I read Hisham Matar for the first time in 2019, when a friend suggested that my work would benefit from his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Return. It did. I had begun to trace the disappearance of a family member. Like him, I soon realized that arriving at the end of my search would not necessarily suggest an understanding of the how and why of it. As I began to read A Month in Siena, the book he published in 2019, I suspected that Matar had still been gripped by the mystery of it all – his father’s kidnap by Libyan authorities, imprisonment, and disappearance – and since The Return ended with no definite answers, he had returned to the question in somewhat aslant manner.
Matar had become fascinated with the Sienese school the year his father went missing. His failed search, he noted, left him feeling severely emptied. It is possible to read A Month in Siena as his attempt to return to a fount, one he had carried within himself for twenty-five years. When I consider it the best book of 2019, it is because it prefigures, for me, the consolations that would elude us in the eighteen months that followed. In 2020, no one I knew could afford the luxury of a month in Siena, looking at art made in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, learning Italian, or going over for dinner with a newly befriended family.
Yet, in A Month in Siena the consolations of the Sienese school are not evoked as luxuries. The impulse was irreducibly personal for Matar – he was drawn to the paintings at a moment of inner turmoil, which informed his obsession. The expertise he acquired since then – proffered in the book as close readings of the paintings – is admirable as an ethos for looking at and writing about art in a time of personal crises.
What about an ethos for mitigating loneliness? The arc of the book is telling: it begins with his wife, traveling with him to Siena, and ends with her joining him for a months-long stay in New York. He writes about her with a tenderness bordering on veneration; their time together is described with the intense warmth of people not just in need of each other, but attached to the prospects of maintaining the arrangements that would keep them in need of each other. ‘She was breathing long and calmly but I knew she was awake, looking at the view above, which had probably changed a little as she shifted to make herself more comfortable, or had deepened, as it became more intimate,’ he writes of Diana. ‘I felt grateful for knowing her for so long, for sharing my waking and sleeping hours with her for nearly half of my life, for being loved for myself and able to love her for herself. It’s the sort of gratitude one can never express.’
I loved the evocative descriptions of the paintings he saw in Siena, his meditative parsing of the things he witnessed in a foreign city, his sentences that seemed to me unvarnished and causative like the clear words of a prayer; but what I most loved in the book and assumed to be its subtle thrust was the companionability I sensed between him and Diana. Then I came to this passage, halfway through the book, where he describes his time in a cemetery after spotting a family attending to a grave: ‘I hoped they did not see me, the mourner without a grave, heading to his secret bench that was tucked away but had an open view of the valley, to sit for a few moments and listen to the birds. I knew then that I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and work out how I might continue from here.’ Reading it, I wondered about the distinction between being comforted by the presence of others and finding a succor that is as private as it is inarticulable. From then on when I thought of Matar in Siena I imagined him as he sat on the secret bench in the cemetery and faced the city, stilled by the untroubled view of the landscape.
Even after I completed A Month in Siena, The Return remained my favorite of Matar’s. But what it didn’t convey, in comparison to his Sienese narrative, is the poise that can come from being in stasis. It’s a lesson for the roaring pandemic. His grief is offset by his attraction to paintings made centuries before his trip. In art he finds the language with which to exchange mourning for some measure of equanimity.
Photograph © John Weiss