Russia/USA | 2003
Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972. His novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, won the Stephen Crane Prize for First Fiction, was a New York Times Notable Book and was chosen as a best book of the year by the Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. His work appears in The New Yorker, Granta and many other publications. He lives in New York City.
Thank you for the gift of the last six weeks. I came to Santa Maddalena in a state of artistic befuddlement and urban exasperation, trying to wrestle down the dreaded second novel (“the sophomore slump” I’ve heard it referred to in the States) that haunts many a young writer. My stay at Santa Maddalena has enabled me to write better, with more precision and resonance, than I have in many years. In six weeks I have written the crucial sixty-page interval that ties together two disparate parts of the novel, and have been able to sketch out the rest of it with great detail. How was this possible?
Santa Maddalena is a place of stories – your stories, told with great warmth and hilarity; Gregor von Rezzori’s (or Grisha’s) stories found in his novels and memoirs and best read in the tower that overlooks the elegant pyramid that is his final resting place; and the stories told by the natural surroundings and the very longevity of the stone houses and Guicciardini-built roads.
At first, after having settled into the tower, into what I call “the Chatwin Suite,” I became alarmed at the prospect of creating work that could coexist in the same universe as my tower predecessors, writers such as B. Chatwin and G. von Rezzori. In particular, I was dealing with a nagging conceptual problem in my work. How to tell the tale of a fictional post-Soviet country’s bloody disintegration within the confines of a comic novel. Reading Grisha’s “Anecdotage” in the very same tower he described in that brilliant book proved to be my salvation. His thoughts on the most disastrous century in European history (in terms of lives lost, ideals crushed) were presented with such ease, wit, and, yes, humor, that I found myself refining my narrator’s voice until I found that most elusive writer’s quarry – balance. Once I had the right balance, I could write with my eyes closed, marveling all the while that I was an Eastern European, Leningrad born and partly bred, waking up to Tuscan sunshine or to the sight of the late morning mists settling over the Valdarno valley below me. I am a pessimist and agnostic by nature, and the idea of being “blessed” is incompatible with my very being. And yet, here, I can say (if with a pessimistic agnostic reluctance): I felt blessed.
When asked to describe Santa Maddalena to friends who have sent me a barrage of emails about that famous little place in Tuscany that_______ told me about, I waver. “A colony.” “A retreat for writers.” These are all superficially correct monikers. But they imply the qualities of an institution and Santa Maddalena is anything but that. Although every courtesy and consideration is provided to the writer by you and your staff, the rhythms of the place are so personal and unique that one almost forgets the vast amount of your effort and genius that has been expended to make this place work. One may indulge in long lunches, endless walks, expeditions for mushrooms (or, if the spirit is otherwise inclined, a raid on the nearby Armani outlet), and conversations with the wonderfully eclectic Friends of Beatrice (FOBs) who show up to share in the warmth and informality of the place. Thus far, I have had many unusual things happen to me in many unusual countries, situations where I have found myself perplexed, enchanted, or worried for my life and limb, but I have never been invited to a five-course meal at the house of a rotund village baker, who, dressed in tails and tie, sang Neapolitan songs until I though his big, juicy heart would explode. Never. If one were to wage a war against the easy clichés that dominate contemporary life, Santa Maddalena would be a perfect beachhead. Every object, every memory, every animal (be she wolfhound or pug) is a true original. If there is an Albanian cook working the stove, you could wager she is a relative of the greatest living Albanian writer Ismail Kadare. And she was.
I think most writers who leave these grounds become your ambassadors, spreading the gospel about Santa Maddalena, and trying, each in her or his own way, to ensure its long-term survival and prosperity. Much is already in place. To read the list of writers who have been in residence in the four short years of Santa Maddalena’s formal existence is to read a future university syllabus on early 21st Century literature. What Santa Maddalena needs, urgently, is to build an endowment that can sustain and expand its infrastructure. I can think of no artistic communities, including long-established ones in America and well-funded ones in Italy, that deserve the generosity of donors as much as Santa Maddalena.
I leave you with the final impressions of a city boy who has always lived at several removes from nature and the physical world. I have learned, under your tutelage, to appreciate the simplicity of salad leaves fresh from the garden sprinkled with olive oil. I have learned to cook (if that’s the right word) a small measure of coffee in an ingenious Neapolitan device that is a far cry from that crude American instrument, the so-called Mr. Coffee. And I have learned that a wild boar streaking through the underbrush is a beautiful thing, and should not necessarily be shot, skinned and eaten. For all this, for my sanity, for my writing, for my reluctant blessedness, I thank you.
Gary Shteyngart, 2003