I never thought I’d take such an extended vacation — I blame it entirely on the Italian people, because it was in Italy that I discovered how much I really like lying around and staring at the stars, the ceiling, and out the window which, basically, is what I’ve been doing this entire summer, when I was not grilling or eating peaches.
But I did have one or two thoughts about Italy and now that I am out of my extended vacation haze, I realize that mainly they are about the romantics and water.
Hiking along the Cinqueterre with my English professor friend C, which is where I went after London, we kept coming across places where romantic poets had spent time in the sea, sometimes tragically, sometimes not so much.
I’d like to say first that it was really fabulous being on vacation with someone who has her English literature down cold. While I struggle to remember when Hardy died, and whether he is a Victorianist or something else, C not only can tell you the answer to these questions (I think she would say he might be both) — but she can tell you what happened to Hardy’s heart (not to mention Shelley’s) (ick), and a little bit about Hardy’s wife. More on that later, after encounters with water.
The Cinqueterre is quite beautiful. In fact, the Ligurian coast, where there is pesto and lovely fish everywhere you sit down, is a wonderful place. Many of you probably already know that. I, however, did not, so I am going to say it several times, because the wonder of it all is still fresh for me. Italians are kind, gracious, fun, and have an interesting habit of always asking you when you arrive at a restaurant without a reservation, even if the restaurant is completely empty, whether you have a reservation. Upon learning that you do not, shoulders are shrugged, mouths are twisted around in expressions that vary from regret to hope to disdain, and then prego a table is produced. This is the theater of the miraculous, and after a while it became a delight, sharing in the sorrow of not being able to have something and the giddy joy at having it produced after a small emotional struggle. Yes, it was only a table in an empty restaurant, but it stood for all of life, and we felt it as such. Particularly if we had already had a drink or two before dinner, which, dear reader, we sometimes had.
Shelley — I have to get to Shelley. In the interest of actually posting something before August ends, I have not looked up these facts, so please don’t use them if you are writing a term paper on Shelley, because you might not get the grade you want. Apparently, Shelley and his friends came to Italy in the winter — for obvious reasons. My impression is that they were a dark, brooding lot, with a lot of sexual experimentation going on, a loosening of constraints both social and literary, and also, they were likely there for the food.
During this trip, Shelley apparently went out in a boat and, in a storm, the boat sank and he drowned. When the body washed up on the shore, and his friends found him, someone (probably Byron) had the bright idea that they should make a funeral pyre right there on the beach. Unfortunately (and I am sorry, but this does make me laugh, even though it is very disgusting), they didn’t realize that it is not a good idea to try to make a funeral pyre with a body that’s water-logged and they couldn’t get the whole thing to blaze up in the way they’d imagined. So, this group of insane and impractical writers and lovers and hangers on, removed Shelley’s heart and brought it back to England with them, the body being a lot more complicated to get home.
And then, being on a roll with stories of hearts and writers, I wanted to tell you too that (according to my friend C, in whom I have complete faith), when Hardy died, his literary executor, who sounds like a bit of an idiot, had the bright idea of storing Hardy’s heart inside a biscuit tin, but without a lid. Apparently, one of Hardy’s cats … well, do I really need to go on? This, apparently, is the sort of thing you learn in English graduate school — along with the interesting fact that Hardy did not speak to his wife (although they lived in the same house) for over a decade — and when I asked my friend C why he began speaking to her again she informed me that the decade of no speech ended with Hardy’s wife’s death, not with some event that got him talking to her again, although she might have been a help in choosing a better literary executor, had he only thought to ask.
So, what’s left? Ah. Byron. Byron is memorialized all over the Cinqueterre in part because there doesn’t seem to be anywhere he didn’t take a long swim from or to. And what a swimmer! In addition to a lovely grotto named after him, there is a little sign in Portovenere that tells you he swam from that small village to another larger place that took us quite a while to get to on the train. Perhaps it was faster to swim, but I’m afraid if I’d tried that, I would have met Shelley’s fate.
My next post, which I hope will be far more timely than this one, will be about Dickens, and the conference in Genoa I attended with C and a bunch of Dickens scholars who assembled there to discuss Dickens’s sojourn in Italy. More conventional than the romantics, and certainly more practical, Dickens was nevertheless no less interesting. More on that next time, dear reader.
Oh, and by the way, when you hike this weekend, don’t wear those cute high heels, okay?