Ironically, I requested Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar (1983; translated by William Weaver, 1985) with Kyoto in mind, for the scene at the “garden of rocks and sand of the Ryoanji”:

“The rectangular enclosure of colorless sand is flanked on three sides by walls surmounted by tiles, beyond which is the green of trees.”

But, when it arrived, post-pandemic lockdown, it was nearly time for Rome (and the second wave):

“There is something extraordinary to be seen in Rome in this late autumn and it is the sky crammed with birds. Mr. Palomar’s terrace is a good observation post; from it his gaze roves over roofs along a broad circle of horizon.”

There was more of a sense of the city in other volumes though. Like the Everyman’s edition of Poems of Rome which opens with Karl Kirchwey’s description of “nonchalant energy with which its modern population inhabits a cityscape of seemingly bottomless stratigraphic history and beauty”.

Kirchwey also describes the traffic buzzing around the complex of Republican temples, sunken below street level, including part repurposed as a shelter for stray cats. And he speaks of how the city “moves so easily between life and stone”.

In other Rome-reading, two longtime residents of my TBR presented themselves: the first, Lavinia (2008), by Ursula K. Le Guin, who is one of my MRE (Must Read Everything) authors, and next, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (2010).

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:

“so the kitchen contains a huge photo of cooks stuffing dumplings at the Luk Yu Tea House in Hong Kong; the dining room has a gargantuan picture of empty tables at El Bulli on the Costa Brava; the salon shows the interior of Skogaholm Manor in Stockholm; and in the bathroom is a vast photograph of the crashing sea off Antarctica”.

Because I enjoy workplace stories, especially those related to writing, this ensemble-cast story suited me very well nonetheless. I’ve only read one other of Rachman’s books, and now I’m curious about his others too. It’s quite possible that I could have chosen more Rome-ish books, or supplemented with film (which would have presented many options), but this was a satisfying month all the same. What would you have recommended?

Previous travel destinations this year, inspired by my desk calendar, have included Copenhagen, London, Havana, Kyoto, Paris, San Francisco, Marrakech and Mexico City.