USA | 2007
Joanna Scott is an award-winning American author and Roswell Smith Burrows Professor of English at the University of Rochester. Scott has received critical acclaim for her novels. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction.
Late afternoon, distant music from a farm hidden in the valley, bees buzzing through the ivy. It’s my last day at Santa Maddalena. The shadows from the brick lattice are stretching across the floor of Grisha’s office. Mimoli is calling to her son. One of those hearty tiger mosquitoes is circling my head, tormenting me, distracting me. What was I going to say?
Though mine was a shorter visit than the usual stay at Santa Maddalena, it’s been a longer stretch of uninterrupted hours than I have had for many years. And in a setting such as this, it’s impossible not to feel newly energized. I’ve filled many pages and pushed past some formidable uncertainties. The light in these parts makes contrasts sharper, lines more vivid—it has helped me to find my way through the murky territory of a new novel. I have a clearer sense of what I need to do as I move forward.
I like to imagine Grisha at this desk, seizing words from thin air, arranging them on the page. I like to imagine other writers who have worked here—those who have been able to write with intense concentration not just because they’ve been freed from other consuming responsibilities but because they’re being reminded at every turn that the world is full of things that deserve to be noticed.
Here at Santa Maddalena I’ve noticed that the darkness looks darker between the pulsing lights of fireflies in the bamboo brake. And isn’t it true that the moon likes to hover over Nayla’s right shoulder? And don’t plums taste better straight off the tree?
I’ve noticed that the lizards consider their options for a second before darting into the ivy. And those small blue butterflies floating over the terrace—they fold their wings and balance on a blade of grass. There were those two huge porcupines bristling in front of us on the road late at night. And the dogs in all their blissful presence—they insist on catching our attention. There goes Alice again, barking at Donald Duck on the tv, while Teddy thrusts his nose in the lap of a guest and old Giuditta stands off to the side, keeping watch.
And then there are all the stories–I will savor the stories I heard and read while I was here, stories other writers have told of their time at Santa Maddalena, stories traded during meals and over photograph albums, conversations weaving between endlessly interesting subjects—Harold Acton’s formal dinners, Grisha’s return to Romania, Sebald’s correspondence, Beatrice’s memories of Ethiopia. I won’t forget the photo of the fifty silver bowls set out for the fifty pugs that gathered at a pug party hosted by a prince. Or the story of the two dwarf marchesi brothers in Naples who took to their beds in the middle of their lives and never got up again.
I’m grateful for this opportunity—it’s been a memorable, productive stay. I’m taking home a thick pile of new pages. And maybe someday I’ll write a novel about those two Neopolitan brothers, narrated from the point of view of the maid.