Where You Live… Is What You Write About? | KATARINA WEST

Where You Live… Is What You Write About?

Florence. Couldn’t have it in any other way.

Years ago I read an interview with a writer whose name I’ve forgotten – unfortunately so, because I liked his comments and would have loved to read some of his books. He came from one of the newly independent Eastern European states that popped up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But thanks to his highly polemical and political novels, he lived in Germany and made a living by giving creative writing classes to budding German writers.

But to his great astonishment his German students didn’t know what to write about! Everything was comfortable, everything was OK; everything and anything around those German writers was so neat, well run and, therefore, monotonous, that they lived in a constant state of creative semi-apathy. Eating disorders was a popular topic, as well as poorly functioning love relationships. But their imagination never flowed beyond that.

Even the Eastern European author wasn’t happy in Germany. He wanted to go back to his home country. Things might be precarious over there, and living there was certainly difficult, not to mention his thorny relationship with the government.

But back home, his word count knew no limits.

Often I have thought about his words and wondered whether there are writers like him – and me – who draw their inspiration from a certain place, and in order to write well can’t but live in that one place. I live in Tuscany, and both my debut novel Witchcraft Couture and Absolute Truth, For Beginners (coming out this autumn) are set in rural Tuscany, amidst olive groves, vineyards, country churches and hilltop villages. I couldn’t have it any other way. My third novel will be set in the centre of Florence, which is almost revolutionary for me. Florence is the furthermost frontier of my fictional geography.

But why is this so?  What is it in a place that makes it so important for a writer – or for an artist, for that matter? Is it the landscape? Or is it the people? The language? Culture and customs? History? Religion? Politics? The peculiarities of everyday life? You could say that it’s a combination of them all, an ill-defined list of ingredients, each of them contributing to the final flavour. But even then, I think, something vital is missing. Because choosing the same setting, book after book after book, means that you’re trying to solve some personal puzzle; you’re trying to explain that city or region or country to yourself; and as long as it mystifies you it will keep returning in your stories. There’s both attraction and irritation in your curiosity: it’s a love-hate relationship. The setting of your novels charms and infuriates you in equal measure – and never, ever does it leave you cold.

As for me, starting to write about Florence wasn’t easy, not the least because it’s almost a sub-genre of its own, and there’s a regiment of world-famous writers, both dead and alive, who have documented the town’s each and every lane and palazzo in their books. There is, naturally, E.M. Forster who coined the concept about having a room with a view, and Edith Wharton who wrote so beautifully about Italian gardens, and Henry James who embarked on Portrait of a Lady while staying in an apartment overlooking the golden-yellowish river Arno. In the city’s bookshops you can buy literary companions that tell you what Dostoyevsky or Goethe or Shelley or Byron wrote about a certain church façade or a street corner: keep reading those, and you’ll never have the courage to provide a description of your own.

Yes, choosing Tuscany as a setting for your novel means that you can feel the weight of history looming somewhere in the background of your story. But you can also feel another weight, more implicit and indirect, yet nonetheless just as important. That is the weight of beauty, of near-absolute perfection: of landscapes and buildings and villages so picturesque that, put into words, they are bound to sound sugary and hackneyed, no matter how realistically you describe them. People tend to assume that the prettier the setting, the easier it is for the writer or the artist to exploit it – but on the contrary, a setting too beautiful might be nothing short of a shock; just think about Stendhal suffering from dizzy spells and nervous ecstasy after seeing Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Croce.

I have artist friends who at regular intervals complain that living in Florence is both a paradise and a hell. On good days the city is a constant source of inspiration, blessed as it is with some of the most magnificent works of art mankind has ever produced – and even the light here is different than elsewhere, silvery, dreamlike and translucent, as if it didn’t come from this world at all. But on bad days the morbid perfection of Florence crushes their confidence. You can feel the shadowy presence of great masters of the past, my friends tell me, and it’s this very fact that makes you unable to paint or draw anything of your own. Because what you want to create has already been created centuries ago, and with such outstanding beauty that it seems like a sacrilege to try anything new at all.

It’s not easy, for a city, to have such a glorious past. Which is one of the reasons why it makes a fascinating setting for a story.

Tuscans are at times frustrated by foreigners’ obsession to see Tuscany as nothing as a picture-perfect backdrop: in the texts of a foreign traveller, the landscape is always picturesque, the politics Puccini-like, and the people lively and elegant, and the food sinfully delicious.

But the fact is that even a city like Florence has its islands of suburban tedium and greyness: even here, there are bargain stores and supermarkets, housing projects that look like the building blocks of a Moscow suburb, graffiti on cement walls, motorways passing dreary industrial sites, and household supplies shop windows shining in fluorescent strip light.

So when it comes to setting, the challenge – especially for an expat writer like me – is to create a milieu for my stories that is both rich and realistic: a hodgepodge of colours, facts, flavours, sounds, snapshots, anecdotes and fashions.

And I hope I’ll always see Tuscany with fresh eyes, like on that day years ago, when I saw it for the first time.

 

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