Andrea Bajani: between writing and shipwreck in a house overlooking the sea

A borrowed house on the Gulf of Camogli becomes the ship and lighthouse of stormy writing after the end of an important love story. Each promise tells the story of an escaped shipwreck.

I never knew who owned the house overlooking the sea in Camogli, and I never thought to investigate. What I do know is that for a couple of winters – I think it was around 2009 – it served as a beacon for a piece of writing caught in a storm. It didn’t matter that I was on dry land and that the sea was out there in front of me. Just looking at the sea placated the waves that kept surging on the pages and sweeping away every barrier I put up with my words.

I never wondered about the apartment, which came to me simply as a bunch of keys in an envelope. It was a response to one of those calls for help that your friends spare you from making but fathom from your voice and gestures. A friend of mine handed me the envelope at the end of a visit and all she said was, “It could be a good place to write.” I asked her if the house was hers and she said it wasn’t. It belonged to people who cherished books and literature. Every other question (“Do they know I’m going there to write?” “Should I drop them a line of thanks?” “How much is it?”) was swallowed up by a smile that left no space for insistence.

I was aboard a ship, and sitting at the table writing was a form of obstinacy.

That the house was lived in was clear from a number of details – a woman’s espadrilles, a man’s trainers, a bookcase with recent publications, wine glasses on the draining rack – but the furniture was more that of a summer residence than a permanent home. There were no photos, as I might have expected, and the smell was a patchwork of hemp rugs and the salt air that had dulled the plaster on the walls.

I went there two or three times and the sense of a shipwreck remained unchanged. After all, my own shipwreck was real: a steady eight-year relationship had just ended in agony. As if as a consequence, the novel I was writing found itself teetering on the edge of an abyss, wondering whether there was any reason to drag itself forward and take its story somewhere. And the story – it goes without saying – was that of a couple who, on paper, were struggling not to break up. I had always thought that writing was a way of holding together whatever life undermines, but now it was evident that fiction and reality had ended up smashing into the same cliff. 

Illustrazione Carme Martínez
Illustration Carme Martínez

The house itself added shipwreck to shipwreck. Built as an enfilade of three rooms, the last of which opened onto the gulf, the whole apartment sloped downwards. Every morning I would wake up and go down, as it were, to the small kitchen. Then I would go back up to the bathroom at the top of the house. The sea, which began where the window ended, and the gangway I walked along to move between the rooms induced a kind of beneficial nausea that, paradoxically, made my shipwreck bearable. I was aboard a ship, and sitting at the table writing was a form of obstinacy. Even then I knew that the only lifeboats were the paper ones I was building by tapping the keys with my fingers.

Mid-morning, I would go downstairs and alight on terra firma, mooring briefly for little less than an hour. What I found there was the winter coast: closed restaurants, the deserted terrace, and a beach that in January resembled something a little more than a strip of pebbles. I would sit at a cafe with a mix of astonishment at the chasm I was digging for myself by dint of writing and gratitude for that sky and sea. My friend almost always came to join me, first silently drinking her coffee, then offering me a sort of lifeline. Only then, by clinging on to it, did I manage to emerge from myself. Laughing with her and hearing her talk was the warmth that only life can grant with its little ordinary fires.

I never wondered about the apartment, which came to me simply as a bunch of keys in an envelope.

At the end of the week, I would lock up the house, go to the station and catch a regional train to Turin. I’m still not sure why I went back to that city where there was no one waiting for me anymore. Deep down, I think I wanted to hang on to that form of commuting – between writing and life – that allows one to think of writing as a life in reserve. If I had avoided those returns (the compartment, the other passengers, the station, the tram on arrival, collecting mail from the letterbox) and given myself over to writing, I would have ended up like Jonah in the whale. Lost and missing while pretending to have found myself at last. 

After two winters, I stopped asking my friend to let me board that ship on the Gulf of Camogli. I can’t say whether I chose life, but life certainly grabbed me again and kept me on terra firma longer than I ever thought it would. A new love affair came along to give fresh impetus to time, and even the characters in my story who didn’t know what to do with themselves attempted to find some path to happiness. They remained bruised, marked by pain and fatigue, and the book – Every Promise – somehow became the story of survival from a shipwreck. Or maybe only of a rescue or an illusion that the new romance offered me. 

I never asked a thing about the house and its owners. It remained a secret that we were all aware of. Not speaking about it was only a form of discretion and freedom: no obligation, no debt, just present and future gratitude. For my part, I kept the secret by forgetting all about it. If I went to look for the house today, I wouldn’t find it. I have no recollection of the front door, the stairs, or the part of town where it stood. But the sea horizon I would look at whenever I was gripping the rudder of yet another story – that is still entangled in my gaze.

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