Four Seasons in Rome
In 2004 the writer Anthony Doerr was awarded a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. The Academy awards about 30 fellowships each year to artists, architects, historians, writers, and other scholars so they can spend a year living at the Academy and pursuing independent projects. Given an apartment in Rome and a $1,3000 stipend per month, fellows are allowed to really do whatever they want and aren’t required to produce anything to satisfy the terms of their fellowship. In the case of Doerr, that’s a good thing. He essentially spends his year with writer’s block managing to squeeze out a short story, some book reviews, and completely ignoring the novel he is writing about World War II, which I am guessing is All the Light We Cannot See which took him about another eight years to finish.
Did I mention that he moved to Rome with his wife and 6-month old twins?
What Doerr gives us is a thoroughly enjoyable but pretty standard travelogue of Rome studded with stories of his rapidly developing twins, the Iraq War, and the death of John Paul II. The narrative falls into the fish out of water memoir that reminds me of A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun. But Doerr doesn’t attempt the kind of humor found in those books, and his writing has a more poetic quality with plenty of interesting Roman and Italian history thrown in to good effect. In fact, there was a section of the book that I found completely fascinating and beautiful where Doerr opines about what Italian village life would have been like hundreds (thousands?) of years ago with no noise except for birds and the sound of the wind. And he poignantly describes how insular the villagers’ lives would have been in a way that found fascinating and beautiful but also kind of sad giving the kind of global lives we live today. I really did find it moving and wanted to quote it here, but alas I can’t find the section.
As I looked for photos to illustrate this post, I was surprised at how idyllic the Academy and its park-like neighborhood is. I’ve spent maybe a total of two months of my life in Italy and have stayed in Rome a few times so I know how crazy and frenetic the city can be. Doerr writes about this as well–especially given that he and his family moved from the quiet of Boise–but his descriptions made me think that his life at the Academy was in the midst of all that hubbub. But after looking at the images online I see that the Academy itself and its immediate environs are positively sylvan in comparison to the rest of the city. As I dug deeper into the Academy’s website, sure that there must some more urban location where Doerr stayed, I was also struck by the fact the Academy looks like a much more impressive, lively place than Four Seasons in Rome had me thinking. I don’t want to ding Doerr for not writing the kind of memoir I think he should have written, I’m always a little annoyed by blogger reviews who do that. But I do feel like perhaps he missed an opportunity or two, either in his real life/actual experience or in the telling of it. Maybe too much about twins and troubles buying groceries? And definitely more than I cared to read about the death of the Pope, even though when in Rome it is hard not to feel the impact of the Pope’s presence. But overall I did enjoy Doerr’s slice of Roman life. Different than the one I would have lived, but enjoyable nonetheless.