My whole life, I’ve loved to read. And I have a special affection for the books I read as a child. One of my very favorite authors is the brilliant E. L. Konigsburg, who wrote books that I’ve read dozens of times, such as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Amazon, Bookshop) and My Father’s Daughter and (George) (Amazon, Bookshop).
One thing I admire about her work is that even though her novels are for children, she includes complex, transcendent themes—themes that don’t often appear in works for children. She also often uses surprising, imaginative structure or perspectives.
Her work has had a very great influence on me, over the course of my life. It put ideas into my head much earlier, I think, than they otherwise would’ve arisen there.
One of my favorite Konigsburg novels is The Second Mrs. Giaconda (Amazon, Bookshop), which is told from the perspective of Salai, a young servant of the great artist Leonardo da Vinci. It’s about his life, and it’s also about the nature of art, and inspiration, and love, and the politics of a royal court, and much more.
I was thinking about this novel the other day, as I was recalling the description of one of its main characters, the Duchess, Beatrice d’Este, who was one of the most important people of her time and place, in fifteenth-century Italy.
The central character, Salai, makes this observation:
Because Leonardo visited Beatrice, others soon followed. They came because of the master; they stayed because of the duchess. Evenings in her chambers were filled with poetry being read and songs being sung and music played. All of that was in the air plus one other ingredient that Salai knew was magic.
Salai was convinced that Beatrice was a magician. He noticed that four people in a room could sit in each other’s presence and stifle yawns but that the same four people plus Beatrice suddenly had a great deal to say to each other.
As a writer, my great subject is the mystery of human nature. How do we know ourselves, how do we change if we want to change, what makes us the way we are, what are the different gifts and limitations that each of us carries? How are we shaped by circumstance, and accident, and the fateful tendencies we each bring into world?
I probably read The Second Mrs. Giaconda for the first time when I was ten or eleven years old. Since then, countless times, I’ve reflected on the mysteries of character.
What was the magic of Beatrice d’Este? What was the aspect of her character that changed the atmosphere of a room full of people? I’ve thought about her example, as something to aspire to. I’ve looked for that quality in people I’ve met, and I’ve tried to understand how they do it. It’s an aspect of character that I admire very much.
Is there a book you’ve read—as a child or as an adult—that has made a deep, lasting impression on you?