UK | 2004
Ben Faccini grew up in rural France, was educated in England, and has lived in Paris, London and Italy. His books include The Water-Breather and The Incomplete Husband. He currently runs the My Life Is A Story initiative for UNESCO, with co-author Lauren Child.
I spent the afternoon of my last day at Santa Maddalena scouring every metre of the extensive garden fence looking for the holes Teddy and Giuditta were using for their regular evening escapades. It seemed rather ridiculous and faintly cruel that I was so sad to be leaving my idyllic retreat of three weeks while your dogs were desperately tearing away at the fencing to get out. I found several holes in the wire, all expertly concealed behind brambles and bushes, some obviously gnawed at over weeks, others with wisps of fur suspiciously caught on the jagged edges. Lugging stones across the grass and sealing the breaches with thick branches, I kept on wondering what your dogs sought from their nightly escapes into the hills as they seemed to have all the space and care they could possibly want already. Did they go off to meet other dogs? Did they hunt wild animals? Since being back in London, I have come up with a theory. The dogs, I reckon, break free to remind themselves of what the world looks like on the other side of the fence. They cross the border into reality to try and come to terms with the unbelievable luck they have at home. I’ve understood this as I’m suffering from the reverse situation. I’m on the other side of the border, in London, and I keep on feeling an almost irrepressible urge to rush back to Santa Maddalena, to remind myself that a better, less harsh and more beautiful world does exist. If you find holes in the fence coming from the other side you’ll know why.
I came to Santa Maddalena exhausted and left totally revitalised. The charm of the house worked on me in many ways. I had the chance to wander down deserted forest paths, watch buzzards marking mice in the fields below and listen to the sound of impatient courting frogs. I was overwhelmed by tranquillity and the vitality of nature. For the first time in years, I was able to think in complete sequences. Once more, I could test ideas and follow them through, hold onto images all day without interruption. I had been battling with having to dip in and out of my writing in snatched moments, fit it into slots, grasp at fleeting instants and accept a truncated version of my work. Thanks to the peace at Santa Maddalena, I gained a sense of continuity, whittled life down to just a handful of activities and, as a result, I found a real feeling for my ongoing novel that had been missing. I was able to see it, with a clear mind, as a whole in terms of atmosphere and identity, imagine a progressive, evolving pattern for it.
Being the sole writer in residence for three weeks, I also had the privilege of getting to know you Beatrice, perhaps only a corner of you, but enough to feel carried on a journey each time you recounted your meetings with remarkable people, discussed trips to the margins of the earth and, most importantly, told me about Grisha and the hidden world behind the scenes at Santa Maddalena – another, almost magical, dimension. It was that masked world, where Grisha still plays the largest role, which immediately unsettled me upon my arrival at the house. On my journey to Italy, I finished his Memoirs of an anti-Semite, then read Snows of Yesteryear, Anecdotage and Sur Mes Traces. These readings were a revelation, particularly the first two books. I found it impossible to work on my first day at the house, not because of the distraction of the stupendous view from the studio, but because I kept on feeling Grisha’s presence behind me in the room. I felt uneasy, still touched by the power of his writing, its brutal honesty and directness. It seemed awkward too that we hadn’t met and using his studio was so intimate, a kind of violation. In the house, I studied photographs of Grisha, admired his elegance, stopped to look at a pair of his shoes, a hat, a stick in the hall, observed his white cat. I walked round the garden, stood for a while by his tomb. None of these things eased my disquiet. It was only when I really started working that I began to relax in Grisha’s shadow and, by the end of my stay, I had stopped regretting that I had never met him as I felt I had. Indeed, I knew he was still at Santa Maddalena and that I was being lifted by him, encouraged in my work.
One of my plans when I heard that I was going to Tuscany was to visit the house I lived in as a small child, in a valley between San Gimignano and Castellina in Chianti. I worked out it was only about an hour from Santa Maddalena by car. I examined maps, asked my mother for details and began to imagine walking towards the house again on the dry dirt track, every detail clearing, trying to anticipate the emotions I would feel nearly thirty years on. I pictured my father, the memories of him, my grandparents, and the fruit tree with the curved trunk like a swimming fish. I expected that, as if by miracle, the house would finally reawaken my Italian, the unaccented language that I spoke as a child, but which has been withering away in me ever since. I assumed it would produce rich pickings for my writing too. In fact, I gradually turned the projected trip back to the house into a necessary milestone, both personally and professionally. My first week at Santa Maddalena I put off going to the house with varying excuses. The second week I procrastinated further, thinking that it could wait a few days more, that I should be working. By the third week, I had made up my mind not to go at all. Thanks to Grisha’s constant reinvention of memories in his books, his use of experience as a skeleton on which to hang the imaginary and fictional, I had come to a different realisation of the past. I saw that it didn’t have to be fixed in nostalgia or loss. Memory is malleable, flexible and versatile. The house of my childhood was best left, sealed away under its cover of bony trees, alone. Rather than see it again, I could invent it, turn it round, play with its legacy and let it breathe again in me in ways of my choosing.
As I finish this letter, I can’t imagine a single writer who wouldn’t get something out of Santa Maddalena. It is the most extraordinary place and you, Beatrice, its exceptional keeper.