John Lanchester

John Lanchester

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 17 2000 9:30 PM

John Lanchester

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For some time now, I've believed in what I call the Theory of Holiday Homeostasis. The key axiom of the theory is that there is no net psychological benefit from a holiday. The reason for this is that the better time you have while you're away the worse you feel when you get back and the post-holiday blahs kick in.

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This weekend was a classic example. We decided to go to Rome for three nights. I have a U.S. book tour coming up and felt like a break. My wife will be looking after our 2-year-old solo for a month while I'm away, so she felt like a break even more. We picked Rome because a) it's great and b) it's only 2 hours by plane and c) the first time I went to Italy it was 1,500 lire to the pound. Today it's 3,200 lire. You notice the difference.

We spent the last night of the trip in a seriously swish hotel about 40 minutes outside town called La Posta Vecchia. I like swanky hotels as much as anybody, but I particularly like them when they have a cultural association so I can delude myself about my reasons for being there. Driving through Switzerland on the way to Italy a few years ago we stayed in the Grand Palace Hotel, Montreux—which is where Vladimir Nabokov lived for 18 years after Lolita earned him what we in the business call Fuck You Money. It was ghastly—ghastly in a grande luxe way, with staff who could effortlessly patronize in any European language—and there wasn't a single memento of Nabokov anywhere I could see; nothing to commemorate the fact that one of the century's greatest writers lived there for nearly two decades. But I was still glad to have stayed at the Grand Palace because Montreux was so boring and the hotel so awful that it made me realize for the first time just how important butterflies were to Nabokov. I had read all about his butterfly passion, but that was what made me understand it for the first time. About a week later I met an Italian publisher who had known him and who expressed shock when Nabokov said that he had never been to Venice. Nabokov simply shrugged and gave what was for him a complete explanation: "No butterflies."

So, anyway, La Posta Vecchia. The cultural association is that J. Paul Getty lived there and filled it with beautiful, extraordinarily carefully chosen artifacts. Even the room keys, even the toilet flush, are works of art. William Gibson's Neuromancer novels describe a process in which the super-rich are gradually ceasing to be human beings; they live in a bubble of total isolation from the rest of the world. Getty's always seemed interesting to me as a precursor of that. Not that he managed to achieve the security he craved: He left La Posta Vecchia in 1975 when his son was kidnapped for ransom and had his ear cut off by the Red Brigades. Getty paid the ransom and never went back to Italy.

Getty had excellent but also creepy taste, because—as you can see from looking round his museum in Malibu—he only seemed to like art that had been made for very rich people. His taste in old French furniture, classical antiquities, and paintings was always for artifacts that had been made for and belonged to the Über-affluent. That's odd. At his villa, now the hotel, he wanted a swimming pool, so they began digging one in the garden. Oops—they found a Roman villa. So they began digging somewhere else. Oops—another villa. Well, shit happens, so they began digging a third one, actually underneath the house itself, specially bracing the foundations. Guess what: another Roman villa. So they turned it into a private museum and converted a wing of the house into the pool. A lovely pool it is too, if a little cold, in a bracing, multi-billionairish way.

Anyway, it's the perfect three-day break. So we get to the airport, and guess what, we've been booked on the wrong flight. We pingpong around three fantastically unhelpful Alitalia people, have a couple of tantrums each, pay extra, and then are told that the flight has closed. So we run to the gate—when things like this happen, it's always the farthest one—have another couple of tantrums and are allowed to get onto the plane. I'm exhausted, gasping for breath, stomach churning, my hair falling out, my gums bleeding; I'm so stressed out it feels like I'm coming down with scurvy.

This is the worst case of Holiday Homeostasis yet. I badly need another holiday—and I'm still strictly speaking on this one. When we get home, I get out of the taxi, reach into my pocket, and take out the room key from La Posta Vecchia.