Harry Clifton. On The Spine of Italy: A Year in the Abruzzi. New York: Pan Macmillan, 2000. 208 pp. Â£6.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-330-37246-6.
Reviewed by Stanislao G. Pugliese (Hofstra University)
Published on H-Italy (October, 2002)
The poet Harry Clifton and his wife Deirdre decided several years ago to spend a summer living in a remote mountain town in the Abruzzo. Husband and wife felt that it was necessary to remove themselves from the commotion of contemporary life and seek shelter in an anonymous Italian village. Born and educated in Ireland, Clifton has lived in Africa and Asia; presently he divides his time between Ireland and France. In some ways he is part of a long tradition of writers from northern Europe who travel to Italy seeking something different. For most, it is an artistic and sensual awakening that could not flourish in the harsher climates of northern Europe. From Goethe to Ashenbach in Thomas Mann's Morte a Venezia, these artists and writers were usually sons of the aristocracy or wealthy bourgeoisie, finishing the "Grand Tour" that was required of all European gentlemen. Clifton, though, is different in an important respect: although familiar with the cultural treasures of Rome, Florence, and Venice, his summer turned into a year in Italy and was a search for an authentic existence, a more rooted life, an intimacy with nature, and--above all--a quest for silence.
Not far from Teramo, they found a suitable village with a population of about ninety souls. At the time of their move, though, the village is inundated with returning immigrants, mostly from Canada and the United States, who swell the population to over three hundred. These emigrants, who have worked and saved for two years, have returned to the village for summer and the annual feast. Once the season of summer and feast is over after August 15, they would depart and the village would return to its usual metabolism.
Clifton and his wife move into an abandoned house that once belonged to the parish priest (long since gone) and adjacent to the local church. A priest from Teramo, who comes once a week to say Mass, arranges for their use of the house. With stone floors, a leaking roof, a squirrel in the attic, and a fireplace that fails to draw out the smoke properly, they settle into the abandoned house and begin to write. But the life of the mountain intrudes, as does the life of the village. Slowly and inextricably, the couple is drawn into the petty quarrels and long-running feuds of the village. The internal dynamic of the village is irrepressible; centuries of custom and tradition have bound the villages and even the emigrants into a life cycle that few can escape.
Clifton and his wife take time to explore both near and far. The neighboring village of Poggio offers a quaint counter-point to life in their town; a pilgrimage to Pescina, Ignazio Silone's hometown, is revealing; trips to Rome and the United States offer a respite from the harsh winter in the mountains. In Canada and the United States, among the immigrants from the town, they realize they are occupying a fourth dimension of the town itself. And yet whenever they manage to escape the tyranny of the village, they almost immediately wish for their return. There is something authentic and genuine in the town that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Clifton writes with the insight of an anthropologist, sensitive to the daily ballet choreographed around meaningless jobs and the all-important family. Social relations are what count here, not so much intellectual aptitude or professional ability. The intricate network of family and social relations is the stuff of life; while the men pass their time in the cafe, the women tend to the children and daily affairs. And yet it would be a mistake to think that this is a patriarchal society. As Clifton observes, the real power of the village lies in the hands of the women who run the cooperativa. But men, women, and children are all tied to the unchanging transfiguration of nature from one season to the next. Clifton's poet eye revels in the many types of flowers, plants, and birds that populate the mountainside.
The penultimate scene finds Clifton and his wife hiking high up the mountain in the company of a friend searching for wild spinach. But as a microcosm of their year spent in the town, the day's expedition is more than what it first appears to be. The single day's journey recapitulates the year-long journey for both husband and wife. As with any other quest, it brings some insights that we were not expecting
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Stanislao G. Pugliese. Review of Clifton, Harry, On The Spine of Italy: A Year in the Abruzzi.
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