In Italy by Cynthia Zarin review – essays to bookmark with a train ticket stub

Venice: The American poet Cynthia Zarin was 19 when she first travelled to Venice. The trip was a summer sojourn of sorts with “a boy I thought I might marry”, and the city turned out to be hot and expensive to room in. Zarin and her boyfriend stayed in a grotty boarding house in Padua and took the train to Venice one morning, planning to meet another friend of Zarin’s, who was also making a day trip from Florence. The couple ate veal sandwiches and idled around the steps of the Santa Maria della Salute, but Zarin soon wearied of her boyfriend’s chatter (“I did not want to hear any more about Savonarola”) and ended up arguing with him. Later, the boy was rude to Zarin’s friend from Florence. “To annoy me,” Zarin writes, “because I would not listen…”

In the opening essay of her new collection, In Italy, Zarin recalls this first encounter with Venice halfway through another visit. She is older now, of course, and travelling alone: “Perhaps it is better for me to come to Venice alone; there is no one with whom I have been to Venice that I am now on speaking terms…” Back in New York, Zarin had been seeing a man – “a friend of friends” – already entangled in a complicated relationship with another woman. He refused to accompany her on the trip, but can’t resist love-bombing her with texts every few hours: “It is evening and raining in New York. You are very close.” Oceans away, Zarin attends a book party, makes a pilgrimage to the poet Joseph Brodsky’s grave, wanders into a pavilion or two at the Venice Biennale – but she can’t help witnessing everything in the city with her lover’s eyes.

At their best, these essays retain the tender fluency of love letters written in the throes of a new relationship. In Basilica, Zarin recalls a time she used to hang out every afternoon inside the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, admiring the frescoes, but even there she is conscious of “seeing through your eyes, which in any case had become a habit”. In Rome, the absent paramour is a “ghost”, who stalks her thoughts while she crisscrosses the Tiber looking for traces of the ancient theatre of Pompey, or dips into Henry G Liddell’s A History of Rome in a bar. After a while, Zarin reflects, “the ghost one knows too well is oneself”.

These essays should ideally be bookmarked by a train ticket stub or a boarding pass; and yet one hesitates to think of Zarin’s itinerant impressions as travel pieces. Zarin is propelled not so much by new discoveries as memories of prior visits, how her own life has “veered between impulse and a mania for privacy and restraint”. Sometimes the trips she ends up recalling aren’t her own. In Venice, she harks back to the letters that the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote from Italy a century and a half ago, and also Brodsky, who loved to visit the city during winters and later ended up being buried in the San Michele cemetery. In Rome, she imagines herself as reprising the novelist Elizabeth Bowen’s three-month stay in the city back in 1953. From Rome, Bowen wrote to her lover, “Every day, at all times and places I think of you”. Zarin can discern similarities in her own relationship with the “ghost”, and the city itself comes to seem like “a tablet with an infinite memory”.

Zarin is consistently good at capturing both the vivid detail and the wider frame. Take her assessment of the Venice Biennale, for instance: “It is hopeless to show new art in Venice. Nothing can rival what is there.” Or this, about four guardian angel statues inside the Santa Maria Maggiore: “Each time I went into the chapel on those days, I thought: they will be gone. But there they were, gambolling, whistling.” Zarin writes cheerful sentences, which isn’t to say they feel any less profound. Multiple instances of heartbreak are unfussily catalogued, as though it is impossible for these things to hurt as much when you’re vacationing in Italy. “How many tenses can there be?” Zarin wonders at one point. “The past, perfect and imperfect.” In Rome, she wanders around a park, but later can’t remember if she went in through the right arch and exited through the left, or vice versa. You could say that these pieces induce a comparable sense of being pleasurably lost, of wanting to live imperfectly in the present tense.