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Nathaniel Rich: Over Ernest

August 27, 2011 10:50 am | Posted by: stephen pierson

THERE WAS A TIME—not as long ago as I’d like to believe—when I imagined all novelists as Ernest Hemingways, hero-adventurers who shot tigers, fought in wars, seduced wild-eyed women, gambled their life savings at high-stakes poker, won duels, lost duels, and wrote frantic bursts of prose while standing upright in their rented rooms in Havana or Saigon or Beirut. I didn’t fully understand the standing-upright part, but I had read that Hemingway worked this way.

At first I figured it had something to do with the immense ferocity of the act; surely he was too wired with genius to sit down at a desk. The more I thought about it, though, it occurred to me that the reason Hemingway wrote standing up was to allow a woman (his muse, no doubt) to more easily “inspire” him while he was in the midst of his demanding labor. This image—of the great writer madly scribbling masterpieces while being fellated by a native woman—haunted me. If this was the writing life, who wouldn’t want to be a writer? I should mention that, at the time, I had not read a single book by Ernest Hemingway.

Other myths of writing found their way into my head. Writers did not write every day but cavorted recklessly until, all of a sudden, inspiration hit. And what a moment that was! Like a shot of adrenaline to the heart. The writer had to drop whatever he was doing—lay down his pistol, leap out of his mistress’s bed, or turn around the bobsled, yelling Hi! Hi! to his huskies—and yank his pen out of his inkwell. He had to work fast, and not without a certain element of rage, in order to get it all down before the ghost moved on. And when the spirit did leave him, it was tragic, like Saint Theresa after her ecstatic vision passed: The writer was bereft, lost, alone. He lay down in the fetal position on a cold stone floor and he wept.

Yet in order to access this moment of divine inspiration in the first place, it was necessary to be in a beautiful—and ideally exotic—location. Somewhere that would allow you to have adventures. What kind of adventures? I didn’t know. Hunting lions in Kenya like Hemingway sounded scary; more appealing was the image of Vladimir Nabokov waving a net after butterflies in the Swiss Alps, or Samuel Beckett traipsing through the peat bogs of County Cork.

One summer, I finally got my chance. After having studied Italian for three years, I was hired as an intern at a large publishing company in Milan. I would live in Italy for two months in complete isolation, with plenty of time to read and think and, finally, to write. At last, this would be my chance to experience the adventures denied to me for so long, to make myself available to the whispering muses. I had just turned 21 years old. I didn’t know shit.

THE FIRST THING I did when I got to Milan was visit Il Papiro, a jewel box of a store that sold elegant, hand-decorated paper and stationery products: magenta sealing wax, wrapping paper patterned with a peacock-feather design, and delicate wells of Murano glass filled with brightly colored ink. I found a journal bound in soft blue leather with thick, yellowish pages. It tied closed with a tassel. The tassel was a revelation. I remember wondering why every book didn’t come with a tassel. Of course it was necessary—how else would a book stay shut? The journal was a treasure, an object made to be cherished and revered. It was slightly too big to fit in the pocket of my khakis.

I forgot about my mission the next morning, however, when I showed up for the internship. My boss, Stefano, was the editor of the mass-market fiction department, a man in his mid-40s with mutton-chop sideburns who published John le Carré and John Grisham. He took me to lunch and very quickly realized—with a look of horror, perhaps tinged with amusement—that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

“I was told you could speak Italian,” he said.

Io lo posso fare,” I said, with great determination.

“No,” said Stefano, “you can’t.”

Stefano could barely speak English, so we were at something of an impasse. But I soon learned this wasn’t as serious a problem as it might have seemed. There was a good reason he had chosen to hire me and not, say, an Italian with an advanced degree in literature. Since Stefano’s job consisted primarily of reading American and British novels and deciding whether to publish them in Italian, the publisher had forced him to attend English classes, which he despised. They took up his lunch break three days a week and were held on the opposite side of the building. Stefano had managed to convince the publisher to let him skip the classes, provided that he find his own teacher.

That’s where I came in. Every morning, Stefano gave me a stack of reports sent by his American book scout, paragraph-long evaluations of books that would soon be published in the U.S. Stefano would lean back in his chair, light a cigar—he had a deep passion for cigars—and prop his Ferragamo loafers on the desk. As soon as he lit his cigar, he seemed to go somewhere else, his face assuming a radiant, peaceful expression. I would read aloud, very slowly, dozens of pages of reports, as the bitter smoke gradually filled his office. Once in a while, Stefano would remove the cigar from his mouth and ask me to repeat a word. But I think it was for show. I’m fairly certain he didn’t understand a thing I said.

A younger editor at the publishing house invited me to move in with him—I had been staying in a tiny, filthy pension, and he took pity on me. Soon my nights were spent practicing Italian with my new roommate and his friends, all of whom seemed to be artists, writers, and filmmakers. One woman worked for a paint company and was responsible for inventing the names of new colors. I counted her as a writer.

Every so often, thinking I had successfully understood the bubbling geyser of chatter that is Italian conversation, I would make a move to speak. The table—for it seemed that we were always at tables, in restaurants and bars and outdoor cafés—would become silent, and the Italians would all turn to face me, their eyes wide in anticipation of a brilliant insight, some shard of wisdom that might convey the American Perspective. I was never up to the challenge. I would spit out a mangled phrase, and their faces would cloud with disappointment and confusion. Then I would be quiet again for some time.

Secretly I was relieved not to be in complete isolation. The only problem was that I had no time to write. There was one exception: Once or twice a week, when I awoke in the middle of the night in my friend’s kitchen (for he had no guestroom), lying in a foldout chair (he had no couch, either), a thought would come to me with gemlike clarity. I reached to the floor and grabbed my blue journal and pen, which I kept there for this purpose. In the darkness I scrawled, in a manic blind cursive, the sentence or phrase or word. Then I returned the book to the linoleum and fell asleep with a great sense of contentment. I had accomplished something that day.

But I realized this was not enough when, a month into my internship, I untasseled my book and saw that I had filled barely three of its cream-colored pages. The problem, I decided, was that I wasn’t living. All my time had been spent reading the scout’s reports to Stefano, tagging along with my new acquaintances, and riding on the back of my roommate’s Vespa. Where were the loose women, the running from bulls, the jungle explorations? I needed an extreme experience. I needed to get away.

THAT’S WHEN I GOT a call from a college friend named Joshua. He was traveling through Italy and invited me to go with him to Genoa for a weekend. I didn’t know anything about Genoa. I learned that it was once a major Mediterranean port and had now fallen on hard times. It was not a tourist destination anymore. It sounded mildly dangerous. Genoa was the answer.

I met Joshua in the Milan train station. We hugged like brothers, but the truth was we barely knew each other. We had mutual friends and we sometimes hung out at parties. Ten minutes into the train ride, we had run out of conversation. I couldn’t take out my notebook, though; to do so would be to admit that the whole weekend was doomed. So we sat in silence, watching the landscape race past us: scratched-up farmland, terra-cotta apartment buildings with orange-shingled roofs, dusty, dried-up streams.

The hostel was situated at the top of a mountain. From the train station, we took a bus out of the city, up a narrow winding road, along the side of a cliff. We were thrown against the windows at every bend. This was not the kind of adventure I had pictured.

At the hostel we were assigned to a room with eight other people. The only beds available were on the top level of a triple bunk bed. It didn’t feel safe to leave our bags there, so we decided to take them with us. We left the hostel and walked back to the bus stop, where we waited 45 minutes for the bus to come. Another 30-minute death ride, and we were back where we started.

Genoa was a strange and ugly city. It was still very much a port town, but a sense of despair hung over its cramped, trash-littered alleys and its hustlers lurking in doorways, aggressively pitching miniature Virgin Marys and hashish and two-for-one Nastro Azzurros. We were not far from the French border, but it felt like we had ended up in Marrakech. It was not a friendly place. (Several weeks later, the city would host the annual G8 summit. There would be riots, trucks left burning in empty streets, rocks hurled through store windows, protestors beaten by the police, one activist shot dead and another run over. I wasn’t surprised when I watched the violence unfold on TV.)

We found a pizzeria, where we drank until we had something to talk about. It was a lost day, but at the hostel that night, up on the third level of the bunk bed, something came to me. Or many things—a flood of ideas—images, stories, perhaps the makings of a novel. My Italian idyll had paid off. I was on my way. I fell asleep with the blue journal tented over my face.

The next day we tried to find a beach but failed—it was like trying to find a beach in Boston. Instead, we found an aquarium. As we wandered through the dark hallways, I stealthily removed my journal and made some notes. I must have found the glowing blue tanks and the prehistoric invertebrates inspiring. When Joshua looked over, I shut the journal, neglecting even to tassel it, and threw it into my bag.

There was a young Italian woman standing alone by the octopus tank. Coarse black hair, blue eyes, freckles across her nose, 20 years old. Mustering every ounce of my Hemingway-esque nerve, I decided to approach her. This was my chance for romantic Italian adventure.

She looked at me suspiciously. Not knowing what to say, I asked, in my best schoolboy Italian, whether she knew any good local restaurants. Nothing too touristy. She smiled—an enticing, mysterious smile. “Yes,” she said. “There is a great seafood restaurant in the hills that only locals knew about. They have a special dish, taglierini al granchio—a long, wide pasta served with fresh crab and cream—that you have to know to ask for. It isn’t on the menu.”

I thanked her and walked quickly back to Joshua.

A few hours later, we took a bus up to the restaurant—another hour of being thrown against the Plexiglas windows on the edge of a cliff. But we were pleasantly distracted this time. Perhaps the girl would be there, waiting for us. Would she bring a friend? Would this be the start of our magical adventures? At our stop, we ran out of the bus as if launched by a spring.

The girl was not there, nor was anyone else. I noticed right away that the menus were in English. A man in a soccer jersey stumbled out of the kitchen and asked for our order. Taglierini al granchio, I said knowingly. “Crab pasta?” said the waiter, in English. “Coming right up.”

Less than five minutes later, the plates appeared. Fat noodles congealed in a pinkish paste, with flecks of canned crabmeat. It was inedible. We had missed the last bus, so we had to take a cab back to our hostel. I was too tired and depressed to make any notes in my blue journal. I had nothing to say.

JOSHUA AND I each made excuses to leave early the next morning. All was not lost, I thought. I would write during the train ride back. I already had a web of images and stories; all that was missing was the connective tissue. By the time I got back to Milan, I’d be ready to start on a first draft. My future was in the blue journal. It held all the answers. What I had already written was obviously genius, the inspiration of my exotic travels. I had only to finish it.

Joshua was heading west, and his train left an hour before mine. We said our awkward goodbyes (“Awesome weekend!”), and as soon as he was gone, I found a bench in a quiet corner of the station. I opened my bag and felt around for the journal. And felt, and felt. I turned over the bag and shook out all of its contents. Coins and pens rolled every which way. It was no use. The journal—my hallowed blue leather journal with its pretty tassel—was gone.

Writers have different ways of coping with lost manuscripts. Malcolm Lowry’s first novel, Ultramarine, was stolen from his publisher’s open-top car. Lowry claims to have rewritten it over the course of two weeks. Ralph Ellison’s near-finished 2,000-page manuscript of Juneteenth was incinerated in a house fire. He never recovered from the trauma, and he never completed the novel. I feared I was in the Ellison camp. After all the work I had put into this journal, the nocturnal bursts of inspiration, the clever jottings, the glimmering sentences that I had etched in my own blood (ink, really, but it might as well have been blood for all the sacrifice I’d made)—it would be impossible to recover.

Cursing out loud, my heart racing, I ran out of the train station. I took the bus up the mountain—looking under the seats, just in case. In the hostel, I searched the triple bunk beds, the communal shower, the front desk. Then I went back down to the aquarium. I paid the admittance fee and rushed through the dark hallways. It was more crowded today, a Sunday, and none of the tanks seemed to be in the right place. It is a strange thing to revisit places that you’ve expected never to see again. It violates the rules of nostalgia in an unsettling way. I was prepared to look back on Genoa as an enchanted, exotic place. On second view it turned tacky, grotesque, nightmarish.

I took a bus up to the crappy restaurant. A woman came out to seat me. It was the girl from the aquarium. She didn’t recognize me. I explained that I had lost a book; she let me look around, but it wasn’t there. “I hope you’ll come back,” she said. “We make a great taglierini al granchio.”

On the train ride that night back to Milan, it occurred to me that all might not be lost. Perhaps I could recall some of the things I had written down in the journal. As soon as I got home, I created a new document on my laptop and typed everything I could remember from the journal. I still have the document. Here is what I wrote:

two men eating large slices of watermelon, old Italian types

a man sees an ugly baby and realizes that this day will be awful. Ugly baby=ominous sign

a house filled with wheelchairs

the time I saw someone’s doppelganger by an error of providence, because I had followed unlikely routes and so had tricked fate

huge air bubble in chest, tickling heart, it surfaces in happy laughter

a man puts a tracker on an animal, and watches it on video. It never dies.

Utter nonsense. I’d like to say that as soon as I read this over, I realized my folly. But at least another year passed before I began to understand that divine bursts of inspiration, exotic adventures, and a sporadic writing schedule were fairytales that aspiring writers told themselves in order to avoid doing the real thing.

As it turned out, my first novel was derived, in part, from an experience I had that summer in Italy—in another port town, Trieste, on the other side of the country, where I ended up staying for two weeks.

I didn’t get to that idea, however, until I was well out of college and had developed my own work routine. Every day, I did not stand but rather sat at a small plastic desk in my cramped apartment, and I began making sentences. I bought the cheapest, thinnest notebooks I could find; I filled them with notes, but I almost never went back and read them, especially not when I was writing. I wrote hundreds of pages and I deleted hundreds of pages. Six years later, the novel was published. One of the characters, a hideous, obscene, monstrous writer figure, was modeled in part on Hemingway. He was, quite purposefully, the book’s least realistic character.

I later learned that Hemingway himself had lost a manuscript. His wife left a box containing what would have bee  n his second novel on a train in Switzerland. Hemingway was devastated, but he soon decided it was for the best. He began to see the lost novel as a symbol of everything pretentious, mawkish, and childish about his youthful writing. He found a new prose style and he started a new book, The Sun Also Rises. His career had begun. He was a professional now.


Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and a former senior editor at the Paris Review.


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