Stresa is like Milan by the sea. Northern melancholy with southern charm. On clear days, you can see from Milan across the plain to the mountains. I didn’t know the Alps were so close to the city. Sitting on the train and seeing that, driving up Lago Maggiore, thinking how beautiful it is, and that there was a war there, and no one goes there anymore, just as Hemingway wrote. In the last village, there was a bar with his name on it. When I read that, the same feelings arise in me as when I see bad weather approaching. I see a sad, broken man, manipulated, trying to put on a happy face and having to have a drink with everyone. New documentaries shed light on his short hair dialogues. Demonstrative masculinity to disguise the fact that in bed he wants to be treated like a woman, at least according to the women who have done it. His mother is to blame, squeezing him into girls’ clothes and calling him Ernestine. I see someone fighting a life to live up to a foreign role and ultimately failing on his own ideals because, at 62, we can’t do things the way we do when we’re young. Hemingway’s story is a sad one.
For writers, it is interesting to look behind the stories of others to find out what underlies them. It’s not about writing well or writing poorly. It’s about writing as well as you can, and if it’s bad, that’s also good, because it says much more about you than if it had been good. Across the River and into the Trees is one example. A Farewell to Arms is another. It’s about a young American who, as a medical officer, is stationed in the mountain war between Austria and Italy. Here he meets a nurse he falls in love with. After a severe injury, he is awarded a medal and sent for a few days to the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees in Stresa on Lake Maggiore, as a reward. Here, Hemingway has his first encounter with nobility and he’s delighted. A secret snob is born. In the book, this is evident in the scene with Conte Emanuele Greppi. The count breaks a few bottles, and they play billiards.
From the bar, you can see the lake. From here, the couple rows to Switzerland one night, fleeing from the war. For a couple in love, it is even more interesting to spend the end of the season and the end of the world in bed and look out over the balcony windows to the mountains. When the sun comes out in Stresa, it bathes everything in the colours of things, just like Hodler paints. The brown leaves, except those of palm trees, the promenade, and the sleepy villas in the shade of pine trees.
Everything is so orderly and punctual that my girlfriend can’t believe this is the same country as Naples. But at 2 PM it’s still ‘Good Morning!’ here. And if you order a plate of tagliatelle and want tomatoes with it, you get the tomato salad, and if you ask for the wine list, you get the wine right away (four bottles), and if you want your croissant warm with your coffee, you get no croissant, no coffee, no museum tickets, even though you reserved them weeks ago, and no swimsuit either. I give up. You can’t describe the Italian way of communicating in a way that makes sense because it doesn’t. It leads nowhere. That’s why we arrive just as complicated as Hemingway. I thought I could navigate Google Maps better, and then the explosion happened. A missed train later and a few wrong transfers, the argument is over. The atmosphere is like the aftermath of an atomic bomb.
With hatred and anger, dragging the luggage to the hotel becomes easier. They give us a room overlooking the lake, which reconciles us. We’ve had many such rooms that overlook lakes and seas. We’ve been taking our love to beautiful places for a long time, so beautiful that we let the beauty be taken away by the expectations of our love. I know the feeling that drives Hemingway too. To have to write well and love well, every day and every night, to reassure yourself that you still have it and that you still are. It’s not enough to do it a hundred times; you have to do it a hundred and one times, free yourself from that specific feeling, from all doubts, from yourself.
In truth, Hemingway never managed to bring his beloved nurse to this hotel. In the book, Miss Barkley and him spend wonderful hours here before rowing away in the dead of night towards Switzerland to escape the war. After the war, he never wanted to come back here. Mussolini had banned his books. His broken heart lies here. Thirty years later he returns. It’s the same hotel where another man comes, four marriages and three children later. On the evening of their arrival, Mary Hemingway writes in her diary: Thirty years ago, Hem dreamed of bringing his girl here, but he couldn’t. According to her record, he didn’t manage it 31 years later, and the sight of the mountains didn’t evoke the same feelings in him. Once you’ve done something, you literary folks like to keep doing it out of routine. Like an argument. He always had a black notebook (true) and always a pack of red Marlboros (not true, sometimes they were gold and not in a soft pack) and always an Old Fashioned in his hand (I don’t drink whiskey at all). You also always write that you know the bartender better than you do. Today, hardly anyone stays in such hotels long enough to turn them into literary routines.
Francesco, the bartender, and I spent two evenings together at the bar. From him, I know that he limps because he fell while picking porcini mushrooms and that he takes 45 minutes by car to get to work. He’s been here for 23 years. Well, not exactly here, the bar was actually in a different place. Now it stands in the middle of the lobby like a bar backdrop, a prop for drinking. It doesn’t have the view of the boat described in the book, and it’s not as calm as it was before a war escape, even two days before the end of the season. You see the pier and the lake, and you see yourself in the mirror, seeing how you sit at the bar called the Hemingway Bar. It’s terrible that it’s called like that and that there’s even a picture of him. The stools are way too low, and you don’t dare to write a letter or anything because you feel like you’re in piano kitsch, like Owen Wilson. Francesco says, come, I’ll show you where the bar used to be. We go into a dark room on the side wing, and he stands at the end of the room behind an imaginary bar, and I sip my imaginary drink. This is the space where Frederic Henry plays billiards and sees the mixer’s boat that takes him away the next day. The room is silent. Francesco stands proudly behind the bar and somewhat sadly. It thunders. Thunderstorms aren’t normal here in November, he says. He’s a dear, taciturn man and wants to get basil for my drink tomorrow. For dinner, he recommends a small place in the centre.
The promenade is long and lit by street lamps. We walk on long paths covered in leaves, with trees on both sides. On the left is the night in the mountains and the lake, deserted and black, on which the moon shines if the clouds allow it and you can see Isola Bella. Lights sparkle on the other shore. They are the same lights that must have been seen a hundred years ago, maybe more. It’s cold and wet. Tomorrow, after the rain, all the mountains will be white, Francesco said. After dinner and the drinks at the hotel, us in bed with the thunderstorm outside, after the long corridors and the wet gravel paths and the deserted black of the lake, and after Hemingway’s stories in the midst of our own story and the mountains behind, you can forget the weight of the heavens. To be, without thinking, to live without dying, to let summer loves go into autumn.
This is an excerpt of the story ‘Milano’ by Konstantin Arnold. Original story written in German.