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Reading our way round southern Europe

It seems everywhere we go in southern Europe there is a link with a great British writer.

Yesterday, in Florence, we crossed into a small square and there was a plaque commemorating Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who died in the city in 1861.

We came across a statue of James Joyce on a bridge in Trieste, and discovered that he started his great opus Ulysses while living there.

Lord Byron died in Greece in 1842 from a fever, most likely malaria. He had gone there to join the war of independence against the Turks, and today his memory is still cherished by Greeks.

The Greek form of Byron is Vyron and is a popular boy’s name. A suburb of Athens, Vyronas, is named after the romantic poet. So are a lot of tavernas.

The Greek government has even given him his own day of celebration on 19th April each year, the anniversary of his death.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge hoped a spell in Malta as a civil servant would help him kick his opium habit, which brings a whole new meaning to rehab.

But perhaps the best spot for great writers we have found, so far, is Taormina in Sicily.

This beautiful hillside town, in the shadow of live volcano Mount Etna, was home to DH Lawrence for three years, and many years later the American writer, Truman Capote, lived for six months in Lawrence’s former home.

And the list of writers who enjoyed Taormina’s dolce vita goes on…Guy de Maupassant, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Taormina hasn’t inspired either of us to write a novel, but travelling across Europe has encouraged us to read writers associated with the countries, or regions, we have visited.

There is something very satisfactory about opening a book (okay, switching on the iPad) and losing yourself in an imaginary version of the place you have just visited, or are about to.

I am currently romping my way through the Inspector Montalbano novels, which are set in Sicily. The vivid portrayal of Sicilian life (and food), to say nothing of the hero’s eccentricities, has made me appreciate the island even more.

A friend Kay suggested I read Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan before visiting Venice, and I enjoyed it so much that I then read her first Borgia novel Blood & Beauty.

And Robert Harris’s new novel Conclave, which tells the story of a papal election, added an extra frisson to our visit to the Sistine Chapel.

Nigel was, is, much more learned than I, and read all about Shakespeare’s Venice before catching the water bus from Fusina.

He says, “thanks Alison” for the great Christmas present: The Shakespeare Guide to Italy.

He then went on to read The Merchant of Venice, which I found very impressive, but I think I will stick to my thrillers and historical novels.

We are heading to France in the next week or so, then Spain, so all recommendations gratefully received.

And here, as a special treat, is DH Lawrence’s famous poem Snake which he wrote in Taormina, but which is about much more than a reptile on a hot day in Sicily. Thanks to my good friend Olivia for reminding me about it.

Snake

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Silently.

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?

Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?

Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,

But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Taormina, 1923

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