In the Shadow of the Duomo
I’ve done hundreds of invited public readings from my books over the last twenty years, but the thrill hasn’t worn off. Every reading feels new and I’m always a little keyed up. It’s just like going on-stage, something I still remember from the plays I performed in as a college student. The excitement is tinged with apprehension: what if it doesn’t go over well? But something different happened to me recently in Florence where I was reading from my Gilded Age novel Rosedale in Love. I had a panic attack, my first ever.
I had been invited to an international Edith Wharton conference because my novel retells the story of The House of Mirth from the perspective of its despised Jewish suitor. Where Wharton makes him a stereotype of the vulgar, money-grubbing Jew, I made him three-dimensional, giving him a life, a family, a history, dreams and inspirations.
The day before my reading, I was in a small bright classroom of the college which was hosting the event, listening to an academic paper, when suddenly the walls seemed to close in on me and I felt dizzy. It wasn’t the heat; I knew that in my bones. This was something different. When the paper ended and the applause started, I slipped out and hurriedly got a cab back to my hotel across the Arno.
In the cab, even though I was headed towards the quieter, less crowded part of the city (the Oltrarno), I started hyperventilating. I managed to keep my head enough to speak my travel Italian and get my receipt at the end of the short ride (Ho bisogno di una ricevuto).
Upstairs in my quiet room, I took a bath to calm myself down, and a Valium, which I’d brought because I’d had to leave a very sick dog behind me at home in Michigan, a dog just diagnosed with cancer. He wasn’t in danger of imminent death, but his life expectancy had just been shortened by years, and our family was in a state of shock. When I calmed down, I tried to figure out what was going on, and the answers came quick enough.
Though I’d done readings in London, Glasgow, Paris, Vienna, and in twenty German cities and towns, I’ve never been alone abroad doing a reading. On my tours, I’d either been with my spouse or had a host, sometimes more than one. I’d also never read from my work at an academic conference, which is odd since I’d read at universities and colleges–not to mention book fairs, museums, libraries, synagogues and churches. Luckily the panic didn’t hit right before the reading. It happened twenty-four hours beforehand. I had plenty of time to calm down, sight-see, eat a splendid bistro dinner, sleep well, wake up to the Florentine sunshine the next day and have breakfast on the hotel terrace where one wall was covered in jasmine. The beauty of the city worked on me like a massage, and as I spent the day preparing, I understood my panic even better: the stakes were higher than usual in some ways. I was in effect a second keynote speaker, which definitely made the situation different from a typical reading for me.
More importantly, as a reader, I didn’t have the advantage I’d recently had on tour of reading a passage from a book I’d read many times before. Touring Germany, Canada and the U.S. from 2009 through 2012 to talk about my memoir/travelogue My Germany, I consistently read the Prologue. It was short enough; had a clear beginning, middle and end; and people found it dramatic. Sticking with the same text meant that I knew it very well in English, and could maintain lots of eye contact with my audience (and even improvise a little). Readings are performances, and that one was different every time because I did so many of them and the energy was always different in each venue.
But in Florence I had a brand new play, in effect, and this was my opening night. Even the setting was unique: the tiny Gothic Church of San Jacobo, the oldest venue I’d ever spoken in over the course of twenty years of readings. It was a bit overwhelming to be surrounded by so much history everywhere I turned. I was even trying something new for me: reading the text from my iPad.
So how did it go? About half of the conferees came, which was surprising to me on a lovely evening in Florence. And I’m happy to say that when it was done, one of the conference organizers came up to me and said, “That was perfect.” You can’t ask for more than that, except perhaps a great meal afterward, which is what the conference had arranged a few blocks away at a gorgeous trendy restaurant. I still had another full day in Florence before heading to Rome, and that next day I kept things quiet: visits to two beautiful but nearly-empty churches not far from my hotel, a siesta after lunch, and a dinner two blocks away. I was my own host, making sure that I was comfortable. It was another new role for me abroad. I liked it.
This column originally appeared on Morgen Bailey's Writing Blog.
Books mentioned in this column:
Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of twenty-six years along with a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back. The author of twenty-two books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he's seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew? Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can't identify, and he's done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His latest book Pride and Prejudice: The Jewess and the Gentile is his second e-book original. You can learn more about Lev and his work on his website. Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and the Detroit Free Press where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he's always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Contact Lev.