The full title of this book is : Four Seasons in Rome : On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Now if that is not an intriguing title I don’t know what is. This is a memoir of four seasons or one year that the author spent in Rome with his wife and two infant sons. In 2004, the day after Anthony Doerr and his wife had twins, he received a letter informing him that he had won the Rome Prize, one of the most prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and with it a stipend and a writing studio in Rome for a year.
While it was daunting to move to another country with infant twins to take care of, particularly when you don’t speak the language, Doerr and his wife Shauna made the move because they knew they would regret it if they didn’t. Their sons were six months old when they landed in Rome and took possession of a small apartment with a huge terrace that gave them a lovely view of the city. Doerr had a studio at the American Academy that was next door to their apartment building.
He would go there every morning and spend a few hours trying to work on a novel set in France in world war two (All the Light We Cannot See which was published earlier this year), but he ended up spending more time writing in his journal than working on his novel and that that journal is what turned into this book.
It is very much a journal in that he chronicles the ordinary and the every day, visits to the grocery store, walks to the piazza, staying up all night with kids who will not sleep and so on, but then there’s the day they walked down to the Vatican which was less than a mile from their apartment, the day they took their sons to the Pantheon, visits to ancient temples and cisterns, the night he took one of his sons to watch the starlings flying over the city, the week long trip to a village in Umbria, they day he joined thousands of people keeping vigil over the dying Pope John Paul II (whose funeral is the one referred to in the title) and so on.
It is a chronicle of one year that was full of new experiences both mundane and grand. What I loved about it was the engaging honesty with which it is written. There is a lot here about children and what it means to be a parent and how difficult it can be and yet how joyful. And then there’s the dramatic experience of not just being in another country, but being in one of the oldest cities in the world where there’s art and history everywhere you look and the food is fabulous, the people are interesting and quirky…
They don’t have any great adventures. They’re parents of babies just trying to get through days dominated by their kids, just as they would have been of they’d never left home, but just being in a new place, being taken out of context like that somehow made even the ordinary spectacular. And Doerr manages to convey that feeling so well.
The book is full of observations and insights that make you stop and think. Here’s an example:
“The mind craves ease; it encourages the senses to recognize symbols, to gloss. It makes maps of our kitchen drawers and neighborhood streets; it fashions a sort of algebra out of life. And this is useful, even essential— X is the route to work, Y is the heft and feel of a nickel between your fingers.
Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw— actually saw— a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs.”
Talking about the election of the new pope, standing in front of St Peter’s along with thousands of other people he says,
“Are we here because we want to know who will become pope? Or are we here out of vanity— because we want to be able to say we were here? Both, of course. The Church is making narrative, and this is the story’s climactic moment. Right now we’re here mostly because we want to know what will happen next, because we’re most of the way through a rich and complicated story. The curtain is up, the orchestra is playing; this is the thrill of drama and the Catholic Church is the most experienced dramatist in the world.”
He spends a lot of his words trying to describe Rome and while some of his descriptions are lyrical they are never cheesy or over the top. For example:
“It seems impossible but today is more beautiful than yesterday. The sky is a depthless, flawless cobalt. Everywhere little chamomile daisies open their white faces to the sun— the lawns look as if they’re covered with snow.”
“What is Rome? It’s a place where a grown man can drive a tiny car called a Panda or Musa (the Muse) or Punto (the Dot) or Stilo (the Stylus) or Picasso. It’s a feast every damned week. It’s maddening retail hours. It’s a city about to become half old-people’s home/ half tourist museum. It’s like America before coffee was “to go,” when a playground was a patch of gravel, some cigarette butts, and an uninspected swing set; when everybody smoked; when businesses in your neighborhood were owned by people who lived in your neighborhood; when children still stood on the front seats of moving cars and spread their fingers across the dash.”
The book reads very much like a journal in that it jumps from one topic to another, dwelling for a while on this and then on something else, moving between observation and musing, thoughts and descriptions. There is a certain immediacy in the writing that makes it all very real. It makes you feel as if you are right there with the writer seeing what he sees and at least to some extent feeling what he feels.
It is a thoroughly charming book and one that I made me want to rush through it and savour it all at the same time.