Review of “In Italy” by Cynthia Zarin: Essays to Save Along with Your Train Ticket Stub.
At the age of 19, American poet Cynthia Zarin embarked on her first trip to Venice. The excursion was during the summer with a potential suitor, but the city proved to be both sweltering and costly for accommodations. Staying in a rundown boarding house in Padua, Zarin and her boyfriend took the train to Venice one morning to meet up with another friend from Florence who was also visiting for the day. They ate veal sandwiches and leisurely explored the steps of the Santa Maria della Salute, but Zarin grew tired of her boyfriend’s incessant talking about Savonarola and they ended up arguing. Later, the boyfriend acted rudely towards Zarin’s friend from Florence, simply to annoy her because she refused to listen to him.
In the first essay of her new book, In Italy, Zarin remembers her initial encounter with Venice during a previous visit. She is now older and travelling alone: “Maybe it’s better for me to come to Venice alone; there is no one here that I am on good terms with.” While back in New York, Zarin had been involved with a man who was in a complicated relationship with another woman. He declined to join her on the trip, but continued to send her affectionate texts every few hours: “It’s evening and raining in New York. You’re so close.” Despite being thousands of miles away, Zarin attends a book launch, visits the grave of poet Joseph Brodsky, and explores pavilions at the Venice Biennale – but she can’t help seeing everything through her lover’s perspective.
At their peak, these essays maintain the delicate fluidity of love letters written in the midst of a new romance. In her essay, “Basilica”, Zarin fondly recalls spending afternoons at the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, admiring the frescoes. However, even in this peaceful setting, she is aware of “seeing through your eyes, which had become a habitual thing”. In Rome, her absent lover is like a “phantom”, constantly invading her thoughts as she wanders around the Tiber in search of traces of the ancient theatre of Pompey or reads Henry G Liddell’s A History of Rome at a bar. Over time, Zarin reflects, “the familiar ghost is none other than oneself”.
These articles are best marked with a train ticket or boarding pass, but it’s difficult to label Zarin’s fleeting observations as travel writing. Zarin is driven by memories of previous trips rather than new discoveries, and considers how her life has been shaped by impulsive decisions and a desire for privacy and restraint. Sometimes, the trips she reflects on are not her own. In Venice, she reflects on the letters written by poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning during her time in Italy 150 years ago, as well as Brodsky’s love for the city and his final resting place in the San Michele cemetery. In Rome, she imagines herself following in the footsteps of novelist Elizabeth Bowen during her three-month stay in the city in 1953. Bowen wrote to her lover from Rome, saying “I think of you every day, at all times and places.” Zarin sees similarities in her own relationship with a “ghost”, and the city itself becomes like a “tablet with endless memory”.
Zarin has a talent for capturing both the intricate details and the bigger picture. For example, when discussing the Venice Biennale, she remarks, “It is impossible to showcase new art in Venice. Nothing can compare to what is already there.” And when describing the four guardian angel statues in the Santa Maria Maggiore, she notes, “Every time I entered the chapel, I thought they would be gone. But there they were, playing and whistling.” Zarin’s writing is full of lively sentences that still convey deep meaning. She effortlessly recounts moments of heartache, almost as if it doesn’t hurt as much when you’re on vacation in Italy. “How many tenses are there?” she ponders at one point. “The past, perfect, and imperfect.” While in Rome, she strolls through a park, but later can’t recall if she entered through the right arch and exited through the left, or vice versa. These pieces evoke a feeling of pleasant confusion, a desire to live in the present tense imperfectly.