Given the fact that Jonathan Keates has written novels of distinction—such as Allegro Postillions (1983) for which he was awarded both the James Tait Memorial Prize and the Hawthornden Prize, and, in 1987, The Strangers’ Gallery—I feel a bit dumb not having known, until yesterday, who he is.
It turns out that, in addition to the novels, Keates has written a number of biographies as well (of Stendhal, Handel and Purcell) and a spate of travel books (Love of Italy, Tuscany, Umbria, Venice) –which is how I came to him. It was this sweet, pristine, unruffled copy of his Italian Journeys (see photograph)—carefully culled from the fetid Danielle-Steele-Dean-Kootz-filled shelves of our local Salvation Army store (for 50 cents) that, after I read the first page in the store, opened my eyes and aroused my curiosity.
I love the degree to which Keates’s writing is learned, mellifluous, ornate, lofty, cynical, impatient (sometimes even caustic) and nevertheless unremittingly hedonistic and joyful. On the outside, he grumbles like a modern-day Dr. Johnson. On the inside, he strives to tame bouts of ecstasy.
This is from the Introduction: “This is a book full of the wildest generalizations and inaccuracies. Fur the latter I must make what apology I can. For the former I am unrepentant, since generalization encourages argument, and if this book makes travellers in Italy think, look and listen somewhat more carefully, then some of the object will have been accomplished,.” I ought to have added “a touch of condescension” to my list of his writerly attributes.
Here is poor dear Jonathan Keates in Venice. It is a drizzly day in April. “…I fetched up alone at a grim little pensione under leaden skies, and sat for three days mesmerized by the relentless downdrip from the gutter on the section of opposite roof which formed the view from my window. While the maids were cleaning the rooms in the morning I went and sat on a bench in the church of the Salute, nerving myself for the social and linguistic effort involved in ordering lunch. Afterwards I sploshed home and sat reading The Vicar of Wakefield until supper time, when the dining room surrendered to te merciless booming of an English art history teacher lecturing five morose-looking public school boys on the phases of Venetian art from Bellini to Tiepolo as they slurped their tortellini in brodo….”
This sounds dispiriting,. But it’s not. It’s writing. Keates is in fact having a wonderful time and wishing we were there.