It must be the mosquitoes!”
All day long, the baronessa has been racking her mind, trying to figure out what went wrong. As she wanders the sprawling grounds of Santa Maddalena, her writers’ retreat in Tuscany—past the rosebushes and the cook’s quarters—she keeps asking herself the same question: What caused young Benjamin to cut his stay short? Benjamin is Benjamin Kunkel, author of the novel Indecision, which the baronessa was informed was the book last season in New York. Some fawned, others were predictably vitriolic—which made Kunkel just the sort of writer the baronessa courts to her compound: happening, benignly controversial, established. Calls were made, a note written, and three weeks ago he arrived, toting an entire suitcase of Beckett and Sam Shepard, set on finishing his first play. “It’s about … flies,” was all he would say, precisely the kind of deliciously cryptic, writerly comment the baronessa relishes.
But now he is leaving—for London. Something involving his father, family friends, a birthday; the baronessa was unconcerned with the details. What was important was that Benjamin was breaking the code that defines the artist-patron relationship: The artist is to be charming until excused. And in the case of Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori—an impatient, charismatic, preternaturally controlling woman—this leave-taking is also intensely personal. Santa Maddalena is her home, converted into a retreat after the death of her husband, the novelist Gregor von Rezzori, in 1998, and the baronessa, a widow with no children of her own, imagines herself both mother and muse to her “fellows.” Michael Cunningham understood this, as did Zadie Smith. Like Kunkel, they were given the compound’s choicest work space, in the Tower: four stories high, with a view of the valley and a Miró above the antique wooden desk. They came, they flourished, they saw through the long string of intimate, on-the-clock lunches and dinners, regaling Beatrice with their wit. They wrote lovely thank-you notes and referenced the baronessa in their acknowledgments. They asked to be invited back. They most certainly did not make an abrupt exit.
What makes Kunkel’s premature departure particularly troubling is the fact that, at 80, the baronessa is determined to spin her creative Utopia into her legacy, a gift to literature not to be taken lightly. She’s wealthy, but she’s not rich; Santa Maddalena has no endowment, and though a university might swoop in, its future is uncertain. And so the idea that one of her progeny might be perfectly happy to get on with other matters in his life has her piqued. There must be some face-saving way to account for his change of plans. Yes—in a Kafkaesque turn, actual bugs have gotten in the way of Kunkel’s metaphoric ones. “Benjamin comes with one red dot, and he says, ‘What is it?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know—the bite of a mosquito!’ He is charming. I like him. Very intelligent. But for a young man like that, he has”—a bemused shake of the head—“a mania.”
In the world of publishing, Beatrice (pronounced in the Italian manner) stands out as one of the last true eccentrics, a relic of a pre–Da Vinci Code age in which personalities rather than focus groups shaped literature. Her selection process is loose and informal, played out over numerous lunches and social events when she comes to New York to stay at her Upper East Side apartment. While in town she consults with a cadre of advisers that includes Jonathan Galassi (editor of Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and Bob Silvers (editor of The New York Review of Books), who offer tips as to who should be among those fortunate enough to be invited to Tuscany. “It is very strange,” says Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli. “Jonathan Galassi said, ‘You’re going to get a call from this woman Beatrice. She’s a baronessa, and you should go.’ ” This year her plan is to arrive in New York a few weeks before Christmas and check in with some of her publishing friends—agent Andrew Wylie, Joan Didion’s editor Shelley Wanger, and “Sonny and Graydon.” And soon the next round of writers will receive their nods.
Apart from Kunkel, the latest group includes the Spanish novelist Marcos Giralt Torrente, whose books have been translated into six languages (none of them English), and the British writer Marina Lewycka, whose debut, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, was up for a Booker. As the bell rings for lunch, all three descend from their respective studios and join the baronessa and her pug, Alice, on the poolside patio. Hostess to a breed not exactly known for their extroversion, Beatrice is fond of turning meals with writers into impromptu seminars on etiquette. “Vendela Vida told me she learned seven new things here each day,” she says of the novelist and editor of The Believer. “When she arrived, she was cutting her spaghetti with a knife!” And of Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan, she explains, “He learned to take a bath here.” (Of his Tuscan transformation, Shteyngart was inspired to write in the guest book, “I came barely knowing the difference between a horse and a cow. I leave a coffee-making, salad-serving Man of Nature.”) And now, as dessert is served, Beatrice turns to Kunkel, who, it appears, is unversed in the consumption of fresh ricotta. “You must use the brown sugar,” she instructs, waving a small silver spoon. “This is the way it is eaten.”