Sunday, February 28, 2010

A journey to Turino

Perhaps it is the recent Olympics that have reminded me of about a journey I made many years ago to Torino. I haven't given this trip much thought in a very long time, but lately it has come back into my mind.

It was the spring of 1972. I was young and engaged to a Frenchman I met while doing my graduate studies at Harvard. Marc was a business student at MIT. Brilliant, dashing, and destructive, but I didn't see that at the time. I was in love with language and words (which I still am) and Marc shared with me the Alexandria Quartet. I was impressionable. "You are Justine," he told me.

At this time in my life I was embarking upon my graduate career in Romance languages. My goal was to teach a few college courses and have two children. That spring Marc and I went to Paris, then we traveled south to visit his family near Lyons.

Marc stayed a couple days, then he had to head back to Paris, but for various reasons I stayed on with his family. It was clear from the start that they didn't like me. They wanted Marc to marry someone who was, as they put it, "more like them." In other words not Jewish. But I didn't see this at the time. At any rate Marc had to return to Paris and I wound up staying with his family until I could stand it no longer. I decided to travel to Torino where I had a friend.

But I actually had a stranger, more esoteric reason for wanting to go. I was at the time obsessed with the poet, Cesare Pavese. I loved his simple, lyrical lines. And the deep solitude of his verses. I was myself emeshed in the struggle between art and life and Pavese, it seemed to me, had done them. He had had his share of bad love affairs and broken promises. And he had committed suicide in a hotel room in Torino by swallowing twelve packages of sleeping potion. I decided to make a pilgrimage to Torino and to that hotel whose name I can no longer recall. I called ahead and booked a room. I had no intention of commiting suicide, but I wanted to imbibe the spirit of the lost poet, a man who had died, some would say, for love.

On the train from Lyons I sat opposite a man who looked to be unhappy and clearly in pain. We hadn't left Lyons long when he began to speak to me in French which was at the time a language I knew quite well. He told me that he was a musician from Italy and that he hated his life. He had a bad hip and indeed he walked with a terrible limp. He hated being away from his family, especially his wife. He hated touring. He hated lonely nights in hotel rooms. But what choice did he have? He was a musician. He asked me the purpose of my travels and I told him that I was engaged to a Frenchman and that I was going to Italy in search of Pavese. He seemed to understand this. He bought me lunch and we shared a bottle of wine. In Milan he gave me his business card. I was stunned to see that he was Antonio Janigro, one of the greatest cellists of his time, and a sad, lonely man.

I took the train on to Torino where I got a taxi to take me down the long, broad streets to my hotel. My friend would meet me the next day. At the hotel the two desk clerks looked at me, bewildered, when I told them that I wanted to stay in the room where Pavese had committed suicide. "I want to be in the presence of the great poet," I told them in my halting Italian. I think they believed that I was half mad and probably I was, but at any rate I was given Pavese's room.

It was a dull room with brown walls and a cheap wooden bed. A white bedspread and curtains. A view of the street. It was narrow and small. I spent a long, solitary night, battling some demons of my own. I wanted an ordinary life yet I knew somehow inside of me that I was not an ordinary person. I felt things too deeply. Every gesture, every phrase, everything had more meaning to me than I thought it should. And, in truth, in my heart I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write and put things down on paper, but I had yet to see the way. I stayed an extra day, went sightseeing with my friend. I admired the wide boulevards of Torino, saw some of its statues and parks. Then I got back on the train to Paris, flew home, and began to plan my wedding to Marc.

We were living together in Cambridge that summer. It was a hot summer but we were living in a cozy, airy apartment with a lovely bay window that looked over the Harvard campus. I was studying Dante in a summer course with the incredible professor, Dante Della Terza. Every day Professor Della Terza walked into the classroom without a book or sheet of paper and recited the canto for the day, then proceeded to analyze it. This was a man who lived for Dante and I began to live for Dante as well. But Marc and I had plans. I was going to drop out of graduate school and we would move to New York where I'd finish my studies before we settled in Paris.

One day on my way home from Professor Della Terza's class, I saw Marc. He was driving away from our apartment. I gave him a wave, but he didn't seem to see me. He seemed to be in a great hurry. I walked in, thinking I'd prepare dinner when I found the apartment devoid of Marc's things. On the desk was a cursory letter to me and money for the next months rent. I was devastated. Brokenhearted. I cried and cried. I had no idea what had happened. I didn't know what I'd done wrong. I dragged myself to class and home. I had no idea what my life or my future would be.

One Saturday afternoon while studying the next canto of the Infero, I felt as if I couldn't go on. As I lay, stretched out on the bed, my life had reached an impasse. It was a hot day and I remember the stifling feel of the apartment and my deep longing for Marc. I was in the darkest place I'd ever been and was on the brink of despair. I thought I would die of the pain. I closed my book and put my head down. I must have drifted off to sleep because I had this dream.

I dreamt that I was walking down a Paris street when I passed a cafe the name of which was "Lasciate ogne speranza voi ch'entrate." The words written over the gates of hell. Leave behind all hope, ye who enter here. But inside I saw F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway all sipping compari and soda. So I went in. I sat down at a bistro table and I took ordered a compari and soda. At that point my chair sank into a deep dark hole in the earth and I knew I was condemned to this place. But suddenly six pall bearer arrived, carrying a coffin which they deposited before me. I knew my fate was in that coffin and I knew I had to open it so I did. And it turned into a roll-top desk with paper for eternity.

I woke, hot and sweaty. But I knew what I was going to do. Six weeks later I moved to New York City to become a writer. And I have been here ever since.

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