In Italy, by Cynthia Zarin

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Review by Rob Spence

This is a curious little book, which shouldn’t really work, but does, offering the reader a delightful series of fresh impressions gleaned from the writer’s engagement with Italy, and in particular with Venice and Rome.

The writings collected here consist of two longish essays, one on Venice and one on Rome, together with two shorter pieces, one on the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, and one on the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. In total, this pocket-sized volume comprises just over 130 pages, and could be comfortably read in a couple of hours. That isn’t meant to diminish the book, far from it: despite its petite stature, the evocative images conjured up through Zarin’s lyrical prose lend the volume a heft that weightier volumes would struggle to achieve. 

It’s very difficult to pigeonhole these pieces: the title, and the major focus on two great Italian cities, would suggest that this is a sort of travelogue. But it’s nothing of the kind, even though Venice and Rome are brilliantly delineated in a series of impressionistic vignettes. Rather, what is presented here is a very personal, almost poetic account of this writer’s unique experience of life in these cities. She reveals details of her personal life – friends, children, lovers, encounters – in tantalising snippets, so that the reader feels both invited into her world and also shielded from it. There is no sense of this being a confessional, but the author’s reasons for being in these places are often emotional and irrational, which adds an extra sheen to her close and vivid observations of local life.

Here’s an example, from the section on Rome, where the author has been out with a friend:

The trip left an indelible impression of the perfect geometry of the Campidoglio, where, later that day, we perch on the steps and watch a bride, like a great Luna moth, cross the piazza, her attendants a flock of butterflies. In the early evening, we sit at a café table in the Piazza Farnese, drinking acqua frizzante with extra ice, where above us a giant fan moves the tassels on the striped umbrellas, but not much else. The chicest figures in the summer heat are the nuns from a nearby convent, the Order of Saint Bridget, in their grey habits, black girdles, and sensible black oxfords, like models in a runway show by Karl Lagerfeld.

Through her eyes, we see not a tourist city, nor yet a local’s. Rather, the city becomes a strange, dreamy landscape, occupied by the ghosts of former lovers (one of whom is referred to as “the ghost”) and writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The effect is memorable and haunting. This is a remarkable book, which leaves its mark on the reader, who perhaps will see Venice and Rome rather differently in future.

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Cynthia Zarin, In Italy (Daunt Books, 2024). 978-1-914918-70-0,  135pp., paperback

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