Tuesday, August 16, 2011
This is the Casa Magni, the beachside house in the Italian coastal village of Lerici, on the beautiful Gulf of La Spezia, to which the English poet Shelley was sailing when his boat capsized and he drowned, just days before his 30th birthday. Writing about writers is an endless process of discovery: you set off seeking traces of a writer and discover places that you weren't looking for. The converse is equally true: while looking for unknown places, you find writers you didn’t know. While researching the last days of Shelley I found Lerici and the magnificent Cinque Terre – the five crepuscular “countries” to the west of the Gulf. In turn, researching Shelley led me to another writer that I didn’t know: his biographer, Richard Holmes, of whom I’ve been a fan ever since. Not the moustachioed historian seen on BBC TV, but the self-styled “Romantic Biographer” whose Footsteps is the sort of book I wanted this one to be. (It isn’t.)
Places can also introduce you to writers you thought you knew, but didn’t. I thought I knew English author E. M. Forster - but that was before I discovered the medieval towered city of San Gimignano (below) and read Where Angels Fear to Tread, which is set there. It was his first novel, begun on his first visit to Tuscany with his mother in 1900 at the age of 21 - eight years before A Room with a View and 21 years before A Passage to India. One critic of the book complained that “The picturesqueness of his diction is invariably marred by his superficiality of thought” – the very words I would like to hear said about me. But, superficial or not, there is youthful wisdom there. Forster on Italian so-called “bad taste”: “it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it is not the nervous vulgarity of England, or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty, and chooses to pass it by”. And on parenthood: “a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and – by some strange irony – it does not bind us children to our parents”. Fair enough - parental love is essential to the survival of the race, but not the filial variety.