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The City and the Writer: In Rome with Elizabeth Geoghegan

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Rome as you feel/see it?

Rome is a splendid mess of a city—simultaneously chaotic and soothing. Cars and scooters zip past, thimbles-full of espresso are tilted back in an instant, but the historic weight of Rome’s ruins alter the temporal beat, slowing its pulse to suit the Mediterranean mindset. Romans themselves don’t like to rush, having perfected the art of il dolce far niente, the sweetness of time spent doing nothing at all.  


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?    

The stranglehold of corruption and neglect when it comes to preserving Rome’s cultural heritage.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

While the rest of the world has cashed in on Italy’s café culture, you can still get an excellent espresso or cappuccino for less than a euro just about anywhere in Rome.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Rome can claim quite a few writers as her own, between the luminaries who were born here—such as Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia—and the great number who adopted this city as their own, among them Muriel Spark, Tennessee Williams, and Northern Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini. And there are two contemporary Roman writers I adore: Francesca Marciano and Chiara Barzini, both of whom happen to write in English.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I love wandering through Rome and getting lost. And I still do lose my way here. But the Janiculum Hill will always be the Rome I return to. It isn’t one of the famous “Seven Hills,” but I’ve always lived on it or at its foot. I never weary of seeing the umbrella pines stretching along its ridge, hearing the daily cannon blast at noon from Piazzale Garibaldi, or catching glimpses of the water streaming from the mouths of marble dragons in the Aqua Paola Fountain at night. Whenever I feel unmoored, I climb the long flight of stairs beside Bramante’s church and take in the view over Rome from the top of the Janiculum. From there, the glittering domes and rooftops unfurl before me, the Alban Hills etched in the distance, and I’m reminded of why I live here.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

In spite of being a pilgrimage place for lovers of the English Romantics, the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome is still little-known to most Romans. As graveyards go, it is one of the most evocative and truly lovely places I’ve ever visited. The cemetery is known for being home to the graves of John Keats and of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote, “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.” Beat poet Gregory Corso must have taken Shelley at his word—he requested to be buried at the foot of his tomb. Other writers nearby include Italian novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda and American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. There are even fictional tombs: Henry James buried his flirtatious heroine Daisy Miller in the Non-Catholic Cemetery after she succumbed to a bout of Roman Fever.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

This is a city of neighborhoods, each with a vibe of its own, but hidden cities exist in a way that isn’t so much geographical as temporal. You find Rome in her silences and in her echoes, and the time of day (or night) plays a decisive role in which city you experience. Take a morning stroll and you might find a small sun-drenched piazza with only an empty café standing solitary watch. Pass back by in the evening and that same square will host a constellation of revelers, their riotous voices reverberating in the night. Timing is everything in this city; it is, after all, eternal.


Where does passion live here?

In the streets of Rome: this city is nothing if not a spectacle. I’ve always admired the way public space is shared, even celebrated, forming the perfect backdrop for the interpersonal operas that play out daily amidst the alleyways or along the city’s boulevards.


What is the title of one of your works about Rome and what inspired it exactly? 

I wrote a novelette called “A Roman Story,” inspired by a crime that was committed very close to my house during an unprecedented snowstorm some years ago. The details and circumstances haunted me until I finally sat down and tried to imagine what might have set the event in motion. In the end, the story became not only a noir reimagining of the incident, but a portrait of my neighborhood of Trastevere.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Rome does an outside exist?”

It certainly feels true that all roads lead to Rome and, to that end, Rome is forever a city of outsiders. In one fashion or another, it absorbs us all. But those same famous roads, built centuries ago, also lead away from Rome. Whenever I pass under the arches of the city’s famous gates or glimpse its ancient aqueducts on my way out of town, I’m struck by how quickly Rome disappears from view, yet the ghosts of those who have traveled back and forth along the same roads, whether in tragedy or triumph, feel intensly present.


Elizabeth Geoghegan was born in New York, grew up in the Midwest, and lives in Rome. She is the author of Natural Disasters, the bestselling memoir The Marco Chronicles, and the forthcoming story collection eightball. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, The Best Travel WritingEl Paisand elsewhere.

Published Nov 30, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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