I did not want this book to end. I read it constantly and mourned the ever decreasing pages to the finish. Anthony Doerr is the author of the hugely successful All the Light We Cannot See, published in 2014. That was a book which I finished in awestruck reverence, laying it down as I stared, lost, at the wall opposite my bed, wondering what life meant, now that I had read such a book. Anthony Doerr is American, but he began his ten years of writing All the Light We Cannot See during a year in Rome in 2004. He was offered a Fellowship at the American Academy, which he accepted, and he moved from Idaho, USA, to Rome, with his wife and their newborn twin boys. For a year. In Rome. Expenses paid. To write. He was as gobsmacked as anyone. Four Seasons in Rome is his memoir of their year there. Part travel book, part paean to parenting, part homage to Rome.
In Rome, he tries to write his novel, but finds that the city permeates everything he does. He cannot be still. He tries to sleep, jet lag and twins and worries gives him insomnia. He tries to utilise the $400 Italian lessons he had in Idaho, he orders grapefruit sauce instead of tomato in the grocery store. For every heart-aching moment of beauty that Rome offers, Rome simultaneously responds with a moment of ridiculousness.
I bought the book after my second visit to Rome in March this year. I hoped that it would sum up what I could not, myself, put into words about the city. I was not disappointed. Doerr has a knack for capturing the elusive, the atmosphere of a place, the light, the sound. More so, he sums up the madness of landing in a foreign country, of removing everything familiar from your life, so that the banal becomes a daily miracle. He captures Rome, the mundane against the beauty, the chaos against the peace. And always the light. In their year there, they weathered the heat, the (not terribly cold) winter, the teething and crawling and walking of their twins, an emergency trip to the hospital, and the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Doerr eventually manages to write. They navigate the city with a twin push-chair. They sleep one baby in the bathroom, the only place where he will shut his eyes. They see Neptune’s Fountain in the Piazza Navona empty, cleaned, refilled. They eat the food they manage to buy with limited Italian. They rent a farmhouse in the countryside outside Rome, in the winter. More light. Doerr marvels at everything, there is joy in everything he sees, and more than once I found tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. There are touches of humour too, and the interesting discovery of things that Britain has in common with Italy, details that surprise Doerr as an American. (Don’t get too excited: Red KitKats, the 24 hour clock, double flushes on toilets).
I’m fascinated by Doerr’s prose. In my more jealous moments, I want it. I have spent the last year at university striving for the Holy Grail of the perfect balance of succinctness and detail that Doerr achieves so lightly. His prose doesn’t commit itself too far in any direction, so that he can segue from one event to another. He doesn’t lose himself down the rabbit hole of any anecdote. Mostly it is masterfully done, without losing any depth of emotion. Very occasionally it is a little jarring. The majority of the time it is like reading poetry, elongated into novel form.
That being said, I wanted more. In writing such sparse and succinct prose, there must be a constant renegotiation in choosing what to sacrifice for the overall style. What details to leave out, what avenues to ignore, what routes are chosen not to go down. At times, I wanted to know more, more richness, more detail, more stories of who they were with and what they were doing. But overall, the spareness pays off. The memoir of their year in Rome is compact, light and very beautiful. An intricate portrait of a city near-impossible to pin down.