Dateline, Florence, Italy: My husband happens to be teaching a semester here. This amazing luck gives me a chance not only to write, but to read greedily. Of course, one of the first titles anyone thinks of in connection with beautiful Firenze is E. M. Forster’s Room with a View, because it opens and concludes in this jewel of a city—albeit a hundred years ago.
I’m no Forster scholar, but I’ve felt deep admiration for Passage to India, Howard’s End, Room, and other Forster works since too many years to count. When friends learned I was traveling here, they all but fell down reminding me to snatch up Room, written when the good Forster was only 29 years old.
My paperback copy’s cover features a much-loved Spanish painting of two nineteenth-century women gazing out dreamily over a balcony. The book also features an introduction by Mona Simpson, which I decided to read last—since introductions often give away plotlines. I wanted to experience the work as if for the first time.
I couldn’t wait to commence it, my heart foaming.
I’d just finished contemporary Italian author Elena Ferrante’s harsh, proud novel My Brilliant Friend, a story of two girls’ difficult coming-of-age in poverty-struck Naples. After chewing up this grapefruit, reading the Forster was like sipping old milk.
Room’s characters fuss and fume about what’s proper or (heaven spare us) suggestive; how the local service falls short of English standards, and so on. They behave and sound (post-Ferrante) like foppish fools, quite ignorant of the Italy around them except—paradoxically—its view, a backdrop appropriated to emblemize an ideal of vibrant, authentic life. Italian natives have only brief, walk-on parts, beautiful as gods but witless. Room struck me, at best, as a farce of manners.
Oh, get over yourselves, I wanted to snap at Forster’s flustered, self-immersed, pampered English biddies and clergymen of a hundred years ago. And I felt puzzled, and sad: I’d lost something. An earlier me had loved Room—or so I dimly recalled.
But I also understood that this little shock of loss will happen more often, after rereading certain classics. And I won’t be able to blame it on prior reading.
It’s because readers grow up. What feels like a revelation at fifteen or even thirty-five may not make the cut later. We grow older; understand the world better and (by consequence) the parochial or myopic quality of young work. Forster got wiser later—and so, thankfully, did we.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.