USA/Nigeria | 2012
Teju Cole (born in the United States in 1975) is a Nigerian-American writer, photographer and art historian. Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College, he is the author of two books: a novella, Every Day is for the Thief, and a novel, Open City, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York City Book Award for Fiction, and the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times, Qarrtsiluni,Chimurenga, The New Yorker, Transition, Granta, A Public Space, etc.
These Notes Natural
With heartfelt thanks to Beatrice Monti della Corte; and to Edgardo Cozarinsky, Javier Montes, María-José Ramírez, Caterina Toschi; and to Carlo, Nilmini, and Nilante.
“Why do you wear the hat? You have a nice-shaped head.”
“I wear the hat outside to keep my head warm. Not much hair, you see.”
“You have a nice head. You don’t need the hat. I don’t like this hat,” said the Baronessa.
We get papers here, and by lucky coincidence I was well reviewed in El Pais and Le
Monde today. Beatrice has a genuine interest in the literary excitements of the day. She
reads a lot and knows a lot.
Lunch is elegant, dinner courtly. Simple Tuscan food: pasta with anchovies and
artichokes, pea soup, bread, olive oil, roast beef. There are names. “I knew Borges.” “We
visited Marguerite Yourcenar.” “Leo Castelli came by.” “Calvino.”
The wine is very good. Perhaps pouring wine into a decanter helps open it up? It’s red,
from the area, from the Frescobaldi vineyards, which are famous in Italy, and drinking
two glasses of it each night, I feel like a minor Oriental monarch c. 300 BC, though
Beatrice says, with a frown, “It’s a mid-level wine.”
In Santa Croce with no Baedeker.
A visit to the Palazzo Pitti. Late afternoon. Silence. No, not only silence. Stillness.
Stillness is the glory of Florentine painting.
Stillness as an artistic virtue.
Sunday afternoon, Tuscany. Country road with everybody in the car, Javier driving. Poor
Caetano Veloso’s voice coming through intermittently like a damaged fresco.
After a long day in the Uffizi, I am surprised by my own face in the bathroom mirror.
In my medieval tower at almost 2 am. In (Chatwin’s!) bed and very sleepy, but feeling a
need to start an essay. But the lights were out. I didn’t want to get out of bed, certainly
didn’t want to switch on my computer, so I made an audio memo to myself with my
phone. Listening to it in the morning, I could hear myself struggling for the words, to find
the right words for the thoughts, and even struggling to pronounce some simple words.
(Often when we say we are putting things into words, we really mean we’re putting
words into things.)
Days working side by side with Majo, into whose study room I barge.
What would Mozartian poetry be?
It would have all of the usual life in it. But it would have great formal acceleration. I
recently read Christopher Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander” and got this terrific lift from it
because of the way it was rejoicing in its own resources as an invention. It gave you a
music that was trampolining off itself, glamorous and delicious and self-conscious. There
was genuine sweetness and swank in the writing, but underneath all that banner-flying
beauty and merriment, there was terrific veteran knowledge. Real awareness of hurt and
vindictiveness and violence. And there was wiliness. I thought it was astonishingly
mature poetry to have been written by a young man. The poem has a Prospero awareness
of all the penalties but it still retains an Ariel ability to keep itself sweet and lively.
Arezzo. The train station there. Heading back to Santa Maddalena after a day with the
frescoes of Piero della Francesca. Wonders.
And after, en famille, “The English Patient,” like the world doubling its lushness.
And after that, alone, rereading Ondaatje.
Yeats in his 1909 journal (quoted by Taussig in an essay on notebooks that I buy in
Florence) gives me the excuse I need:
“To keep these notes natural and useful to me I must keep one note from leading to
another, that I may not surrender myself to literature. Every note must come as a casual
thought, then it will be my life.”
Edgardo’s fine presence, and his splendid film “Nocturnos” which we all watch together.
I came out of the Bargello dazed by a notion. In light of the sculptures by Ghiberti and
Donatello, particularly those from the earlier parts of their careers and, going further
back, in light of the sober 14th century stone and marble Madonnas, and the intricate 13th
century ivory carvings from France and Italy, I felt a sudden call to the pre-secular. What
drew me in was not simply the religious, which would imply creeds, but rather whatever
that quality was in art that had not yet found its way to the permissiveness and sensual
drama that began to predominate after 1420.
Masaccio and Fra Angelico in painting and Brunelleschi and Donatello in sculpture mark
the switch, though all four continued to retain traces of the international Gothic style; and
the switch, of course, led to wonders.
About some aspect of this, I have an argument with Javier.
The generous length of these days.
A quick snake in the vines of the tower. I begin to close the windows.
“I am a writer for an accumulation of lesser reasons (love of words, fear of death, hope of
fame, delight in creation, distaste for office hours) and for one presiding major reason:
because I believe that the best art tells the most truth about life.”—Julian Barnes
We went to Galluzzo, to the Certosa there. An old monk whose eyebrows were like
brushes brought us in. It was late afternoon. Gray light fell on old stone. The view from
up there was as it is in the illustration on a wine bottle: terraced green hills, grown over
with vines and olive trees. Battlements and ancient stone buildings too, imprecise in the
Among the Carthusians, who had taken vows of silence, young Pontormo—whom
Vasari, in Le Vite, says was neurotic and moody, but that could be Vasari’s jealousy
talking—painted in silence.
The entire country full of the ghosts of great artists.
A farewell dinner. Majo and Edgardo dance.
Something extraordinary happened here. I breathed. Those nights when I walked from the
tower towards the shared table, those nights walking through an olive grove in the dark.
The wet grass. The constellations above. Beatrice’s hands.
And after a flight as long as a night, a night. A return.