A restless traveler faces Italy and ‘The Last Supper’

The Last Supper

A Summer in Italy

Rachel Cusk

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 240 pp., $25

She is restless. It is a “kind of curse, like the curses in mythology that are forever sending people from their homes to seek what perhaps can never be found.”

Rachel Cusk, her husband and two children pick up and go from their home in England to spend a few months in Italy, in a rented villa near Arezzo and on the Amalfi coast.

“I had a terror of my own,” she confesses, “which was the fear of knowing something in its entirety. To seek held no particular fear for me: it was to find, and to know, and to come to the end of knowing that I shrank from.”

It is not an unusual or difficult journey, perhaps because we have become so used to travel that we take the subtle shifts for granted. Cusk monitors every mood, records each new feeling. In part, they are looking for beauty, an easy goal to satisfy in Italy (“we will learn to filet an Italian city of its artworks with the ruthless efficiency of an English aristocrat deboning a Dover sole”).

“At home,” she writes, “I often felt that our life lacked beauty. . . . I never found much art in daily things. There was always too much reality, churning just ahead, mixing everything together into a gray, agitated mass.”

Really, a reader thinks, what she wants is liberation -- from routine, from their reality. Cusk is far too intellectual to express an aimless yearning or over-the-top delight in Italy’s food, landscape and people. She wants to write a different book about traveling in Italy, and she has. But often, as in real life, this breaking free involves a certain amount of rage and whining. Cusk doesn’t really want to engage; she would rather study Italian grammar than venture out. The common tourists annoy her. The “superior kind” are “well turned-out . . . there are no giant khaki shorts and tennis socks here, no baseball caps or long lenses. These people have expensive jewelry and leather handbags and polished shoes.”

In this frame of mind, Cusk notices the mournful details in strangers’ lives and in the art she finds; the biscuits that a lonely host has purchased just for the occasion, the purity and sorrow in Piero della Francesca’s paintings. “I have understood, I think, Piero’s message, though its tidings are not of joy. It is at once more rational than joy and more beautiful. It is that you must seek a truth that lies beyond human concerns. I keep this with me as the days pass. The white birds on the water; the light slanting through the windows. The man rising from his tomb, full of a terrible knowledge.”

So this is not the Italy of Frances Mayes, not at all. Cusk’s typically British hatred of most things ecclesiastical sets her off periodically, as does an encounter with aggressively displayed wealth (a couple of American tourists particularly raise her considerable hackles). Again, we are so used to raw cheerfulness in our travel literature that her tone can seem arrogant and off-putting. But beneath this tone lies a fascinating inquiry into expectations and our desire to rigidly control our lives.

“We have let time slip away from us,” she writes toward the end of their journey, “as sleep slips away from those who dwell too much on what the day will bring. We have begun to worry about the future, and the present has strayed from our clutches.”

In many ways, Cusk is happiest in the tent the family shares in its last week. “Life could become flat again, ordinary again,” she writes, as if the possibility that they would not return had lurked all three months. “It is desire that is big and grand and treacherous; desire, not life. . . . We will stay on the road.”

Healing Spaces

The Science of Place and Well-Being

Esther M. Sternberg

Belknap Press/Harvard University Press: 352 pp., $27.95

In this fascinating book, physician Esther M. Sternberg explores the intersection of architecture and medicine; the studies and conferences (primarily through the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture) and vast body of literature that reveals the extent to which our external environment plays a role in healing:

“Physicians and nurses know that a patient’s sudden interest in external things is the first sign that healing has begun. But do our surroundings, in turn, have an effect on us?”

The book is divided into chapters on vision (looking out a window on trees versus brick walls, for example), sound, touch, smell, as well as other parameters of healing such as stress, memory and how these factors influence our immune and nervous systems.

Sternberg’s findings are fascinating, some strange, some pure common sense -- thought-provoking for both individuals and institutions.