India | 2000, 2005
Born and educated in India, Anita Desai’s published works include several novels, most recently Fasting, Feasting, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, as well as stories and children’s books. Two previous novels, Clear Light of Day and In Custody, were also finalists for the Booker Prize. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as a Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge. In Custody was filmed by Merchant Ivory productions. She returned to Santa Maddalena in 2005.
I first met Gregor von Rezzori when he came to M.I.T as a Visiting Writer at the invitation of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies where I am a Professor of Writing. It seemed to me an immense honour that so distinguished a writer would pay us a visit; I had long been an admirer of his witty, urbane and profoundly serious fiction and essays. He charmed us all at the Program by his great modesty, his willingness and eagerness to participate in the working of the Program and to meet our young students. For me an additional pleasure was coming to know his wife, Beatrice Monti della Corte, who accompanied him. When she began the work of setting up the Retreat for Writers and Botanists at their home in Tuscany that they had planned and discussed before his death, it seemed to me both a generous gesture on her part as well as a fitting memorial to Gregor von Rezzori who had kept an open house for writers from around the world.
Beatrice von Rezzori invited my daughter Kiran, a novelist, and myself to be the first Writers in Residence of the Santa Maddalena Retreat in early 2000. It was our first visit to a house already famous for its hospitality and we marveled at the way she has kept alive this tradition. Its situation amongst vineyards, olive groves and forests filled with bird and animal life make it an ideal place for writers interested in and responsive to nature while its proximity to Florence provides one with an exposure to Italian art and architecture at its most glorious.
…I came to the Retreat to make a beginning on a new novel for which I had been putting together notes while in Mexico. I was able to write an opening chapter and sort out my ideas for how the novel is to proceed. The time to think has been as valuable as the time to write since neither is possible when I am teaching. I have signed a contract for the novel with my publishers in Boston, Houghton Mifflin…. My British publishers, Chatto & Windus, are also interested in it.
The Retreat is even more beautiful, and unique, than I had imagined or expected. The isolated position of the house and its extensive grounds and views make it ideal for a period of quiet contemplation. The large library is a great resource. Above all, it is the warm and informal hospitality that we were offered and the understanding of a writer’s needs that have made it a happy experience.
The President of the Foundation went to great lengths to introduce us to the local community and we feel we have come to know Italy as we did not on previous, similar visits [to writers’ retreats in Italy] where we did not come to know anyone outside the small, isolated community of artists; at Santa Maddalena we have met artists, we have met landowners as well as workmen and villagers, and this has given us a fascinating look at Italian life and society.
We have treasured the time given us to spend exclusively on our writing, a rare luxury, and enjoyed meeting the artists who have visited the house as well as the local landowners and the people who work on it. We have been delighted by the way we have been made a part of the little community Beatrice von Rezzori has created in this home she made for her husband. In his lifetime she made every possible effort to give him time and comfort in which to write; she now does it for other writers. I hope she will continue to do so. I feel very honoured and grateful to have been a recipient.