APRIL 11, 2017
READING MARTHA COOLEY’S wise, artful Guesswork this spring felt like the culmination of my entirely accidental literary tour of Italy over the past year. I started in Naples with Elena Ferrante, then traveled up the coast to the “medieval labyrinth” of Genoa with Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba, a bracing work of autofiction in which a libidinous Dutch poet invents the city anew in his feverish imagination: “You’ll never see [Genoa] the way I see it, until I tell you how to.” Heading farther north, I next encountered Giorgio de Maria’s eerie allegory, The Twenty Days of Turin, recently reissued, in which a man compiles notes on the “phenomenon of collective psychosis” and possessed statuary that overtakes the city. Finally, I doubled back south to Rome, where Jhumpa Lahiri relocated and dedicated herself to writing in a new language, as In Other Words recounts rather solemnly. (Cooley’s memoir, in which several of her close friends die, her parents suffer from degenerative illnesses, and kittens are decapitated, is curiously less glum.)
After this whirlwind tour of Italy’s famed, seedy, or haunted cities, it was a relief to settle down with Cooley in Castiglione del Terziere, a small town in the Lunigiana region. Castiglione has narrow streets and a hilltop castle owned by a “mythoman[ic]” bibliophile, Loris Jacopo Bononi, a doctor-pharmacologist-poet who “café-hopped” with Fellini in his youth. The few townspeople gather nightly in the small piazza, describing themselves as the dogana, or Customs, “where newcomers must […] tell a good story to pass.” A serene Madonna, secure in her renovated alcove, watches down on them with an expression of “open-eyed humility and contemplation.” As only a dozen or so people live there year-round, Cooley and her husband, Antonio Romani, can write or work on their shared project — translating Antonio Tabucchi into English — without much interruption.
The couple has decamped to Castiglione for a 14-month sabbatical, or caesura, as the poetry-minded Cooley calls it. This caesura is “a deliberate interruption, a chance to reckon with divisions imposed by loss.” That loss is considerable: eight close friends (to illness, drug addiction, suicide) over the last decade, some of whom we encounter through flashbacks. (Whenever a friend is introduced, one senses, disturbingly, that some fatal diagnosis is about to be revealed.) No wonder then, that as the memoir opens, Cooley, despite having been in Castiglione for five weeks, has avoided the village’s cemetery on her frequent strolls around town.
When she finally does steel herself for a visit, it does not send her deeper down the “rabbit hole of loss”; rather, the cemetery is enlivening. An apiary fills the air with “the song of collective labor, sweet production,” and the grounds are colorful and cheerful: “Sun, hum, shade: a mix of tranquility and sprightliness. The dead here had a nice deal.” This is the Keatsian strand of Cooley’s memoir, which, set against picturesque backdrops, intertwines “Beauty that must die” and melancholy.
But there is another, more anxious thread — the uncertainty that besets Cooley as she works through her intense feelings of loss and cultural dislocation. While in the cemetery, stories, “inadvertent and uninvited,” flood her mind as she tries to imagine the variety of ways its denizens met their end. “Or” is the key word in this scene, indicative of the compulsive guesswork to which she is prone, even among these strangers to whom she has no connection: “You don’t have to grieve for them, you don’t know a soul here, it’s not your job.” It’s not her job to worry about rockslides, either, but anxiety has a funny way of employing people. While driving up the Lagastrello Pass to an ancient hospice — “a haven now in ruins” — on the old pilgrim’s route to Rome, she is at once exhilarated by and fretful over the rockslides that have closed some sections, wondering whether they had missed the worst or if a fresh disaster was still to come.
In one of the most interesting chapters, “Casino” (or, in my rough translation, “shit-show”), Cooley again witnesses the aftereffects of a collapse, this one grander in scale than a rockslide. She and her husband visit the island of Giglio, a quiet oasis thrown into the international spotlight when the Costa Concordia cruise ship crashed off its coast in 2012. The chapter opens with Cooley looking down from a bluff on the half-submerged ship, a “magnificent bauble in paradise”: “I cannot help but see it as a child’s bath toy whose proportions somebody got grotesquely wrong. Houses a few hundred feet from the carcass look miniature in comparison to it.” The wreck throws off the island’s sense of scale and leaves her “without a chiave di lettura, the right way to perceive what I was looking at.” Cooley captures the uncanniness of the spectacle, the fantastic unlikelihood of its bulk, an unavoidable memento mori that calls to her mind both the fragility of our earthly vessels and the permanence of the rocks on which they inevitably founder. The ship is a massive vehicle in a metaphor whose tenor is death, but in Cooley’s hands it also becomes an image of strange, mutable beauty:
At dusk, the boat’s an amusement-park ride gone topsy-turvy. Midday, a tipped-over toy in brilliant sunshine. At sunset, a blue-and-yellow hallucination. Middle of the night, a huge dark blotch of sorrow. First thing in the morning, a reminder: this will alter, will not be recalled as it is.
This is a memoir in essays, and each one follows a similar pattern, working through an initial disorientation or unease until arriving at a stoic, lyrical acceptance. Perhaps because Cooley is generally anxious, in thrall to guesswork, yes, and lingering grief, and professional worry — it has been some time since her second novel came out — the account is packed with comparatively unburdened creatures: feral cats, birds, bats, and bees. “Living here,” she tells Antonio at one point, “I bet we’ll be learning all kinds of stuff from animals.” In one scene, she and her husband try to decipher the “strangely purposeful dance” of two birds, which are perhaps “fighting […] or wrestling. Maybe kissing? […] Or feeding each other […] Or maybe arguing over food.” They don’t know what they’re looking at, concedes Cooley: “The guesswork is ours, not the birds’.” In another scene, a pipistrello — how it shames me as an English speaker to provide our lackluster equivalent, bat — is flushed out of the bedroom curtains. Cooley is surprised by its “strangely easy, unrushed glide,” which she contrasts to her own more fretful approach to life’s surprises and the relentless flow of time: “When it was tossed onstage without warning, its surprise provoked not a mad skitter but a slow-down, a husbanding of its energy.”
Guesswork is the record of her own attempt to slow down, take stock, act purposefully. It is a touching work, both in the emotional sense but also in Cooley’s intense focus on tactility, specifically how touch communicates more than language — especially in a foreign country — and also sight. Cooley’s mother suffers from an untreated condition called retinitis pigmentosa that gradually took away her sight while she was a young mother. “How,” Cooley remembers thinking as a teenager, “would (no, could) the drama of our lives play out if she wasn’t watching, seeing?” In the face of encroaching blindness, Cooley and her mother developed a “secret language” based on touch, sometimes “simply a hand alighting, perched as if on a fine bough, fingers tickling like feathers,” other times “stroking her forehead, hoping my hands would speak for me.” They communicate not only through their bodies but also through the feel of objects. Her mother asks to touch Cooley’s shoes each time she visits, and admiringly examines the fabric of the silken camisoles she brings her back from Italy. When Cooley’s first novel, The Archivist, came out, her mother “turned it this way and that, checking its textures and dimensions.” One can judge a book by its cover after all.
Early on in the memoir, a nervous Cooley reminds herself: “Don’t make so much of being seen. Try rather to see, however you can.” As demonstrated by her mother, “swimming for decades in darkness, making her own light within herself,” there are alternative ways of perceiving. Thus Cooley’s caesura is an often synesthetic journey. For example, the humming of the industrious bees in the cemetery is “almost tactile, like a swath of velvet brushed lightly across my forehead, or the cat’s fur on my fingertips.” Elsewhere, standing on Carrara marble, “so soft-looking as though [we] could sink into it,” she is transported beyond the realm of kitchen countertops and into an “Ozymandias”-like contemplation of historical flux: “I touch [the marble] whenever I see it. Don’t forget, it seems to say, the fate of the Roman city Luni, which once ruled our quarries […] Nothing remains of that city now.” And finally we have Bononi, the eccentric castle owner who compiles an impressive library for posterity, then, while on his deathbed, gives the world’s rare book curators a collective heart attack: “I want anyone to be able to touch all these books and manuscripts […] They have to touch them. That’s how my library will keep living.”
Touch, then, connects one to the substantial world of the living and reanimates the insubstantial dead.
Cooley is always negotiating between an abundance of sensual and phantasmal stimuli — that is, the voices of the dead, which come to her in dreams or memories. Fitting, thus, that she sprinkles T. S. Eliot’s incantatory verse, which she knows inside and out, throughout. (The Archivist chronicles the growing intimacy between a college librarian who is guarding, dragon-like, a hoard of sealed correspondence between T. S. Eliot and an American woman, Emily Hale, and the graduate student determined to read them.) Toward the end of Guesswork, Cooley quotes from The Waste Land, “I had not thought death had undone so many,” a line Eliot borrowed from Dante, who utters it in Inferno upon first seeing the teeming damned. Chewing this verse over, she wonders: “But who are the many undone — the dead or we who still live?”
This confusion, which arises from how deeply her sense of self in entwined with the departed souls of her close friends — one of whom was her husband’s first wife — is more broadly indicative of her liminal state. She lives between countries, in an “in-between place,” Lunigiana, which is “not Ligurian or Emilian […] belongs neither to the coast nor the plain [… and] is frequently traversed by Italians en route elsewhere.” She is “straddling” languages, an able Italian translator but, unlike her husband, not on linguistic “terra firma.” Even the village’s two bell clocks are not synched, leaving her to guess which time is right.
As we have seen, there is something oppressive about this in-between-ness, especially for Cooley, who suffers from the fear “of having to steer amidst obstacles, or between languages.” But there is also something thrilling about it, an exhilaration that is expressed in the same liminal terms:
Beauty can make me teeter precariously between pleasure and discomfort, even terror […] That’s how best to respond to beauty: wonder freely about it, go where guesswork leads. To confusion as well as clarity, sorrow as well as pleasure.
Oppressed by her friend’s deaths, her mother’s blindness, and her writer’s block, the downcast Cooley turns her gaze upward. The resulting memoir generously guides readers to the “very temple of Delight / where Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” It’s in the tiny, crumbling village of Castiglione. Who would have guessed?