Sweden | 2012 2017 2020
Karin Altenberg was born in Sweden and moved to Britain in 1996. She currently lives in London. Her first novel, Island of Wings, was nominated for the Orange Prize, the Saltire Award and the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Award and named by the Chicago Tribune as best book of 2011; her second, Breaking Light, was also published in the US where it was picked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the books to read in the spring of 2016. She has translated poetry and prose from Swedish into English and judged the Bernard Shaw Prize for translation. She has a PhD in archaeology and her background as a landscape archaeologist has influenced her writing, with landscape always playing a central part in her novels about people on the edges of the world. She holds the 2016-18 Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at Brunel University and the 2017 Eccles Centre Makin Fellowship at the British Library. She reviews regularly for the Wall Street Journal. Her first visit to Santa Maddalena was in 2012.
I’m a writer with a day job, or, as my boss would see it, a civil servant with a hobby. In either case trying to write a novel at night after a long day in the office is not ideal. To be offered three and a half unbroken weeks of writing is possibly the greatest gift I could imagine. I left Stockholm in snow, and on that first night at Santa Maddalena I stepped into the courtyard and looked out across the wooded valley. The air was still warm and the wisteria scent hung in the air.
I soon fell into a new regime – waking early, writing through the morning and going for long walks in the afternoon. Once I fell into a ravine, but was rewarded by a glimpse of a porcupine. Every morning as I crossed the courtyard to the study I would hear a cuckoo singing with the rising sun. Where I come from, folklore says that a cuckoo singing in the east is a gift of consolation and solace. In Grisha’s study this balm worked wonders, and the disturbed matrix of my novel soon settled into place.
The natural world is so close here, and after the great rains of April the greenery started creeping closer during those first days of May. I thought my slight wooziness was just down to some pollen allergy but perhaps it was a case of Stendhal syndrome – too much Tuscan beauty – whether the perfection of the Romanesque churches, the stunning frescoes or the lovely forests where the owls hunted at night. To me all this is bliss. The only perceivable threat was the passing of time.
We may have committed a few faux-pas along the way, me, Andrew and Dany (and Alex) – such as returning late form the bar in Donnini, putting oil on the risotto or eating what could only be perceived as an unnatural number of pears – but we were a happy group with great warmth and affection for each other and our wonderful hostess, Beatrice.
So, I will return to that cold North with a warm heart – and the finished manuscript of my second novel. And a few other things too: some ideas for my next book, an eclectic, and quite possibly unwearable, wardrobe from the Formica, the Donnini village football shirt and an embarrassing number of photos of Miss Rosine, the baby pug.
16 April – 10 May 2012
Returning to Santa Maddalena is easy – Beatrice knows what a writer needs and Andy and Nico have recently joined her to make up a perfect team. The dogs, too, are a comforting, familiar presence, and meeting with old and new friends is as inspiring as ever. It’s a blessing to slot right back in to this magical place where I can rely on the beauty of the landscape and the solidity of the tower to free my thoughts and words.
March and April are months of flux, full of appearances and disappearances. Nadeeka left and Roberta arrived and although the last of the chickens – la ultima gallina, La Solitaria – had fallen victim to a faina, a beech marten, the wisteria was in full bloom and, in spite of its transience, the honey scent lingered in the courtyard. At the end of each day I folded myself into (the rather short) bed in the candy-striped room and fell asleep to the fog-horn hooting of owls. One night I was woken by what sounded like the howling of a wolf, but as I opened the window to look into the night there was only darkness and the usual sounds of the forest in the valley below. (The following day we were told that a wolf had indeed been sighted near Tosi).
I would wake to the dawn chorus and loved that earliest hour, climbing to the top of the tower, stopping to look out of the tiny porthole on the stairs, which neatly frames the landscape as it slowly appears out of the morning mists, and then walking in to the study and the satisfaction of finding the large desk exactly as I had left it the day before. As the first rays of the sun hit the tower, ladybirds started coupling on the windowsill and lizards peered in through the open window. Sitting down in the beautiful chair, my papers spread out before me and my thoughts collected, words, sentences, characters – perhaps even a whole world – started to appear, as if by miracle. Thank you again, Beatrice, for conjuring such possibility.