France | 2013
Alba Arikha was born and raised in Paris. She is the author of four books: Muse and Walking on Ice, published by Macmillan under the name Alba Branca, and a memoir, Major/Minor, published by Quartet Books in 2011. It was shortlisted for the Spears Awards and selected among the best books of 2012 by the New Yorker. Her narrative poem, ‘Soon,’ will be published by CB Editions in 2013, and performed as an opera at the Riverside Studios in London, in collaboration with her husband.She has translated poetry and journalism, and written for various art magazines. Her works have appeared in Open City, Tatler, The Journal of Art, Antique and New Art, The New Republic and The Other Press. Alba is also a pianist and singer/songwriter. Her album, Dans Les Rues De Paris, was released in March 2011. She has performed in London, where she lives, and in Paris.
I arrived at Santa Maddalena on a Saturday afternoon.
I had left a rainy, busy London airport to find myself, a few hours later, surrounded by Tuscan hills, fields of poppies, the singsong sound of Italian and the smells of summer. Beatrice warmly came to greet me, pugs in tow, and showed me around, speaking three languages at once. I was shown into Grisha’s study, a large and airy room, filled with African objects, exotic fabrics, wonderful light, a stunning view over the hills and a long desk where I found myself at work, only hours after I had arrived. And so began my Santa Maddalena stay.
Every morning, I greeted Grisha’s photograph, smiling at me from the end of the desk. The novel I had started became something different. Had I still been in London, I would have probably persevered for much longer.
But then again, I quickly understood that here, everything was going to be different: one could be a writer, with our habits and idiosyncracies, and it didn’t matter.
And this is all down to Beatrice, the heart and soul of Santa Maddalena. Every evening, we gathered around the dinner table, where she regaled us with stories about writers, Grisha, painters, travels and friends. Then there were the writers: Andrew Sean Greer, Michael Cunningham, Peter Stamm. I arrived knowing no one, and am leaving having formed new friendships, long lasting ones I have no doubt.
We took trips. We discussed and read each other’s work. We ate Nimlini’s delicious food, we swam, we argued about books and laughed over too many glasses of wine.
There were also Beatrice’s friends and those who help run Santa Maddalena: Javier, Caterina, lovely Emma, Alessandro, Beatrice’s nephew, Naila, Max.
There was the Premio von Rezzori:
An unforgettable Henry James bus tour with Colm Toibin. We stood in a house James had lived in. We saw the garden in which the character of Gilbert Osmond was born. We followed Colm, like characters out of a James’s novel, and listened while he spoke, with unsurpassable eloquence, under the hot Tuscan sun. Other highlights: the lectures, the buzz, the visit to the wax museum with Javier, Jeremy Irons reading from the first page of Lolita, the Luca Giordano celiing at the Palazzo Medici, Naila and Riccardo’s party, Alessandro dancing while twirling spaghetti, the last evening of the Premio, at Le Murate, where music was played, songs were sung, spirits were high. There are magical particles floating around Santa Maddalena, no doubt. Particles which cannot be explained to those who stand outside its stone walls.
Beatrice, being here has been a true inspiration and I thank you profusely for it.
Everything I had been told is true: this is no ordinary place but a paradisical haven for writers, where time remains suspended for its lucky few.
May I be so lucky again.