Two Cities by Cynthia Zarin

This book is part of the ekphrasis series put out by David Zwirner Books, and that word always makes me think of my freshman year of college, about a classroom with an instructor talking about Homer. I remember the instructor asking, rhetorically, what ekphrasis does and then I remember him answering: “it fucking interrupts the action.” (This was more than twenty years ago, I may not be remembering exactly.) Per The Cambridge Guide to Homer, “ekphrasis is the poetic device of describing one type of art within another.” (Like: the description of a piece of visual art in a work of literature.) Per the blurb in the back of this book, ekphrasis aims “to bring to an audience the experiential and visceral impact of the subject.” Or subjects, in this case: the two cities of the title, which are Venice and Rome.

The first section of the book, Serene, is about Venice, and made me think a bit of Pitch Dark by Renata Adler, in that it’s about the end, maybe, of an affair. Something about the phrasing, how in the first page of this section Zarin says “In the first place, it was the wrong time,” and then “In the second place, I did not want to go at all.” (Adler: “To begin with, I almost went, alone, to Graham Island.”) Zarin talks about past trips to Venice, and a solo trip she’s taking; how she’d “fallen in love with an old friend” six months before and is now in Venice to get some space or perspective or solace or solitude. Or, as she puts it: “I had come to Venice because I was preparing to break my own heart and I needed another version of love.” Venice is described as “the city where one is lost at any time of the day, winter or summer,” so it’s an apt place for this kind of trip. Zarin describes the interiors of churches: their paintings and their sculptures. She also describes bridges, water, light, restaurants, shops, dogs, people, the graves at San Michele. There is a lot of loveliness, like this: “On the way back to the pensione, after an evening out, the water under the Ponte Accademia is black, then azure, the lights of the vaporetto turning the waves sunset colors until it disappears in the direction of Ca’Rezzonico.”

And then there’s Rome, where (Zarin tells us) the writer Elizabeth Bowen stayed for three months in 1953, writing to and thinking about her lover. (The affair had lasted for years then, and would, Zarin tells us, last for decades more.) So there’s Bowen thinking about her lover, and Zarin thinking about her former lover, her “ghost,” about time spent with him in Rome, and how he taught her the words for things in Italian. But there are memories of other trips to Rome, too, and the sights of the current trip: contemporary art in old buildings, parchment drawings from the 1300s, and history, so much history: “Rome is like a great railway station, in which the past and the present are coming and going.” Rome is also “a city built on portents and omens, seen through centuries of dreams,” where “the air smells of trash and salt” and sometimes honeysuckle. I love this, from when Zarin is talking about her first trip to Rome, when she was nineteen: “the starburst geometry of the streets converging, the hum of the pigeons, the hawkers, and the sun on the spumes of the fountain, the falling water that Keats heard from his deathbed.” And this: “everyone’s Rome is their own, a mapped and delineated interior city.” (Isn’t that true of all cities, though?)

Anyway: I really liked this book and it was excellent to read over the course of two days in preparation for my own upcoming trip to Italy, which will include time spent in both Venice and Rome. I’m sure I’ll read it again at some point after I’m back.






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