• Peter Byrne

Expats, Homebodies & Rolling Stones

Aggiornamento: 29 apr



“It’s never too late to find a new home”, croaks the Country Music cowboy. And it’s true not only on the Mexican border but all over North America which deep-down belongs to immigrants. Brits will sigh along with “There’ll Always be an England”, but an imperial past inclines them not to regret being half a world away from the beloved drizzle and fog. People with continental Europe underfoot seem more planted in their native soil. Don’t ask the ‘meridione’-born about second homes. For him, there’s only one to a customer. “O bella Napoli o sol beato, ove sorridere, volle il Creato, Tu sei l’impero”, and on to sunset.


All of which raises questions about expatriation. Is someone an expat who lives in a trailer—a mobile home in salesman’s lingo—when he drives to and fro over national borders? Or does he have to park in one place for a set number of years to qualify? Alas, officious rules about the length of residence won’t help. They ignore the degree and kind of integration. Certainly, we can’t demand that the foreign subject be tied to an Italian partner. Must he have been gainfully employed in Italy? To have participated in civic affairs? Be proficient in the language? Paid parking tickets? Best cavalierly to pass over refugees and economic immigrants. They would complicate and darken the question. In fact, it’s not an important question unless you are one to lose yourself in trivia and ask things like who is the best expatriate writer of English. Someone pipes up a name and then the pros and cons tumble out.


Take David Herbert Lawrence. He was without a doubt one of the great writers of English in the Twentieth Century. But can we call him an expatriate in Italy or was he simply a rolling stone? He did breathe the air of the peninsula and islands on and off for seven years. He and his companion, Freida, first came to Italy in 1912. A year later they were back in England where WWI kept them until 1919 when they returned to Italy until 1922. After much travel elsewhere they came again to Italy in 1925 and stayed till 1929.


DHL’s life on the road had begun in Nottinghamshire in1885. Son of a miner, he was too frail to follow his father underground. A determined mother steered him toward things of the mind. A teacher at twenty-seven, he sought work abroad. In search of help, he had dinner at the Nottingham home of Ernest Weekley, a professor of German. DHL came away with sage advice and Weekley’s wife. She was Frieda Von Richthofen, mother of three. It had been love in exchanged sightings between the hors d’oeuvre and the Irish coffee. It was the French-farce start of a career that would see a solemn DHL play the role of the high priest of sex for several generations. The end would be an Italian black comedy, but there were miles and continents to cover first.


The new couple went to Bavaria but soon set out to walk through Austria and into Italy where they settled on Lake Garda. It was September 1912. After some months and a visit to England, they set up home in a fishing village near Lerici. DHL began to write ‘Twilight in Italy’, one of his three books about the country. It was also the beginning of reshaping himself on the backs of Italians. His picture of them solemnly continued the farce and makes us wonder if a visiting intellectual shouldn’t be excluded from expat status if he gets the locals all wrong:


“My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. That is why I like to live in Italy. The people are so unconscious. They only feel and want: they don’t know. We know too much”.


By the summer of 1914, the fly-abouts were back in England, married and trapped by WWI. The young author was still poor though he had published three novels including the great ‘Sons and Lovers’ that revealed the downside of his mother’s determination. DHL’s pacifism and Freida’s German origin made for trouble with the British authorities and the couple couldn’t leave Britain until November 1919. They went to Florence, Rome, Sorrento, and Capri where they stayed two months. Capri had been a hotbed of expatriation of the moneyed and decadent where foreigners played at neopaganism while producing an occasional memorable book. But DHL, his mother’s boy, didn’t take sex lightly. It was a religion—something respectable for post-Victorians. Capri’s teasing in togas undermined his idealism and he couldn’t stick it:


“A gossipy, villa-stricken, two-humped chunk of limestone, a microcosm that does heaven much credit, but mankind none at all”.


In February 1920 the couple was touring Sicily. They remained for two years in a farmhouse in Fontana Vecchia, Taormina, where DHL wrote tirelessly. His admiration for Giovanni Verga would lead him to translate some of the great Sicilian’s work. The translations are less concerned with exactitude than with using Verga as a contrast to himself. A short trip to Sardinia yielded ‘Sea and Sardinia’, travel writing of rough beauty that continued to see local inhabitants in a mythical light. Magazine publication resulted in an invitation to Taos, New Mexico. The couple left Taormina in February 1922 and in six months were in an adobe house on the ranch of the voracious culture-vulture and socialite Mable Dodge Sterne Luhan.


In exchange for the manuscript of ‘Sons and Lovers’, Luhan gave Frieda ownership of Kiowa Ranch, twenty miles from Taos at 7000 feet of altitude. It became the couple’s base during a period of anxious travel. DHL continued to sniff about after the “unconscious…the blood, the flesh” that he first thought he had caught a whiff of by Lake Garda. The couple visited Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Australia with DHL’s imagination mugging indigenous people and anyone who was unlike the Nottinghamshire neighbors of his youth. He even had a crack at New Englanders in “Studies in Classic American Literature’. He discovered in Herman Melville’s psyche “the deepest blood-being of the white race”.


Sexual politics came to a boil in Taos. Wife Frieda, Mabel Luhan, and Dorothy Brett, an English aristocrat, all wanted a part of their beloved Lorenzo. The pressure and his failing health drove him and Frieda back to Europe and in 1925 they settled again in Italy, this time at Spoturno on the coast near Genoa. Their landlord was Captain Angelo Ravagli, a Bersaglieri lieutenant of the bicycle brigade. In no time the Captain, thirty-four and father of three, was engaged in a wild love affair with Frieda, a robust forty-six. DHL, sidelined now with impotence, gave his attention to finishing ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Not surprisingly, he and Frieda soon changed their residence, moving to Florence. The Chatterley novel was too daring for commercial publishers, but a bookseller in the Lungarno Corsini brought out a private edition of a thousand copies. It was a quiet landmark of literary history.


In 1927 an ailing DHL visited the sites that would figure in his third Italian book, the impressive make-believe, ‘Sketches of Etruscan Places’, published posthumously in 1932. The fact that little was known of the Etruscans enabled DHL to enroll them along with the “unconscious” Italians and other aboriginals whose blood did their thinking for them.


By October 1929, DHL, very sick, sought warmth and medical care at Bandol in the south of France. It was his farewell to Italy, but not Frieda’s who would be back, a more durable expat than her husband. On March 2, 1930, DHL, forty-five, died at Vence where he was buried. Italy, however, would have the last word in its dialogue with him. It would be uttered by the indestructible Captain Angelo Ravalgli.


Reading in the Corriere della Sera of DHL’s death, Ravagli telegraphed condolences to the widow and invited her to Spotorno. She came quickly, their affair reignited and they departed for Taos and Kiowa Ranch in May 1931. In November they returned to Europe where the last act in great men’s life was being played out, the fight over money.


Frieda won the duel with DHL’s family over who got the estate of her husband. She returned to Kiowa Ranch with her intrepid swain, and they replaced the rickety cabin with a solid dwelling. In 1934 they learned that DHL’s tomb in France needed repairs. It bore a monument of appropriate grandeur with a phoenix, the symbol he claimed for himself, set in mosaic. Freida, never one for half measures, set Ravagli to building a memorial chapel with Spanish touches on Kiowa Ranch. She would take DHL’s cremated remains there to maintain their international threesome. Ravagli took charge of the footwork. He oversaw the exhumation at Vence and the cremation at Marseilles. Then he boarded ship for New York with an urn full of ashes.


Later Ravagli waxed poetic over the trip:


“Days and days traveling, I would hug the urn to me and address it: You see, old fellow, you never can tell; we are making a long journey together, death, at last, having made us friends, for death too is a lover we share”.


“Giorni e giorni di viaggio, mi capitava di stringere l'urna e di parlarle: lo vedi, amico mio, non si può mai dire, stiamo facendo di nuovo un lungo tragitto insieme, la morte ci ha reso finalmente amici, anche la morte è un' amante che ci dividiamo insieme”.


The cuckold was in no position to answer back that there was a difference between the quick and the dead.


Customs officers in New York were suspicious of Ravagli and his urn. It could have been stuffed with copies of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. However, the prestigious Alfred Stieglitz, photographer and aesthete, came to the rescue. Ravagli entrained with his precious cargo for New Mexico. An exultant crowd met him at the station of Lamy. Among the hurrahs, the urn was forgotten on the station platform and the party had to return to fetch it. Another problem arose at the new memorial chapel.


Unlike Macbeth’s witches, dear Lorenzo’s three lady friends could not agree on policy. Frieda was for burying the ashes in the chapel, period. Mable Luhan felt that would remove them from what was no longer her property. She reluctantly backed Lady Dorothy Brett’s noble insistence that the ashes belonged to the universe, not to DHL’s two-timing wife. The wind should take them where it wist after a takeoff from the Luhan Arts Center.


But Frieda had the strongest grip and saw to it that the ashes were mixed in concrete meant to strengthen the altar of the chapel. It recalled the practice of the era’s gangsters who often disposed of a victim by a so-called ‘Chicago overcoat’. However, there are doubts that DHL ended as an altarpiece. After Frieda’d death, Ravagli, deep in his cups at Kiowa Ranch, insisted that he had dumped the ashes at Villefranche before boarding ship for New York. On arrival, he scratched up some Manhattan cinders to fill the beautiful vase Frieda had sent.


DHL’s was, of course, a story that sprouted different versions. Several greybeards in Italy, for instance, claimed that they were the model of the amorous Chatterley gardener. There was also a would-be poet who claimed he swallowed the DHL’s ashes to nourish his poetry. Ravagli became a folk hero for some, the undistinguished Bersaglieri hailed as “L’amante più famoso e misterioso del secolo”.


Ravagli obtained a U.S. divorce (invalid in Italy) from Serafina, his Italian wife and married Frieda in 1950. In 1955, she deeded her Taos property to the University of New Mexico to be a cultural center named the ‘D.H.Lawrence Ranch’. Frieda died in 1956 at seventy-seven and is buried in the shadow of the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. Ravagli, left alone at the ranch, decided in 1959 to return to Italy—no expat he, but a very conscious Italian who knew what he wanted. He was a wealthy man from DHL’s royalties, which increased enormously when in 1960 U.S court lifted the ban on ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’. (Commercial, expurgated versions had appeared since 1932.) Crime may not pay but adultery can. Serafina was glad to have him back and, nestled in family, they lived a story-book old age. She died at Spotorno in 1973 and he, a homebody after all, in 1976.

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