UK | 2005, 2008
Nadeem Aslam was born in 1966 in Gujranwala – Pakistan. He came to Britain at the age of 14 when his father, a poet and a movie-maker, had to leave his country and went to live in West Yorkshire. He went to Manchester University to read biochemistry but left in his third year to become a writer. His debut novel, Season of the Rainbirds won the 1993 Betty Trask and the Author’s Club Best First Novel awards, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel award. His highly acclaimed second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, was nominated for the 2004 Booker Prize, and will be published by Knopf in 2005. He currently lives in North London and returned to Santa Maddalena in 2008.
The human soul is studded with eyes; it is capable of seeing in all directions. Or so it seemed one night towards the end of my stay at Santa Maddalena, when I turned around for no apparent reason: there behind me was a firefly! Forgetting everything else, I rose from my chair and followed it through the darkness into the bamboo grove: I had not seen a firefly for more than two decades, not since I was a child in Pakistan. That little searingly-bright point of light was direct link with my earliest years and it was a perfect end to my time at Santa Maddalena. It’s like this:
During childhood I had wanted to live in a house made entirely of books – the walls, the roof, the stairs. I dreamed that I would finish reading one book and simply pluck another, sliding the old one in its place. And that in many ways is what Beatrice Monti della Corte’s Santa Maddalena is: a house of books, of words. Childhood was a time when the demands of the adult world were absent and I could spend as much time as I wished in the company of books and magazines, blank pages torn from school exercise books on which I attempted to write stories of my own. This is what I wrote in the opening pages of my second novel, a passage based on my own memories:
He would approach the bookcase in the pink room and stand before it, his hand alighting on this or that volume with the arbitrariness of a moth, half deciding on something before sliding it back in place and moving on, as though experimenting with the keys of a piano…and having made his choice he would drift through the house in search of the coolest spot to read through the long summer afternoons that had a touch of eternity to them…
It is hard to duplicate these conditions once you enter the world of grownups, but within a few days of arriving at Santa Maddalena I knew I had found them. I would get up at 4 a.m. and write for several hours in my study that was full of exquisite pieces of art – each interior of Santa Maddalena is like being inside someone’s head while they are thinking a beautiful thought. (There is a wooden panel depicting a pair of Ethiopian Coptic cherubs in one room and a ceramic battle of the birds from the Safavid period in another.) Or I could sit and read all afternoon on a stone table while from a nearby grove of olive trees came the swishing sound of waist-high grasses. Everything that was not to do with reading and writing was painted out. There was no shortage of reading material – on the shelves of Santa Maddalena there is a copy of Ulysses a meter away from a rare thirty-year-old book of Qajar paintings.
The unbroken routine and the heart-stoppingly beautiful environment helped me fall deeper into the book I was writing. All five of my senses were heightened in this extraordinary place. There were walks I took into the valley (halting briefly to check whether the figs behind the house had ripened) and there were drives up into the mountain where it was so cold that the lilac trees there had only just opened their flowers, while those at Santa Maddalena had already died. At the beginning of May when hundreds of acacia trees bloomed, seemingly at the same instant, the entire valley was drenched in perfume, the very air I breathed was sweetened with that fragrance – this was something I had read only in Proust and Nabokov till then, seeing it as nothing more than poetic licence. Santa Maddalena confirms that what we read in great books is in fact true.
And at the centre of it all is the extraordinary Beatrice Monti della Corte. E M Forster said that we never realise how many doors there are, close to us, that another’s touch may open. The things Beatrice said, the stories she told from her own life, made me aware of life’s possibilities. When she talked – while deer let out loud screams as they made love in the adjoining forest, or butterflies raced everywhere as though committed to exploring every flower before it died – while she talked Beatrice inspired me to be fearless, to be more open to possibility when living my own life. Returning from a three-hour walk to the Moorish Castle at the rim of the valley – in my pockets a brightly-coloured fragment or two of the tilework that I had found on the dusty white paths – I would hear Beatrice tell of the time she saw a game of buzkashi in the high Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan. She was kind towards me in every way. She was on the phone the moment she heard that next year I wished to relocate somewhere ‘different than England’ to write a short novel – ‘You will go to Sicily for three months,’ Beatrice announced, ‘I know who to put you in touch with.’ She was a perfect guide in the art galleries, museums and churches of Florence and Monterchi and Arezzo.
And she gave me her one precious tube of muscle ointment when my neck was stiff from having fallen asleep with a book in my chair the night before. If she really likes you she will playfully threaten to beat you with her umbrella for incorrectly pronouncing the names of surrounding towns.
So if you are a writer who is thinking about Santa Maddalena, my advice is do come. Beatrice is inspiring company and the setting is beautiful. There are books and magazines everywhere. You’ll work peacefully, perhaps find a sloughed-off snakeskins in one of the meadows. You’ll see ants lay eggs on the leaf of the walnut tree: along the thick central vein where the newly-hatched offspring would have the richest supply of sugar. You might even see a firefly!