[Deep Vellum/A Strange Object; 2023]
Mairead Small Staid’s The Traces opens during the fall semester the author spent in Italy when she was twenty years old, a trip that has left deep marks on her life. The premise reminded me of the literature of the Grand Tour—that tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that has been popularized by more recent works like A Room with a View, Enchanted April, A Month at the Lake, and even Under the Tuscan Sun. Like these, the narrative of The Traces contains some key ingredients: the main protagonist, a foreign woman, feels dissatisfied with her life and longs for something different. Sunny Italy with its rich art, history, and culinary traditions brings an energizing change and casts a spell on her. Soon, romance is in the air . . . but this plot trope only materializes in flashes throughout The Traces. Instead, that blessed season in the author’s life has become a far-away dream. Italy is a captivating pretext for the author’s melancholic reflections about happiness and its opposite, reflections that magnificently cascade in all directions, chapter after chapter:
You can be full of wonder, the word turning from verb to noun, from action to state: a way of being. In Italy, I mostly do the latter. I stand before façades and frescoes with my chin uplifted, my notebook out. I write down facts and dates and anecdotes; I write down joy and want. I wonder at my own wonder. At my own happiness, which is near constant—I wonder at this constancy. (I do not wonder about, or if, or whether it will last.) I spend a single fall in Florence and will spend too many years to come attempting to reckon with those months. But what is there to reckon with? They happened; they—that is, the I who lived within them—happen no longer. This is how time works, a series of selves stitched together. Oh my god, I said to friends, upon returning, it was the best time of my life. I said this for a few months more, maybe a year, and then I stopped, though it hadn’t grown less true.
Shortly after this passage in the beginning, Small Staid presents readers with her intimate and crippling struggle that started when she was in her late teen years:
Manic depression—which I have, in its mildest form—can be enticing, from the outside. The peaks and valleys of the disease lend themselves to metaphor: topographical, as in this sentence, but also seasonal, diurnal, thermal, weight-based. My heart is heavy, we say, my heart is light, as if gravity’s effect were lessened when we stood on emotional heights, as it is on physical ones. From within, however, the metaphors grow futile. Depression reveals its dullness, less a deep cave or excavation than what it really is, in other contexts—a mere hollow in the ground—and the journey to its depths less a leaping plummet than a stumble.
The author’s time in Florence, which includes some days away to Riomaggiore, Ravenna, Pisa, Capri, Rome, and a few other European capitals, keeps the gloominess at bay for some months. Narrating these journeys, the narrator adopts the hidden structure of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), presenting its same eleven thematic sections, so that cities are described through memory, desire, signs, death, and other themes. The premise of Calvino’s novel was a structuralist reinterpretation of the thirteenth-century travelogue, The Travels of Marco Polo. With the ostensible goal of reporting back to the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan about the marvels of his immense territories, the Venetian explorer reports back about fifty-five different fictitious cities. But when Kublai asks why he never mentions his hometown, the traveler replies: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” In a similar fashion, every time Small Staid tells readers about Italy and that memorable summer, she is always pondering her own happiness. Recalling Italy, the narrator’s mood often reaches an addictive apex, euphoria:
The Florence I describe in these pages is the Florence I saw as a visitor, as Calvino’s traveler, and bears little or no resemblance to the Florence you would find should you travel there, nor the Florence inhabited by its residents. . . . My Florence held no death, no birth, none of the usual demarcations with which we attempt to rein in untamable time. . . . Everything there connected—the paintings, the writings, the mountains, the dome—and everything elsewhere served only to bolster the intricate web of thought forming in the poems I wrote, in the theories I had about art and beauty and travel and joy. My mind—have I said?—felt on fire.
The Traces reads like a long poem that hypnotically blends emotions, physical sensations, memories, and reflections on art, architecture, literature, and philosophy. With all its intellectual references and complex structure, it isn’t an easy read and should be savored slowly. Unafraid of repeating or contradicting herself, Small Staid accesses some existential truths. A love story in Cinque Terre and Capri between the protagonist and a travelling companion triggers beautiful pages about desire—my favorite in the whole book:
I hoist myself out of the water and gather my towel, notebook, and cigarettes, taking them back to the outcropping to sit above the sea. Summer has come back with the sun, and I stretch my bare limbs under its light, feel my wet hair warming. I try (and fail) to ignore Z.’s gaze from across the water, try to remain within my body instead of without. I write down that trying, that failing, and smoke two slow cigarettes, drying my lips along with my limbs.
Maybe happiness is in eros, in desiring someone, in experiencing in full that state of lack and longing that keeps the lover electrified while unfulfilled. Or, on a larger scale, maybe happiness is about staying in motion and wanting what comes next? “The delight of suspension,” writes Small Staid, “can be found in physical travel: I ran breathlessly, in Italy, from city to city, from day to day; I didn’t live in Florence long enough to catch that absent breath. I arrived every morning, every night; I was always arriving, was always not yet arrived.”
As Small Staid’s investigation progresses, happiness appears more and more elusive, “hard to articulate, to create and recreate.” In the process, the essay’s syntax and vocabulary become light and transparent, like lace, so as to retain the uncatchable, like a dream catcher. But words inevitably fall short:
The mystery is glimpsed, however briefly, in the sublime expanse of a seascape or the simple lines of a sketched figure, and this is where I feel language’s lack most keenly, where my hands lift from the page or the keyboard, fingers fluttering back and forth in their search, where my face turns as if toward an answer. My whole body becomes a gesture, out here, where words fail.
What initially looked like a straight path to an easy answer based on lived memories and rationality soon takes the shape of a labyrinth, where multiple itineraries to happiness overwhelm the hopeful readers. Perhaps happiness comes from experiencing a faraway land. For this theory, the author quotes Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome: “Leave home, leave the country, leave the familiar. Only then can routine experience—buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello—become new all over again.” Alain de Botton’s work The Architecture of Happiness is another character in Small Staid’s quest. As the Swiss philosopher wrote: “Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places—and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.” Different venues allow us to access the different selves within us. Maybe happiness is in the beauty that art provides. Or could its secret lie in a sense of possibility and in a lasting curiosity that always keeps the door open to life and to ourselves?
At some point, the book’s questions and answers become indistinguishable, while the passing of time and the deceptions of memory threaten to erase lived experience. But not all is lost. Like Proust’s madeleines, a glass of Sangiovese reawakens the writer’s sparkle: “I take the wine on my tongue as a reminder: happiness, like an invisible city, requires a kind of belief. It’s there, somewhere, whether I see it or not. I can stand on its hidden stones, if I only put enough faith in my feet.”
Michela Martini is a literary translator from English into Italian and from Italian into English. Her translations have appeared in numerous journals and volumes, including the Literary Review, Poetry International, Gradiva, Catamaran Literary Reader, Chicago Quarterly Review, Journal of Italian Translation, Italian Poetry Review, and The FSG Book of 20th-Century Italian Poetry. She splits her time between Italy and California, where she co-founded and directed the Dante Alighieri Society of Santa Cruz.
This post may contain affiliate links.