UK | 2003, 2014
William Fiennes’s first book, The Snow Geese was published to wide acclaim in the US and UK in 2002. A blend of memoir, essay, natural history and reportage, the book has been a top-ten bestseller in both hardback and paperback, was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize and has won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Hawthornden Prize. It has been translated into five languages. William Fiennes has contributed to many publications including Granta, the London Review of Books, the Observer and the Times Literary Supplement.
The Santa Maddalena Foundation, April/May 2003
I went to Santa Maddalena with an idea in my head, a cluster of images and a heap of books. I wasn’t working on a draft; I wasn’t typing furiously, a thousand words a day; there was no satisfying white slab of manuscript to be augmented or reconsidered. Still, I had the flicker of something. Already I knew that writing a book was more than just writing , that one verb didn’t cover this particular enterprise. I wanted to think, read, look, note and plan; I wanted to try things out. And I coveted quiet, roped-off days in which to begin.
I had a bedroom on the second floor of the tower. A small square window looked out over wooded hills that turned blue and hazy in the evening light, with prominences of villas and palazzos – turrets, pediments, belvederes – and the dark skittles of cypress trees poking up among the oaks and elms. It was easy to work: you just leaned into it. I worked through my stack of books, amassing notes. You never heard cars, or drills, or sirens, or shouts. Sometimes you heard the coarse buzzy racket of starlings nesting in the roof. The brown buds of the old, lichen-decked oak grew plump and then burst, leaves emerging like moth wings from cocoons. The place drew you into a proper, unforced intimacy with the natural world, and the air carried a lovely trace richness of all the books composed in it: Memoirs of an Anti-Semite , On the Black Hill , Anil’s Ghost.
Lucia made my bed. One morning she came into the kitchen, picked up the spouted oil can and oiled the creaking door hinges with extra virgin olive oil. Lucia and Lica washed and ironed my clothes: my shirts came back with perfect Euclidean grids of creases on them. I worked; I ate lunches of bread, cheese, tomatoes; I walked miles each day along tracks through the olive orchards: ramshackle tapered ladders resting on trunks, brashy thinnings heaped in the corridors between the trees. The church clock had stopped at six and the aligned hands led your eyes heavenwards.
The price of solitude is usually isolation. But here you could find seclusion and retreat without any sacrifice of companionship and laughter. I loved my colleagues; I loved Beatrice Von Rezzori’s sparkling guardianship; I found oxygen and vitality in all our conversations. I’d never been to Italy before. We went to Florence together, to hear an amateur choir sing Brahms’s German Requiem in the Teatro della Pergola; we walked in the Arboretum at Vallombrosa; we drove to Monterchi, to see Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto, and to Arezzo to see his frescoes in the church of San Francesco. And I kept working through my books, making my notes, checking the oak buds, grateful for such days. I knew they were a gift, a privilege. I won’t forget them. One evening Lica struck a match and the whole box caught fire, and for a moment she stood motionless with this dense white flare in her fingers, as if she were holding a new star in her hands.