Nicole Flattery’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in The White Review, The Stinging Fly, The London Review of Books, amongst others. Her short story collection Show Them A Good Time was published in 2019 by Bloomsbury. Her debut novel Nothing Special will be published in 2022.
I had attempted to come to Santa Maddalena twice, both times derailed by Covid. It was only when I arrived that I realised I’d been once before—when I read Mary Gaitskill’s essay Lost Cat. That cat, Gattino, was found in Santa Maddalena. Gaitskill is adept at finding the perfect detail. Then again, so is Beatrice von Rezzori, the woman who has opened her estate to writers and artists.
It was at dinner-time, these details always came most alive to me. I always had some version of the same thought: I should try and remember this, I should write this down. But I was always laughing too much to do so. The importance of fun isn’t to be underestimated. Perhaps, because of the flatness of Covid, my small apartment, but I hadn’t been feeling energetic or vigorous. Nothing catastrophic had happened to me, unless you count the creeping dullness. I mourned the loss of a certain freedom in my life. I’d published my first book; the second was expected. There was the inevitable future. I had the same recurring feeling every time I sat down at the desk: didn’t this used to be fun? A level of professionalism, which I disliked, had crept into every area of my life, and now I thought nothing like myself, and when I opened my mouth I sounded nothing like myself. What are the measures you take to succeed, to appear qualified, without even knowing you’re taking them? At those dinners, I felt my coldness and reserve slip away. I re-learnt the importance of lightness, of curiosity, of a necessary charm. ‘You are yourself now,’ Beatrice said to me quietly before dinner after about four or five days. Well, she was right in more ways than one.
Something else happens when you stop trying to be a writer, when you stop facing down an imaginary public: you write. In the mornings, I went to my office, the most beautiful place I’ve ever worked, and wrote. It wasn’t ridiculous to think I could finish my book here. In the afternoons, I worked by the pool, pausing only for a swim. I did finish my book, after a number of false finishes (which I, of course, told everyone about – ‘I’m finished, No I’m finished now actually’). Beatrice told me stories about the alternate universe of the Factory, about Edie Sedgwick—who lived in her old, New York apartment—that spurred my imagination. I felt, at last, that I’d finally found something true in my novel, and in those few weeks I worked towards that truth. My concentration also improved immeasurably; I read like I hadn’t in years.
The work was serious, but there was a lot of silliness—the ideal combination, in my opinion. I was fortunate as Pol Guasch, my tower-mate, was delightful. ‘You’re kind of funny, Pol,’ I remember telling him a few days after our first meeting, after he made me cry with laughter. People who make you laugh: it’s not so easy to find them. I’m very grateful to Beatrice, Rasika, Manju, Henry, Kaya, both Emmas and everyone who made my stay at Santa Maddalena so pleasurable, and so fruitful.