UK | 2003
Carole Angier is the prize-winning biographer of the Caribbean novelist Jean Rhys and of the Italian writer Primo Levi. Her innovative biography of Levi, The Double Bond, won critical acclaim when it appeared in 2002. She teaches the Practice of Biography at the Univesity of Warwick, where she was the Royal Literary Fund Fellow for four years. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literarture in 2002.
You grew up in Capri, you told us, and maybe that explains it. Capri doesn’t feel part of this world at all, but of some other more intense and perfect planet. And that’s what you’ve created at Santa Maddalena. A haven – but an exciting haven, where we might write something wonderful, or rewrite ourselves.
Perhaps this feeling was even stronger than usual for those of us who came in the spring of 2003. I think we must have been your first guests during a war. The contrast between the beauty and peace of Santa Maddalena and the megatons of death raining down on Iraq defeated imagination. I guess this war guilt – how can I work and be happy while others die? – is just an extension of the normal guilt of existence. But the incommensurability of Santa Maddalena all day and Iraq on the TV at night was an extreme version of what everyone must feel at Santa Maddalena.
And for me the sense of a different planet came in another form as well: Santa Maddalena made me feel I might actually write a novel. I’d arrived with this crazy idea – but at Santa Maddalena it took shape, and I hope even life, and I really wonder if that could have happened elsewhere.
What you give us here, incredibly, is freedom. Freedom from our lives, our telephones (some of us), from all the worries which leave too little energy for the big worry of writing. We can concentrate. We fill our eyes with beauty and our ears with delightful conversation (much of it yours), and we find ourselves running to our desks like lovers, instead of avoiding them as long as possible. It’s as though you lend us not only your house but your adventurousness, your sense of fun and your stoicism, and we feel ready for anything. I start a novel; William (Fiennes) feels a different person entirely; Natasha (Radojcic-Kane) sits still.
And then there’s the other side of the coin. You don’t just take us out of our lives, but into yours. We meet your family and friends – Nayla the artist, Alexandra the actress, Tonino the doctor, Franco the hotelier, Dino the ambassador, who have travelled the whole world; and Raffaello the carpenter and Enrico the gardener, who may never have left Tuscany, but who are just as close to you, perhaps closer. And you don’t just change us, you let us change Santa Maddalena. Orlando (Figes) drew your friend Elena Volkonska here, for a great day of Russian and French and English and Italian conversation. David (Young) has left blissful hours of labour and several new plants in your garden. Natasha has walked and swum kilos off your dogs. I brought your friend Bryan Robertson to Santa Maddalena, and left you the book of my walk. William brought you the name of every writer and actor in history, almost before you asked: which is harder to leave behind him, but you’ve become such good friends he won’t have to.
So I hope, Beatrice, that we give you something in return for your great generosity. You say, in an interview about Santa Maddalena, that for you it’s a way of continuing your life with Grisha. If we help you do that, perhaps it’s enough (though I wish I could have met him too.)
And Santa Maddalena must also be a way of continuing the life of your gallery, of discovering artists and promoting their work. Thank you for letting me be one. Thank you too to Alessandra, and to Lika and Lucia and all the others who do the hard work. I’m about to return to real life myself. I hope the spell of Santa Maddalena stays with me.
Un caro saluto da Carole