A Time in Rome

In Rome a few days ago, I went, as I almost always do, to the Protestant Cemetery. It is one of my favorite walks, starting with getting lost in the streets around the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere which all lead you away from the church, thinking of how Anthony Burgess lived in the square opposite the church, dodging the traffic to get to the other side of the Tiber and each time wondering if there isn’t a safer way of getting there. Once across you pass two small temples, one round, one rectangular, that look as if they have washed up from somewhere else, and the queue of Japanese schoolgirls waiting to stick their hands into the Bocca della Verità (not so many of them this year), and then finally, on the left, is the steep alleyway up the Aventine Hill: one hairpin bend halfway up and then, panting, you emerge beside the Garden of the Oranges.

            This was, I read somewhere, Elizabeth Bowen’s favorite place in Rome: a garden filled with pine trees, umbrella pines blocking the sky, casting shade very welcome in the summer, and orange trees. There is also a fountain for drinking water, some benches with backs and some without (very uncomfortable) and a constant stream of people walking through the garden to look at the panoramic view of Rome from the terrace at the end. Sometimes there is someone playing music, in the winter by the entrance a man sells roasted chestnuts, there are a few small children but no swings or anything to play on; it is a strange kind of garden, an antichamber to the view: people queue up to see it and then walk away again. But you can also sit still and imagine Elizabeth Bowen on the next bench and – in my case – feel ashamed that, although I admire her immensely, of all the books about Rome that I know I like hers the least.

            Past the Garden of the Oranges is the church of Santa Sabina, “this splendid building”, as Georgina Masson calls it in her Companion Guide to Rome, a church for those who have seen enough Baroque, all straight lines and matching columns, quiet and peaceful. There is a school here, parents wait outside, and further on the place where people stand in yet another queue to look at the dome of St Peter’s through a keyhole. I took the road down the hill, which in April was lined with almost excessive amounts of wisteria, every house was draped in it; the air was still and the scent was everywhere.

            I had a mission at the cemetery, a grave I wanted to visit. Visiting graves was a favorite occupation of Rudy’s; I have photos of him standing beside writers’ graves – Brodsky, Topor, Raymond Roussel, even one of him with clenched fist beside Karl Marx – and I do it myself too. But this one was rather more obscure, with a connection to D.H. Lawrence (I did, on a very hot day, search the whole cemetery of Vence to find the small plaque marking the place where he was temporarily buried, and found it too); it was the grave of the mother of Maurice Magnus, the man about whom Lawrence wrote an extraordinary memoir, which was, “his critics agree, the best single piece of writing as writing that he had ever done” (Frances Wilson, in Burning Man: The Ascent of D.H. Lawrence).

            Maurice Magnus was a friend of Norman Douglas’s, who turned up from time to time, borrowed money from Lawrence, who hardly ever had any himself, and didn’t pay it back; Lawrence put him in several books, and he made Lawrence, according to Frieda, “deeply disturbed”. All the details are in the memoir, where Lawrence tries to understand why he treated Magnus as he did, and how he felt he owed it to him to write it. At the end Lawrence mentions that Maurice Magnus’s mother claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm I: “She lies buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where she died in 1912, with the words Filia Regis on her tomb.”

I had just read the memoir and was going to Rome, it was impossible not to visit her grave. I found it, and saw that the words are there, and her name, Hedwigis Rosamunda Liebetrau Magnus. I cleared away a few twigs, took a photo, and thought how strange it was

to be standing at the grave of the mother of someone who is practically a fictional character: what was I doing there? It was not to see if the grave really existed, I trusted Lawrence on that; but now that I am home again, rereading parts of the memoir, I think it was simply a tribute to the power of Lawrence’s writing. As good a reason to do anything, really.

The “Memoir of Maurice Magnus”, long out of print, is included in The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays, edited by Geoff Dyer, New York Review Books, 2019.

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