August 2007

Barbara J. King


Anthropologist Visits Vicarious Italy, with Doerr and Tucker

“The easier an experience,” writes Anthony Doerr in Four Seasons in Rome, “or the more entrenched, or the more familiar, the fainter our sensation of it becomes. This is true of chocolate and marriages and hometowns and narrative structures. Complexities wane, miracles become unremarkable, and if we’re not careful, pretty soon we’re gazing out at our lives as if through a burlap sack…

“Leave home, leave the country, leave the familiar. Only then can routine experience -- buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello -- become new all over again.”

On every page of Doerr’s new book shines a sentence to make me wish I were buying bread near the Hotel Ariosta in Milan or ordering faglioli at “our” ristorante Buatina in Lucca. And Doerr’s right; much of my love of Italian travel stems from the little things that tell me I am not in Virginia anymore: the need to cache euro coins to enter the W.C. at the autostrada’s elegant Autogrill; timing my apartment building ascents so that the stairwell light doesn’t wink off and leave me groping around between floors; the unhurried pace of meals, when the primi so fill us up that we are forced to choose between the secondi and the dolci; the wave of warmth when people’s eyes gladden at the sight of a child, my child, our beautiful daughter.

Now, I’m in midsummer torpor. I’m not traveling, just making do with Vicarious Europe. One friend writes from Poland (a linguistics conference), another from Uganda (chimpanzee research), another from Kenya (early child development research). I’m jealous, but what I wish for myself is a trip of the unproductive-in-the-extreme variety. I’d like to visit Naples on a day when the archaeology museum is actually open, to swim again in the sea at Torre delle Lago Puccini, and to return to the square in Impruneta where our daughter rode the little carousel along with a new bride while cameras of two nations focused on happiness in faces known and unknown. And naturally I long for all things Lucca (always Lucca, my ancient-walled mecca).

A pair of new books by Americans living in Italy soothes the sting of my stasis. Doerr’s I’ve already mentioned, and it’s a gem. A writer from Idaho, Doerr returns home from the hospital, where his wife has just given birth to twins Henry and Owen, to discover he’s won a year’s writing fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. Across a turbulent Atlantic, some time later, the family flew, to live in an apartment on the Janiculum Hill near Travestere.

The Roman months blur into crying babies, a sleep-starved struggle in a new language, attempts at following through with novel writing, and brilliant experiences inside and outside the apartment. Inside are the marvels of Henry and Owen World: on Easter Sunday, “Shauna dips a finger in the warm chocolate and slips it into Henry’s mouth, and his face seems to crack open with wonder.” Outside is mystery: “It is the puzzle of Rome that mesmerizes: its patience, its statigraphy, Tiber mud gumming up the past, wind carrying dust from Africa, rain pulling down ruins, and the accumulated weight of centuries compacting everything tighter, transubstantiating all stones into one.”

What happens as Doerr wrestles with his novel forms the spine of this story, and, as a writer, I loved it. Rome (with help from Henry, Owen, and the writings of Pliny the Elder) swamps his in-progress work. Ancient Rome, peeking out through the archaeology, through what one glimpses while walking in any neighborhood, asserts itself in Doerr’s head as much as does the present day city: “Most of the ancient temples, monuments, and statues here were originally painted. The color of classical Rome was not chalky white but electric blue, strawberry blond, sunshine yellow...”

The more I read, the more I daydreamed about how much I’d like Doerr in person. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t, and maybe it shouldn’t matter. It’s just that he comes off as modest, funny -- a human being for whom fatherhood and writing and living are hard at times but worth it always; someone who wants to see, really see, the world. Through his words I saw the green flash of a parrot, the silver flash of the Tiber, the blue flash through the oculus of the Pantheon, the love flash in his wife’s eyes.

As the year in Rome, and the book, proceeds, Doerr sheds the notion that beauty graces Italy disproportionately: “The world is not a pageant: beauty is as unquantifiable as love. Geography is not something that can be ranked.” That Doerr sees so acutely in our “astoundingly, intricately, breathtaking beautiful world” makes it all the more happy a thing that he creates, on the printed page, beauty of his own.

To gush is, “to make an excessive display of enthusiasm,” my net dictionary says. Did I just gush over Doerr? I’m unapologetic, but I won’t do it twice.

Michael Tucker’s book Living in a Foreign Language has its charms; Tucker is a star actor, a good cook, a loving husband, and a pleasant, rather than a powerful, writer. My tastes differ from Tucker’s, and I’ll get to that, but let me review the book he wrote and not the one I wished he had.

Tucker begins with an edgy and amusing look at the L.A. star factory, and what happens when one’s star falls from the sky. L.A. Law, the American TV show in which Tucker and his wife Jill Eikenberry had prominent roles, had just been cancelled. Quintessential Californians, Mike and Jill coped by taking courses in couples communication (including sexual communication), and by traveling. During a month-long sweep through Italy, they toured the Spoleto region. A “property junkie,” Tucker was shown a two story stone cottage on fruit-tree-studded, olive-grove-rich land. The 400-year-old forno (oven) was the house’s centerpiece. Once the oven for a whole community, it still held a fond place in local memory.

The by-now-stock-in-the-genre discussion of negotiations, transatlantic deals and doubts, and eventual purchase of the house, follows. The real story here, though, is about Tucker’s discovering the rhythms and food of Umbria with Eikenberry, whom he clearly adores. Tucker’s foodie writing lights up the page: “The pork literally melted in our mouths. Not poetically; it actually melted. Perfectly seasoned, delicately roasted, remarkably fresh -- that’s the real secret -- it transcended any previously held concept I had about pig.”

In books about Italy, I expect no odes to vegetarianism. Still, Tucker’s response to numerous dead pigs and calves and lambs weighed on me. Maybe it was the image of a baby animal separated from its mother in order to be roasted: “There’s vitello, vitellini, vitellone -- all different ages of the calf. Vitellini, it’s been explained to me, is when the calf is still suckling from the mother; vitello is when it’s both suckling and grazing; and vitellone is when it’s completely weaned.” Or maybe it’s just the cavalier attitude, as when Tucker describes the time that his friends “David and Susan... were already in the process of ravaging the countryside for small animals to roast in our forno.”

Often, Tucker’s writing hit me wrong. His early self-portrait of “a rampant male ego” lodged in my brain. Humor, maybe, sure. But look how he continues on, when describing the dynamics among himself, Jill, and Jill’s close friend who often lived with them: “Whereas I can usually bully my way past one of them, or do an end-around sneak past the other, the two of them back each other up... in such a way as to make male dominance in my household more and more difficult to maintain. Not impossible, mind you, just more difficult.” Humor, maybe? I’m not so sure.

That same breeziness -- as with the dead animals also -- inhabits other passages. Marveling at the size of the “amazingly large” forno, Tucker muses that, “It fed, I’m sure, a lot of peasants.” He envisions, “some medieval peasant family [that] could have all curled up and been quite comfortable in there.”

Tucker concludes “fuck it”: no reason for guilt about his good fortune and happiness. Who am I to argue? No, it’s not Tucker’s guilt I’m after. On the final page, in a passage about his life partnership with Jill, he writes: “What extraordinary freedom it is not to care about up or down, rich or poor, East Coast, West Coast, as long as we’re in the taxi together.” If Tucker cares nothing for rich or poor, it’s surely because he has enough money to buy, and then enlarge and add a pool to and fly across the Atlantic more than once a year to inhabit, a house in Italy.

Sometimes it’s the little things, in a book, that make you take notice.

-- Writing in Italy for a year: still Barbara’s dream...