Runner up in Fiction, New York Book Festival, 2010
"Haunted... vivid... entrancing"... Kirkus Reviews
Click here to read reviews, watch videos, and download the free Readers' Guide for Book Groups. The revised edition is now on KINDLE
Katherine's Wish "A dazzling bit of fictional sorcery" David Lynn, editor Kenyon Review
A new novel about the lives of Katherine Mansfield
and her circle
Gold Medal Winner in Historical Fiction, IPPY Awards
Imagine an island awash in a turquoise sea -- and your own writing room with a balcony overlooking the blue. Yes, sort of like Lawrence Durrell, when he wrote Prospero's Cell. Imagine working intensely for a few hours at your desk, then plunging into the sea to revitalize your brain and body. Imagine workshopping your new fiction and essays together with writers from all over the world and sharing exquisite meals of fresh produce, fish, and cheese, accompanied by the robust reds and tangy white wines of this sunbaked soil. These and other impressions are all yours at the Aegean Arts Circle where I had the pleasure of leading workshops for a couple of years. This year's group is taught by Kitsi Watterson. Previous teachers include Thomas E. Kennedy, David Lazar, and Robert Owen Butler. There may be a place or two left. Contact Amalia Melis at the website linked above for information.
If you can't join the fun this year -- try your hand at these exercises from my 2016 workshop Ten Writing Prompts on the Theme of Islands
If you're heading for Greece for this workshop or just for fun, check out this free guide to the 100 best things to do in Greece assembled by Jen Miller.
Or check out this video interview with Amalia Melis
Thirty years ago in my little rented room in Rome near the Chiesa Nuova, I’d often wake up before dawn to a raucous chorus of songbirds. An ocean of tweeting, chirping, warbling and whistling surged into my dreams, punctuated by the occasional crowing of a clandestine rooster on a rooftop terrace somewhere nearby. With all that racket, it was impossible to sleep past five a.m. and anyway, shortly afterwards, the church bells started up and the cafes along Corso Vittorio would throw open their metal shutters with a deafening clang. Winter and summer those birds were a constant presence, yet I never figured out where they all roosted at night. Amid the red tiled rooftops, in bell towers or belfries, or in the branches of the plane trees arching over the Tiber? There must have been hundreds of them -- if not thousands.
Over the years, in my moves across Rome and to the countryside, where my house teeters on the edge of a wild gorge, I have tried to keep track of local birds and the way they clock the seasons. The nightingale arrives in March when the weather is still chilly, filling nights with her thrilling songs. Swifts and swallows, less numerous now than they once were, sweep and circle April’s blue skies. Regal hoopoes with their feathery crowns and hungry, fat pheasants appear in late spring in the long grass in the fields. Cuckoos signal summer. The shrieks of owls embroider the edges of long November evenings at the fireside. And yet, in the city and in the countryside, bird populations are shrinking in Italy. According to recent statistics swifts have been reduced by 40% and general songbirds by 52%. Now you hear only a few peeps at dawn.
Different factors have been blamed for the decimation of birds in Europe. The use of pesticides -- which kill the bugs that feed the birds, the expansion of agriculture, the draining of wetland, vanishing habitat, West Nile virus -- here too, and even the changing climate are contributing to the 'silent spring' foreseen by environmentalist writer Rachel Carson in the sixties. Still some birds thrive immune to these negative influences, like crows and starlings, while legions of seagulls have moved in, nesting on rooftops of urban apartment buildings far from any water. Now in Rome I wake to the cries of gulls. "You'd think we were in Brest," says my husband, and not in our very proletarian Roman quartiere closer to the mountains than the sea.
But the stars of the local bird show are definitely the starlings decorating the sky from autumn till spring with their psychedelic geometrical patterns. Wonderful to watch at a distance, it can be disconcerting when they pass over your head, as in the video I took with an iPad from my balcony in Rome. Though at times they may be a nuisance — for weeks streets and sidewalks are covered in thick layers of gooey guano deposited by the prodigious starling flocks roosting in the pines. As I struggle through the slime, looking up at those placid fowls plunked on branches, I sometimes wonder what would happen though if they should suddenly attack?
In many religions birds -- doves, crows, herons, roosters, hummingbirds -- have played a sacred role. Their capacity for flight, their swiftness, ability to reproduce human sounds, their powers of vision have always been revered as preternatural. Many superstitions link birds with death, the spirits of the dead, or rebirth. As descendants of the dinosaur Archaeopteryx, they hearken back to very ancient times on our planet. For the Etruscans, they were a means of divination, a connection between earth and sky, men and gods. They are powerful archetypes arising from the depths of the unconscious and yet delicate indicators of the balance, or lack of it, in our greater environment. In my own personal dream lore, birds bring news —sometimes good news, and sometimes mourning.
This mixed status of birds as harbingers of both the uncanny and environmental disequilibrium finds menacing celebration in Daphne Du Maurier's disturbing classic The Birds first published in 1952. Alfred Hitchcock's film is better known than Du Maurier's tale --which underwent a major transformation, some might say deformation, in its adaptation to film. In Hitchcock's version, set in California, a sexy rich girl exposes a quiet sea town to danger when she pursues a local journalist, bringing him a gift of two lovebirds in a cage. Her arrival triggers the massing of birds in the area which then begin to attack and kill people in the community. Psychological friction lies at the root of this phenomenon. Interpreted in a Freudian key, the birds manifest the murderous emotions harbored by the mother towards her rival. The attack scenes, done partly with real birds (the actors smeared their hands with anchovy paste to attract the creatures) and partly with puppets, are still today extraordinary examples of cinematic illusion.
The original story, published in 1952 in Du Maurier’s collection The Apple Tree is set in bleak, atmospheric, Cornwall. Nat, a farmhand and war veteran, begins to notice the bizarre behavior of birds in the fields and along the coast, which at first he seeks to explain by natural causes: changes in the weather brought by Arctic winds, hunger, disorientation. It soon becomes evident that the birds are working together consciously to destroy human communities --and Nat labors ceaselessly to protect his family, knowing that there is little hope to win out against such a monstrous force. Some critics link the story to fears of a Nazi invasion or of the Cold War, both of which are mentioned in the story. It has also been considered as the forerunner of today's popular genre of the environmental catastrophe tale.
Aside from Hitchcock's film, The Birds has also been adapted for drama and radio play. In audiobook version it is available exquisitely narrated by Edward E French the award-winning Hollywood special make-up artist who also works as an actor and professional narrator. Connoisseurs of gothic will find much to delight them in the readings available on his You Tube channel not only of The Birds, but many other classics by masters of gothic and horror, such as Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, and M.R. James.
"This is a book about how to enhance our awareness of places and find in the environments around us inspiration and material for artistic and writing projects . It’s very much a personal journey , retracing my own creative process and discoveries as a writer, reader, teacher, and traveler. Its most basic premise is that there is a power or energy at work in some, perhaps all places, that speaks directly to our imaginations and nourishes them.
Many writers, artists, photographers, psychogeographers have recorded eloquent testimonies of the ways particular places have inspired them, and it would take to long to share even a few. They boil down to a few concepts: "Landscape is character," in the words of Henry James. For Lawrence Durrell, "We are expressions of our landscape." And the houses and rooms we live in are analogues for the self. We keep up an ongoing dialogue with the places we live of which we are totally unaware. Houses and landscape inhabit us just as much as we inhabit them."
Here are 6 prompts from the workshop I gave:
1. A set of stairs -- you are at the top or at the bottom of a stairway, and you know that when you reach top/bottom you will enter a space where something life-changing will happen.
2. Write about a tree you have never forgotten
3. Write about your first kitchen in a foreign house –an object in that kitchen that manifests its “foreignness” and what you did with it.
4. Write about a place where “silence” had a new meaning for you.
5. Recall a window, door, or drawer in a place you no longer live. Take hold of the handle or door knob. How does it feel in your hand? Now open it and describe what you find there.
6. Write about a statue you would like to talk to
More writing prompts my be found in my book The Soul of Place A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci
There are people who find islands irresistible -- Lawrence Durrell
There are people “who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication.” -- Lawrence Durrell
Greece is our ancestral home– we were born to its sun, sea, and islands – to its penchant for speculation, exploration, philosophy, and myth – its relentless searching for the essence of things, and its celebration of the mind, body, and senses. The great Greek myths probe the depths of our psyche to reveal the conflicts and energies that fuel our lives. Greece is a storied territory. As Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor once claimed, you cannot walk across its terrain without tripping over some sacred spot drenched in history or myth. Each of its six thousand islands is a world unto itself.
Places inhabit us just as we inhabit them. They have personality, emotions, agency, and transformative powers. This is particularly true of Greece and its islands.
Islomania was the underlying theme of a recent writing workshop I taught at the Aegean Arts Circle Workshops on the island of Andros.
During our sessions, we explored islands and their meaning. Geographical islands and psychological ones. Islands as setting, protagonist, myth, and metaphor. The enormous gap between the popular image of islands as places of pleasure, escape, the natural life, and utopia and the bleaker,cruder reality they often are. We explored “islomania” and insularity and what these things have meant in our lives and work. In addition to working with The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook, we elaborated several exercises with island themes to use during the workshop.
1.Write about water as a medium, an element, as distance, emotion, music, or as part of your body.
2. Write about an island in your life, interpreting “island” from any point of view desired.
3. Connect the islands in your life in a personal essay.
4.Write about collecting islands or a collector of islands.
5. Make a deep map of the islands in your life or of your ideal island.
6. Write about an island creature, from any domain – including imaginary, mythological,or culinary! Or write about a (sea) food as a form of alien life.
7. Write about a culinary experience as a rite of passage. (See MFK Fisher on the oyster).
8. Write about a house or room from which you are(or the main occupant is) absent.
9. Write about an object that transports you to another time or place.
10. Open the door to a place you once loved, but haven’t been for awhile…
In 2014, I was invited by the Center for North American Studies at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany to participate in a creative writing project sponsored by the Jubilee fund. Among the special events organized to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding the university was an undergraduate literature and writing course in English, focusing on Writing the City, taught by Prof. Barbara Röckl and teaching assistant Dr. Tristan Kugland. I was brought in during the last phase to help students create a literary guidebook to their town, featuring places, itineraries, and atmospheres of particular interest to the student population.
Kiel, not far from Hamburg, and previously a Danish city, was quite a discovery for me and September proved to be an excellent time to visit. Lonely Planet’s description of the place as grottenhässlich -- ugly as sin – just doesn’t do justice to this vibrant and hospitable university town, which hosts both the world’s largest sailing event as well as one of Europe’s most prestigious universities. Kiel is a fascinating patchwork of ambiences. From the dizzying heights of the rathaus clock tower, as straying gulls dip near your nose, you may enjoy a view of the naval yards, the harbor, the new town, and the countryside – while in the lower depths of the building, you may meditate on somber sculptures commemorating the suffering of the people of Kiel under the allied bombs which destroyed much of the town during World War II.
The university’s sprawling, modern campus is well-connected to the city center with buses, which unlike Rome’s transport system, seem to have been made in heaven. Its quiet neighborhoods are interspersed with lush nature parks inhabited by boar and bison. In its traditional coffee shops, ladies meet to sip hot beverages and taste delectable cakes made with chocolate, ginger, berries, whipped cream -- Barbara and I sampled a few during my stay.
But the port is the main attraction. Splendidly situated on the Kiel fjord, the sea front area seems to stretch to infinity, mingling sea and sky. In the harbor, antique sailing ships, cruisers, and ferries bound for Sweden, Norway, and Russia, energize you with their constant movement and promise of imminent departure: you just want to grab your bag and hop aboard for adventure.
During my stay, the class met every morning to work on materials, prompts, themes, and exercises drawn from my craft book The Soul of Place, to ferret out the heart of this Baltic sea port, producing pieces of flash fiction and memoirs deeply imbued with the genius loci. I was very impressed by the students’ superior linguistic skills – by the unique range of their talents, backgrounds, and interests and by the quality of their prose, which speaks highly of the standards maintained by the German scholastic system. Beyond that, their knack for writing, powers of observation, curiosity and enthusiasm were truly extraordinary. Some students were already skilled writers -- poets and journalists. One or two discovered they had a talent for writing in English which they had not expected.
A brewery haunted by a medieval monk, a bar resembling the entryway to the underworld, a treacherous labyrinth beneath the rathaus where we thought we had lost one of the students during our guided tour, windswept beaches, a stadium where the local team always loses, a laundromat where the rhythm of the washers produces its own poetry, a flea market, a no man’s land of squats and gardens torn down to build a megastore, lonely bus stops, old salts hanging around the port reminiscing on old times, the fishy salt tang of kieler sprotte or mouth- puckering desserts made of sugarless plums only for connoisseurs, a tower where a lover dreams of flying – these were among the subjects of the pieces written during the course.
The students kept working for several more months, followed by a phase of long-distance editing and selection of only 36 pieces from among many more for the book, coordinated by Prof. Röckl. A search for a publisher followed, and thanks to Barbara Röckl's persistence, arrangements were made with Wachholtz Murmann Publishers to publish FEEL KIEL the Ultimate Kiel Guide for Urban Explorers in 2016. The photos by Finja Dirksdóttir blend sleek, post-modern street photography techniques with stunning landscapes and elegant architectural shots. Each prose piece is accompanied by a photo and a short description of the place and its role in the town.
This highly subjective, elective, personal, and even quirky guide charts out a tour of Kiel, which visitors and long time residents alike, won’t want to miss, in search of that unique quality-- the true essence of place. I was delighted to be part of this project and immensely proud of the students and the book they produced. Thanks again to Barbara and Tristan for including me, and to the students for their fabulous work. Order your copy from amazon de https://www.amazon.de/Kiel-ultimate-Guide-Urban-Explorers/dp/3529051314
Stunning Cover by Paul Lachine for the AWP Writers' Chronicle featuring Books and Islands.
Safe in my cabin as the Greek-bound ship rolls gently beneath me, I look up from my book and gaze out through the porthole at a calm, cobalt sea. Mountain crests slide into view on the blurred edges of the horizon.
I am on my way to an island, eagerly anticipating the pleasures of islomania, a disease once described by Lawrence Durrell, my favorite writer of islands, as a “rare but by no means unknown affliction of the spirit.”
“There are people” he goes on to say, “who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication.”
Like Durrell, I seem to have caught this disease for life.
In honor of my upcoming workshop on Andros, I am posting here my essay Books and Islands dealing with Lawrence Durrell's Prospero's Cell originally published in the AWP Writers's Chronicle. Click link below to read the essay.
Here are some notes on this tradition and some writing exercises and prompts celebrating masquerade, disguise and masks.
Masquerade nowadays is often considered to be an entertainment for children, usually at Halloween, when we impersonate spirits and ghosts. In earlier times, however, ritual masquerade was primarily for adults and performed important social and spiritual roles especially in the period known in the west as Carnival. This tradition lives on today in Catholic countries in a few world-famous celebrations such as the carnivals of Rio de Janeiro and Venice, and the Mardi Gras of New Orleans.
The Christian tradition of Carnival situates it sometimes right after Christmas lasting till the Tuesday before Lent, Ash Wednesday. These weeks were a time of feasting and transgression, when the vital needs of the body and the flesh ( "la carne") were celebrated and gratified without restraint.
In some areas, Carnival has blended with local traditions – as in Sardinia where indigenous folklore combined with vestiges of the earlier Phoenician culture to create a unique Carnival parade known as the Mamuthones. In this festival, zombie –like creatures dressed in sheepskins and wooden masks march through the streets, while brightly- clad figures capture onlookers with lassoes. To be lassoed during the parade is considered a lucky event, but this custom is thought to derive from a Phoenician ceremony in which sacrificial victims were chosen.
In Tuscia, the feast day of Saint Anthony kicks off the Carnival period. On this day animals, both pets and livestock, are blessed in church and huge bonfires are lit in public squares in memory of ancient propitiatory and purification rites hearkening back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. During this celebration, people of all classes could mingle and slaves and masters changed places for a day. Businesses, public offices, and schools shut down as the routines of daily life were set aside. Gambling, drunkenness, licentious behavior were allowed. All this served to help drive out the winter spirits of darkness, revitalize the natural cycles, and prepare the way for the sun to return.
The Christian Carnival tradition borrowed three practices from the ancient Roman Saturnalia. Firstly, a focus on food –with pancakes or fritters being a typical dish -- along with the overconsumption of meat, sweets, and alcohol. Secondly, an emphasis on sex and fertility. Social rules regarding sexual behavior were temporarily loosened. Lewd pranks and bawdy humor set the tone for popular entertainment in street circuses and pageants where fertility symbols were prominently displayed. Thirdly, “misrule” – the suspending of social hierarchy. Breeches of propriety, etiquette, and piety, insults, and challenges to authority -- all were permitted. Political satire was, for this brief time, not subject to censorship and control. The world was turned upside down.
Misrule played a key role in maintaining public order – for those few days the more oppressed classes could vent frustrations which might otherwise have festered into social rebellion. The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who has studied the carnivalesque in literature, held that
the impious and free-thinking attitudes permitted at Carnival unleashed powerful creative forces into western culture that were later manifested in art, literature, and politics.
The social freedoms of Carnival were made possible by yet one more custom inherited from the Romans: the wearing of a mask at this time. However, this had some negative consequences: while wearing a mask, it was easier to conceal signs of disease from others or to perpetrate crimes anonymously. Narratives set in Carnival time often involve criminal acts committed in disguise, or sometimes death by transmittable diseases, such as the plague, which happens in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mask of Red Death.”
Disguise and masks remain a popular form of adult entertainment. We may play out fantasies by donning a wig or a domino, the hooded cape of the Venetian carnival, used by both men and women, hiding the whole body in voluminous folds. Stanley Kubrick’s erotic thriller, Eyes Wide Shut, adapted from a novel by Arnold Schnitzler, employs dominos and other iconic Venetian masks to portray darker instincts hidden beneath facades of propriety. Lawrence Durrell, describing the carnival in his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, writes “ What stamps the carnival with its spirit of pure mischief is the velvet domino – conferring upon its wearer the disguise that each man in his secret heart desires.”
Iconic Venetian Mask
Masks are power-charged artifacts
Masks can be receptacles for the projection of what Jung called the shadow -- the darker sides of ourselves – fear, loathing, desire, impulse, transgression, otherness, which we cannot acknowledge openly and which appear in our nightmares. Masks may also express emotions in a pure state – like the Greek comic and tragic masks, or idealized icons of beauty or ugliness. They may embody the spirit of a place or people. They may manifest archetypal figures or character tropes. As ritual objects they may serve to connect us to other levels of reality: the underworld, the world of animals, magical beings. As vehicles of impersonation, they allow us to take on the identities of celebrities or imaginary characters we admire or envy. Masks are power-charged artifacts: Hannibal Lecter’s iron muzzle invokes in us an instinctive fear. The white Guy Fawkes mask popularized by the movie V and adopted by protest movements everywhere - speaks of challenge to tyranny and the vindication of the rights of the oppressed.
WRITING EXERCISES Variations on disguise
It can be frightening to see a masked person when we don’t expect it. The recent panic over clown sightings in the US and Europe is an example. We may imagine the worst if we find a masked person standing on our doorstep – but we may have got his intentions wrong. Write a scene in which a masked person , intending no harm, turns up in an inappropriate place.
It can be equally unsettling to be the only unmasked person in a crowd of disguised and anonymous revelers. Write a scene in which an unmasked person tries to recognize or find someone in a crowd of masks.
In carnivalesque literature, the rules of daily life don’t apply – as in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Write a scene involving two couples who are matched with the wrong lover.
Write a scene in which a natural or supernatural force shapeshifts into a human being.
Write a story with a disguised traveler as the narrator.
Write a scene in which a person removes a mask or disguise while being observed by a stranger.
Write a scene in which a person removes a mask or disguise while being observed by a spouse or family member.
CONVERSATIONS WITH A MASK
This exercise is best done with any form of mask made to be worn on the face, and not a merely decorative object. It can also be done with a mask you have made yourself.
Ask yourself these questions and jot down your responses
What is it made of? Where and when was it made – in what context was it created?
What powers or feelings does it evoke?
Take some time when you are alone. Put the mask before you on the table. In a passage of free association ( or speaking out loud), address the mask directly asking it a question ( for example : Tell me your name?) and ask it to reply.
Write down its answer. Ten minutes
Put the mask on and look at the world through the slits of its eyes, then at yourself in the mirror. What do you see? Be prepared for surprises
Write down your response. Take as long as you wish for this exercise
Whenever I am in Paris, I make a private pilgrimage to Katherine Mansfield’s grave in the cemetery of Avon, near Fontainebleau. Recently in town for a reading and a workshop, I take a day out of a hectic schedule to make a trip to Fontainebleau. It’s a fitting moment of the year for my visit, the Day of the Dead is upon us. Moreover, it was at this moment of the autumn that Katherine first went to Fontainebleau to stay at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, where she died. Today the air is crisp and cold, with a damp chill from the forest where the trees have taken on a hint of red and ochre.
A row of driverless taxis waits outside the Fontainebleau-Avon train station. It’s lunchtime and the drivers are probably all at table. Each taxi displays a sign with a mobile number to call should the driver be absent, but I am informed by an American couple ahead of me in line that only one has answered their calls, promising to come “tout de suite,” nearly an hour ago. Chatting with them I learn that they are from California and that they too are on a pilgrimage to the cemetery of Avon, to visit Gurdjieff’s grave there. We decide to share a taxi, should one arrive, and within moments, voilà, an unlicensed taxi pulls into the stand and we strike a deal with the driver for a tour.
The cemetery of Avon, located at the end of “Rue de Souvenir” is beautifully kept. The black marble tombs are polished to a mirror’s perfection and decorated with bright bursts of yellow chrysanthemums and flares of purple heather. Wandering back to an older part of the cemetery, I find Katherine’s grave – simple, stern, unadorned except for a small vase of ivy set at the head. The name “Katherine Mansfield” is etched in large letters. This is the name by which the world knew her, but not the one printed on her passport, “Kathleen Mansfield Murry.” Beneath appears the title by which she longed to be known, “wife of John Middleton Murry.” Barely legible today is the epitaph: “Out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower, safety,” summing up the contradictions and tug of opposites within Mansfield’s life, character, and writing.
Not far off, just “next door,” as it were, is the Gurdjieff family plot, a large rectangle of green turf edged in yellow pansies, surmounted by two rough hewn menhirs, and shaded by a gnarled cedar. The graves are unmarked but the tourist board has added an unobtrusive sign briefly explaining who Gurdjieff was and his connection to Avon. My fellow pilgrims film the grave from every angle. We stand a while in silent reflection and then return to our taxi.
Although our driver has lived in Fontainebleau for all his forty-some years and is fiercely proud of this fact, he is perplexed as to our request to visit the Chateau du Prieuré des Basses Loges where Gurdjieff’s institute was housed. He is unsure where it is exactly. The Californians have a map, which indicates a building at the end of Rue de Katherine Mansfield, but it turns out to be a modern nursing home. I have been to the Fontainebleau once before, while doing research which would later develop into my novel, Katherine’s Wish, based on the last five years of Mansfield’s life, and I know that it is not easy to find the Prieuré. The modernization of this area of the town, the division of the old estate, taller walls, and a certain reticence concerning Gurdjieff and his school make the place hard to spot, but at last we find it, secluded behind an imposing stone wall.
We follow the wall to a front gate and peer in. Since my last visit, the place has been transformed into an elegant residential complex. No plaque on the gate denotes the presence of Gurdjieff’s school in the 1920s, or Katherine’s death here in 1923, or even the name by which this historical building was formerly known. Skirting the wall, we come to a side entrance leading to a parking area. The gate is locked, but a young woman in a track suit, noticing us on her way to her car, comes to enquire if we are looking for someone.
Quite simply we tell her we are looking for the place where Katherine Mansfield once lived, and where Gurdjieff had his school. She seems puzzled and tells us that she thinks Mansfield lived elsewhere, down the street perhaps, and has never heard of Gurdjieff. However, she lets us in, shows us how to open the gate to let ourselves out again and apologizes for not being able to help us on our search. “I have only been living here for a couple of months,” she says, before driving out the gate.
We go in and walk around the grounds, to what is now the rear of the building facing south, where the great lawns and flower beds once extended, now parceled off today with fences. There are few trees save a large plane tree shedding its yellow leaves on the shaggy lawn. It must be nearly a century old and was surely standing here in Katherine’s time. I picture her in the elegant room she occupied on the upper floor of the Chateau, known as The Ritz to pupils who stayed in more Spartan quarters. I imagine her standing at the window, looking out at the lawns, at this tree, feeling the autumn sun on her chest and eyelids, desiring to become, as she wrote in her diary, “A Child of the Sun.”
A large dog bounds out of the bushes toward us. Luckily he is friendly, but we take this as a sign that we should not prolong our visit. Slowly we circle the house, pause to examine the fountain with blue tiles out front, now drained, then discreetly slip back out to the street.
There are many accounts of the intense, whirling life that went on in this place –from C.S. Nott’s Journal of a Pupil, Fritz Peters’ delightful memoir, Boyhood with Gurdjieff but none are more moving than Katherine’s own letters written in the last weeks from the her little writing table upstairs.
It seems strange to me that the drama of this writer’s last days, which has touched so many readers for four generations, should remain completely unknown to the people who now eat, sleep, and carry on their daily lives in the place where Mansfield died. But that is Paris and its environs – rife with ghosts, layer upon layer, who unseen breathe upon us.
One day, when I was about ten years old, my parents brought back a children’s book in French from the Kingsport Public Library. This thin red book, whose title I cannot remember, told the story of two children about to set sail from New York to France on an ocean liner. In the first chapter, they packed up their things into a steamer trunk. Successive chapters dealt with boarding the ship, departure, misadventures on board, and finally arrival in port followed by a Parisian escapade with croissants. Throughout the voyage, the children wore blue-and-white-striped French sailor shirts and although they were American, spoke French.
Of the hundreds of library books for children transiting our home, this one has stuck in my mind for more than fifty years. It galvanized my play sessions: for months afterwards, I enacted scenes from the book and the most exciting part was the preparation for the voyage. There was an old steamer trunk in the spare bedroom in our house. Emblazoned with the initials of my mother’s maiden name, smelling of mothballs, it was crammed full of memorabilia–faded photographs of her Polish relatives from before the war, a Mexican tooled-leather handbag wrapped in plastic, purchased on her honeymoon. These items too held a trace of the exotic, of other places and times. I picked the lock with a hairpin, unpacked the contents, and used this trunk as the main prop in my playacting. I would spend hours happily filling it with my clothes, shoes, books, dolls, pretending I was about to leave on a long sea voyage to Europe, with Paris as my final destination
Fifty years later, I find myself a confirmed Francophile, living in Europe, speaking another language than the one I was born to, and a passionate fan of sea journeys. That little book which had come into my life quite by chance shaped my conception of travel and aroused in me an implacable desire for visiting foreign places, influencing my entire existence.
The power of books to transport us elsewhere, inspiring us to travel and framing our experience of place, is the topic of an intriguing, multidisciplinary study by two Australian academics from La Trobe University, Warwick Frost and Jennifer Laing, entitled Books and Travel This broad study investigates the nuanced ways that reading and day dreaming about places stimulate our imagination and construct our idea of travel. The English travel writer Vernon Lee, friend to Henry James, would have heartily agreed. She once wrote:
“For the passion for localities, the curious emotions connected with the lie of the land, shape of buildings, history and quality of air and soil, are born, like all intense and permeating feeling, less of outside things than our own soul… The places for which we feel such love are fashioned before we see them by our wishes and fancy; we recognize rather than discover them in the world of reality.”
The relationship between literature and travel, the tourist’s gaze, the history of literary tourism, travel as self-actualization and liminal experience, literary/ heritage tourism and territorial branding are among the many subtopics discussed in this fascinating study which draws on theoretical perspectives from many fields.
The authors offer a detailed analysis of diverse tropes and plot structures underpinning much travel literature (quest, adventure, pilgrimage, hidden worlds, time travel, escape, transformation) applied to dozens of classic and popular works of fiction and nonfiction for which short synopses are given. Although all media — photography, film, television, social media, computer games — may contribute to constructing our sense of a given place, it is the more immersive and intimate act of reading that lets us lose ourselves completely in an imagined place, recreating characters, stories and settings in our minds through a deep, solitary process of identification, often predisposing us towards a transformative conception of travel.
The process starts early. The authors argue “that the genesis of adult travel behavior can be traced in part to the books we read as children, and their influence is profound and long-lasting.” Many classics of travel literature both for children and adults have strong mythic or archetypal structural elements related to the hero’s journey. “Far from being lightweight fare, these books…start us on an imaginative pathway where travel is mysterious, magical, and often life changing,” they write.
This book is a must-read for anyone involved tourism studies as it provides a brief but perceptive analysis of the diverse motivations and aspirations that compel us to travel and an illuminating glimpse at how literary – cultural heritage tourism attempts to satisfy, exploit, and sometimes deny those aspirations and desires. I also highly recommend this book to all writers whose work, fiction or nonfiction, deals with travel and place. Frost and Laing’s discussion of transformative travel and the tropes associated with texts of this type provides rich insights into the magic and craft of story-making and into the psychological rewards readers hope to find in an absorbing book.
BOOKS AND TRAVEL will inspire you to reread many old classics and revisit your own personal mythology of travel and imagination, to decide for yourself if travel has been a transformative experience in your own life and to understand the factors which have shaped your sense of elsewhere.
If books you read in childhood have influenced your experience of travel, please leave a comment below and tell us how.
As you drive along the Via Aurelia towards the sea, near the turn off for Capalbio, a flash of psychedelic color catches your eye, emerging from the silvery blur of olive groves and ilex trees on the scrubby, Maremma hillside. Prominently displayed are the tip of a red rocket aimed at the sky, a decapitated tower with a bicycle wreck at the top, and a huge, blue laughing clown face with a waggling hand growing straight up out of its head. Other gaudy figures peep out from beneath the tree tops, resembling the rides of some crazy carnival that has just pulled into town, but instead this phantasmagoria happens to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest landscape artworks, the Tarot Garden created by the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 -2002). For Saint Phalle, this garden was a corner of paradise achieved through an inner itinerary of sacrifice and spiritual growth.
The giant figures, some of which are inhabitable buildings, represent the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot, refashioned according to Saint Phalle’s understanding and experience of them over the arc of a lifetime. The tarot is not just a card game, Niki claims, but conceals a philosophy of life. Key cards for her are the Hanged Man, Strength, the Magus, the Sun, the Empress ( manifested in the garden as a sphinx whose breasts are rooms you can live in – where indeed Niki did live while working on the garden), and the Angel of Temperance, who became her spiritual guide.
Entering the austere enclosure of tufa walls that form a barrier to the outside world, you step into a dream, inspired not only by the Tarot, but by fairy tales and the art works of Matisse, Miro, and Picasso. The figures are covered with mosaic tiles, mirrors, and ceramics in lollipop colors, arranged in kaleidoscope patterns, bedazzling and bewitching, changing by the minute in sun and shadow.
The spark for creating this garden came when Niki visited Gaudi’s Guell Parc in Barcelona in 1955, an experience so overwhelming that it made her tremble with a sense of destiny. “ I knew someday I would make my own Garden of Joy,” she wrote. She dreamed of her garden for years, seeking the right spot, which she thought might be Africa or South America, a place that would contrast starkly to the urbanization of contemporary life. By chance or fate, the chosen spot turned out to be a former quarry in the Tuscan Maremma, on land belonging to the brothers of a friend.
There could have been no better place than here in Maremma, just over the border from the province of Viterbo where several of Italy’s greatest esoteric gardens are located : Villa Lante, the Sacred Grove (aka the Park of Monsters) of Bomarzo, the gardens of Villa Farnese in Caprarola. By placing her garden here, Saint Phalle had connected up with the local tradition of landscape narratives and healing gardens. In the mannerist tradition of the sixteenth century, those gardens were to be “read” with the heart and mind as much as they were to be enjoyed by the senses. The placement of fountains, trees, and sculptures obeyed a narrative strategy that might reveal a secret doctrine, heal an illness, enhance political power, point out the route to spiritual enlightenment, or simply alter fate. Such gardens were magic books hewn in stone, in which the visitor, while wandering about, became the actant or performer of an ever-changing story, a necessary element in the garden’s magic.
As you explore the Tarot Garden, you will note allusions to Bomarzo. For example, the Empress who greets you with melting, blue mosaic stairs flowing from her open mouth, -- vividly evokes the Hell Mouth, the signature sculpture of Bomarzo. Unlike the Bomarzo cavern carved of dark tufa with its unsettling tomblike atmosphere, this is a gushing fountain of life. The glassy green dragon guarded by a maiden, representing the arcanum Strength, resembles the dragon of Bomarzo. But here the atmosphere is playful and joyous, the beast is kept in check and does not threaten us. By contrast, the Sacred Grove of Bomarzo seems steeped in a twilight gloom, yet it too was meant as a healing itinerary for its original creator, Pier Francesco Orsini, suffering from deep depression after his wife’s death.
Niki de Saint Phalle financed and built her Tarot Garden, costing millions of dollars, mainly by herself, although she was helped by fellow artists, workmen, friends, local people, lovers, admirers, and enthusiasts. Along the way, she encountered many obstacles, including illness. Severe rheumatoid arthritis disabled her from working for long periods. She also struggled with the fervent opposition of local residents who objected her project, which, it turned out, had been undertaken without first receiving official building permits from the town government. In the end, a white knight appeared as in all fairy tales to rescue what is good and true: Mitterand saved the garden from Italian bureaucratic censure – and possibly from being torn down -- by declaring it a national monument of France, and therefore not subject to the Italian building code.
Paths seem random through the Garden, and, at Niki’s request, there are no guided tours. The point of this garden is to discover it yourself, and while doing so, discover yourself. There are however two main routes to explore – one departing from the Sun, takes you up a wide, easy, well-paved path. The other is harder to find. You must climb over the dragon’s tail, then follow a narrow, slippery trail. From here you encounter more directly the Moon, the Devil, and Death, with whom the artist had to come to terms. Hardship, love, enthusiasm, obsession went into making this garden, writes Niki, but above all, faith. “Nothing and no one could have stopped me.”
This garden engenders joy and delight in children and adults, and teases our thoughts as to its meaning. But upon exiting her magic world, you will also feel a deep gratitude to the artist for never giving up until the garden was done, and for her generosity in sharing her vision.