‘There is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.’ Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
Throughout the writing of That Summer in Puglia, I aimed for lightness of touch as a contrast to the intensity of my protagonist’s narration and to the themes’ depth. I am not suggesting that the pull of gravity characterising many outstanding novels is unwarranted, but that it is not a ‘must’ in order to tackle universal themes. In fact, much great literature – from Cervantes and Sterne to Kafka – results from an author’s leap above reality to render it from a refreshing perspective.
‘Lightness’ can take many forms, being shaped by countless combinations of the elements of writing. Calvino cites examples as diverse as the work of Ovid, Lucretius, Boccaccio, Emily Dickinson, Henry James… Yes, the very Henry James who coined the phrase ‘solidity of specification’ to extol the virtues of realism in fiction. So how does solidity square with lightness? Well, not only it can, but I find that it’s when this challenge is most successfully met that the author shifts my perception of everyday life. Gabriel Josipovici, in his outstanding The Teller and The Tale, makes the case for Muriel Spark’s ability to convey ‘the broad and humane vision of a Sophocles or a Shakespeare’ through ‘novels of incomparable lightness’. He also cites the ‘plethora of tiny details’ in a paragraph from À La Recherche which puts half-known sensations into words, altering for ever how you think of a pillow: ‘I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and fresh as the cheeks of my childhood.’ To me, this too is an example of lightness – emerging out of material detail, no less than the more famous ‘madeleine moment’. In Proust’s hands, it’s a kind of alchemy.
Sleeping Child, by John Singer Sargent
When I began writing the novel, I felt the need to suffuse it with lightness – but how to go about it? Each story presents a unique set of challenges. I trusted that I’d find answers to my question during the process of writing, which for me is a combination of the intuitive and the analytical – and therefore an exciting quest, as I don’t know exactly where it will lead even as I seek to steer my way. My protagonist Tommaso is passionate about ancient classics – he becomes a tutor in Latin and ancient Greek. Yet, for all his knowledge of Plato or Lucretius, he is incapable of absorbing and transmuting their teaching into practical wisdom – until he learns of a transformative act of compassion by the young woman he loved. Various people offer him chances of viewing others and events from a different perspective, but for a long time he is ‘stuck’, mired in heaviness, the legacy of unresolved grief. Tommaso thus presented me with a double challenge: he is a narrator whose classical points of reference wouldn’t necessarily be familiar to all readers; and I needed him to convey that for years he actually didn’t understand the essence of his beloved classics.
I decided that Tommaso’s mental images would draw on his classical points of reference, but that these would appear unobtrusively: his erudition should feel natural in view of his personal history, but it should not intrude on the reading experience. For example, a sentence like ‘The owl, the brittle coins, and row upon row of my father’s tomes, looked on – my faithful guardian spirits,’ carries echoes of domestic lares and columbaria; whether readers recognise this or not is unimportant: what matters is that the sentence should still evoke the feelings and atmosphere of moments described elsewhere in the novel and which Tommaso is re-experiencing. Similarly, his great love’s waist being ‘sculpted more delicately than in my waking dreams’ should work in its own right, even though the suggestion is that he unconsciously sees her as his Galatea come to life. Where references are more explicit, such as his in-passing thoughts about Plato’s treatment of love, I have left it for the reader to decide what Tommaso may have grasped and what he may have missed. Throughout, I sought to strike a balance between clarity and ambiguity so as to set readers free to fill in the blanks based on their own perspectives, everyone a unique person engaging with the characters.
Allusions to fairy tales fit within the same principle of lightness. A local folktale which features in the novel is a reminder of the persistence of human ideals and limitations – of the humanness Tommaso struggles for a long time to accept in himself and others. It also foreshadows events and feelings in his life. And although the symbolism of the owl in the fairy tale could vary depending on iconographical settings, here it points to the value of wisdom: Puglia, where the story unfolds, was colonised by Greeks and Illyrians for centuries before their capitulation to Rome, but whether they called the goddess of wisdom Athena or Minerva, the owl was her attribute.
Tetradrachm, Athens, 480-420 BC
Elements as disparate as humour and food also present possibilities for lightness of touch. I introduced humour wherever possible, partly because it bridges the ‘extremes of despair and futility’ (Comte-Sponville), and partly for variety of tone. I also gave prominence to memories of food, which convey an embodied knowledge of culture, identity, and relationships. One of my future blog posts will be on Apulian recipes – four thousand years of history revealed by the region’s cuisine.
Artefacts were present even at the embryonic, instinctive stage of drafting That Summer in Puglia, and this I ascribe to their mnemonic resonances. I then focused on artefacts in my quest for lightness. The oil lamp and the casts of ancient coins in the novel drive forward the action, but they are also witnesses, recurring motifs and symbols of lost worlds (ancient and personal for Tommaso); they illuminate key themes by suggesting that people can be as fragile as plaster casts. In summary, artefacts help define characters and relationships in ways we can all sense, without any need for the author to convey them pointedly through dialogue or musings.
The setting helped, though my choice of Puglia, where I was born, was intuitive. Puglia offers a ‘framework’ which shapes and tests the characters; and the legacy of its disparate historical eras invites awareness not only of the ebb and flow of generations, but also of the possible happy bridging of different perspectives. The fictional protagonists walk through the streets of Ostuni, where past and present collide and combine – and with them tradition and modernity, religion and secularism…
It’s impossible for authors to know the ways in which their work will be perceived – and there’ll be as many ways as there are readers. I hope my pursuit of lightness will have created space for others to fill in with personal meaning.
Sleeping Child by John Singer Sargent, 1872-73, The Met. Reproduced under CC License.
Owl standing right, head facing. Reverse of a silver tetradrachm from Athens, ca. 480–420 BC, Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Reproduced under CC License.