Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

John Cheever: Encounter with Rome

In October 1956, the writer John Cheever (the "Chekhov of the [NYC] suburbs") and his pregnant wife Mary left the Westchester, CT suburbs for a year in Rome.  He had just put the finishing touches on The Wapshot Chronicle, his first novel (it would prove a big success).  A friend found them a place to live: a grand but drafty apartment on the fourth floor of the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili, across Piazza Venezia from where Mussolini had governed. 

The comfy palazzo where the Cheevers lived.
Their landlady was the Principessa Doria herself, but she couldn't or didn't fix the kitchen gas leak or clean the clogged drains.  Thanksgiving soon arrived, but no one in the family knew much Italian and the shopping for the holiday went badly, and instead of roast turkey the Cheevers dined on salami, cheese and bread.  "I still cook breakfast in my underwear," Cheever wrote, "in this Palace of Justice or Haunted Public Library."

No, Rome wasn't an American suburb, and perhaps that's why Cheever had trouble writing during his stay in the city.  He managed one short story--one even he didn't much like--but that was it.  As usual, he socialized, often with a cocktail in hand.  While Mary and the Italian maids took care of their baby (born at Salvador Mundi Hospital, on the Gianicolo), John explored the "Academy" (the American Academy, on the Gianicolo) and what he called the "nonAcademy."  According to his biographer, Blake Bailey, he found a good number of "duds" in each group, which in some cases may have meant they didn't drink as much as he did.  He had a long, pleasant walk with Robert Penn Warren along the Via Aurelia, but despaired at Warren's quoting of Dante and the writer's other intellectual pretensions.  Similarly, he found another Academy Fellow, Ralph Ellison, friendly enough but given to "talking about negroes" and philosophizing about "mass motivation."  Cheever had read Ellison's masterpiece, Invisible Man, and found it--not unlike Warren and Ellison--"longwinded."

Cheever was not the first person to be
uninspired by the Tomb of Augustus
One imagines that Cheever and Ellison, despite their differences, found common ground in their shared inability to appreciate the charms of the Eternal City.  For Cheever, that disaffection owed something to his failure to learn enough Italian to feel comfortable, but it was more than that.  On his first day in the city, an exasperated Cheever, coming upon the less-than-august Tomb of Augustus, lamented, "Is this all, is this all there is?"  No, it wasn't all there is, but it seems Rome's great monuments of antiquity never quite captured Cheever's fancy. 

That said, America's greatest short-story writer (or so some think) may have found in Rome a place in which to revel in his romantic (and bisexual) thoughts and fantasies.  The city's "mystery," as Bailey puts it, appealed to Cheever; he "liked the strangeness of Rome."   "At nightfall," Cheever wrote, "the combination of dim-lamps and Roman gin make me feel very peculiar....The city seems mercurial and while it is lovely in the sun with the fountains sparkling, it looks, in the rain, like the old movie-shot: European capital on the Eve of War....the atmosphere of anxiety and gloom is dense."

Roman gin?

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