If you have been to the movies lately you may have seen the trailer for a new movie called Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts. This movie is taken from a book of the same name written by American author Elisabeth Gilbert.
Now if I was a professional reviewer I would read the book and see the movie. Fortunately because I am not and this blog is a hobby, I don’t have to, and I can slag these as much as I like to, because really I sort of know where this types of books are lead to.
There is nothing wrong with escapist literature. There are lots of people who live lives which may be boring and repetitive, filled with anxiety or be emotionally unfulfilled. A book that deals of a woman who escaped these constraints can be a relief on the bus on the way to work where the drudgery is soon to begin.
What I immediately irk though is when Italy comes to play. Italy has been some sort of romantic escapist archetype since the Grand Tours made by the British male gentry since 1660. Where wealthy men would travel south to experience continental culture and shag freely before going back to England and be respectable. Then we had the Hollywood fantasies of the 1950’s with movies such Roman Holiday, or September Affair. Lately we had a spate of book about wealthy Americans escaping to Tuscany, which of course Frances Mayes has been the pioneer, traveling back to San Francisco so she could find that door handle she just couldn’t find in Italy.
We also had Australians getting on the act. One example is George Negus with his book ‘The World From Italy Football, Food and Politics‘ which I did read and it’s OK, a bit tongue in cheek, and just hot off the press is Kate Holden’s ‘The Romantic: Italian Nights‘ where the author goes to Rome in search of four things: Rome, the Romantic poets, romance and herself. Again we have Italy as the destination to ‘find yourself’. What is about Italy and this archetype of romanticism and opportunity for self discovery for English speakers? Don’t get me wrong. Italy can be a magical place, but I do believe that some of these writers assume that what they lacking in their lives (affection, romance, adventure) is found in Italy. Italy while unique, I don’t think possesses these magical powers.
I am thinking myself when I retire to go back to Italy and write a book about it. But my plan was to go to write about places like Dalmine in Lombardy where is flat, bleak, industrial and winters are cold and the fog enters into your bones, and people leave in the dark in minus Celsius temperatures to go to work in steel factories in the morning. But somehow I don’t think that there will be much of a market for it.
Enrica Brocardo (who is currently living in New York working for Vanity Fair) writes in her blog (in Italian) about the book and the movie:
Immediately after she arrives in Rome, Elizabeth rents a house from a short plump woman, with an apron and mustache. Then she eats ice cream besides two nuns, then meets a group of macho guys, then she dives into pasta matriciana and pizza and learn to say “sweet doing nothing” (which apparently is the preferred activity of Italians) then she meets the mother of a friend that reiterate the stereotype of the Italian mother with the added touch of the stereotype of a Jewish one. Then finally she goes to India and Bali to piss off the cinema goers from those places.
Some weeks ago I did interview Elizabeth Gilbert, and I found her brilliant and intelligent. During the interview I did mention the problem of reading a book set in your own country written by an outsider. In ‘Committed‘ (the book she wrote after Eat, Pray, Love) for instance, Gilbert writes that in Rome boys declare their love by singing under girls’ windows trite songs like “Roma, nun fa’ la stupida stasera”. “Nice image’, I told her, “but not true I am afraid”. But she insisted, so I let it go. There was the risk of going on to the next stereotype “Italian men are not what they were”.
So Italy will remain the romantic stereotype in many minds (I suspect frustrated American Mid-west women, mainly) pity that it doesn’t reflect the truth, the same way that (as many mid west American I suspect may believe) Australia is not full of Crocodile Dundee wildlife wrestlers. As I said somewhere else stereotypes may help us believe there is order in the world and that perhaps there is a better place somewhere else where we could escape. Just don’t try to go there for real.