The idea of reading Lavinia, my last booklength work of Le Guin’s as yet unread, set me back. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed rereading my favourite books and stories of hers, but I like knowing there’s “one more” still to read for the first time. (The fact that I also had Anne Carson’s Antigonick and Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, retellings another ancient tale might have played a role too.)
So, I picked up Rachman’s novel and settled into Paris, with an irascible and ageing reporter in The Imperfectionists. Soon the story swings to Rome, focusing on a series of staff members who are employed by an English-language newspaper there:
“The paper was established on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, a broad east-west thoroughfare lined with dirty-white travertine churches and blood-orange Renaissance palazzi. Many of the buildings in central Rome were colored as if from a crayon box: dagger red, trumpet yellow, rain-cloud blue. But the paper’s dour seventeenth-century building seemed to have been colored with a lead pencil: it was scribble gray, set off by a towering oak door large enough to swallow a schooner, though human beings entered through a tiny portal hinged within.”
This description worked brilliantly for me, which is fortunate, because the novel is character-driven, and the setting a secondary concern. Two characters “walk along Corso Vittorio, the roadway a blur of buses, taxis, and droning motor scooters”, the backdrop a ruckus which doesn’t feel unique to Rome. And another has a taxi drop “her in front of the Nettuno, a three-star hotel just outside the Vatican walls, whose peach façade has been hidden under scaffolding for years, the owners having run out of money and ambition halfway through a blast-cleaning in 1999”.
For the most part, the newspaper and its staff members seem to represent a kind of worldly experience that reaches beyond any single location. Like this staff member’s apartment, decorated with art reflecting a different theme in each room: