Taras Grescoe presents himself as a travel writer who falls for a place and then looks around for a book idea to justify prolonged dalliance. Shanghai Grand (Harper Collins, 2016) captured the teetering glamour of China’s port city on the eve of the Second World War. His new book, Possess the Air (Biblioasis, 2019) delves into Rome under Mussolini. Definitely not the Eternal City’s finest years, but ample material for a juicy, page-turning ramble among famous names that weren’t yet famous, and living legends whose rich biographies have disappeared into the mist.
The story begins at an obscure address, a cluster of sumptuous old buildings within walking distance of the Vatican and Coliseum. Funded by the likes of J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Frick, the American Academy offered a bed and stipend to young architects, artists and intellectuals seeking a taste of the Old World before they turned to the real business of making America culturally great.
While much of the book’s appeal rises from gorgeous descriptions of Rome’s sensual impact, both Grescoe’s observations and records written at the time, and characters make the landscape breathe. A 23-year-old Yale grad, Thornton Wilder pitched up at the Academy in the fall of 1920, determined to stay beyond the reach of his father until he’d found an identity to make filial independence permanent. Wilder becomes our entree into closed salons and smoky cafés populated by flamboyant ex-pats and old stock Italians, leading eventually to the dashing poet and aviator, Lauro de Bosis, the son of an Italian aristocrat and a New Englander whose dramatic act of heroic resistance to Fascism provides the story’s momentum and climax.
What was it like to live without freedom of speech and reliable media, inside the noisy bubble of a totalitarian state, where the din of apparent economic progress and prosperity drowned out the loss of values and institutions built and cherished over centuries? Possess the Air relies on people who were there, their love affairs, yearnings, crises and disappointments, to answer the central questions. How did they cope, deny or see reality for what it was, react or not? The ultimate act of resistance, carefully plotted and fatally executed by the poet de Bosis, is both triumph and tragedy. Possess the Air suggests the greater strength of his action was metaphorical, rather than tangible, hence a story ripe for telling in a time of eerie parallels.
Grescoe says of Rome: “The city’s persistence across centuries seems to offer a salutary rebuke to an unhealthy obsession with the present.” I would turn the tables to say that this accomplished Montreal writer’s latest achievement serves as a welcome tonic to our unavoidable obsession with times present. When a terrible malady overtook and ripped apart a great civilisation, one man made his opposition known to tens of thousands of countrymen, a personal gesture waged above the gloom, gracing a city that lived on, beyond him, to reclaim freedom. It can be done. It must be done. By the end of Possess the Air, you’re ready to believe it will be done.
Masterfully constructed, elegantly composed, this is a book to be savoured by anyone with an appetite for what Henry James called “the luxury of loving Italy.” It’s an important book, offering a way through the present by way of connection with a complicated past.
Marianne Ackerman’s plays Triplex Nervosa Trilogy will be published by Guernica Editions in Spring 2020.