Archive for the ‘Portraits’ Category

In search of a hero

One of my favorite writers is Barry Unsworth.  He is a master of historical fiction.  I like his work so much because like me, he gets curious about a certain moment in time, or a person, or a work of art, and dives whole-heartedly into research so as to bring his subject to life.  He is also a consummate craftsman.  In his Sacred Hunger, to cite on example, he takes as his theme the slave trade in the 18th century and explores it through the lens of a ship that sets out from England to buy human cargo in Africa.  Unsworth begins the book with the sorry lot of men recruited, and sometimes abducted, to serve on these vessels, and the picture becomes grimmer from there.  You meet the down and out riffraff manning the ship, the miserable slaves loaded on it, the heartless captain brutally lording it over his subordinates, the idealistic doctor who is in the process of losing his lofty notions.  Life aboard the ship is horrendous.  Yet the story is so compellingly told, the writing is so rich, that you keep reading, and the book remains vivid in your mind long after you’ve closed the back cover.

The same is true of Unsworth’s other novels, but the one I was smitten with the most isLosing Nelson, which paints a portrait of the legendary English war hero as well as a 20th century Englishman who obsessively researches and ruminates over his idol’s life and greatness.  Both of the main characters are fatefully flawed.  Yet Unsworth presents them as such complex, multi-dimensional, tangible men that even as you gradually see their shortcomings, you are riveted by their psychological types.  Unsworth achieves this depth of characterization by showing people in action.  I happened to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of stories after Losing Nelson and felt that I was being offered a watery and saccharine beverage after a deep, aromatic, lingeringly-flavored cup of tea.  She is a good writer and a clever one in being able to create situations that resonate with readers:  conflicts between parents and children, spouses, lovers.  But she tells you what they think and feel.  Unsworth makes his protagonists reveal it through their behavior.

Nelson, a glittering hero at the beginning of the book, loses his shine as you watch him in battle, giving orders oblivious of the human cost – including the men serving under him.  His vanity and thirst for glory render him incapable of perspective, or humanity.  A neglected child, he never grows up and finds a nurturing, flattering, adoring mother substitute in his celebrated lover, Emma Hamilton, a woman who is his match in vanity and need for affirmation.  Their willful immaturity cause a great deal of harm, for both of them crave and attain great power.  Nelson’s treatment of the revolutionaries in Naples, the culminating point in the story, is a calamity.  Promised safe passage, this cream of Neapolitan culture is, instead, horrendously executed in the public square of the city, their deaths irreparably damaging Naples as well as Nelson.

Losing Nelson grapples with what makes a hero and whether his achievements can excuse his conduct, whether his behavior, when examined closely, is heroic, or abominable and criminal.  These are major questions that can be profitably asked of many great historical figures.  Impressively, Unsworth does so without overt moralizing.   The voice of consciousness that keeps poking holes in the splendid cloths of Nelson’s legend is a humble secretary who transcribes the biography of Nelson being composed by the book’s 20th century protagonist.  This narrator, the man who studies Nelson’s life in minute detail, including recreating his battles on his tabletop on the days and hours they took place, is mad.  Literally.  Unsworth depicts him, too, with astonishing skill, showing his functionality in public, his derangement in private, his struggle to get a grip on his troubled mind by losing himself in Nelson.

As a writer, I am awed by Unsworth’s accomplishments:  by the depth of his historical research, by the range of his interests, and by his ability to construct and bring to life people of such veracity and so many conflicting layers.  I wrestled with this challenge in my last book.  Granted, my character lived in the 15th century and is far less documented than Nelson, and writing a work of non-fiction, I could not supplement the scant information at my disposal with fictionalized details.  But more than these shortcomings, I grappled with how to show a person with his unruly blend of virtues and foibles, ideals turning into dogmas, a cultural hero who is also flawed.  I aspire to reach Unsworth’s level of mastery.  But there is a long road ahead of me.  Painting an outstanding portrait in words is a great endeavor.


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The art of being

Once in a while you meet people who are bursting with life, passion, and the thrill of being engaged in their particular occupation.  They are like small suns — intense, radiant, overpowering, utterly magnetic.  It is impossible not to become a satellite around them, heeding their will and feeling that surrendering yourself to them is the best fate that has befallen you – at least at that moment.  There is a part of me that wishes I were such a creature.  I might have the makings of it, but lack the extraversion and self-confidence.  But I enjoy orbiting around members of that species, every now and then, because they are fascinating to observe and offer great inspiration for how to live fully.

One of my favorite such suns is Fabio Picchi, the owner and chef of a restaurant in Florence called Cibrèo.  The restaurant is part of a mini galaxy created by Fabio.  It also includes a café across the piazza, a trattoria next door, and the Teatro del Sale across the street.  It is the latter that consumes most of Fabio’s attention these days — though he also appears on a weekly television cooking show, has launched a line of clothing derived from a cook’s outfit, just published a book about his philosophy of life and cooking called Ten Commandments, and has in press another called Seven Deadly Sins.  His mind is bursting with ideas and he talks with force and delight about each one.

The Teatro del Sale is a dinner theater of sorts, except that the two parts are separate and sequential.  First comes the dinner, and here Fabio is the star actor.  You see him, through a wall-size window, wielding his magic in the kitchen, and every few minutes he leans out into the space of the dining hall (which is a former convent and has pillars supporting arches above) and calls out in a voice of operatic strength the dish he is about to serve.  At which point diners rush up to the window and line up to receive a small plate of something delicious, from lentils with spices, to cold-cuts that melt on the tongue, to octopus stew for which you’d gladly sell your soul, to salted raw fish that reflects Fabio’s fascination with other culinary traditions (he used to have a branch of his restaurant in Japan), to meat balls that are nothing like you imagine, to any number of other treats.  He prepares at least a dozen, if not some twenty dishes per evening.  Fabio takes pride in each one, and his lure is impossible to resist.  After dinner is over, the theatrical part begins – concerts, performances, film screenings—something different every night.   Guided by Fabio’s wife, the fantastic comic actress Maria Cassi, the Teatro program fosters new talent, brings in established artists, experiments with different genres – in other words, it’s  another kind of creative kitchen.  Fabio is as enthusiastic about it as he is about his cooking – there is nothing that Fabio does with less than a full commitment.  So he personally introduces each performance, presenting it to his guests as if it were the crowning dish of the evening.

Fabio is tall and robust, with a mane of gray hair, a bushy beard, fleshy features, and huge eyes that sparkle with irony and mischief and glow with whatever he is thinking or saying at the moment.  And he is never idle, or quiet.  At the head of the dinner table, at his kitchen window, strolling though the San Ambrogio market around the corner from the Cibrèo, he is the king, commanding full attention.  And you want to watch and listen to him the whole time.   Articulate, fluid, and picturesque in his speech, and grandly theatrical in his presentation, he is always telling stories that you do not want to miss.  In fact, the first time I ate at his table, I was utterly torn between absorbing his enormous persona and tasting his heavenly preparations.  The two sensations were equally strong and in direct competition with each other.

What I find glorious about Fabio is that he sees the world as colorfully as he fills it himself, that he devotes himself to his work with his body and soul, that he is driven to always think up of new ideas – not just recipes, but other creative offshoots of Cibrèo, that his imagination does not languish idly, that his life is full of meaning.  I admire immensely this gusto, this ability to generate a universe of one’s own that also brings joy to others.

So many people go through life passively or timidly, unimaginatively or un-thoughtfully.  So few have the gumption, the vision, the charisma, the immensity of soul.

p.s. I first met Fabio when I was working on my book The Arts of Tuscany:  from the Etruscans to Ferragamo.  I was so smitten with how he fits into and brings into the present the long tradition of Tuscan creativity that I included him in my book.  I just saw him again a few weeks ago during a visit to Florence, and relished his enormous generosity, for once you enter Fabio’s orbit, you remain in it for life.


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