Jessie Chaffee's An Oasis, An Abyss: Florence in Ecstasy
Florence in Ecstasy
(The Unnamed Press, 2017)
Florence in Ecstasy is about more than the search for self. It can’t be pigeon-holed into that tradition, any more than it can be considered an extension of literary inventions of Florence. It isn’t a novel that has tried to write, or has deliberately written, Florence. While it’s clear that the author has kept her studied eye upon the details that make Florence what it is, both at its intoxicating veneer and well beneath it into the disturbing harder edges of its culture, the city lives through the character, Hannah. I suppose you could say that it re-imagines how to write the American abroad.
But is that to do justice to Hannah?
Hannah is someone who would have struggled anywhere. And the American abroad is simplified—“Hannah of Boston”—whereas Hannah’s experience is labrynthine. Perhaps it’s perverse of me to think this, but the entire novel could have taken place in her apartment—and it would have been as riveting, claustrophobic, and mysterious. It’s written in first-person and present tense, yet the distortions of Hannah’s perceptions play a strange game with time, a game over which Chaffee has such authorial control that Hannah’s unraveling feels unpredictable to the reader (and, at least to this reader, a literary relief of sorts, due to the tension that builds). We’re reminded that it’s difficult to be alive. The most basic actions of a life—to eat, to consume, to sustain our bodies—become horrendously complicated, and even if you’ve never had an eating disorder, you’ll be immersed in its seductive logic. I don’t claim to fully understand its logic—I know just enough to say that it isn’t articulable.
Which brings us to the limitations of language—and I will claim that this is the heart of the novel—a wrestling with language, not purely the psychologized self, not women’s bodies, not young Americans loitering abroad, though it is all of that, in beautifully written spades, too.
Florence is there to make the pain vividly reflect off the page. Anyone who’s seen a Florentine cookbook will know how exquisite the food is, and surely it is easy to understand why people travel there solely with the purpose in mind to fall in love with the cuisine—pork, pecorino cheese, schiacciata, heavy, hand-rolled pasta, thick sauces with wild boar folded in—all manner of refined and rustic food with a history dating back to the Medicis.
It’s more than complicating to pose Florentine cuisine as the atmospheric backdrop for a character with an eating disorder—it’s torturous. I mean that quite literally—for Hannah, chewing into the thick cords of an oyster feels like torture. The local ingredients of Florentine cuisine are intensely aesthetic, but they show up disfigured through Hannah’s rituals. How much easier would it have been to write a novel with a narrator that indulges in Florence on every level—the art, the food, the men?
I’m so happy to have read a novel that doesn’t take the easy route and rewards us with rich language that makes us long to read it again to uncover further subtleties, as we do when we revisit a familiar, haunting work of art. Hannah, who has previously worked at an art museum in Boston, has a great deal of language at her disposal when she describes art, as when looking upon Giovanna degli Albizzi’s portrait:
She is in profile, her hair coiled along the back of her head, curls framing her face, her neck long and pale. But it’s her gown that sets her apart – doves and sunbursts swirling over a gold background, a brooch at her bust picking up the magenta of her cape.… I’m intrigued, but I still go back to the beautiful stone face of Giovanna, drawn in by the promise that seems to find its home in beauty (67).
Hannah’s language for the beauty of the place keeps us dreaming on, page to page.
Where Hannah’s language begins to drown and choke us is with the language of addiction. On the most basic level, Hannah struggles to assert herself with consistency. This is a problem of the language of refusal, often a difficulty for young women who are blessed and cursed with introverted sensitivities combined with contrarian toughness of the spirit. However, the limitations of language reach further—can she explain the volatility within her to the people closest to her? Her sister back home, her lover, her new boss?
The language of the saints provides a hypnotic cadence and an intricate philosophy of euphoric self-erasure in which Hannah can take shelter. She uses the language of the saints to find her old friend—an addictive relationship, anorexia and bulimia, purging, obsessive counting and documenting of her daily intake of food, and yes, this is her dearest friend who has been present with her from the beginning. Is there a wickedly coarse irony in Hannah battling her demons by researching the saints? No—it’s sincere, and the novel is better for it.
The answer to the problem of language is, as the novel suggests, compassion. Luca, Hannah’s lover, understands her war-torn body. He unlocks Florence for Hannah, though she is adept at exploring both its “green oases of cypresses” and negative space. She is able to tell him, towards the very end of the novel, in plain terms, that she hasn’t been able to eat for a while. Though her attempt at articulating her condition isn’t complete, it is more accurate and detailed than ever, and she courageously continues because she is with someone who doesn’t require her to hide and to lie. A language reserved for the interiority of a serious self-destructive condition is, then, a language that can be coaxed away from its corrosive edge in the presence of authentic love. It’s certainly a hypothesis worth fighting for.