Posts Tagged ‘Florence’

A Room with a View

May 6, 2014

A Room with a ViewOne of the greatest reading treats for my Luccan adventure is a selection of Forster’s works, which made their way into the travelling box of books as essential re-reading. I had initially thought I’d begin with Where Angels Fear to Tread – his first novel, but after my mentioning A Room with a View last week met with such a warm response, I found myself itching to read it instead.

And it was bliss. For what could be better than reading of the liberating, exhilarating affect of Italy on stuffy English people while being a stuffy English person being happily liberated by Italy? And oh how I felt thankful to be in Italy with my equivalent to George Emerson, rather than dreadful Miss Bartlett.

Perhaps it’s unfashionable now, but still I really like the way Forster’s novels engage so openly with ideas. A Room with a View is essentially a playing field for England versus Italy: self-consciousness, snobbishness and constraint versus sunshine, passion and instinct. It is also – clue’s in the title – about views. Forster stresses the importance of being able to see clearly, whether that’s Santa Croce, the Sussex Weald, or, more profoundly, being able to perceive the truth within oneself. Most English people, Forster suggests, are so tied up in social conventions, Baedeker guidebooks and worrying about what one is supposed to see, that they cannot see the truth. Italians are the opposite. George Emerson and his father are exceptions to the rule, as they are able to follow their instincts and speak the truth rather than following social convention, so they are looked down on by most of the other characters. The great question for the plot is: can our heroine Lucy Honeychurch also see a true view?

The signs are positive, as the Reverend Beebe observes when Lucy plays the piano, especially Beethoven, with such instinct and passion:

‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’

It all seems to be going rather well, with Lucy fainting into the arms of George Emerson after witnessing a deathly duel in the Piazza Signoria, and then being kissed by him among the violets of Fiesole. But dreadful Miss Bartlett is forever getting in the way and steering her onto a more respectful course of action. We leave Italy behind after this dramatic kiss and return to England several months later where we see Lucy accepting a proposal of marriage from awful Cecil Vyse. Cecil is as English as they come – all pomposity, snotty snobbishness and selfishness. (He won’t even make up a tennis four, which seems to Lucy to be the height of bad manners!) Poor Lucy, we despair for her, for while she seemed to be on the verge of seeing everything, now her vision has clouded over. Luckily the comic muse intervenes and, without wanting to give everything away, we can rest assured that, unusually for Forster, everything works out very pleasingly indeed and Lucy struggles through the darkness and manages to see exactly what it is that she does want.

Another thing I love about Forster is his talent for creating moments when the surface reality of the scene peels away to something quite horrific and profound beneath. In A Passage to India, it happens in the resounding empty ‘ou-boum of the Marabar Caves. In A Room with a View, it is there in the duel in the Piazza Signoria. Lucy, tellingly diagnosed by Mr Beebe as having played ‘too much Beethoven’, decides to go out alone that evening:

Conversation was tedious; she wanted something big…

Forbidden to go on a tram alone, she goes to a shop and buys photographs of various works of art. Now I better quote at length, as it really is such an extraordinary moment that I’d hate to paraphrase:

But though she spent nearly seven lire the gates of liberty seemed still unopened. She was conscious of her discontent; it was new to her to be conscious of it. ‘The world,’ she thought, ‘is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them.’ It was not surprising that Mrs Honeychurch disapproved of music, declaring that it always left her daughter peevish, unpractical and touchy.

‘Nothing ever happens to me,’ she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.

She fixed her eyes wistfully on the tower of the palace, which rose out of the lower darkness like a pillar of roughened gold. It seemed no longer a tower, no longer supported by earth, but some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky. Its brightness mesmerized her, still dancing before her eyes when she bent them to the ground and started towards home.

Then something did happen.

Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. ‘Cinque lire,’ they had cried, ‘cinque lire!’ they sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.

That was all. A crowd rose out of the dusk. It hid this extraordinary man from her, and bore him away to the fountain. Mr George Emerson happened to be a few paces away, looking at her across the spot where the man had been. How very odd! Across something. Even as she caught sight of him he grew dim; the palace itself grew dim, swayed above her, fell onto her softly, slowly, noiselessly, and sky fell with it.

She thought, ‘Oh what have I done?’

Isn’t it extraordinary!

Here we have a cave, years before Forster wrote about the Marabar caves. Instead of the paintings of which she purchases photographs, the square becomes a true chiaroscuro, all encompassed in shadow and twilight except for the blazing tower of the palace, ‘a pillar of roughened gold … some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky’. It is ‘the hour of unreality – the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real’, the hour when wishing something hard enough can prompt it to happen. ‘Oh what have I done?’ thinks Lucy as she faints after witnessing the duel, the man killed in front of her, the blood trickling out of his mouth. It is as uncanny as a dream.

A little later, once recovered, she walks with George back to their hotel and he throws her photographs into the Arno. Understandably, a little ruffled by this, she asks him why, and he tells her they were covered in blood. It’s a potent symbol: these purchased views of works of art – the things one is supposed to see in Italy, written about in guidebooks – stained with the blood of a dead man, the real drama of the uncanny view she has just experienced. The blood makes the photographs seem trivial, staining them with its evidence of life and death. Evidently, art is not life.

Gosh EM Forster is wonderful. A Room with a View risks being dismissed as too ‘nice’, (indeed Forster himself called it his ‘nicest’ novel), little more than a social comedy, some brilliantly observed portraits of silly English characters let loose in Italy. Of course it is all this, and there are many moments when chuckles escape, or when one is so pleasingly carried away by the sunny plot. But Forster was also writing having read Freud, at the time when the Moderns were beginning to push at the limits of narrative. While he would never be as experimental as Joyce or Woolf, or even DH Lawrence, how can we overlook these cave-like moments where we encounter something uncanny, shocking and profound?

Alas, I have been so carried away by Forster that I’ve written little of my off-page adventures … so here is a rather less dramatic, but splendidly bookish view I encountered while wandering around Lucca last week.

Books in Lucca



July 8, 2010

It was an uncanny coincidence that just as I was reading about nostalgia, I found myself going home.

I mentioned The Hare with Amber Eyes in my previous post, but shall reiterate here quite how brilliant it is. Really, buy a copy and read it.

At this particular point in the book, Edmund de Waal is describing his beloved netsuke when they are owned by Viktor and Emmy Ephrusi in Vienna in the early 1920s. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, inflation is escalating and Viktor – an incredibly wealthy Jew, head of the family bank – is at the beginning of losing everything. They live in a vast house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, filled with Old Master paintings, Gobelin tapestries, antique furniture, gold dinner-services … and of course the netsuke in their lacquer cabinet. And it is at this point that de Waal mentions nostalgia:

But the life of objects within the Palais was less mobile. The world had undergone an Umsturz, an overturning, and this led to a kind of heaviness in the things that made up their lives. Things now had to be preserved, sometimes even cherished, where before they had been just a background, a gilt-and-varnish blur to a busy social life. The uncounted and the unmeasured started at last to be counted very accurately.

There was a huge falling away; things were so much better and fuller before. Perhaps this was when there were the very first intimations of nostalgia … Viktor and Emmy kept everything – all these possessions, all these drawers full of things, these walls full of pictures – but they lost their sense of a future of manifold possibilities. This was how they were diminished.

Vienna is sticky with nostalgia. It has breached the heavy oak door of their house.

Nostalgia etymologically means the pain of homecoming, from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain), coined in 1688 as a translation of the German heimweh. Its meaning only shifted to take on its more current sense of wistfulness for the past in 1920 – just as the Ephrussis were entering their predicament. How particularly apt that de Waal invokes this sense of nostalgia so poetically, when it has just come into being.

My own nostalgia over the past couple of days should be more linked to its etymological sense – I went home and it was painful! But no, the pain was more to do with being lurgied and coughing and spluttering and sneezing everywhere, rather than a trauma of coming home.

In fact it was heaven to go home, to a big clean house, to a fridge full of M&S treats and a mother who was convinced that I was really terribly ill and must go and get some antibiotics. Masses of sympathy and masses of sleep – a winning combination.

But I did find the objects at home had taken on a wistfulness. Of course, my old bedroom has changed since I was its full-time occupant. Shelves have been cleared, cupboards emptied; a new bed has been put in, with new linen; a whole stack of bookshelves turned into a flat-screen TV.

But there are a few survivors. Old cuddly toys in a row up at the top of the shelves, all my children’s books, lined up series by series – Swallows and Amazons, Duncton Wood, the Lord of the Rings, Redwall, Tintin, Asterix, Barbar, Beatrix Potter … as well as the occasional piece of detritus that has accumulated from visits over the years. A post-it note about keys, an old receipt, a half-consumed packet of chewing gum. Useless bits and pieces that the cleaner is too nervous to throw away, just in case they might hold some hidden resonance.

And, over time, they have become ‘sticky with nostalgia’. These objects aren’t in my future – otherwise I would have carried them with me to my new home. I’m afraid that Charlie the Caterpillar and Dogga and Jeremy Fisher and all the other cuddly toys won’t be particularly welcome in the flat that I share with the fiancé. I suppose they were pre-boyfriend cuddling companions and have now been made redundant. (Although I do have one teddy bear who remains with me, for when the fiancé goes away.) But I would be heartbroken if they were thrown away. As de Waal says,

Things now had to be preserved, sometimes even cherished, where before they had been just a background

Yes I really should throw away that old post-it note and definitely the chewing gum – it’s probably not even all that chewy anymore – but there’s something about the way everything is preserved, as though in amber. On a minute scale, it’s a bit like Rodinsky’s Room, in which Rachael Lichenstein and Iain Sinclair describe a fetishised lost room off Brick Lane, untouched for eighty years, discovered as though its occupant had just left – a bowl of porridge still sitting on the desk, now with a thick layer of dust on top.

It is an effort to bring these objects up-to-date, into the present, to push them towards a future. It is too tempting to leave them be, redolent of that moment in the past, sticky with nostalgia.

And now I’m off to Florence, where I haven’t been since living there, eight whole years ago. Back then it felt steeped in the past, impossibly saturated with Renaissance art and history. But it was also filled with the excitement of the future, stretching and widening in front of my eyes. It was my first time living on my own, in a new place; school was behind me and freedom ahead …

I wonder if I’ll feel nostalgic.