Although we’re now comfortably into March I’m still continuing to catch up with reviews of indie books I read during February, and today’s post is about one which was a particularly fascinating and resonant read for me. The book is “The Traces: An Essay” by Mairead Small Staid, published by Deep Vellum, an indie out of Dallas, Texas, under their A Strange Object imprint; and it’s a multi-layered and profound work which certainly got me thinking.

Staid hails from Massachusetts and has published widely in magazines; she’s also, as parts of the book revealed, worked in a University library, for which I envy her, and in her acknowledgements at the back of the book mentions that she has spent much of her time working in independent bookshops and public libraries. I have to be honest and say that what initially attracted me to the book was the fact that much of Staid’s narrative is inspired and informed by her reading of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, a book I’ve read and loved, but which I’m sure deserves a re-read! “Traces” focuses on a season Staid spent studying in Florence, and travelling around the capitals of Europe, when she was 20. And as she explores that past, she meditates on the process of memory, on the person she was then and who she is now, and on how much of what we remember is accurate.

We grow used to seeing ourselves in certain places, doing certain things, acting in a certain way. Our episodic memories accumulate, forming semantic ones: I did, I did, I did, therefore I am. We define ourselves by repetition, our persons – our personalities – formed like a portrait, brush stroke upon brush stroke slowly taking the shape of a cheek or a hand. We are creatures of habit, sure, and of habits, good and bad.

Much of Staid’s time in Europe is spent in pursuit of art; but she’s also juggling personal life and emotions, in particular her attraction to Z, a fellow student who is not single. They maintain their distance despite a mutual attraction, but that magnetism between the two of them is a constant thread through her narrative and inevitably colours her memories of Florence and Italy. She’s also coming out of a period of recurring depression, and this is another strand to her story; the anticipation of the return of the ‘black dog’ seems always in her mind.

But there are good times despite the potential issues, and Staid travels widely, mostly alongside her fellow student Annie. They smoke, drink, eat well and visit such a dazzling list of places that I can only gasp with envy and wish I’d done more travelling in my youth. Staid ponders many issues, but looking back I sense that the search to define and find happiness is one of the major ones; because of her periods of depression she struggles to identify what real happiness is, and in parts of her book looks back to other thinkers and philosophers to try to help. Is there any real meaning to the search for that happiness? I don’t know – I suspect it’s different for any human being. Certainly, Staid seems to be trying to work out if her period in Florence was the happiest point of her life, and if so, why was that? Are memories accurate and can they really ever be grasped? These are difficult questions and I’m not sure if there are actually definitive answers.

I think we are always hunting something that is hidden or merely possible or hypothetical, something whose tracks we follow as we find them on the surface of the ground. (Calvino, ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium”)

In truth, “Traces” is a hard book to pin down and write about in some ways because of the different strands to her narrative. Periods of memoir will be interspersed with philosophical meditations which make the book a fascinating and heady mix; and her explorations of other writers has already had a dramatic effect on my immediate TBR as you’ll have noted in my recent posts. She quotes Pavese, Montaigne, Camus, Kafka – well, you name it, they’re probably on my TBR shouting to be read. Staid’s insights into these authors, and the influence they have on her, are fascinating, and I really want to get to some of these books soon!.

Running all the way through the book is the influence of the aforementioned Calvino and his “Invisible Cities”. Calvino was Italian, and Staid relates some of the descriptions of his cities to the ones she sees; indeed in the beautifully written chapter “Cities and Names”, she wonderfully recreates the mood of Calvino as a narrator travels by train between a number of European cities. The narrator is of course Staid herself, but it’s a particularly stand-out chapter in what is an already fascinating book.

Florence’s Duomo by Petar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Another favourite chapter was “Cities and Eyes” which explores the work of Leonardo da Vinci via Berger, Benjamin and Vasari; Staid takes a look at the whole issue of authenticity and originality, what is ‘real’ and what has been recreated, and this was fascinating (and has also made me pull out Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ for reading asap!). Much of the book is indeed a commentary on art: the visual arts Staid sees on her travels and also the written arts (Calvino and Pavese are prominent here).

“The Traces” is a book filled with many riches: Staid’s writing is beautiful, her philosophical explorations fascinating, her memoirs evocative and her thoughts on Calvino in particular illuminating. If nothing else, I shall go back to “Invisible Cities” in a different frame of mind for my next re-read and look more deeply into it I hope. As for Staid, this is her first book, and I think it’s a wonderful and very original achievement; I hope she writes more and look forward to seeing what she comes up with next!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher – many thanks!)