I am actually writing this from a lonely place called Marsiliana, in the Maremma region of Tuscany, where my Florentine hosts have a hunting lodge. It is less than half an hour by car from the Argentario coastline, my inspiration for last summer’s seaside letters, and I remember driving past its desolate form whenever a group of us got together to go bathing in the hot springs of Saturnia, much further inland. We always used to ask everybody on the way, from ancient, mustachioed, somnolent taxi drivers to neat, young, eager gas-station attendants, about the apparently inaccessible town on top of the hill, and were always told that it’s not a town, just an old castle whose owners are never there.

Well, now it turns out that it isn’t a castle either, just a hunting lodge, and—adding to the confusion—not only are the owners there, but smarmy old Navrozov is as well, busily blending in with the scenery in his borrowed Barbour and gum boots. “Iz gryazi v knyazi” as we say in Russian. Literally this means “Up from the dirt to mix with princes,” but I like the proverb so much I think it may be worthwhile to dramatize it a bit. If I kept a diary in verse, in the style of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, what follows here might be the entry under “Marsiliana”:

In the Maremma, shooting wild boar. Now, Ralph Laurens of the world And Ronald Landers: Behold a son of Khrushchev’s slums Hobnobbing with a prince’s sons And daughters!

I am not sure this is ideal publicity for cashmere turtlenecks, but at any rate it has helped me to work some populist cynicism into the warp and woof of the story from the very beginning, so as not to have to worry later about sounding a little too breathless for my own good. As for Ronald Lauder, he is, believe it or not, a leading collector of medieval arms and armor, a kind of Frederick Stibbert of the Hamptons. Really, sometimes I just can’t decide whose foibles are funnier and more pitiful, mine or other people’s.

Even assuming it’s mine, I must boldly proclaim that I hate the countryside in winter, and in Marsiliana I finally realized that this feeling goes far beyond the city dweller’s conventional squeamishness, beyond bugs, beyond big fish eating little fish, beyond homosexual intercourse involving two apparently stray mutts committed in broad daylight and observed through a picture window during breakfast. I realized that what I dislike about the countryside most of all is the insidious facsimile of contentment it promises, that smug, saccharine parody of the myriad real satisfactions one experiences in town even when simply crossing the street without being hit by a latenight bus or sitting down in a cafe with the hard-earned foreknowledge of a good espresso. Urban life is order, which is conducive to ordered thought. Country life, by contrast, toughens the skin while softening the brain.

Consider the notoriously deleterious effect the country has on otherwise perfectly well-behaved city children who, just hours earlier, could be seen working on chess openings and asking charmingly naive questions about the second part of Faust. Yet here they are, those same children, rolling in the dirt with threelegged dogs or brandishing muddy sticks. As for the effect on adults, it is perhaps enough to remark on the self-satisfied air with which grown men light a fire in the grate, or tend a wood-burning stove of the kind there was in every bedroom in Marsiliana. They really suppose that by defrauding their families into thinking for a few hours that the rooms have central heating they have achieved something of lasting ethical value. Deus misereaturl.

But then of course there is also my frankly hedonist side —which some people might suppose would anyway be wholly dominant in the easy life of a Russian degenerate —and the truth is that nothing alarms this aspect of my character more than the sight of a bare tree in wintertime. A leafless branch sprinkled with freezing rain is, for me, what a barbed-wire fence pimctuated with watchtowers is for a person of ordinarily sturdy disposition. “Holy hell,” I say to myself, “just give civilization a little push, and the whole world will be covered with trees exactly like that one.” In short, dominant or not in the general run of urban existence, in the country my sybaritic side comes to the fore. Here it rears up and protests, it winds up grandfather clocks in dimly lit hallways and ransacks old cupboards for train timetables, it makes friends with excruciatingly boring couples without children who happen to own cars.

When resisted, as good manners and the peculiar responsibilities of a guest dictate it must be, this irrepressible side of me becomes truly vicious. How inventive its sarcasm! How observant its criticisms! How condescending its acknowledgment of life’s simpler blessings! Thus, in Marsiliana, it quickly seized upon the C and F for “Calda” and “Fredda” engraved on the water faucets, muttering at bath time that they stood for “Cold” and “Freezing.” Later that evening, in the library, just as the Western, resiHent rest of me was beginning to thaw out in front of the fire with a dry grappa, a perfectly passable Tuscan cigar, and a volume of Winston Churchill’s war-time memoirs, my Eastern, decadent side resumed its suit. With perfect timing, it drew my attention to the description of Sir Winston’s stay at State Villa No. 7, near Moscow, in August 1942:

The hot and cold water gushed. I longed for a hot bath after the journey. . . . All was instantly prepared. I noticed that the basins were not fed by separate hot and cold water taps and that they had no plugs. Hot and cold turned on at once through a single spout, mingled to exactly the temperature one desired. Moreover, one did not wash one’s hands in the basins, but under the flowing current of the taps.

“In a modest way,” adds the English country bumpkin with becoming humility, “I have adopted this system at home. If there is no scarcity of water it is far the best.” And who might you be, exclaimed my troublesome side driving the point home, to disagree with him? Come on, be fair! Should his wide-eyed fascination with Stalin’s state-of-the-art faucets be considered somehow objectionable just because they are Stalin’s?

Anyway, in the days when Churchill took the bath, at State Villa No. 7 but also in Teheran and in Yalta, the hunting estate of Marsiliana had 9,000 hectares. After the war ended the Communist local authorities expropriated all the arable land and much of the forest, leaving my Florentine hosts with 2,700 hectares of hillside underbrush. Back then, hunting wild boar was only a pastime, while real wealth was believed to lie in good fat Maremman land, suitable for agricultural use. Since then, the value of such land has plummeted—it is now only worth as much as the European Community will pay farmers for not growing anything edible on it—while the useless underbrush, where the wild boar thrives, has become precious. Rich businessmen from all over the world want to hunt there, for the same funny reason they want to wear Ralph Lauren tweeds and collect medieval armor.

A few days after I arrived in Marsiliana, my hosts were informed by the local authorities, who no longer call themselves Communist, that all hunting permits of the estate are revoked until a substantial tract of the underbrush is legally ceded to them in perpetuity. There was much shouting during lunch, and everyone had the kind of face that people have when something obviously bad yet deeply inexplicable happens to them.

So I took off my borrowed Barbour and gum boots, and thought again that living in the country in wintertime, without mixer taps and all the other creature comforts of city life, softens the brain. Look at Winston Churchill.