in this is the challenge and appeal of Mussolini’s artists—that they were better artists than fascists.  Stalin and Goebbels longed for a representative art whose interpretation was simple, direct, and pretty much unequivocal: you look at the statue or poster or film, and you come away with what you expected, with your beliefs affirmed.  Goebbels himself publicly hated everything about Modernism—its fragmentation, its abstraction and suggestion, in short, everything that provoked the audience to imagine, interpret, and think.  Earlier movements such as Symbolism and Impressionism had been condemned as "decadent," as products of mental or visual illness: the artists, quite simply, didn’t see the world the way it was supposed to be seen.

In Italy, though, there was less fear of the difficult.   In fact, many of Italian Futurists—artists who embraced the abstract, fragmented, and mechanized elements of contemporary culture—supported the fascists at first, and before historic parting of ways, had an influence on state art.  And there is something both appealing and challenging in the sculptures on the Piazza della Repubblica: are we following in the footsteps of Rome, or are we haunted by its presence, diminished creatures that can never match its worldly power, though we look over our shoulders at totemic eagles?  The creatures of the piazza challenge us by their associations and positioning: they are examples of symbols caught halfway between heaven and earth, and from that middle ground, casting a kind of ironic skepticism on both the mythic and the natural world, which interpenetrate so thoroughly that, on beholding the wolf and the eagles, you’re struck by the thought that neither world has the whole story.   ©2014 Michael Williams

Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Five Excellent Things About Aosta

I promise that there are even more excellent things to this little town than the ones I list below.  The nuance of a place, its particular beauties, reveal themselves over time, and with a month behind me and a month still ahead.  The sights—the traditional streets, pedestrian and cobbled, with the ancient ruins among them, the churches and the historical record of St. Anselm of Canterbury, the daunting and bedazzling Alps that wall in the town on every side—all are certainly attractive to someone who would want to visit.  Living here, on the other hand, you notice other things: the patterns of daily life that are and are not home.  Having awakened in Italy, I have been learning to follow the life in a quiet, remote part of that country.  And I love the experience, the schooling it gives you about who you are, what you value and assume.
               So here is a list, off the top of my head in no particular order, of five excellent things about the little town of Aosta, which is my current home.  Before I begin, though, I still have to honor the Alps, despite saying above that I would focus on daily, “non-touristy” things.  In my defense, the Alps are the daily backdrop for the Aostans, who awake to the mountains encircling them, green to a height, terraced with vineyards until the soil gives way to the slate-grey rock and above that, so high you have to tilt your head up from wherever you stand in the town, the white peaks, as in the photo from the balcony of my flat.  Mont Blanc is on the northwest horizon, and Shelley was no less impressed with it 200 years ago, although he said it a lot better:

         Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
                   Mont Blanc appears--still, snowy, and serene;
                   Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
                   Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
                   Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
                   Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
                   And wind among the accumulated steeps.

It’s beneath that kind of spectacle that the Aostans live, and from what I can tell, they don’t take it for granted, because who could?  But here are elements more everyday, that upon leaving here, I won’t take for granted myself:

1.      The town is extraordinarily clean.  Each morning the shopkeepers wash and mop down the cobblestones in front of their stores, a dusty stream trickling into the central gutter of the street, like it did in medieval times, then flowing down the sewer grates, leaving the streets not only clear but also scrubbed.  This is by nine in the morning, and though litter may gather on the streets by the end of the day, it’s kept in check by the merchants’ watchful eyes: like good chefs, they know part of the appeal is the presentation, and for someone who comes from the American mid-South, this kind of upkeep is almost glamorous in contrast to home.
      The children are unfailingly fascinating to watch.  Like at home, they come in all shades of hair and skin—slimmer, more groomed, though, and even if the clothes are not expensive brands, they wear what they have attentively, without the high fashion you would find down the road in Milan, or the bourgeois conformity you get used to seeing around town at home, but a simple, elegant mindfulness with a few American-slogan T shirts thrown into the mix.  And it’s remarkable to watch the swagger of the little boys when they’re about ten or eleven: they seem to be waiting for Scorsese’s accelerated frame-speed to slow down the walk, to give it a comic version of the menace and drama of the guys just walkin’ along in Goodfellas or Casino.
      For a town where little English is spoken (as opposed to larger cities like Florence or Venice), the world is surprising easy to negotiate linguistically.  If I say “scusi” or “mi dispiace” enough, people begin to see that I’m sorry, I can’t help being a virtually monolingual American whose feeble grasp of Latin will take me only so far down their road before, if they are kind (and almost all of them are) they have to extend a hand and guide me.  There’s a great passage in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities that it reminds me of, where Marco Polo, newly arrived from Venice, begins to talk to Kublai Khan, the great Emperor:  Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks: ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes--which he arranged in front of him like chessmen. Returning from the missions on which Kuhlai sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret.  I negotiated my laundry with an able, brilliant woman who had not a shred of English: with my dozen or so phrases of Italian, pantomime, pointing to calendars and clocks, we arranged what I wanted done to the clothing (nothing needed dry-cleaning, grazie), how much it would cost, and when I would pick it up.  After which, we stared at one another, sighed deeply and laughed, as though we had carried a piano up a flight of steps together.  Throughout the town, kindness and good humor have met my sparse and damaged Italian, and thanks to laughter and resourcefulness, every job has been done.

4.      At the University, on the other hand, the level of fluency has been a great relief and a godsend.  I knew from preliminary correspondence that my colleagues at the University of Valle d’Aosta spoke English like natives, but it was a great delight to discover the skills of the students.  The conversations were sophisticated, they got my jokes (except for one of them, and I’m thinking it was far more likely that the joke was bad than that their comprehension failed them) and their writing, aside from a few little quirks in phrasing and idiom, might easily be mistaken for that of my own students back in Louisville (and this is not a dig at my Louisville students—the Aosta students were really that good).  I spent two pleasant afternoons walking around town with these young people as I helped them devise and focus the subjects of travel articles I’d assigned them to write: it was discussion, question-and-answer, and undergraduate banter without gaps in communication and interpretation.  I think it was that much more pleasant because I was hungry for English, for good old-fashioned casual talk, and the students I had were bringers of that joy.

5.      Fifth on my list has been the personal joy of new colleagues.  With a small faculty for the English classes, the university has managed to cover a wide range of instruction and do it well.  It’s obvious they work hard, and at a number of universities, and yet it’s all done with good cheer and enthusiasm.  Excellent conversationalists and dinner companions, they all know how to live the life of the mind while having a fond acquaintance with just plain living in general.  So my thanks for hospitality extend to Carlo Bajetta, Anna Anselmo, Rosie Crawford, and my friend the incomparable Allesandro Stanchi, who has kept me from imploding with all the practical matters involved with living elsewhere for two months (those of you who know me well, know that practical matters and I don’t readily mix).  It’s an extension of this town’s kindness, and a pleasure to be taken in immediately and without question as a colleague.

6.      I said five things.  But here’s a little something extra.  Also, alive and well in the culture of Aosta is the concept of what’s called lagniappe in New Orleans.  A custom where the shopkeeper gives you something extra in your purchase.  The most famous example of this is, of course, the 13th item that makes up the “baker’s dozen”, but examples in Aosta have been an extra pair of oranges from a fruit shop, extra portions of fontina cheese, some really decent spreads of food with aperitifs at a restaurant called Ad Forum, and, at a Chinese restaurant off Chanoux Square in the center of the city, an after-dinner liqueur, home-made, that would send Marco Polo packing for the East with “cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings” Of course, a lot of this generosity might come because Alessandro knows everyone…or knows someone who knows someone who knows someone…and it’s that connectedness, that spirit of community, that ties so many of these things together and has become what I love most about Aosta, about the part of Italy I’ve seen in general.   ©2014 Michael Williams

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

On the Ruins in Aosta

tempus edax rerum, tuque, invidiosa vetustas,
omnia destruitis vitiataque dentibus aevi              
paulatim lenta consumitis omnia morte!

My Latin is rusty, but it goes something like this:

Time, devourer of things, and you, jealous Age,
destroy all and, gnawing slowly with your teeth,
a little at a time, consume all in death!

It’s from Ovid, from around the period that the Roman town of Aosta was being built.  Beautiful lines, but nothing unusual in its sentiments about the doings of time.  Time devours, age wears away, and eventually nothing is left of what is built to last for ages.  It’s sobering enough to be no longer sobering, because we can’t think in millennia.  To me a month spreads out like infinite time when I miss my wife and family, and though I know intellectually how short a stint that is, within its span, feeling it with  heart and imagination, it dilates, becomes a small eternity.
               Even more so the stretch of two thousand years, and Aosta is both marked and undergirded by ruins that old.  From the Augustan arch at the eastern end of the central city, the still-dramatic theater closer to where I live, literally down to the tunnels and arcades beneath its medieval and Renaissance street plan, the city is a hive of ghosts. 
               Is there a way of looking at these ruins other than Ovid’s gloomy thoughts about the provisional, the temporary, the way all things must pass?  Probably not for any length of time.  Thinking otherwise must pass, too, and we are left with the transitory state of things.
               I do remember, though, the first Roman ruin I saw.  It was far from here: an aqueduct in North Wales.  I recall marveling that the Welsh narrow-gage train track that once had spanned the top of the structure—probably late in the 19th or early in the 20th century—had fallen to rust and decay, while the aqueduct, though worn and marked by rooted weeds, was still steady and upright.  There are degrees, I guess, of permanence.  There is a kind of lingering at the gate before you go.
               It’s basically common knowledge that all great Roman building depends upon the arch.  Nor are Aosta’s ruins an exception: the great defining structure of Roman triumph is everywhere, from the Praetorian Gates to the venturesome arches of the theater, through which these days, if the weather is clear, you can easily see the Alps.
               Which brings me to something about the ruins that I’ve thought about for several days.  The arch as support is one thing, but it is also a gateway, a passage.  Beneath the Augustan Arch is now a crucifix: the space it covers is now marked by the crucified God, inconceivable to the builders of the emperor’s original monument.  And of course the Alps through the arches of the theater, where the whole of nature can behold our little plays through the crumbling things we have made.  Both sides of the Praetorian Gate open into narrow, Renaissance city streets, so that the passage through them, in the footsteps of Roman legions, takes you from one beautiful road into another, equally beautiful but pretty much the same.

               Underground, though, is the cryptoporticus—excavated and restored over the last century—that is the monument to the liminality of these ruins, how they linger to suggest at a ghostly passage that underlies us all.  The arcade, as restored, extends for about fifty yards beneath the city, beneath the cathedral, then doubles back on itself, so that the wanderers emerge, like characters in a myth, pretty much at the stairs where they first descended.  Pockets of natural light, fractured through boarded windows, let you know that this passage was once ground level: a kind of “cloister walk” that framed the holy space of the Roman forum.

               And there is still a residual sanctity to the passage.  There’s a hush as you follow its long stretch beneath a city still occupied by Rome, its Christianity a colony of Catholicism, its holiness mingled with that of an earlier time.  It is hard to travel it unchanged: you welcome the light on your return, fully aware that what you have brushed against was a gate to the country of myth, but that lingering at the doorway, rather than turning back or passing through, is itself only a still point, a momentary stay against the maws of time.   ©2014 Michael Williams

Saturday, May 24, 2014

On Erbavoglio and the Lost Art

I admire chefs the way some people admire painters.  Adepts at a mystery that gives pleasure to the senses, they transform the ordinary—our everyday act of nourishment—into poetry.  It never surprises me to hear that they are sometimes painters as well, or novelists, or musicians.  Or that painters, novelists or musicians might aspire to be chefs.

What surprised me a bit more (and, indeed, it shouldn’t have) was the artistry of those who trade in the food and drink that is known for nuance and expert attentions.  Italy has a long romance with its food and wine, and it’s both the ignited passion of first love and the peace and subtlety of a long marriage, which hasn’t lost its fire, though it minds the flicker of the light now, as well as the blaze and the heat.  In short, they’re sophisticated in the palate, my current neighbors, as I discovered to my delight last week at Erbavoglio, on a little side street next to Aosta’s medieval Cattedrale de Santa Maria.

How could you pass a cheese shop, especially one just opened for the day? The sharp smells not always conventionally pleasant, underlined by the resonance of wine, for a bottle or two had been opened in the last several days.  The young man who stood behind the counter greeted me quietly in Italian, then, realizing I was pretty much lost after buongiorno, smiled and said, “We can talk in English, then.”

They know us by our confusion, my countrymen.  The deer-in-the-headlights look after the simplest of greetings says Indiana to the discerning Italian.  But Stefano was polite, and fairly fluent in English, and after a few minutes of small talk, less small and (to both of us) more interesting when the subject turned to his cheeses.

Then the moment of adventure came.  Like Vergil to my Dante, he beckoned, saying, “Things are slow this morning.  Would you like to see the cellars?”

It was “would you like some cheese?” to the second power.  He was offering a glimpse of where cheeses come from, the heart of the heart of the aging.

The downward steps could not have been more perfect: steep, narrow, and dust-encrusted.  Stefano urged me to watch my head, and it was a good thing he did.  Distracted by the sheer atmosphere of the place—both the smell and the whole Edgar Allen Poe gloom of the business (scary but only in a kind of moody way, not really frightening at all)—I stood a good risk of concussion, and ducked at the right time.

Finding myself on a dusty floor, in a maze of shelves.  Each cheese was given a wide berth: huge, encrusted drums that stank in that odd way of promising cheese, where you can’t imagine how something that foul-smelling could taste so good but it did, Stefano had sliced a small piece of fontina (the regional cheese of Aosta), so I knew that the fetid mask hid the musty amazements of the cheeses up in the shop.  Beneath these crusts were the quartz-like shavings of parmesan, the soft gorgonzola with the verdigris of veins, the green that tasted somehow moldy and spectacular at the same time.  It was impossible treasure, not a dozen feet below the surface of the town.

And Stefano knew the farms from which the cheeses originated.  It was almost like he knew the goats and cattle by their names, but that’s far-fetched.  But knowing the farms was somehow splendid enough, a kind of intimacy with food that had something medieval in it—something that hearkened back to an idealized version we have of a time when a worker’s regard for his craft was a romance rather than a task, whether he was a smith or a stonemason or, as in this case, a casaro, a formaggiao, a curutulu (see, Stefano? I’ve learned some Italian beyond “hello”).  It may not have been that way, or maybe only for a few.  But here in this valley I have seen it more than once: a colleague of mine raved about the wonderful smaller dairy farms in the foothills of the Italian Alps.  Carlo had talked of them as a kind of refinement of an old and honorable tradition—like allegory or stone masonry.  And he was right: this valley has a quiet and remarkable resource in its small producers of cheese (and of wine, for that matter).  And publicity, production, and distribution could spread wide and far something good, but not as good as I tasted in Erbavoglio—something that would sacrifice relationship to profit, intimacy to something that might well be worthy but would never be the same.  It’s precarious footing, like descending a steep dark stairway, and it is seldom that you’re aware of the steps that take you from manufacture to craft to art.  Perhaps we are unaware because sometimes all kinds of creation are narrow and dusty, straight down and stinky and with little headroom, distinguished from each other only by the love in the making.    ©2014 Michael Williams 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On Waking Up Italian

It’s different from waking up American, which is what I do inevitably when I travel. 
               But this time is different.  This time I’m living in another country, if even for a short, two months’ space.  And there is an adjustment in the psyche when you come to stay, instead of passing through.
               The schedule of the tourist is marked with high spots—hotel accommodations, notable (even dramatic) sights and sites that dominate your days in a place.  When you live there, you can notice a gradual shift in your attentions, until you are waking up in the rhythm of the place (in my case “waking up Italian”, even though I know I am not, will never be Italian).
               Those who know me, know I am a notoriously early riser, and right before sunrise, outside the window of our flat, a flurry of nightingale song lifts us toward wakefulness.  In the past, my European students (and Australian students, for that matter) have admitted to missing the sound, and it takes the actual hearing of it to understand their nostalgia.  Italians, it seems, do not rise so early, and it's odd to think most of them sleep through such elation.  On the other hand, garbage collection takes place (at least here in Aosta, at least in our neighborhood) between 11 and midnight, jostling us awake after new sleep.  Maybe you gain and lose in every daily transaction, so the disruption at the end of a day is richly compensated by the beginning of the next, the only problem being that sleep is lost at both ends of the transaction.
               But I don't miss the sleep at all.  In the hours following sunrise—what I have always considered “my time of the morning”—the streets of a town such as Aosta are pretty much left to the early riser.  Only a few shops are open, the traffic in the “pedestrian area” of the town is sparse and quiet.  It feels as though you have walked back three or four centuries.  The cobbled streets are narrow, and the muted yellows, oranges, and pinks of the buildings—particular hues I am sure you only find in Italy—brighten in the sunlight that here, at the edge of the Alps, is a disarming and unalloyed white, and by 8:00 or so, the walls shimmer and the colors waken into morning. It is, in short, a landscape a long breath away from the modern and still fully Italian.  
          Which means, among many things, that there is something unmistakably Italian beneath the technology, the mechanization, the years, that persists at the most quiet time of day in a kind of serene and expectant dignity.
And dignity, too, in the obituary posters at the gates of the churches—one of the first things you notice on a walk through an Italian town.  Here the notices of death are posted for a smaller, more intimate community—those in a church parish, those who might bask on a town square in the early afternoon when the rarefied sun intensifies and the shadows slide from one side of the streets to the other.  Death notices, the people invariably up in years, recording their passing in an old-school way that might be otherwise lost in the newspapers more central to our tradition, where the news of death is more impersonal, where it vanishes more quickly. 
Because an old vanished time is still apparent on the streets of Aosta before the day’s rush covers it.  Beneath a very modern Italy there is indeed a core, an essence, an ancient country whose rhythms still surface in the daily life of the people, from the aggressive, brilliant music of their language (which I do not know) to the smell of the bakeries, both of which are rising from the shops and side streets as I write this.  Somewhere among and above the images of the dead the city is awakening, moving slowly toward a resemblance to the American cities I know.  I begin to wonder if there is a kind of place out of time in the America I know, or whether we are too young a country or too overloaded a people to have developed that place and time to begin with.
The faint, tart whiff of cigarette smoke commingles with the aroma of bread and dark, magnificently strong coffee, until all kinds of enticements settle in the bright Italian air, the coffee the only temptation I will not resist, as the city and I awaken together.    ©2014 Michael Williams

Friday, April 18, 2014

On the Maestro

I’m already missing the Maestro.

It’s been a long and serious acquaintance, beginning in a Vermont winter when, as part of a six-week course in Latin American fiction, I opened One Hundred Years of Solitude and felt the world and my paradigms shift.

It was required reading in a class that both thwarted and enthralled me.  The teacher couldn’t teach: we had all established that when he marched us through some wonderful stories by Juan Rulfo and Julio Cortazar, offering plot summaries instead of the hows and whys of understanding, shedding no light on unfamiliar ground, but still managing to do one basic thing that a college class should always do—to make introductions to something rich and strange and entirely new to the students.

So here I was, in a snow-smothered New England dormitory, translated to Macondo, impelled by one of the greatest opening sentences in fiction:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

It was the best novel I read in college.  One Hundred Years of Solitude was many things—a profound meditation on myth and history, a truly, ardently Latin American novel, and one of the most breath-takingly beautiful virtuoso performances in the whole goddamned world of storytelling. By now there are no spoilers: Garcia Marquez’s great scenes and almost musical narrative sequences are so fixed in our memories that they are icons of modernism.  The visits of the gypsies, the plague of insomnia, the Banana Company Massacre.  If you know the book, the simple phrases conjure recollection—the convoluted epic, stories popping in and out of each other like tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

It was a kind of novel I had never seen.  Something that seemed to me entirely new in prose fiction, though I would find out later that One Hundred Years had illustrious ancestors—other Latin American authors like Carpentier and Asturias. European writers like Calvino and Kafka and strange old Bruno Schultz.  The way that the fantastic brushed against the plausible, the way the voice of the story refused to take sides—it was all telling me that the space of imagining was wider than the world itself, a lesson Tolkien had taught me years before, but revisited in new form.  Macondo felt historical, and indeed it was.  Latin American history—Western Hemispheric history—with the mythic volume cranked up.  It helped me revisit the fantastic, refashion legend and folklore, in ways that fast became important to my way of seeing things and telling stories.  If Tolkien’s writing inspired me, the inspiration was shaped by Garcia Marquez.

Through One Hundred Years I met my best friend, Gali Sanchez, who shared my passion for the book.  It provided us with the first point of intersection.

And the book provided me with my one fanboy moment in adulthood.  When Rhonda and I were in Florence in 2007, standing in a cramped, three-hour line to enter the Uffizi Gallery, we stood in front of an amiable young woman whose fluent English was laced with a South American accent—one I could not place.  So I asked her where she came from, and found out she was Colombian.  “Oh!” I said. “My favorite living novelist comes from Colombia.” 

At the mention of the Maestro’s name she smiled quietly and said, “He’s my uncle.”

There was not room enough in the Uffizi queue to kneel or grovel.  I was not the worst of fanboys, careful not to rhapsodize, to ask about the health of a distinguished man in his eighties.  I left his work to the side, talked to the young woman about her uncle, trying not to presume that he was my uncle, too, but at that time, as in the years since that icy Vermont winter, I felt as though he was.

Perhaps my favorite moment in One Hundred Years was a moment of goodbyes.  Remedios the Beauty, the addle-witted “most beautiful women in the world”, has cut a wide oblivious swath through the men of Macondo, leaving behind a trail of ruined suitors:

Remedios the Beauty stayed there wandering through the desert of solitude, bearing no cross on her back, maturing in her dreams without nightmares, her interminable baths, her unscheduled meals, her deep and prolonged silences that had no memory until one afternoon in March, when Fernanda wanted to fold her brabant sheets in the garden and asked the women in the house for help. She had just begun when Amaranta noticed that Remedios the Beauty was covered all over by an intense paleness.
   “Don’t you feel well??she asked her.
                Remedios the Beauty, who was clutching the sheet by the other end, gave a pitying smile.
                “Quite the opposite,?she said, “I never felt better.?
                She had just finished saying it when Fernanda felt a delicate wind of light pull the sheets out of her hands and open them up wide. Amaranta felt a mysterious trembling in the lace on her petticoats and she tried to grasp the sheet so that she would not fall down at the instant in which Remedios the Beauty began to rise. Ursula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identify the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.

What a way to go out.  Aloft in a mercy of light.  My dear, inventive uncle of the soul, may you find that mercy wherever you’re headed.  ©2014 Michael Williams