The manager of the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees in Stresa on Italy’s Lake Maggiore hands me a photo of Ernest Hemingway. The Nobel laureate is sitting at the hotel bar. He is leaning slightly backwards, clutching his stomach, his eyes are closed. He looks as is if he is about to slide peacefully on to the Persian carpet. Has he just consumed yet another of the “cool and clean martinis” that Frederick Henry, the hero of his novel, “A FAREWELL TO ARMS,” mentions twice in one page as he sits at the same bar?
“Hemingway stayed here many times,” says the manager. “He first came in 1918 and kept coming back right through to the fifties.” He shows me the hotel’s Golden Book of illustrious guests where, along with John Steinbeck, Clark Gable, assorted Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and various maharajahs and kings, (the hotel does have its own heliport) Hemingway has signed himself as “an old client.” He always stayed in room 106 which was, in fact, a suite on the first floor, looking out on Lake Maggiore and the peacocks, statues, topiary and terraces of the dream-like “Isola Bella.”
“You cannot, alas, visit,” says the manager. “It is occupied.” I will later learn that the suite is booked for a long stay by an Arabian princess.
Hemingway’s protagonist, Frederick Henry and his lover, the English nurse, Catherine Barclay arrive at the Grand Hotel just before the book begins it final, tragic climax. The novel opens on the Austro-Italian frontier where American ambulance driver, Henry, is based with the Italian army. The Italy of Hemingway’s novel is a grey land of the north and of war. Mud, mountains, mist and most of all, rain, fill the landscape of A Farewell to Arms.
I first read this novel when I was twelve. The only Italian place name that I recognized in the novel was Milan where the love affair between Frederick Henry and Catherine Barclay is consummated in an empty American hospital after he undergoes major knee surgery. My twelve year old self was too innocent to wonder, as I did at a recent reading, about the logistics of lovemaking within days of such surgery. At twelve I knew nothing of war or Italy or passionate love and yet I devoured this book.
If Milan marks the beginning of the lovers’ happiness, Stresa marks the beginning of the end .
I would glimpse Stresa four years later in 1970 from a train window. It was my first sight of Italy and I felt woozy from what seemed then to be the sultry, sensuous, radiant Mediterranean charm. There was a palm tree (the first I’d ever seen) on the station platform, there were rounded red tiles on the roofs and a royal blue lake dotted with mysterious islands as a back drop.
Hemingway’s hero also travels by train around this region but he is wounded and moving through the greys and browns of the war zone in winter. He tells how he vomits on the train floor but “it did not matter because the man on the other side had been very sick on the floor several times before.”
As his disgust and disillusion with the war increase so does Frederick Henry’s passionate love for Catherine Barclay. When he narrowly escapes a random execution during the chaotic Italian retreat from the front, he joins Catherine in Stresa. But by now he is wanted for desertion. Stresa’s vibrant beauty is marred by the November rain that greets his arrival in the town, and by our awareness that the lovers’ time in this lovely place is fated to be cut short. When the Italian army comes looking for Henry, he and Catherine are rescued by the hotel barman who warns them and helps them to slip out of the hotel and into his boat. He explains the route that they must row to escape to neutral Switzerland at the north end of the lake.
The hotel manager is handing me another photo of Hemingway in a small boat fishing in front of the hotel. No guests go fishing during my stay. The couples who pause for a cappuccino at La Verbanella café on the lake shore or buy an excellent sandwich from Rosaria at the Cambusa delicatessen and wine shop in town are more likely to hire a mountain bike or follow the percorso vita, an obstacle course of gymnastic equipment set at intervals along the lakefront.
“Stresa is one of the few resorts that has grown quieter,” says Rosaria in her excellent English. “There used to be orchestras in all the lake front cafes - now they are too expensive.” The town does seem to be fading gently into its past. Majestic villas stand abandoned behind stern padlocks guarded only by headless statues or winged lions with rusty halos. Buddlea bushes grow out of the rooftops.
Back at the Grand Hotel, music and the modern world reappear in the form of another American, singer Billy Joel who is sitting at the bar ordering tea for his daughter. The Arabian princess wanders by on her way to the gym.