Wednesday, February 27, 2008

a tale of two italies, part 2

I'm feeling inspired to return to Italy. A favorite local wineshop is planning an agritourism trip to Tuscany this fall and I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out what I could sell to scrape cash together to go along. Since that's not realistically going to happen, I'll have to settle for a vicarious trip to the land shaped like a boot, contemplating author Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love: A Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.

Whereas the other book on Italy I reviewed earlier this month (Italian Days) began with no insights as to the the author's intent, with the opening chapter dropping the reader into Milan, it's worthy to note that Gilbert's book differs quite a bit. The introduction informs us that the book we are about to read is an account of the author's year of "self-inquiry" which took place in Italy, India and Indonesia (2). She further clarifies that the book we are holding is a "sincere spiritual investigation" and an effort to "find balance." Her inquiry, "as all quests for truth," is "methodological," not a "spazzy-free-for-all" (1-2).

This of course, begs several questions, such as: what method did the author use? What method could help her find "everything across Italy, indonesia, and India") (emphasis mine)? And, while we're at it, why these three countries specifically (save the fact that they make for good alliteration)? The answers, I believe, both help manage our expectations about what the book will actually accomplish and also give insights into the author's bias, her preconceived ideas about how she will accomplish her goal. The book is structured like a string of Hindu or Buddhist prayer beads, with each of the three sections (countries) containing 36 stories--36 being 1/3 of the total number of beads strung on a prayer necklace. The book as a whole is Gilbert's own 109th bead, representing the spiritual insights she gained from her year of spiritual exploration. So right off we learn that from the author's point of view what we are about to read is more than a memoir or travelogue; it's a spiritual search. We also realize that the stated method of this search is particularly Eastern, specifically Buddhist or Hindu.

Still we haven't learned why the author chose the three "I countries", especially Italy. It's been a while since I visited Italy, but the last time I hung out in Florence I didn't see too many prayer beads, ashrams or gurus! The simple answer (woven throughout chapter one, "Italy: Say It Like You Eat It or 36 Tales of Pleasure") is: Gilbert has an affinity to all three places, and during a year of crisis (horrible divorce, personal emotional breakdowns galore), found herself dreaming of these places (she took Italian classes to feel sexy again) and even visiting them for work (a writing assignment in Bali). So the concept was born: spend an entire year living off a publisher's advance, writing about her spiritual (and not-so-spiritual) experiences in those three countries.

It should be said at this point that Gilbert is an immensely talented and lauded writer, which explains why a book like Eat, Pray, Love is a best-seller (New York Times #1) and has been received in Oprah-esque style (" and inspiring. You will laugh, cry, and love with a more open heart." ~Rocky Mountain News). The book's off-beat concept along with the author's witty, self-deprecating style come off as diary excerpts from your zany but likable friend's recent trip around the world.

That said, I wasn't into the first chapter but 10 pages before I started arguing with this book. Maybe it's because I am so Italy-crazy that I took umbrage with a book that positions Italy as a sort of non-stop pleasure dome ("36 Tales of Pleasure.") I mean, just because the author's divorce starved her of 20 pounds, along with her taste for food and a sense of pleasure in life, and just because in Italy she found those 20 pounds, ate gelato at all hours of the day and was tempted to kiss (etc) handsome Italian men during her stay, does this mean that Italy represents pleasure? Or I should say, is it ONLY about pleasure? This was never a question for Gilbert since she openly admits she went to Italy searching for pleasure (60), and thus the "36 beads" on Italy are all about pleasure (and learning more Italian and going on-then-off Zoloft, and eating a ton of pizza, and weaning herself off her toxic relationship with her New York lover, and trying to avoid having sex for four months and...).

By the end of her Italy excursion, Gilbert notes that she's ready to move on. Well, boy that makes two of us. She ends her stay with a quick trip to Sicily, since it is "the most third-world section of Italy" and thus good preparation for her next stop: India (60). She also adds, seemingly an afterthought, that Sicily was a good visit since, quoting Goethe, "without seeing Sicily one cannot get a clear idea of what Italy is" (?). By this point I have reconciled myself to the fact that Gilbert's Italy is very little like Frommer's Italy or my Italy for that matter. That is okay (it's Gilbert's book!), but I'll admit it is more than a little strange to read a chapter on Italy that mentions relatively few landmarks, vistas, historical references, museums, philosophers, artists, Catholic figures (Mary? Christ??). It's not that Gilbert mentions nothing or no one, it's that well, she mentions herself more. A lot more. In fact, the chapter, as the book, is really one personal discovery after another. Her search for pleasure resulted in her discovering how to love herself (and gelato).

While self-discovery should, I think, be a goal of every traveler, it feels very decadent and well, silly, to position it as one's first priority (didn't E.M. Forrester's A Room with a View teach us that?). Reading Gilbert's Italy made me want to find the author at one of her cafe haunts in Rome, give her a big hug and then take her to the Coliseum where hundreds (thousands?) of Christians were thrown to the lions. Then we'd hop on a vespa and go to St. Peter's Church to gaze at the frescoes of the stanza della segnatura, which depict a 16th C Italian take on the interplay between philosophy, faith and beauty and which provoke us today to think about how we regard the interplay of these three topics.

In the end, I would say read this book for its humor and honesty. But expect to look on at a lot of navel gazing and to avoid seeing much about Italy itself. Do expect to find precisely what the author went to Italy looking for: a sense of joie de vivre or as Gilbert says, pleasure, which as we already know is easily found in a country that outfits officers in Armani, celebrates wine like it is holy water and produces the best ice cream in the entire world. If you would like to find in it--as I did--rich cultural and spiritual connections, don't bother reading the chapter on Italy. Go right to the chapters on India and Indonesia, where gurus and ashrams abound.

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