USA | 2013, 2015
Patrick Flanery is an American writer based in London. His first novel, Absolution (2012), won the Spear’s Best First Book Award, and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Flaherty-Duncan First Novel Prize, The Royal Social of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award, and the Prix du Premier Roman Étranger in France; it was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliot Prize and has been translated into eleven languages. His second novel, Fallen Land, was published in 2013. Patrick has written for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Daily Telegraph. He has held writing fellowships at the Santa Maddalena Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Reading.
When Beatrice speaks of ‘the time of the writer’ she means, simply, the months each year when her home is open to those of us who would impose on her hospitality in the name of writing some pages of a book. But heard in the midst of dinner conversation, it is easy to imagine that phrase summoning into existence a more expansive, socio-historical sense of ‘the time of the writer’. This was a dream I often indulged while sitting in Santa Maddalena’s unpretentious rooms, where the work of writers is treated with the same seriousness and happy fervor as the other arts whose significance Beatrice so ardently champions. Books arrive at the house, accumulate on tables and shelves, are passed around, inscribed, thumbed, loaned and returned, talked about as if literature were the most important matter in life—as if books might, in fact, be the very stuff of life itself.
What has happened to all those copies of Von Rezzori’s Anecdotage? None can be found, they must have been taken or given away, more must be ordered. Nyala loans us hers. In the copy of Snows of Yesteryear left in my tower bedroom there is an index card with a previous reader’s wish list, ‘cookies: chocolate, lemon, any kind,’ written over and over again in blue pen. Life weaves in and out of books; the books become our lives, our habitudes, and the location of our desires, however modest. ‘But this is a great book. Have you read Marías? What do you read? I’m very curious,’ Beatrice asks. The soup is getting cold, Nilmini wants us at the table, the physical books must be put aside for a moment, although their psychological presence is constant, fluttering and alighting through conversations, describing a network of extra-familial genealogies.
The sense of culture Beatrice fosters is one that maintains the possibility and power of beauty, in the unlikely book that might outlast its own time, and, through its survival, work not only to enrich the lives of future readers, but also to provoke the creativity of others. I felt this as an unspoken challenge, so that when I sat down in the tower each morning with my strong coffee, blood oranges, and view of the hills, it was possible to believe once again in the importance of writing. Half a book emerged in six weeks, others suggested themselves. ‘I feel like a godmother,’ Beatrice says. Returning to London, to the banalities of daily life, the value of Santa Maddalena comes even more clearly into focus. For that period as Beatrice’s guest, one is admitted not only into her highly personal ‘time of the writer’, but also—however imaginary, local, and ephemeral the position might be—into a more existential, epochal ‘time of the writer’: a pause in the station, sheltered under a canopy, provisioned and repaired, set to continue.
When I returned to Santa Maddalena in March, two years after my first visit, Beatrice said something to the effect of, ‘Well, you know where everything is. I hope it feels like home.’ Returns are rarely as transporting as first encounters, and yet coming back to this house I found the sense of creative potential and removal from the world that struck me the first time remained just as powerfully present.
I arrived exhausted and uncertain about the new project I was starting, but soon found the rhythms of the place settling my mind. Nowhere else I know creates such quick and comprehensive magic: the ideal conditions of companionable solitude and unfussy grace that give the mind freedom to wander. I will always be grateful for the refuge, the absence of distractions, and the warmth of Beatrice’s welcome.