Ferragosto. Vacation time in Italy. I wonder was it any hotter along the Nile with Flalubert or Florence Nightengale in 1849? When I traveled through Italy in 1956 I was 27, and you, Florence, were 29 at the time of your travels. Should I have gone on to Egypt? Perhaps. But would I have felt it spiritually, like you, Florence? Or would I have been struck by the colors and captured the spirit of the place, like you, Flaubert, also 29? How curious you never met even though you were sailing along the Nile in the same months. Let’s say I found my Egypt in Sicily.
Although there are other books that seem to challenge me to reconsider. We can travel physically but perhaps more to the point are the journeys we take with our minds. Reliving the past, or imagining the future. How much of the past can we remember? I pick up a book I’ve heard about but never read – an Italian classic I’m told. Vasco Pratolini, Cronaca familiare. It dates to the 1940s but with its carriages and servants seems to belong to another epoch. Autobiographical, so the period he wrote about must have been the 1920s and 30s. Now I would never remember what I wore when I was six. Or what my sister and I did when she was six and I was 11. Or perhaps I never tried to remember? The man who did remember though was Tony Judt. His book is an old friend by now, sitting there with a newspaper clipping of his life inside. I cannot even imagine what it must have been like when he wrote his Memory Chalet, able to move only his head and neck but that only for the time being before his disease progressed.
Biography and autobiography. Perhaps each book is part one and the other. Richard Holmes in retracing the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson and of Shelley takes me along in his backpack. I have slid down grassy slopes with him (reminds me of when I fell and lost my hearing aid), got muddy crossing brooks, need a cane (which I really do) to climb up some of those hills. These are particularly loved friends who keep me company every year.