Stories that evoke our deepest pains, like our regret for withholding love from those closest to us, like a need to fill the void of their absence, or our inconsolable calls to their spirits—in the dark, in the shower, or between chapters of a book—these are Arturo Vivante’s stories. In a quest for authentic memories of my own, I recently read The Tales of Arturo Vivante, published nearly 30 years ago. I hoped his stories would amplify the memories I retained and, in a way, shared with him.
I knew Vivante, but not well. As a college student and paying guest, I stayed for about six weeks at Villa Solaia, an estate near Siena, Italy. There, I met and shared meals with Arturo and his parents, Leone Vivante and Elena Boisis. Vivante’s father owned the property. Arturo was visiting from the United States while I was there because of his concerns for his aging and ailing parents. Elena was living with cancer and Leone preferred his studies of philosophies and poetry to managing the estate’s expenses for which he had little aptitude.
Arturo loved his mother and many of his short stories delve into his assumptions about her feelings and thoughts, while describing her embrace of life and apparently limitless love for her children. His greatest regret was his reluctance to embrace his mother’s eccentricities and independence when he was younger. His greatest sorrow was his helplessness as Elena’s health deteriorated when he was in his early forties. A trained physician who gave up his practice to write, Arturo in 1963 had no way other than palliative to deal with Elena’s cancer. Her doctors tried all sorts of approaches considered ineffective or inappropriate today, and only sips of laudanum, morphine in an alcoholic solution, relieved her suffering.
The anthology has two sections. Both parts are autobiographical with all names changed, perhaps to give objectivity to both the reader and the writer; yet, Vivante tweaks them into fictional narratives, perhaps to add momentum and interest to the tales. Nevertheless, each story feels authentic. Whether the author summons images of the Tuscan countryside, gardens and orchards of the Vivante estate, and byways of Siena, or with great psychological insight, reveals the nuances of his characters, I recognize those same smells, textures, furniture, flora, faces, and quality of light he describes. His stories amplify dim memories of my first weeks in Tuscany as an unsophisticated and inexperienced young woman. At the time, I assumed Vivante was an arrogant, smug, and successful writer who refused to engage us college women in conversation at the dinner table. His lack of sociability, however, owed more to his concern for Elena than hostility toward us. His elegiac story, “By the Bedside,” for example, reveals his conflicted emotions. It begins with an image of Elena’s grace and spirit:
She was in bed, the double bed in her room where, thirty years before, her daughter was born, where her father-in-law had died, and where she herself would die in a matter of months. Thin, pale, her eyes clear and lucid in contrast to her pallor, her hair tied back by ribbons, baring a neck still young and supple, she was sitting propped against two feather pillows.
Arturo’s secret regrets surface continually in the story until Elena exposes them:
She kept sipping the laudanum from the glass that now was almost empty. ‘No,’ she said…they didn’t approve of me in public, my children.” And Bruno [Arturo] felt as though she had guessed his every thought.
Vivante as a boy did feel self-conscious about his mother’s non-conforming dress and energy; yet he loved her for her generosity and inner strength.
People didn’t quite know how to place her. She looked foreign in her own town. While the other mothers all went to the hairdresser, wore lipstick and rouge and the tailored suits that were the fashion, she wore her hair in a chignon, never any makeup at all, and sweaters and bright plaid skirts…But above all, she could not be intimidated—not by anyone.
Nevertheless, illness slowly eroded Elena’s physical strength and in 1963, her view of the world became limited to the window near her bed. Despite being a doctor, Arturo could do little to help his mother, but his memories of her healthier days sustained him.
Though his mother was in bed with a glass of diluted laudanum in her hand, for a moment Bruno had the illusion she was at the dining-room table with a glass of red wine and that they were all there listening to her conversing.
That is how I remember Elena, presiding over mealtimes at Villa Solaia, all of us “initiates” marveling at her poetic, vivid language, inspiring us to seize the day. I regret not knowing more about the Vivante family then: their exile in England from 1938 until the end of the Second World War, their financial struggles, the complexity of their relationships, and their creativity. Nevertheless, I am grateful for Arturo Vivante’s self-questioning and honest depictions of those relationships, resonating with any of us who rue unspoken sympathies and misunderstandings, missed embraces and thoughtlessness, all the ways we could have shown those we loved how much we cared for them.
The sum of these tales is not at all negative. It is, rather, a beautiful, rich recollection of one man’s coming of age and his encounter with life’s challenges. The tales succeed because they connect us to the roiling swirls of our own inner life that, from fear or denial, we often push away. It’s odd, however, that so many decades after my brief stay with the Vivantes, I now feel I know them so much better than I did when I stayed at Villa Solaia; and I’m thankful for the memories.