Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Time of Gifts

It was the dream of every American of my generation -- to be a vagabond in Europe. Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe, from Rotterdam to Constantinople -- in 1933! His two-part memoir of that trip has been recently reissued with an introduction by Jan Morris, and it is an enchanting account of the Old World between the wars.

Leigh Fermor, of course, went on to become one of the great travel writers, and this memoir, written more than four decades after the trip based on the diaries he kept, is beautifully written. I'm reading the book as my "installment" reading (pun intended), so I've only begun it. I decided there's no rule I have to finish a book before I blog on it, and there's a couple of things I want to say already.

The trip, coming soon enough after the Great War that feelings were still pretty raw, in the very year Hitler came to power in Germany, and then written well after the horrors of World War II, offers a poignant picture of Europe. Arriving at the Hook of Holland to start his trip, Leigh Fermor spends a night in Rotterdam, evidently a picturesque city before it was destroyed in WWII. Leigh Fermor, writing in the mid-1970s, refers to this later destruction. "I would have lingered, had I known," he said.

Seven words that speak volumes. I would have lingered, had I known. How poignant, regretful. To me, it is something any of us might say about any happy, beautiful moment in our lives, moments we take for granted and then are surprised when they are gone. Moments about which we might also say with the distance of time, I would have lingered, had I known.

Leigh Fermor walks across Germany, where he encounters some animosity from the war and the current political situation, but his overwhelming impression is of the warmth and hospitality of a country he feels ambivalent about. He describes walking into a local inn in Heidelberg on Dec. 30 and having the proprietors insist that he stay with them rather than be wandering about on New Year's Eve. He is taken into the family for Silvester. He is given a room, the maid takes his laundry and he wonders, as he accepts this generous hospitality, "how a German would get on in Oxford if he turned up at The Mitre on a snowy December night."

There are so many glowing passages, as Leigh Fermor writes with such a flourish and such a command of vocabulary that you think perhaps it is all right to use adjectives after all. Through friends in England, he is able to stay with the mayor of Bruchsal, who lives in a baroque palace built in the 18th century for the prince-bishop of Spires.

"It was the first time I had seen such architecture," he writes. "The whole of next day I loitered about the building: hesitating halfway up shallow staircases balustraded by magnificent branching designs of wrought metal; wandering through double doors that led from state room to state room; and gazing with untutored and marvelling eyes down perspectives crossed by the diminishing slants of winter sunbeams. Pastoral scenes unfolded in light-hearted colours across ceilings that were enclosed in a studiously assymetrical icing of scrolls and sheaves; shells and garlands and foliage and ribands depicted myths extravagant enough to stop an unprepared observer in his tracks. The sensation of wintry but glowing interior space, the airiness of the snowy convolutions, the twirl of the metal foliage and the gilt of the arabesques were all made more buoyant still by reflections from the real snow that lay untrodden outside; it came glancing up through the panes, diffusing a still and muted luminosity: a northern variant (I thought years later) of the reflected flicker that canals, during Venetian siestas, send up across the cloud-born apotheoses and rapes that cover the ceilings. Only statues and skeleton trees broke the outdoor whiteness, and a colony of rooks."

Wow! Not every page is this beautiful, but many. A true delight to read.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Last Pope

This is a funny mishmash of a book -- a thriller that doesn't thrill but keeps you turning the pages anyway. The barest bones of a fictional plot knit together a jumble of notions about how John Paul I was murdered. That real-life drama is sufficient to keep you reading, even though there was virtually nothing new in this for me.

The plot of lost documents and a villainous CIA collaborating with dark leftovers of P2 is, to put it mildly, preposterous. The characterizations are bland and hardly one-dimensional, the "action" consists of a couple of hackneyed chase scenes and some mild violence (the author, Luis Miguel Rocha, is identified as a sometime scriptwriter).

The warmed-over conspiracy theories about Albino Luciani and his 33 days as pope are nonetheless intriguing. Much as the realization that Kennedy's assassination wasn't the work of a lone gunman, the truth about the assassination of John Paul I -- and I have no trouble accepting this as fact at this point -- is leaking out through repetition and fiction and will almost certainly not be verified by any authority in our lifetime and probably never. Yet, to see Sindona, Calvi, Marcinkus, Gelli and the others all make their appearances again brought back this time for me. Because Rocha is Portuguese, he also throws in the third secret of Fatima as foretelling Luciani's death.

I had abandoned Raymond Khoury's book, The Sanctuary, because it was so plodding and dull. The Last Templar was not easy to finish, but Sanctuary just seemed like a pure waste of time. So how do all these poorly written, dull "thrillers" get into print? Are editors, and readers, so under the spell of Da Vinci Code that anything smacking of the occult or the church, especially if there's a lost document or code or insignia is fair game? Sadly, the answer is almost certainly yes.

I'm going to get back to a well-written thriller and tackle Night Soldiers, an early Alan Furst that I somehow missed, and try to find something with some real meat on the bones.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Keeping the Feast

Read this book! It is a book about family and depression, food and friendship that is touching and searing and often just very moving. I've known Paula Butturini and her husband, John Tagliabue, for nearly 20 years, but Paula's account of John's depression and how they coped with it is so intimate and direct that these lovely personalities will come across to anyone who reads this book.

Paula, as her friends know, has a warmth and strength of character that is evident on every page of this book. She draws on memories of meals and family from her Italian-American childhood in Connecticut to show, not tell, how the culture instilled in each of us as children forms the foundation of the adults we become. For Paula, food is the cultural icon that links her to that emotional foundation.

She and John share that Italian-American background and love of food. That and the spirit of adventure turned them both into journalists and expatriates (after many years in Rome, Warsaw and Berlin, they now live in Paris). They also share a family predisposition to depression. Paula's mother suffered severely from depression -- something she has a child was only vaguely aware of -- and committed suicide at the age of 73, when Paula was living in Berlin. John had a previous bout of depression when he embarked as a young man on a life as a Trappist monk, which turned out to be not well-suited to his temperament.

The main narrative of the story concerns John's later depression after he was shot covering the 1989 Romanian revolution for the New York Times. That experience, life-threatening as it was, set the scene for a delayed post-traumatic stress syndrome that pushed John into severe depression two years later. Paula herself was badly beaten covering the so-called Velvet Revolution in Prague, and these two battered souls returned to Italy and Rome, where they had met and married, to deal with this crisis.

Paula opens her account with her daily trips to the market at Campo del Fiori, which supplied the ingredients for the three daily meals that knitted their shattered psyches back together. Or helped, at least, because it was a long healing process that involved time, therapy, the support of family and friends -- and John's employer, the Times -- and, as Paula shows, grace.

All of this is told in the simple, direct language that only a practiced writer can command. The slim volume benefits from an engaged editor who helped Paula ruthlessly strip the narrative to its essentials. But it is not bare bones. It is a rich, enveloping story of love and love of life that will inspire anyone who has feelings.

Paula describes the support of friends throughout the book, particularly some special friends who hosted them at their country home outside Rome. Others go unnamed or are only glimpsed -- such as John and Paula's good friend Lou, whose own sad fate would require another book.

But friendship is a two-way street and these friends not only provided support but benefited as well from the warmth, the grace, the humor, the intelligence, and, in the good times, the plain good fun of these two lovely people. All those qualities come across in this wonderful memoir, to reward all those who pick up this book and read it.