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Wednesday, 22 July 2015 16:17

Discovering Rome with the help of American ex-pats

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bookWhen we think of American writers living and working overseas, most of us turn to those authors who lived in Paris. We recollect Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, that fine account of his life in Paris in the 1920s; we imagine Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald making the rounds to such bars as La Rotonde and Les Deux Magots; we conjure up Gertrude Stein; we think of Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare & Co., later brought back to life by George Whitman. We think of Henry Miller drifting in Paris in the 1930s and of writers from the 1950s and 1960s like James Jones and James Baldwin.

Though not as famous a gathering place, Rome too has seen its share of American writers visiting her streets and taking up residence in her neighborhoods. In the 19th century, authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry James, Henry Adams, and others traveled here to witness first-hand what they had learned in their classical educations and to deepen their knowledge of art and history. In the case of Hawthorne and James specifically, Rome exerted a profound influence on some of their finest work.

Despite the world wars and Italian Fascism, 20th century American writers continued to drift into Italy. Ernest Hemingway served with an ambulance corps here during World War I, was wounded during a bombardment, and maintained a lifelong affection for Italy, using it frequently as the setting for his novels and short stories. Ezra Pound took up residence, became enamored with fascism, and served time in a mental hospital in the United States for his support of the Axis powers during the war until Hemingway and others petitioned for his freedom. William Styron lived in Italy in the 1950s, giving us a portrait of expatriate life in his novel Set This House on Fire.

In the last half-century, writers from the United States have continued to come to Rome to work and to bask in a culture so very different from their own. Two of the best known of these authors are Gore Vidal and Pat Conroy.

In the Hotel Due Torri in Rome, in which I have stayed the last three weeks, I found on the bookshelves in the lounge a Frommer’s Rome, 11th Edition, published in 1997. On pages 150-151 of this guide is a tribute to “Gore Vidal’s Roma.” This guidebook fascinated me because of its longevity — how had it survived all these years in this tiny library? — and because of the inclusion of a writer’s thoughts on Rome as a part of the guidebook. 

Gore Vidal, the novelist whose greatest work, Julian, detailed the life of a Roman emperor who tried to stem the tide of Christianity, was the gay gadfly of American politics for 40 years. In this short article, this author of numerous other novels and essays, most of them about the United States, tells us why he become an expatriate in Rome. Gore enjoyed Rome, the Frommer’s Guide tells us, because “he enjoys human-scale village life. He felt that the many Roman shops in the old neighborhoods were pretty much as they were 2,000 years ago.”

This comment remains true today. The Via dei Portughese, for example, which is in the heart of Rome and a city block from my hotel, offers restaurants, shops, and stores where people clearly know one another, where friends gather on the street and sidewalks, and where the shops do have the same function of the tabernae of Ancient Rome. 

Pat Conroy, author of such notable books as The Great Santini and Beach Music, has also used Rome as both a residence and as a springboard for his fiction. Conroy did not live here nearly as long as Vidal, but both Beach Music and The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life give us an author who clearly fell in love with Rome.

As readers of Conroy’s novels know, one of his great talents as a writer is to bring a place to life with words. His descriptions of Charleston and the Low Country leave readers feeling the sunlight on the Carolina marshes, smelling the scents that drift from kitchens and rivers, seeing the beauty of forests and bays at dawn.

In Beach Music, Conroy uses the same magic to recreate Rome on paper. Within the first 20 pages of this vibrant, sprawling novel, Conroy conjures up for us the markets, streets, churches, and people of Rome as seen through the eyes of Jack McCall, an American expatriate and writer of travel guides and cookbooks. McCall, like Conroy himself, has fled to Rome to escape the personal trauma created by the death of a loved one. The book travels back and forth between Rome and South Carolina, with such incredible descriptive power as to make the reader feel physically present in both places.

The Pat Conroy Cookbook came to me in a used bookshop near Emerald Isle. (I laughed when I saw the book; the lower right corner had teeth marks, as if someone had tried to take a bite out of the cover). Here Conroy gives readers his own history as a cook, a man who moved from amateur to chef in the kitchen, as well as recipes from different places he has lived, most notably Charleston, Paris, and Rome.

Most interesting to me in this book are Conroy’s autobiographical pieces at the beginning of each section. Here again he brings Rome alive, entertaining us with meals eaten there, with characters he meets, with dishes he has himself prepared.

If you can’t go to Rome, let Pat Conroy bring Rome to you.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. He is spending the summer traveling in Europe. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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