By Mary Hoffman
“Whenever I go anywhere but Italy for a vacation, I always feel as if I have made a mistake.” Erica Jong from “My Italy”, Travel and Leisure, September 1996. I can identify with this sentiment! Italy certainly does feature in a lot of my books in some form or another. The Stravaganza sequence takes place in Talia, which is Italy in a parallel universe, at the end of the sixteenth century. The real Italy, in 1316, is where my first historical novel, The Falconer’s Knot, is set and, even in Troubadour, which begins in the Languedoc, we are in Italy (Piedmont) by the end.
My own first experience of the “leg-shaped shape country” was ordinary enough – a sun and sea holiday with my parents on the Italian Riviera when I was fourteen. It was definitely enlivened by the presence of an older teenage boy who unaccountably took a fancy to me. He was very serious; for him it was not just a holiday romance and if I hadn’t been a bit overwhelmed by his intensity, I might now be a Signora of Turin! I have given two of my characters in Stravaganza his name – one the forename and one the surname.
There was no art on that holiday, just lots of beautiful weather, nice food and that touch of romance. But I also got interested in the language, through trying to communicate with my Torinese suitor in a mixture of French and Latin. I went back to the same resort the following year, with my parents and my best girl friend. But I had still not been to Rome, Venice or Florence so my experience of Italy was still very limited and we were only just across the border from France.
France was where we usually had our summer holidays and I could manage to communicate there more or less with my schoolgirl French. But I didn’t do French A level because I was taking Classics as well as English and Art. So when I went to university and discovered we had to do an exam paper in Part One of the degree on Literature in a European Language, even though I was studying English Literature, I thought I might choose to do Italian.
That way I wouldn’t be up against all the students who had taken A Level French, I reckoned and maybe be marked more leniently! It was a cunning plan, in fact. So in my first summer vacation I went to Florence for a month to try to learn the language properly. And that’s when I found there was more to the country than sandy beaches and warm sunshine. I discovered Italian Renaissance and Medieval Art and it was a turning point in my life.
I suppose I must have learned some Italian because I took my paper on Dante and Ariosto – goodness knows how! But I didn’t really seriously take up the language again till many years later, when I did my A level in Italian in 2000. We then moved from London to Oxfordshire and I was very keen to keep the language up. I was lucky enough to find a weekly class for adults in Oxford in Italian Literature, which I have now been doing for ten years. There are still some silly mistakes in my speaking and writing but I can read a whole novel without using a dictionary.
Of course we had been going to Italy in between – it is our basic holiday destination, like Erica Jong’s, particularly Tuscany. People sometimes assume we have a second home there, to which I can only say “Magari!” that useful Italian word which means something like “I wish!”
I go more or less every year to the Bologna Book Fair, where Rights are bought and sold for children’s books. After a hectic few days there, I often – as this year, 2011 – go on to Florence for a short break. And we get a couple of weeks in our favourite country each summer. So that’s two trips to Italy a year and sometimes I’m lucky enough to fit in a third one (lots of carbon-offsetting!).
What do I love about Italy? The art, the food, the wine, the climate, the scenery - of Tuscany in particular - and the language. I don’t like its politics or some of the attitude to animals and Italian bureaucracy has some of the worst red tape in the world! But no country is perfect and, even though I might find some of these things impossible if I lived there all the time, I can overlook them for short periods.
And of course I shall be setting more books there so I’ll have to do many more research visits!
Thanks for a fascinating guest post, Mary. I really want to go to Italy one day. I have ever since I read A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. It is really interesting how a place can make you want to write a novel. And how reading a novel can make you want to visit a place as if by doing so, you can actually live the book.
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Thanks to Bloomsbury Books for inviting me to be part of the blog tour.