on Windows on the World: 50 Writers, 50 Views, by Matteo Pericoli (Penguin Press)

Now living in Turin, the architect Matteo Pericoli often teaches a university course called “Laboratory of Literary Architecture” for both creative writing and design students. On the course’s web page, he writes, “How many times have we paused while reading a book and had the feeling that we were inside a structure built, knowingly or unknowingly, by the writer? Not simply the ability to picture in our minds the locations or architectural settings described in the text, but rather the sense of being immersed in a space designed by someone else.”

Pericoli.jpgThe habits and sensibilities of writers and other artists have preoccupied him at least since his 1995 arrival in New York from Milan to work for an architectural firm. In 1998, he rolled out a 37-foot long sheet of paper and began to draw the skyline of Manhattan. In 2007, he completed “Skyline of the World,” a 397-foot mural, printed digitally on 99 vinyl sections, installed in the American Airlines terminal at JFK Airport. Perhaps these panoramas yielded to a personal need for more intimate perspectives – because during this period he also produced many pen and ink drawings of views from the windows of some of the city’s personalities, from David Byrne, Nora Ephron and Annie Leibowitz to Tony Kushner, Mario Batali and Wynton Marsalis. These works were collected in The City Out My Window: 63 Views on New York (2009, Simon and Schuster) in which the drawings were accompanied by statements from the window gazers.

PericoliCover.jpgPericoli has now taken the project globally with Windows on the World: 50 Writers, 50 Views. Rootedness and freedom, comfort and anxiety: the writers plant themselves in places that complement or lubricate their imaginations (however obliquely), yet they also turn their backs to the immediate scenery in favor of the empty space to be filled by their next sentence or line. “My desk is away to the left of the window,” wrote Nadine Gordimer for this book just before her death. “At it, I face a blank wall … I don’t believe a fiction writer needs a room with a view. His or her view: the milieu, the atmosphere, the weather of the individuals the writer is bringing to life.”

The pervasiveness of this opinion in Windows on the World would seem to raise the question of why Pericoli would pay any attention at all to the world framed between the desktop and bookshelf. But in fact, this liminal zone of wavering attention and nominal distractions is the true space of his book. T.C. Boyle comes closest to spelling it out:

“What I’m looking at in this view out the window from my desk is a big oak tree just beyond the roofline, and beyond that – oh, maybe three miles off – the high buff ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains … What do I get out of all this? Distraction and a lack of distraction both. I can pause, look up form my work, and see the way the light sits in the trees or observe the woodpeckers and squirrels … I need peace and tranquility. I look out my window here and that’s just what I’ve got. What can I say but Hallelujah!”

EMMA_LARKIN.jpgSome writers claim to take a cue from their window views. Writing from Thailand, Emma Larkin describes a window that “looks out over an incongruous jungle located in the heart of Bangkok. As the rest of the neighborhood is dominated by high-rises and town houses that have sacrificed yards for concrete parking spaces, all remaining wildlife seems to gravitate to our garden … This scene encompasses both the wild and the urban, the known and the unknown. It reminds me that the dividing line between fact and fiction is less clearly defined here in Thailand and that the boundary between the two is porous. In such a place, stories thrive.”

Generally, the writers are keen to describe what they see even as they revert to their works-in-progress. For Pericoli’s reader, the variety of these views becomes the more substantial part of the writers’ brief narratives – even as each one is undercut by the accompanying or implied gesture of disregard. This motion of alternating attention puts the reader in the writer’s chair for the moment. As Karl Ove Knausgaard writes, “I love repetition. I love doing the same thing at the same time and in the same place, day in and day out. I love it because something happens in repetition: Sooner, or later,, the heap of sameness, accumulated through all the identical days, starts to glide. That’s when the writing begins. The view from my window is a constant reminder of this slow and invisible process.”

TC_BOYLE.jpgIn his introduction, Lorin Stein describes Pericoli’s drawn line as “descriptive, meticulous, suspenseful” and adds. “I think Pericoli has drawn the views of writers at least partly because they are seers as opposed to lookers -- because they blind themselves to their surroundings as a matter of practice.”

[Left: T.C. Boyle's window.]

In addition to writers who are familiar to American readers such as Orhan Pamuk, Etgar Keret, Elmore Leonard, and Tim Parks, Pericoli provides an opportunity to catch a glimpse of many others less well known but whose work is available in English -- Xi Chuan, Alaa Al Aswany, Daniel Kehlmann, and many others. A few Americans, Canadians, British, and Australians are included, too – Teju Cole, Edwidge Danticat, Geraldine Brooks, Michelle Huneven, Sheila Heti, Ceridwen Dovey, and more.

Writing from Buenos Aires, Maria Kodama finds tradition in her window view – or rather, a traditionally literary mode of considering her landscape that is echoed by her peers: “I can see the garden of the house where Borges once lived. Here, I can move back and forth between two worlds. Sometimes, following Borges, I wonder which one is real: the world see from the window, bathed in afternoon splendor or sunset’s soft glow, with the house that once belonged to Borges in the distance, or the world of the Library of Babel, with its shelves full of books once touched buy his hands.”

[Published November 18, 2014. 136 ages, $27.95 hardcover]

Re The Garden of Hallelujahs

Dear Ron, I remember seeing some of Pericoli's ink drawings in magazines and I liked them very much. Do non-writers want to know what writers look at when they're writing? It is an interesting project, but I reckon these subjects are rare creatures. (Even so, I suppose there are probably more than a few writers who would want to be chosen.) For me, a nice view (or any view) from a window is like the big arm taking the needle off the record. When considering a poem, I'm looking elsewhere, anywhere really...but 99% facing my innards. When I'm finally writing it, I'm usually just before an immediate cigarette and a coffee and/or a beer. I'm facing nothing but the cage/page. No other audience. When my gaze lifts, I just see a spartan room that is cleaned of whatever is beyond me. When the poetry doesn't sound like nonsense, then I sometimes write sense. Which begs the inspiration question. Which also wonders how much comfort does one need when one is writhing? Thank you for yet another intriguing review. I promise to be quiet now. Rob