UK | 2003, 2007, 2012, 2021
Andrew Miller was born in Bristol in 1960. Ingenious Pain (1996), his first novel, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Grinzane-Cavour prize and the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His other two novels are Casanova (1997) and Oxygen(2001), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2001. He lives in Brighton. He returned to Santa Maddalena in 2007 and 2012.
I stayed at Santa Maddalena from mid-May until the end of June. From my bedroom in the Tower I had a view across the tops of oak trees to other hills and other towers. Opening the shutters in the morning was one of the great pleasures of the day, in part because it was always fascinating (and somehow encouraging) to think of the others, writers such as Gregor von Rezzori, Bruce Chatwin, Micheal Ondaatje and John Banville, who must have leaned on that same sill to take in those same distances. The sheer beauty of Santa Maddalena is something you never quite get used to, a sensual force that little by little seeps into the blood. Certainly it finds it’s way into your work. Though writing about England, the ‘England’ I was describing became a hotter, more scented, place; England through a filter of olive trees and jasmine and cypresses.
The days were tranquil, slightly dream-like. The little studio where I worked kept its coolness for most of the day. Life soon settled into a rythm suited to the season. In May it had still been fresh enough to explore the old tracks that vein the fields and woodlands around the house, but by the end of the first week in June even the dogs couldn’t be tempted out. They stayed in the shade of their kennel or lapped reflections in the Baron’s wonderful swimming pool.
I often (from choice) saw no one all day. Now and then I would hear Rupert (Thompson) patter up and down the steps of the tower, but we rarely ever met until evening. I always loved the walk over to supper, the ‘hundred paces’ through the olive grove to the main house. Good smells from the kitchen, a flask of Frescobaldi wine on the stone table in the courtyard. At half-eight Beatrice would emerge from her quarters in one or other of her beautiful outfits, the pug Alice (teeth freshly brushed with game-flavoured toothpaste) running at her heels. Then, for hours, with the moon and fireflies for company, we would eat and talk and talk and talk. Politics, history, travel. Discussions about this or that writer, this or that book, the tone sometimes intense, sometimes irreverent. In all honesty I don’t remember a single dull evening in nearly seven weeks. Much of the credit, of course, belongs to Beatrice, who, whether speaking or listening, somehow set the tone for everything, turning the courtyard (the candles burning down inside their glass sleeves) into a kind of al fresco literary Salon, all manner of fascinating guests dropping by for a night or a week. And when Beatrice retired we would sit on, enjoying the freshness of the night air, listen to the frogs, the Roe deer, gusts of music from some festival in the village…
For my own work, I added somewhere in the region of sixty new pages to my novel-in-progress (‘The Optimists’). For a writer who works as slowly as I do this represents a real advance. Perhaps I would have done as much at home, I don’t know. What is certain, however, is that Santa Maddalena is about very much more than merely giving an author a quiet room to work in (though it certainly does that). Perhaps it is only after we go home that the truth of this becomes really apparent. What a shame if a lack of adequate sponsorship meant that Santa Maddalena had to shut its doors! No more Fellows, no more writers from India, from Afghanistan, Korea, America, France, Pakistan, Russia, Great Britain, the old and the young, the celebrated and the up-and-coming, opening the shutters in the morning to take in that big southern view. It is a place to be treasured, celebrated, loved, and protected.