This new compass ordains a more distinctively abstract form of travel writing, in which Matar takes several further steps in the process of recovering his lost father, considers the defining relationship between a city and the individual self, ponders the respective roles of visitor and guardian in an art gallery and views the paintings themselves in terms of an ambiguous fire which both warms the responsive spirit and menaces it with annihilation. Di Paolo’s “Paradiso”, described in his closing pages, enshrines a potency which matches that of his book. The physical scale of each is small but the wisdom imparted demands that we keep going back for another look.
A Month in Siena bears all the hallmarks of Matar’s writing: it is exquisitely constructed and the use of language is precise and delicately nuanced without pretension. And there is a deceptive simplicity to his endeavour: to look at art. What emerges is an altogether more complex philosophical exploration of death, love, art, relationships and time. Siena is the perfect backdrop to his exploration. Wandering its streets, befriending its citizens and standing before its art, Matar feels that “I was not so much inside the city but an idea, an allegory that was lending itself, like an old and well tailored garment, to my needs.”
This slim, beautifully produced book, which includes illustrations of the key paintings, sparkles with brilliant observations on art and architecture, friendship and loss. Matar’s prose is exquisitely measured and precise – not unlike one of the paintings from the Sienese school that he has admired for so many years.
Fifteen short chapters of this slender memoir take us from Duccio, to Siena the city, to Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s allegories of good and bad government, to Caravaggio and Poussin, to a chance meeting with a Jordanian, a walk in a cemetery, the Black Death and back to Lorenzetti and his ‘Madonna del latte’. These external stimuli give rise to a fluid series of meditations on big questions of life, on love, faith, time and on the nature and purpose of art, the influence of architecture and, most important of all to this author, grief, mourning and memory... After the hope beyond hope of The Return, that somehow his father might still be alive, this is a sobering moment, and would have been a dark finish to this little, essentially life-affirming, book. So how splendid that its conclusion whisks the reader away from Siena, though not away from the Sienese School, to Giovanni di Paolo’s ‘Paradise’ in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This paradise is the paradise of reunion, and in this painting, at last perhaps, Matar has found a new way to think about his great loss.
Matar is a master of pellucid statement that seems simple yet is exactly right. He describes the city beautifully, saying of Il Campo, for example: “To cross it is to take part in a centuries-old choreography, one meant to remind all solitary beings that it was neither good nor possible to exist entirely alone.” He is ever sensitive to space... This is an exquisite, deeply affecting book, one in which an experience of dislocation and loss is conveyed in prose that flows so clearly and gracefully it finds continuities and connections all the time. It is also, although Proust is not among the many artists directly cited here, profoundly Proust-ian, many sentences actually adopting his syntax, becoming themselves acts of comprehension and recovery.