The other day I picked up a century-old novel about which I’d completely forgotten and it struck me that it contained a theme about which many authors – myself included— have written: the romantic, transformational allure of Italy. Bursting with art and history, blessed with warmth and beauty and busty women crying out, “Mangia, mangia,” Italy is an everflowing source not only of romance, but of one particular idea about romance: the idea that traveling to a new place is the best possible way to leave timidity and stodginess behind. To go to Italy even briefly, some of our favorite books tell us, is to have a chance at becoming a new, more passionate person.
No wonder then, that Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert made it her first stop on a global search for the better life. Of course, she found love later in the trip. In Italy, she only gained weight. But that first exercise in indulging the appetite is more than a simple metaphor for becoming ready for love. It seems, in Italy anyway, like a very real and necessary preamble. How can one find passion while counting calories? Why not have seconds, and another glass of wine? Why not, indeed.
It’s no surprise that Gilbert’s mega-bestseller would attract criticism, though, including the barb that it is naïve to expect so much pleasure, love, and enlightenment all from a simple trip. But that’s exactly what travelers have expected—and in cases beyond even Gilbert’s, what they have sometimes found. Six years before Eat Pray Love, Laura Fraser authored another book in the “rebound and find love in Italy” subgenre with her 2001 memoir, An Italian Affair. Fraser, abandoned by her husband, heads off to Italy, and has a tryst with a professor from Paris, which in turn becomes a truly global love romp. Like Gilbert, Fraser gets to have her cake and eat it too, finding a partner who appreciates her plump curves, labeling them “sportif.” Hotel bedroom scenes are woven with descriptions of grilled eggplant, lemon-sauteed sole, tomatoes and bruschetta. Most memorable in An Italian Affair is the use, for the entire length of the memoir, of the second person. Fraser writes her memoir as if it is happening to you. It’s a bold choice, but Italy is bold. Take it or leave it.
Skipping past an assortment of late twentieth century renovation memoirs about falling in love with Italian real estate, I’m going to switch now from memoir to fiction, from female authors to a male one. A Room With A View by E.M Forster tells the funny and charming story of a young couple breaking free of their repressive, British, middle-class chains and falling in love while on Italian holiday. This novel was made into a classic Merchant Ivory film starring Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy, charmingly upset by a sudden kiss on a violet-covered Tuscan slope. Violets—and vistas— can do that, we’re told.
But there is another Forster novel that explores the Italian theme as well. The one I had entirely forgotten about—and am glad to have rediscovered—was published three years before A Room With a View, in 1905. Forster’s first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread tells a similar story of Britons enchanted and transformed by lands to the south. Here on the very first page is Philip, one of the upright (and uptight) main characters, waxing both romantically and imperiously about Italy to his sister-in-law Lilia, whose train to Tuscany is just about to pull away: “ ‘Remember,’ he concluded, ‘that it is only by going off the track that you get to know the country. See the little towns—Gubbio, Pienza, Cortona, San Gemignano, Monteriano. And don’t, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy’s only a museum of antiquities and art. Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land.’ ”
When I read this line the other day, I realized, with both pleasure and puzzlement, that it reminded me of a small speech I’d written into my own new novel.
In The Detour, to be published on Valentine’s Day, an apolitical art expert named Gerhard, who is working for the Nazis in 1938 Munich, counsels his protégée, as the younger man recalls: “(Gerhard) had begun to revive his own memories of that fabled, sunny country: The hill towns and piazzas. The ruins and vistas. The frescoes and fountains. And a certain woman he had met somewhere—I think it was a town called Perugia, or maybe Pisa. The relationship lasted no more than a few days but had meant the world to him, and I had been bold enough in my naïve youth to ask, ‘But how can something like that matter if it only lasted a few days?’”
The fact that the younger Bavarian, every bit as uptight as a Forster character, can’t imagine what can happen in a few days proves his mentor’s point. Young Ernst Vogler needs a dose of Italy more than anyone. In The Detour, he gets it.
As Forster realized, the only problem with the transformational-power-of-Italy theme is that we still bring our old selves with us on any journey. Violets and vistas, bruschetta and buxom ladies, and still—it’s so hard to abandon the British stiff upper lip or the German preference for order. Yet, it’s such fun to watch characters—and ourselves—yearn to be more than we were back home.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you. And don’t forget: Mangia! Mangia!