Lawrence of Sardinia
“I don’t care for islands,” D. H. Lawrence once wrote, an attitude I happen to share, though my wife doesn’t, which is how we found ourselves in Sardinia last spring.
Whether Lawrence himself actually shared it isn’t clear. At the time (1921) he was living on one island (Sicily), in exile from another (England), and about to embark upon an improvised midwinter trip to a third (Sardinia), which — though he did not much care for travel either — would yield one of his strangest, most original books, “Sea and Sardinia,” with its jittery and bewitching opening: “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.”
For Lawrence, life was always a drama in media res. He was too impatient to ponder his own motives, too enthralled by movement to wonder if it was toward or from. Wherever he went, he expected, as most of us do, way too much. In his Italian books he sifts through the ashes of postwar Europe, in search of some still-glowing, inextinguishable ember: pre-modern, pre-Roman, maybe pre-human. If the resulting portrait looks less like Sardinia than that other marooned, thorny island, Lawrence himself, this is no surprise. His time there was short. He took no notes (“I am not Baedeker,” he grumbled). He was always lurching ahead to seize some raw, inhospitable truth one either grasps quickly or not at all. “The judgment may be all wrong,” he concedes, “but this was the impression I got.”
Sardinia has a long history of being subject to impressions. The Greeks called it “Ichnusa,” or “footprint” — when Zeus created the earth, he gathered the leftover pieces, threw them into the sea, and stepped down hard: voilà, Sardinia. Intruders have been leaving their footprints ever since: Phoenicians, Romans, Pisans, Catalans, billionaire yachtsmen, crabby and indolent writers. And yet somehow it has retained its thorny, intransigent particularity — “lost between Europe and Africa, and belonging to nowhere,” as Lawrence put it. It’s that very betweenness, at once central and marginal to history, that drew him.
It drew us, too. We came to follow Lawrence’s ink-trail around the island: from Cagliari in the south, through the Gennargentu Mountains, and up to Terranova (now Olbia) on the northeast coast. It is a scrubby, serpentine route, full of breathless switchbacks. But then the same holds true for Lawrence on the page: You’re always veering giddily from fleeting exaltations (the joy of motion, the wildness of the landscape, the generosity of a peasant) to tedious exasperations (almost everything else). Luckily he had his wife along, the formidable Frieda (he refers to her as “the Q.B.,” for queen bee), whose shrewd affirmations provided a foil for his grumbling discontents.
My own wife is a formidable and affirmative type, too. Like the Q.B., she doesn’t just admire Sardinia; she savors it. Immediately upon landing in Cagliari she fell in love with it all — the gleaming porticos of the Via Roma, the palm-lined walkways, the stately Pisan towers hovering like sentinels over the rooftops.
Though Lawrence found the city “all bibs and bobs ... rather bare, rather stark,” we were with Frieda. There is an unfussy, lived-in quality to the place, an air of convivial endurance. True, much of the city was leveled by Allied bombs, and it has not exactly been lovingly restored. True, the government is inefficient at best. But Cagliari has been here 3,000 years; it’s not going anywhere.
In the evenings we wandered the Castello, the historic district, with its neo-Classical piazza, the Bastione di Saint Remy, from which you can see the whole bay — the boats, the salt flats dotted with flamingos, and the long, lunar-looking Poetto Beach beyond. Couples strolled down Via Manno, kissed on benches under palms. “They pour themselves one over the other,” Lawrence sniffed of the Italians, “like so much melted butter over parsnips.”
After a few days, there being “little to see” in Cagliari, the Lawrences moved north to Mandas on the interior railway, the Trenino Verde, a toylike affair that “pelts up hill and down dale ... like a panting, small dog.” Alas, that train no longer operates in the off-season, so we rented a car, a betrayal of Lawrentian values — namely hunger, bad light, and sharing space with people who annoy you. On the good side, the drive takes only an hour, with luminous views of the Trexenta hills, full of olive trees and tall, droopy-barked eucalyptus.
Mandas is a stony little place, with one treeless main street. When Frieda asked what one does in Mandas, the locals told her, “Niente! At Mandas one does nothing. At Mandas one goes to bed when it’s dark, like a chicken. At Mandas one walks down the road like a pig that is going nowhere. At Mandas ...”
In truth there are some things to do in Mandas, according to Agostino Porcedda, the congenial fellow who runs the Antica Locanda Lunetta. The place has been in his family since Lawrence’s day — the “quite pleasant woman” who fed the Lawrences was Agostino’s grandmother. He proudly showed us her picture, along with a brochure for the Festival D. H. Lawrence, which takes place every August. He directed us to an excellent agriturismo where, unlike the Lawrences — who in the impoverished Sardinia of their day couldn’t find anything but cabbage soup and hard bread — we ate and drank like Vikings: prosciutto, pecorinos, mutton, culurgiones (potato-and-mint-filled dumplings) and seadas, enormous dessert raviolis drenched in miele amaro, bitter honey made from arbutus flowers. Then we collapsed back at the locanda, happy to be collapsing in the same place the Lawrences collapsed.
Except it turns out the Lawrences collapsed in another building entirely, next to the station. Agostino directed us there in the morning. It looked remarkably unchanged; also deserted. There was a David Herbert Lawrence plaque on the street. Inside the tiny station were two more. It seemed a lot of plaques for a guy who spent one night there, but we dutifully took photos of them all.
On the road to Sorgono we stopped off at Su Nuraxi, the vast Bronze Age complex excavated in the 1950s. Nuraghic culture, endemic to Sardinia, dates back 4,000 years; its hive-shaped stone towers, thousands of them, still lie scattered around the island. Of these, Su Nuraxi is the largest. A fractal web of houses, atriums, mills and canals, it is the most advanced, most hauntingly mysterious site of its time. Which is to say it’s exactly what Lawrence was looking for: a place to “smash our mechanical oneness into smithereens.”
What he found instead was ... Sorgono. (“Blessed is he that expecteth nothing,” he wrote of Sorgono, “for he shall not be disappointed.”) Everything about the twisting, snakelike ascent through the Gennargentu (Barbarie, the Romans dubbed it, after multiple failures to subdue its inhabitants) seems otherworldly: the scrubby oaks, the cork trees, the sullen gong of sheep bells echoing down the slopes. But then you arrive in Sorgono, and what do you find? More niente. “A dreary hole!” Lawrence muttered. “A cold, hopeless, lifeless, Saturday afternoon-weary village.” The food was bad. The bedsheets were stained. People cheerfully relieved themselves on the street. “Why are you so indignant?” the Q.B. asked. “It’s all life.”
Frankly, I had indignations of my own in Sorgono. We, too, arrived on a Saturday afternoon. There was nowhere to eat and nothing to do, other than lounge by the lifeless station, reading Lawrence’s catalog of complaints. But then I looked up to find the very “pink-washed building” with the very same name (Risveglio) as the horrible inn in the book. “It can’t be the same one,” I said. “There’s no plaque.”
“Of course it’s the same,” my wife said. “Let’s go in.”
Six brawny young men with faux-hawks hung out in the doorway, drinking Ichnusa beers, and observing us in a desultory way. “Let’s not,” I said.
My wife marched right in. All six guys filed in behind her, like a spaghetti western, many of which were filmed close by. Inside, the pallid bartender was polishing glasses. I slapped a euro on the bar and ordered two macchiatos. Then in my grunting Italian I asked if this might be the same Risveglio from D. H. Lawrence’s day.
For a moment everyone just looked hostile. Then they all started talking at once. The bartender said his grandmother owned the place then. Another guy said no, that was a different owner. The bartender demurred. A guy named Salvatore took over translation duties, fielding comments from the others, who all seemed to be cousins. It was our own Festival D. H. Lawrence. To settle the matter I pulled out my copy of the book; then the bartender pulled out hiscopy, and laid it over mine like a trump. Everyone laughed and bought us drinks. We were ready to move to Sorgono ourselves. It’s all life, as the Q.B. said.
We continued then, in better spirits, up the road to Nuoro, winding through the mountains, past Gavoi and Tonara, the “sun-sweetened” villages that Lawrence so admired. The trees were dwarfish and tough. The shops were full of knives. This was banditi country. True, the banditi are said to have retired, but then why were the road signs riddled with bullet holes? “Only the Italian words,” my wife pointed out. “The Sardo’s untouched.”
Nuoro, however, looked placid and tame. Nuoro was home to the Nobel laureate Grazia Deledda, whose novels Lawrence so admired, but her modest birthplace was closed. We walked around aimlessly, seeing the place through his eyes, but of course through Lawrence’s eyes “there’s nothing to see.” This is no longer quite true — there are two good museums in town — but by now it had taken on the sound of a mantra. “Sights are an irritating bore,” he wrote. “Happy is the town that has nothing to show.”
The rest of the journey, in that and every other sense, proved happy indeed for Lawrence, and for us too. Because there was little to see in most of these towns. In Sardinia, you might say, the towns themselves are not the point. So what is, then?
Maybe it’s the calm that descends, on the coast road to Olbia, at the first sight of Tavolara, a massive lump of rock looming above the shoreline, draped in a cloud all its own. Like Su Nuraxi, it seems a remnant of some older, less user-friendly world. This is my description, by the way, not Lawrence’s, though at this point they may have begun to blur. Why shouldn’t they? Lawrence too brought books along with him, which colored not just what but how he saw. The more we open ourselves to the new, the more of the old floods in with it.
Perhaps that’s why, by the end of our trip, we were feeling even more moved by and protective toward Lawrence’s Sardinia than we were relieved to be free of its hammering intensities. Why, after all, did he come here? “A heart yearning for something I have known, and which I want back again.” Possibly, in the end, for all the appeal of “unknown lands,” what drew him here was not so unknown. It’s there to be glimpsed in the fields around Mandas, like “the bleak parts of Cornwall”; the “English countryside” near Gavoi; the “wide, almost Celtic landscape of hills” north of Cagliari. Despite his wanderings in exile, Lawrence, like most of us, never entirely left home.
And meanwhile stony old Sardinia remains unconquerably apart. The judgment may be wrong, but like the man said, that was the impression I got.