World So Wide, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 8

Out of his plastered cell, Hayden made a cluttered and familiar home. It was, possibly, the first home he had ever had. In boyhood, “home” had been aggressively his father’s house, and in his marriage, their three successive houses had been saturated with Caprice and her clamorous friends.

In a second-hand shop he bought a couple of low tables, a small rosy armchair and a shaky set of bookshelves that had been used for bottles. At Alinari’s he got color prints of the Primavera and Angelico’s Great Crucifixion and the fairyland of Benozzo Gozzoli’s gold and crimson courtier pilgrims.

In the book shops he went on a spree. He bought histories of Florence in English, English–Italian grammars and dictionaries, a Cambridge history of the Renaissance, and in Italian he had books which he certainly would not be able to tackle for two years: Dante and Petrarch, Manzoni’s classic I Promessi Sposi, which is written in hedgerows and not in lines, Machiavelli’s Prince, and a volume of Giovanni Villani’s Florentine history — a brand-new edition, dated 1650.

He had, in fact, all of a university except the yell and the bursar’s office.

His exploration of Florence, begun immediately, was not altogether that of the enraptured and credulous tourist, for Hayden Chart was an architect, a good one, not unlearned, and he saw the purposes of arches and buttresses; his eye picked up ornamental iron balconies and in apparent mere gaps between buildings he detected minute streets leading to some lost square with a little church, an old, very old, very holy church sheltering the tomb of a spacious Platonist who in 1492 was discovering the old world as dangerously as Columbus was finding the new.

He went graspingly at learning Italian, a tongue reputed among the untutored to be all melody and tra-la-la’s and mobile dames and ice-cream cries, but actually so thorny with perverse irregular verbs and pronouns that have more exceptions than rules and suffixes meaning Big, Pretty Big, Very Big, Enormously Big, Little, Delightfully Little, Nasty, or Perfectly Horrible that most tenderfoot students give it up, moaning, after learning how to make love and order a meal.

He looked into the official Italian Language course at the University, but it was all in Italian from the first, too much for the halting brain of thirty-five. He tried a School of Languages, but he did not feel stimulated by his fellow-students: Anglo–American women who, after housekeeping in Florence for a decade, had decided that it was time to find out what they had really been eating all these years, or English businessmen who wanted to sell British machinery, or the aunts of American European Relief Program officials, all of whom interrupted the lessons to explain what they thought about Italy, with an urgency which indicated that they believed the natives, from dope-runners to the President, were pantingly waiting for their verdicts.

Hayden found, through Mrs. Dodsworth, a Signora Pendola, an oldish fat widow with an umbrella and elastic-sided shoes, afflicted with bronchitis and sadness of the heart, tired, so poor and tired, but a patient teacher, with a voice like Eleonora Duse. Hayden was fond of her and treated her as though she were his mother. Before each lesson, down in the salon, he had the waiter bring the Signora a cup of tea, and she announced that he was the kindest American since that born Yankee hustler, Julius Caesar.

Along with her instruction, he daily studied his book of grammar, but this seemed to be another Italian. Rarely did any of the words which he painfully drilled into himself from the printed lists slip over into normal conversation.

As he learned each phrase from the Signora, Hayden tried it out on the maid, Perpetua, who, being Italian and generous, did not find it funny when he meant to ask her to sew on a button, but gravely made it, “By favor, I pray of cook those stick on my shirtmakeress.” He tried his new words in shops, in small restaurants. The friendly Florentines were pleased that the stranger should want to know their tongue, and he began to love the gently grave men, the flexibly moving women.

He had thought, at first, that the Italian women had noses too long — from the nasal standard of American magazine-cover girls — but presently he was convinced that these ALMOST long noses were part of a medieval grace and long flying lines that ought to be seen not in the chopped-off smart New York styles which prosperous Italian women wear today, but in a fluency of trailing silk, soft green trimmed with silver and rare furs. He noted with comfort that Olivia Lomond’s nose was one one-hundredth of an inch longer than the severe Colorado norm, and he felt that if he should ever see Roxanna Eldritch’s pert snub nose again he would consider it truncated and vulgar.

As rudely as though he were flagrantly picking her up at a railroad station, he tackled Olivia at her icy island table and insisted that she go on a walk with him. She consented indifferently, and as they tramped together, squeezed close by the exigency of a two-man-wide alley, they still seemed as far apart as at the pensione. He worked hard then, as young men of thirty-five or eighty-five do, to convince her that he was a devilish clever fellow. She might know all about the bellicose families who once had fought from these rough towers, but he could tell her what foundation a tower must have and how much it tapered and what the square holes in the walls were for.

She came to treat him as being almost as decent and capable a human being as Perpetua. She did not mock him — much.

With Olivia or by himself he looked at the great churches — Or San Michele, Miniato, Santa Croce, Maria Novella, San Marco, the Battistero — and at the galleries till he understood how a Giotto differed from a Spinello Aretino. He began, a little, to follow the symbolism whereby a pictured saint portrayed both the saint and a Medici, and a red star marked St. Dominic; to see that a picture in which the misdrawn toes were as long as fingers and the children were only dwarf grown-ups could yet in the whole composition hold ecstasy and delight.

But he also discovered that the one place colder than his own room at two A. M. was any Italian church, north of Naples, at ten A. M. on a February day. The rosiest Madonna looked blue-frozen as the malicious air crept up from a crypt that had grown colder, winter by winter, for centuries. He admired the fortitude of the Italians: beardster and babies cheerful at Mass while he fled outdoors to get warm.

And he found the smoochers — he worked out the Doctrine of Smoochers.

Smoochers — the word was Hayden’s own; first blooming of his Florentine poetic revelations — are those shaggy and lumbering men who in a church or a ruined palace or a public square pop out of a vacuum, guides and sextons and loafers and plain floor-sweepers, who with hazy but persistent firmness wreck and ruin and shatter the still raptness in which you have been contemplating a facade or, say, a Ghirlandaio by telling you that, remarkably enough, it IS a church or a Ghirlandaio. You knew it already. That is why you went there.

The English spoken by smoochers lacks not only verbs but adjectives and they good-naturedly date Simone Martini as anywhere from 1140 to 1760. But if you are sorry for them as being needy, you can usually persuade them to let you alone by instantly insulting them with a fifty-lire note.

Subdivisions of the smoochers, indoors and out, include insistent post-card sellers, sellers of bead necklaces and of fountain pens, and would-be changers of dollar bills.

In the great churches, he thought often of how Jesse Bradbin would have snorted, “But what’s the PRACTICAL use of all this old art?” And in imaginary answer he insisted that it seemed to him improbable that one who had much contemplated Or San Michele or a Botticelli would willingly allow himself or any one else to become just a file number in a bureaucracy such as Russia now is and America and Great Britain threaten to be.

Along with the English Cemetery, where rests Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and such little-altered medieval quarters as the toy Piazzetta Elisabetta, he paid suit to modern Florence: to some dozen restaurants, to shops for silver and china and lace and gold-embossed leather, and to the county-family pleasantness of the Anglo–American Pharmacy, and he studied the tribal rites of the resident Americans at Doney’s and Leland’s, the tearoom bars, to which go equally the more dependable drunks and the crisp American girls being finished off in finishing schools, who believe that to see Inside Italy means to go downtown and have pastry with whipped cream.

The American Colony is divided into three parts: those who have their cocktails at Leland’s or Doney’s, a small sect who have them at home, either with firelight and old silver and a butler and many guests or, by the good tradition of Bohemian poverty, with boxes to sit on round the kitchen stove and the drinks mixed in a broken-nosed pitcher, and the third part, a tiny and suspect group, which does not have cocktails.

Hayden himself — he had daily only an Americano, that mixture of vermouth and kindness of which no American ever hears till he comes to Italy.

A Florentine might have pointed out to Hayden that in defining a city of palaces and paintings and bars, he was missing nine-tenths of the living community: a post-war world of workers jobless or anxious in hospitals, small officials with meat once a month and wine at Christmas, repressed but angry citizens hating the well-fed foreigners who came brightly to gloat over a Filippo Lippi Madonna and never learned that a descendant of Filippo was hauling garbage. But Hayden understood all of this. Even in new Newlife he had built tenements. He was more moved by poverty among American students here.

He met American girl students whose life here was a storm of frustration, between a passion to stay in Florence and apprehension that it would keep them from going on to see the rest of Italy — Rome, Milan, Turin; a passion to remain in Italy and fear that they were becoming unfitted for the ways, the friends, back home. Half their anxieties, thought Hayden, would be soothed if they only had enough money to move flexibly, and he a little despised such burghers as himself and the Dodsworths, who were so amiably and pointlessly advisory to the shabby students.

The most exhilarating part of his new life was in his quiet room at the Tre Corone, finding himself.

It was a secret life, a life that he hugged to him. In studious solitude he saw winter pass like blown smoke. Half the night he sat up trying to read medieval history in the Italian of Villani, of Guicciardini, and meditating upon the meaning, to himself and to his day, of that world of authority, ceremony, color, and enchanting but just slightly cockeyed fables. To rest his eyes he had, on his portable radio, Mozart from Milan.

He read on nightly, till he felt uncomfortable and was dismayed to find that his room was slush-cold. The Florentine winter lasts only from mid-December to March, and in that season there are luminous days, but there are also jeeringly cold nights and days together when the tramontana wind comes devastatingly down from the Alps three pinched days at a spell, blowing pitilessly, playing rowdy with the tiles and shutters, chasing the night policemen down the streets and into bicycle-storage alcoves, marching through Hayden’s northward-facing window as though it were a paper screen.

In the tramontana’s shriek of an ice-tortured fiend, Hayden thought he could catch a stated tune: rising, rising, rising to a scream, a sullen sinking down again, and rising, rising.

By day, he could see the olive tree on a terrace below him turn altogether silver, with its sheet of leaves so lifted by the gale that he saw only the undersides, while a cypress tree bent over in twisting pain. The tempest seemed worst during the fits of grudging sunshine when, afar, he could see the aloof and whitened peaks of the Pistoia Mountains coldly leering at this uncouth stranger who once had talked of “sunny Italy.”

Mrs. Manse let her radiators go cold before midnight, and at one in the morning the cold in Hayden’s room seemed visible, a part of the pallid walls and glistening stone floor. Cold was in his eyeballs, in his chest, and his breath was coldly vaporous. He understood why beggars, hopeless at night on winter doorsteps, crouched themselves together.

He had had words with Mrs. Manse about an electric heater, and had bought one for himself: a good little Italian electric stove composed of two sheets of glass with wires between. It glowed obedience to its scholar-master, but it could not do much more than keep itself warm and, impatiently determined to go on reading, Hayden huddled his overcoat and scarf over his woolen dressing-gown and, to crown this costume of a lone miser, he put on his polite brown hat.

His immensest luxury was a cup-size Italian aluminum stove with sticks of Meta compound for fuel, and pulverized instant coffee. Nearly warmed by his coffee, he thought of what he had been reading: Lodovico il Moro, taking his nephew’s throne in Milan, playing gaudy host and patron to religious painters and dying a flea-tortured prisoner in France. . . . Pico della Mirandola, fairest and most febrile youth of the Renaissance, learning Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, challenging the College of Cardinals, and dying at thirty-one, to be buried over here in the cold gloom of San Marco.

It was all magic. With pleasant recognition he found himself and his vigils in Il Penseroso when he picked up some English poetry on a book barrow on the Piazza D’Avanzati. The night-bewitched scholar, timeless and immortal, from a Colorado boomtown of 1950 or from the Florence of 1490, Hayden or Count Pico, all of them in all their shabby majesty he found as he read Milton’s “lamp at midnight hour, seen in some high lonely tower,” where the hermit sought “forests and enchantments drear, where more is meant than meets the ear.”

Mrs. Dodsworth examined him, woman-wise, when he went to the Villa Canterbury to play bridge.

“Have you got yourself a girl yet?”

“None in sight.”

“What about Miss Lomond — this professoressa?”

“She’d be interested only in Professor Santayana.”

“What do you do with yourself? You can’t spend all your time sightseeing.”

“I tinker with Italian maps — try to find the best route to forests and enchantments drear.”

“You’re very young, Hayden — pleasantly so.”

“OR very old, and repentant of a wasted life in which the only poetry I ever learned was ‘Yes, we have no bananas.’ I think I ought to tell the press services to send out a story that a man can read poetry without getting kicked out of the Athletic Club.”

“I doubt that! I’ve been in Zenith!”

With the other guests — but privately he thought of them as “the boarders”— at the Tre Corone, he had after-dinner coffee, and they all asked “Have you seen the Bargello?” He went to Nat Friar’s again and found him reading an Eric Ambler thriller. Nat said he was rather off Great Books, since the University of Chicago had taken a lease on them and was now sponsoring Great Books for Juveniles 7–11, Great Book neckties and Great Book Bran Brainfood for Breakfast.

And he had a night-club evening with Vito Zenzero, the wavy-black-haired dancing man, nephew of Mrs. Manse, who was the pensione’s desk-clerk, head waiter and entertainer of spinsters. Vito spoke energetic English, learned from the less refined members of the American Expeditionary Forces, and he took Hayden to a hot spot in a thick-walled basement under an old palace. Hayden had noted that Olivia was blank to Vito when, looking like the best of B films in his yellow-green jacket and brown slacks, he teetered and tittered about the dining room, encouraging the guests to buy Frascati wines.

“Why are you so cranky? Poor Vito, he flowers in the sunshine.” Hayden desired to know of Olivia.

“Poor Vito flowers in manure! He sells black-market cigarettes and gets a commission on all the guests whom he coaxes to take him to night clubs . . . .”

“Oh!”

“ . . . and he’s seduced every girl in this district.”

“That’s what I said. He’s a real medieval character. You like them only in books, Olivia. If you’d been in Italy in 1400, you’d have fled to Ireland and a nunnery.”

“Oh, pooh!” she said, not very convincingly.

This evening, Hayden had, without any noticeable invitation, firmly sat down at her table for coffee. Her manner toward him still had the persistent grayness of a tramontana, and this admirably strong-willed woman was apparently able to keep it up forever. More with a collector’s curiosity than with any sympathy she asked, “What are you ‘studying’ now, Hayden?”

“I’m trying to get into Dante, with a trot.”

“You really are naive!”

“It’s you that are naive, in not understanding that I’m having an adventure. For me it’s as novel to try to wallow through Dante as it would be for you to plan a modern low-price bathroom with compartments — plastic and stainless steel — green and silver.”

“But I shouldn’t CARE to plan a green bathroom — with compartments — nor to use one, either!”

He thought about slapping her. He told himself that, with this conceited grind, there was no merit in even a boarding-house courtesy. He left her gruffly, and it was an astonishment to him, a week later, when she invited him to take her to the Camillo for dinner.

That brisk restaurant, across the river in the Oltrarno quarter, on the Borgo San Jacopo with its ancient walls, is a favorite of the scores of American students in Florence, and of students German, French, Swedish, Burmese. A few of them had learned Italian and had actually met an Italian, but most of them were as innocently detached from the local life as were their financial betters, the Colonists. They met nightly in zealously argumentative groups devoted to the prose of Henry Miller and the pastoral delights of Marxism, while they let down their fettuccine noodles and drank carafes of vino rosso sciolto.

At most Florentine restaurants, eight o’clock is a charming hour in the early dawn, but at the Camillo every table is full by a quarter to eight, and by eight-fifteen, Picasso and Existentialism have already been mentioned, which means another regrettable night up till two-thirty, at Danny’s or Rachel’s “studio,” and the head like a tornado in the morning and the Sforzas not yet studied.

Olivia had always the art of making Hayden feel wizened and uncertain, but she had never been so authoritative as at the Camillo, where all the students recognized her, perhaps feared her a little, and called her “Doctor” or “Professor.” They wanted to know what she thought of the Delia Robbias, and she told them. . . . And with considerable comfort Hayden perceived that she had the three Robbias all mixed up, and that both she and the convivial students supposed that because she knew the legal and political history of the fifteenth century, she must be a sound taster of its art.

Her insufficiency did not keep her from being confident or the students from noting down what she said, to be repeated for decades afterward to the unfortunate future students of these students, in far-flung crepuscular colleges on the plains or in the hills — colleges where “far-flung” is considered a novel and forceful adjective.

When he had been permitted to take Olivia home, even that friendly pup Hayden had had enough, and he did not speak to her again for a week. Then, shatteringly, came the embarrassment in the hall.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38