A hallucinated lesson in style at the home of Antonio Tabucchi

The Italian novelist’s house in Vecchiano was a two-story building with books reaching to the ceiling: but in his search for the perfect place to work, Andrea Bajani remembers that Tabucchi preferred the kitchen table, among the crumbs from dinner. 

Questo articolo è stato pubblicato in origine su Domus 1073, novembre 2022.

My instinct has always been to catch a train or a plane to go and compose a story far from home. But for a long time, I did have a more workable solution. Namely, looking for the perfect place in the house where I lived. According to my illusions at the time, that was the single spot where the words would dare to come out onto the blank page without fear of being shot down by worldly cynicism.

For a long time, the act of moving a table under a window, setting up a corner in the living room, or even in the corridor, was one of the propitiatory things I did that were typical of my vocation and underlay an ineffable thought: the notion that the soul – if that’s what we want to call it – only manifests itself in specific conditions. And that there’s an affinity between the act of writing and religious practice. In short, the page that emerges is a sort of answered prayer.

Needless to say, all this moving around the house and later around the planet to find a place where I could make a church demonstrates above all a correlation between writing and failure. Put simply, writing doesn’t always happen, even if the sun traces a perfect line on your table or there’s a view of the Tuileries outside your window. But for writers who have left a mark on me, I’ve always wondered in which room of the house they did their writing. Not so much to imitate them as to map out all their churches. To plan an impossible pilgrimage. 

Despite having a perfectly equipped study, the ideal setting for one of those distinguished author portrait photos, he was writing in the kitchen.

This is why entering Antonio Tabucchi’s house and standing contemplatively at the doorway of his study was an act of devotion and envy. Tabucchi’s Italian house stands on a junction along the road that cuts in half the town of Vecchiano, 20 minutes from Pisa. It’s an old two-storey farmhouse that was converted in the 1970s.

Driving up involves a complex manoeuvre, which you either get right on the first attempt or you end up perpetually adjusting your aim – or scratching the side of your car. The ground floor is accessed via a patio – if that’s what you can call it – between leafy vegetation and a trellis that serves as a garage. This level contains a hall, a living room that leads into and joins up with the kitchen, a lobby and the study, all arranged in an enfilade. Upstairs there are three bedrooms. Everywhere there are bookshelves from floor to ceiling. Like the ivy on the outside walls, books had taken over the interior.

It was a couple of years before Tabucchi departed for the antipode of the world of the living on a merciless day in March. The study was there, dazzling with light. While Tabucchi bustled about the house, I stood on the threshold of that world admiring what seemed to me to be a picture of good sense. If ever there were a station where the soul might have wished to alight, it could only have been that room.

Illustrazione Bernardo Rodriguez
Illustration Bernardo Rodriguez

The long desk, the table lamp, a small tower of books, sheets of paper, a pile of pens and pencils. In front of the desk were hundreds of volumes of poetry, as if on a balcony cheering on the seated writer. I knew Tabucchi had written Pereira Maintains one summer in Vecchiano in the early 1990s. Observing that study, it was legitimate to think that here Pereira had jumped out of a notebook and started dictating.

Of that first stay, I recall waking up once in the middle of the night. That wasn’t new for me, since it’s not rare for dreams to knock down the door of sleep and gaze at me with astonishment from the foot of the bed. I usually start wandering around the house to shake them off, and when I’ve covered my tracks I go back to bed. But that night, a light from the ground floor prompted me to venture barefoot down the stairs. Whatever the reason for the glimmer, at worst I’d have a drink of water. Dreams seldom pursue you towards the light of day, be it electric or natural.

I descended the stairs, walked past the study, a sort of nocturnal lake, and eventually reached the door to the kitchen. Sitting at the kitchen table, Antonio Tabucchi was writing by hand in a black notebook. With his bare feet on the floor, he was writing among the crumbs left from dinner, having moved the napkins to make room. Despite having a perfectly equipped study, the ideal setting for one of those distinguished author portrait photos, he was writing in the kitchen. Only life that happens – seemed to say the man I was watching from behind, unseen by him – helps life to enter books. All that counts is life. Literature is simply one of the places where it manifests itself. 

I tend to be messy. I’m a person who stains his shirt while he’s eating, and whose writing is likewise hardly a marvel of clarity.

But the breadcrumbs are necessary for life to dare to come forward, to wag its tail between our bare feet, while we solicit words to make us live more fully.

Of that stay, I remember his face as I passed him on my way in, and after as I left. He said hi and bye as if my presence was normal, and at the same time as if he were looking at me through a car window on his way to who knows where. I went back upstairs to my bed with the distinct sensation that I had not entirely rid myself of my dreams. Rather, I had passed seamlessly from my dreams to those of another. And what I had witnessed that night had been an intense and hallucinated lesson in style.

“I don’t see myself as being fanatical about style,” Tabucchi had told his Greek translator a few years earlier. “I tend to be messy. I’m a person who stains his shirt while he’s eating, and whose writing is likewise hardly a marvel of clarity.” This is style. The rest is professionalism. 

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