Doerr: Four Seasons in Rome

May 29, 2017

Four Seasons in Rome
On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World
Anthony Doerr
(Scribner, 2007)
211 p.

I love Rome: I love its pomp and grandeur, its crumbling antiquity, its bustle, its beauty, its cobblestones, its quiet corners, its saints and relics, its fountains and its parks. When I walk the streets of Rome I feel eight feet tall. As such, it is always a delight to me to find a good book about Rome, and this book is one such.

Anthony Doerr, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of whom I confess I had no previous knowledge, was offered a year’s residence, with his family, at the American Academy in Rome. The offer arrived in the mail on the morning that he and his wife returned home from the hospital with newborn twin boys. Consequently they arrived in Rome, a few months later, with two bouncing bambini, the barest smattering of Italian, and no idea what they were getting into. The book recounts their experiences of Rome, yes, but also the challenges and joys of fatherhood, and, as a minor theme, the difficulties of writing a book (his ostensible purpose during his year in residence) in the midst of so many distractions and delights.

Doerr hailed from Boise, Idaho, and had not been to Rome before. Part of the fun of the book comes from his observations of the things that first strike a North American when he arrives in the city: the noise, the rows of parked vespas on the street (which he is tempted to push over, to see if they’ll all fall like dominoes), the tendency of Italians to cluster rather than queue, the inadequacy one feels when trying to speak a halting and insecure Italian to a busy merchant. In one amusing passage he describes entering a hardware store and, realizing he doesn’t know the name for anything he wants, asks for the only thing he can think of — a night light, a luce del notte — and retreats in shame. In another he enters a shop to get tomato sauce, but a request for sugo di pompelmo sets off a storm of confusion, the store-keeper offering him everything under the sun except tomato sauce; only afterwards did he realize he’d asked for “grapefruit sauce”. Anyone who has travelled has had similar experiences, and although I personally feel less embarrassed about my bad Italian in Rome than I do, say, about my bad French in Paris, this has much to do with the geniality of Romans, which one learns of only by experience.

Having infant twins at home meant that he and his wife didn’t get out much, at least at first, but as the year turned, as sleep schedules were slowly re-established, and after they found a good nanny, they were able to snatch a few hours here and there to explore the city. Essentially everything was new to them, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the city again for the first time through their eyes. Like many visitors from the New World, they were most impressed by the sheer antiquity of Rome, its (literal) layers of history, all compressed into such a small area. Rome is “an iceberg floating below our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface”. Rome is also, considering the density of the important monuments and works or art it boasts, rather large; it is “a Metropolitan Museum of Art the size of Manhattan”. It is a city that no man can fully fathom.

Discoveries awaited not only in the streets of Rome, but also at home, in their apartment atop the Janiculum Hill, as their boys grew. Doerr is good at describing the sleeplessness (exacerbated in his case by insomnia), the difficulty of getting from point A to point B with infants, the joy of seeing one’s child learning to walk, the amazement a parent feels when the child speaks (as when one of his twins greets a stranger in the hall with a “Ciao”). Even if one had no interest in Rome (were this possible), the book would retain interest as a memoir of a first-time parent.

And the book is interesting from another angle too, for the year that Doerr spent in Rome was 2004-5, and so coincided with the death of Pope St John Paul II, his funeral (viz. the book’s subtitle), the conclave, and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Doerr is not a Catholic, and so not himself intensely concerned with these events, but, living just to the south of the Vatican, he cannot help but take an outsider’s interest. He observed John Paul II’s gradual decline, the prayer vigils that attended his final days, the astounding avalanche of mourners who filled the city for the funeral, the descent of the world’s press onto Vatican City, and, finally, the white smoke and the ringing of all the church bells of Rome upon the election of the new pontiff, whereupon Doerr found himself, somewhat to his own amusement, running through the streets, stroller and all, to reach St Peter’s in time to see Benedict XVI emerge onto the balcony for the first time. “Is it Ratzinburger?” he asked a neighbour, only to be rudely corrected. Ah, well.

My principal reservation about the book is that Doerr decided to write it in the present tense; I always find this off-putting in a narrative. He also sometimes indulges in vices peculiar to contemporary novelists: sentences bereft of verbs, or missing subjects, or even stranded adjectives. On the other hand, he has encouraged me to add a few items to my “wish list” for my next visit, especially to visit Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, and, were it ever possible, to climb the spiral staircase which winds up through the interior of Trajan’s Column. Alas, I know that this last will never happen.

The ideal audience for this book would seem to consist of North American Catholics who are parents of young children and love Rome. Paint a bull’s-eye on my forehead.

*

My thanks to Janet for recommending this book to me.

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