USA | 2005
Daniel Mason was born in California in 1976. He received his Bachelor’s degree in biology from Harvard in 1998 and his medical degree from University of California, San Francisco. He is the author of the bestselling debut novel The Piano Tuner, inspired by a year spent researching malaria along the Thai-Myanmar border. Currently, he is at work on his second novel, set in Brazil. The Piano Tuner was selected by The New York Times and Los Angeles Times as a Best Book of 2002, and was recently produced as an opera by the Music Theatre Wales.
I arrived at Beatrice von Rezzori’s Santa Maddalena on a cold afternoon and left on a warm morning. During my time there, the wisteria bloomed and dropped its petals, successive carpets of daisies glazed the lawns, the figs ripened (although sadly, not enough-my single regret of spring), and perhaps most importantly, my writing wandered forward. I’ll admit now that I arrived with some apprehension. The novel I am writing takes place in the impoverished backlands of northeastern Brazil; the houses are of mud, there are few flowers that can bloom in the heat and drought. And yet rarely have I found a place of such calm and inspiration. It didn’t take long for Beatrice and Santa Maddalena’s influence to be felt: after two days of stumbling through the pine and laurel forests, I had begun writing again.
I think I was particularly lucky to come in springtime. The chorus of birds began around 5, when the first hints of dawn appeared in the sky; it crescendo ed at 7 and didn’t go away except for the few hot, still hours flanking noon. The sunset was similarly serenaded, this time by the frogs, whose backs replicated with perfection the turning of a leaf, from the lime green on the crests of their heads to the dull hazel of their legs. The lizards wore the same clothes: spring crowned their heads, the dun of fall their tails. They inhabited the crumbling chinks in the masonry, the tangles of the wisteria, the ground’s canopy of dry chestnut leaves. When I arrived in mid-April, there appeared to be only two on the Tower. I imagined them as a couple. His courting, syncopated in tiny pushups on the warm rock, must have been successful. By mid-May, the wall was covered with glittering flashes of green, the roadside leaves stirred, slithering trails lit through the grass before a footstep. Of course the new arrivals could not have been the products of such a quick romance, yet it is tempting to imagine one on the warm vertical walls of the stone.
Each week we were met by a different explosion: purple wisteria and then white, then orange flowers, then lilac, then white and carmine-colored peonies, then purple vetch limned the roadsides. The air buzzed with the activity of hundreds of heavy blue bees, who tumbled over the flowers with intent lust, mated in mid flight, and careened into the stone walls with audible thumps. These brief fluorescences lasted scarcely more than a week. The purple wisteria dripped the flowers into soft fragrant swells. The peonies left crepe-papers piles in the planters. The lilac simply vanished. Only the white wisteria persisted, dangling over the heavy gates like tails of white ermine, shedding petals over anyone opening the door. I can only imagine the population of colors there, now.
After arriving, I wrote to a friend that any description of Santa Maddalena would read (not surprisingly) like a Bruce Chatwin novel. In my studio alone, three by four paces, I began each morning of writing my novel about the droughtlands by staring at the engravings of four Ottoman viziers and phrases of the Koran in the shape of a peacock. Painted flowers capped the walls beneath the beams of stripped wood. There was a mock engraving of the Sick Man of Europe and Janissary falling from a mule. The Indian pillows were inlayed with tiny mirrors. The couch was soft and sunken.
Of course, the physical beauty of Santa Maddalena is only a stage for its history and stories, shared generously by both Beatrice and the writings and constant presence of her late husband, Gregor von Rezzori (for whom one quickly adopts his warm nickname, Grisha). Soon after arriving, Beatrice showed us the portrait of a Venetian courtesan that sits by the entry into the dining room. I fell quickly and distractedly in love. She is an exquisite, perfect sentry; two-dimensional ear to the wall, she must have the best gossip of anyone. Indeed even more than the lizards and the wisteria, I will remember Santa Maddalena for Beatrice’s stories: of buzkashi contests in Afganistan, Neopolitan sailors, (mis)adventures with the carabinieri, Bangkok’s canals, New York’s light, and the refined tastes of a particularly pampered pug. There were so many times that I slipped into silence just to listen to descriptions of the books I have yet to read, the histories I never learned, the art that she showed me for the first time. Nor will I forget our adventures in the countryside: chasing lost dogs, hunting for ex-votos in Arezzo, stealing through Florence’s streets, listening to an operatic baker, and many many hair-raising close calls driving on Italian roads. Nor the friends Beatrice introduced me to, my companions of six weeks, Andy (Greer), Monique (Truong), and Nadeem (Aslam); as well as the wonderful staff: Brigida (true Tuscan and skilled oenophile) and the lovely family of Nimili, Nilantha and the dashing Taruk. I will not forget the long conversations, whether about books or the woods. I knew few other writers before coming and was a bit intimidated at first; now I feel grateful to have such friends in this strange craft.
But most of all, I will always be tremendously grateful for Beatrice’s generosity of spirit. Since I have heard from many that this was one of Grisha’s great qualities, it is a true mark of his memory as well.
In Anecdotage, Grisha wrote about adat, the Indonesian word for a custom practiced with persistence until a site is possessed with magical powers. Perhaps this is why I found such inspiration at Santa Maddalena. I remember, how one afternoon, while I read in the tower, a swallow, green white and red-brown (a sun-faded Italian flag) fluttered into the room through the window that looks out at the Moorish castle in the south. I sat up, expecting it to beat around the room, and need escort back out, but instead it gracefully inspected the roof beams and flew away. Five minutes later it was back; again it flapped around the room, this time showing particular interest in a corner above the bed, then again it was gone. On its third visit, it returned with a second swallow. A fine idea, she must of said as they flew away, not to return, But winters come and windows close, and aren’t their fewer drunken pencil-waving so-called writers in the farmhouse up the road? Still it was easy to understand why he was inspired.