Osborne in Florence

From the marble steps, a large arm stretches out toward me and I instantly recognize him from his photo. Lawrence Osborne is a tall man, with elegant dress and a deep, warm voice. “Should I wear a jacket for this?” He asks, and we look outside, where Florence is soaking in a hard rain. He has just come from his home in Bangkok, where, in early monsoon season, the rain is worse he says. We grab a hotel umbrella and head over to the Gabinetto Vieusseux in the Palazzo Strozzi.

A Thursday afternoon, the opening day of the 12th annual Festival degli Scrittori, which over the first weekend of May hosted talks and presentations from a phenomenal cast of literary colours, including Margaret Atwood, the most recent Pulitzer prize winner for fiction, Andrew Sean Greer, and director Volker Schlondorff. The Festival, sponsored by the Santa Maddalena Foundation and its impressive president Beatrice Monti della Corte, was held in honour of the Von Rezzori prize for the best novel translated into Italian the previous year, chosen from among five finalists.

Our Lawrence was one of these five, to be shuffled around town in between events, sporting significant jet-lag from the 12 hour flight from Thailand. I was his chaperone, the personal assistant, ensuring that he would appear in the Sala d’Armi of the Palazzo Vecchio for the Saturday awards ceremony, or the wonderful Cenacolo of Santa Croce for Atwood’s main lecture. I was told beforehand that these writers were a fun gang, that they would be easily swayed by the various Florentine temptations, and that getting them to their appointments may at times take a little convincing. Osborne says writers are a competitive bunch, with some irony, when I tell him that the other contestants are staying in the same hotel. But he does not seem especially ambitious about the prize, knowing that Man Booker winner George Saunders would probably ultimately take it. He was indeed right, as it happened.

Osborne’s company turned out to be an immense pleasure. He is a funny man, and with immense knowledge of person and place. Hailed as a kind of modern Graham Greene, part of that expiring species of nomadic writers, having lived in very different countries for various lengths of time. The contesting book is Cacciatori Nel Buio, or Hunters in the Dark, translated with Adelphi. I read it in original language after our time together, a lovely little thriller set in Cambodia about the allure of escaping, and disappearing from, a life of Western stasis.

“I practically grew up here!” he says when I ask him about Florence. He was dwelling in the centro storico in between the late 70s and early 80s, learning Italian at the Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute. I already catch his strong familiarity with the language in his quick and informal exchanges with staff at the Hotel Porta Rossa. “Funnily enough, I come here for my shirts.” He laughs in a distinct giggle that becomes easily contagious. He talks of spending his morning in the Chiesa dei Sant’Apostoli, the 11th century structure, one of the city’s oldest, before venturing into the old Roman Baths opposite for a visit to his friend Simone Abbarchi. Abbarchi is one of the most well-respected tailors in town, and this sometimes overlooked corner just off the lungarno is an obvious destination for Osborne. “When you get a chance, you should definitely pick up one of his shirts!” I think of my budget but nod in agreement anyway.

He says the city is virtually unrecognizable from when he first came. “It’s a tourist’s playground now!” We are almost exclusively gravitating within the Strozzi field, after all, and he is right about this. “When I was here you would see horse and cart rolling down the alley-ways, it was much more feral, more communist.” We dodge selfie-sticks and sheepish hoards walking through the Via Monalda. “It used to be far more contadino!” He is nostalgic, but it is clear that he remains enamored with his former home, especially when we enter the beautiful dust of the Vieusseux library with widened eyes.

After his talk, he remarks how pleasant it is to be interviewed by Italian press. “They always ask intelligent questions.” He remarks on the widespread literary culture in the country, and it’s true: Italy remains among the countries with among the biggest translation traditions in the world. On a separate occasion, celebrated American writer, and member of the Von Rezzori Jury, Edmund White, remarks to me that if he were an alien coming down to earth, and had to learn one language to access the world’s literature, it would have to be Italian.

That evening, amazingly still the first day, Osborne invites me to Trattoria Camillo with his friend Peter Marangoni and his Adelphi editor Benedetta Senin. According to Marangoni, it is the only spot where you can find the veri fiorentini. I know better than to contradict him, although my mind flashes to the trippaio of San Frediano on a Tuesday at lunchtime. I had never been to Camillo, and I jump at the opportunity. In the warm light of the first room – a table was procured with no trouble, we were told to bring cash – we sip the house Chianti. “It’s not quite a vino di meditazione,” Osborne says with a cheeky grin, “but I suppose it’ll do.”

We indeed eat very well. Pillows of burrata, healthy sized anchovy fillets, fried artichoke flowers. As a main course Lawrence and I both have the veal scaloppine, and they melt between our lips without much difficulty. For dessert, a hangover from his French years, Osborne orders a plate of cheese, and the gorgonzola is actually the surprising ticket to perfect satisfaction. I suppose it is partly true about the clientèle, tables filled with old Florentine families. In between courses, Marangoni introduces us to a group of Corsinis. He seems to know everyone in the place, they know what he enjoys, and they cut us a great deal. I escort Osborne back to his Hotel, and the Via Tornabuoni is deserted. “It is actually very beautiful in the late evening, isn’t it?” He says, with all round implicit agreement.

The next afternoon we taxi to the Florida bookshop in the Rifredi area, where Osborne is due for a book-signing. We cut it close, and the cab rolls up at 5 to the hour, but somehow the shop is still shut. We laugh, half in embarrassment, but fully in awe of the relaxed Florentine charm. La pausa di pranzo. He orders a spremuta in the neighbouring cafe as we wait.

The crowd that shows for the signing is a small but very enthusiastic one, listening to Osborne’s fast-paced stories about Bangkok and the notion of his own kind of travel writing. One young woman in particular, writing her thesis on his work, is entirely fixated. Her wide beautiful brown eyes are completely hooked on the seated writer, as he chats about the English in Tuscany. “There has to be an Englishman in every little village in the world! The weird Brit on the hill, it’s incredible! Personally, I find London intolerable,” he says, “but it remains my first home, I suppose.” He speaks of living in Panzano for a few months one autumn decades earlier. “It really felt like the outback in those years. No foreigners, and lovely wine.” He pauses for a second, with a smile. “But when the winter came, it was incredible, no heating! A third world. When I went there recently, I was conscious I was breathing a different air.” The air of the new Cecchini Empire, perhaps.

What about Rome? Someone asks him. He laughs and says he loves Rome. “It is fantastic, I could sit every day of the year on a Roman square, with a coffee and the paper, and be happy.” But then, as a friend once told him, “Roma spegne”, gesticulating the extinguishing of a candle. Rome switches you off. I don’t ask him if he thinks the same applies to Florence.

It certainly feels inspiring when we’re walking across the Santa Croce’s square towards the Cenacolo. We stop for a moment so he can finish his fruity ice-cream from Vivoli. He was not sure whether he should get one, but I insisted. These are the local impulses one has to give in to. For Atwood’s talk, Osborne sits up front in the Cenacolo’s hall. Not anticipating the crowds, the festival organizers had to shut the gates at an early point, with many disappointed tourists and journalists. Such an ensemble of impressive contemporary literary heads was not common for the country, let alone the city.

By the end of the weekend, I was enormously grateful to Ms Beatrice, and her foundation. I had to say goodbye to Osborne, he was flying to London for a few days before coming back for a resident fellowship at the Foundation’s villa in the Vallombrosa area. It was a shame, he had become a friend of sorts, and would not be attending the closing lunch at the Villa on the Sunday.

It was a beautiful day, and at the end of a long strada sterrata the villa subtly appears in between rich trees. I sit around with some of the other volunteers, with a glass of Franciacorta, and I think about how appealing this world feels, how engaging all of the festival’s attendees were. The most important thing was that it did not feel out of place at all in the midst of lush Tuscany, or its capital’s monumental spaces. I sit back and smile at Alessandro Raveggi, the editor of the FLR, when he catches my eye. We raise a glass, as if to say, Buona lettura.

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