Hungary | 2001
Andràs Nagy is one of Hungary’s most distinguished men of letters, a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, story writer, essayist and literary critic—the recipient of several awards. In addition he regularly contributes to anthologies and writes and publishes on books, cultural problems and theatre in magazines in Hungary and abroad. His novels include, Savonarola (1980), and Europa utolso nyara (“The Last Summer of Europe”, 1992) and most recently Fobenjaras (“Imaginary Walks”), essays on Kierkegaard, Mahler, Lukacs, (1998).
When I first encountered Gregor von Rezzori, it was by reading his wonderful novel, The Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. It took place in the writing class of Deborah Eisenberg, at the University of Iowa, where I was visiting some years ago. I was very impressed, influenced, even taken by the wonderful text (I shall never forget it, as it was read by Deborah) and by the great familiarity of the world he describes (von Rezzori was probably the last author of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the lost homeland for many of us) and by the clarity of vision of that world, so rich in contradictions, tragedies, and antinomies.
I never imagined that someday I would ever visit the “world” of the author, the one he and his wife Beatrice Monti della Corte had created, far from the already legendary Bukovina. Soon after my arrival there, I was encouraged and invited to read the Hermelin of Chernopol, another masterpiece of von Rezzori. The very concrete setting of the garden and the house in Donnini helped me to imagine the “fictional” and distant town, and all these imaginings could be completed from the fragments of my memories and experiences, when traveling in the peripheries of the Monarchy, a short while ago.
The feeling of familiarity with an imagined world, was one of the most inspiring experiences of my time at the Foundation. Being so warmly welcomed by Beatrice, who introduced the space I would use in the next weeks, and showed me around the beauties and secrets of the garden and the house immediately created the most important condition for my work: to be at “home” at the writing table. I had the view that Gregor von Rezzori had from his small studio, which looked out at the hills of the Valley of Arno and the immense, immediate Mediterranean sky, which looked as if it were painted by Giotto, or Leonardo, or later, in October, by Casper David Friedrich.
Tuscany, materialized and immortalized by the masters of the Renaissance, is definitely a nostalgic site for European artists. When, probably for the last time, it seemed like we could be masters of our very fate in this world, even joy and happiness found their place here. They are documented beautifully in all the churches and cities and galleries of Tuscany, so wonderfully close to visit from Donnini and yet, so hopelessly far from the world we now live in. And yet, or maybe because of that, it will remain an inspiration for artists to come. To come to Donnini to understand it.
And there is something definitely “magic” about the place. In its enchanted garden, where olive trees grow and rare plants blossom, I once, sitting in the sun after a swim in the pool, met a snake. Beatrice explained to me later that it was probably the very same one Gregor von Rezzori used to feed with milk. So I had to wonder what a friendly snake can also mean in a garden that otherwise seems like Paradise. How the spirit of Santa Maddalena changes even the mythical beast into a garden-mate to join while lying in the sun.
The most important things should and did happen, of course, at the table. Or rather, at the tables. First and foremost at the writing table, where I had a chance after so many years of failed attempts, to see my works, ideas and projects with a certain clarity, and at the same time, with a certain distance I needed very much. I wanted to think over a novel and map down what should happen in the next years with my work. Notes, sketches, ideas, even sentences grew while I was there. I enjoyed this very much, and profited a great deal.
The other important table was the dining table by the fireside, which always offered wonderful food and enchanting conversations. Later these continued on the sofa of the living room, or, after lunch outside at the stone table that doubled as the very attractive resting place for Giuditta, the once ill-fated but now very happy dog.
Silence was as important as these conversations, and “Santa Maddalena is an “unconditionally” quiet milieu, disturbed by nothing. The different scents of the garden could also fill several pages, were I to describe the more acrid odor of the plants at the river, or the sweet smell of the flowers covering the walls of the tower in which I stayed. The sensuality of the place, tied to the conversations, or the endless walks on the neighboring hills, the readings offered by the gorgeous library and the empathy and taste of Beatrice were conducive to deep reflections. All these were greatly “interconnected,” the work somehow continued with the walks, the walks by the conversations, the dialogues by reflections and that by writing. Or the other way around.
The presence of “Grisha”, as Gregor von Rezzori is called in his place, was wonderfully determinant. Beatrice referred to him as if his being with us was obvious. We listened to his stories, read his works, found his resting place and imagined how his “universe” was shaped and how it is conserved for us. Beatrice herself “conjured up” wonderfully Grisha’s personality, through her fascinating descriptions and memories. And she spoke of her own interesting life, of the historical background of her family that covers geographically a great part of the Mediterranean, of her different adventures in Abessina, Afghanistan, in the States and Italy, of being in the center of the art scene during the most important time of late modern Italian painting and her involvement in exciting political and cultural adventures. We’d have these conversations while we chased the dogs (Teddy and Giuditta escaped quite often together and we went after them into the hills and valleys in a little Honda to fetch them.
It is not by chance that in such an atmosphere even dogs demand their rights to be individuals and being appreciated as such. Alice, Giuditta, and Teddy were wonderfully friendly company and always offered joy and comfort when needed. The white cat with her mystical presence and the doves, in varying numbers, completed the charm of the place.
Since I do not only write drams, but sometimes even live them, for unfortunate, personal reasons I had to shorten my stay and after four weeks I left Donnini. It was very, very sad in a sense, but also very encouraging in another. Not only because I made great progress in my work, but also because I realized that there is such a place as the Santa Maddalena Foundation and that in its enchanted garden and on its magical writing tables, things otherwise unimaginable are made possible.
How would history have turned out if the snake in the garden had been domesticated?