Regarding The Golden Egg: the truth is that for me, Donna Leon can pretty much do no wrong. She’s right up there with Ruth Rendell, in that respect. I was reasonably certain that The Golden Egg would not disappoint, and I was right. The story centers on the somewhat mysterious death of a man who has led an extremely constrained existence. He appears to have been deaf, possibly even developmentally disabled. He certainly had no language with which to express himself. Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola, a professor of English literature, had frequently seen this person at their neighborhood dry cleaner’s shop. They did not know his name.
I always learn things of value from these novels. At one point, Brunetti is observing the activity of a colony of cats that live in what he terms a cat condominium, a structure expressly set up for their use in front of the church across the street from the police station. ‘Unruly creatures, cats,’ he think to himself, ‘and profoundly, incorrigibly disobedient.’ Turns out that the Commissario likes cats and would be happy to have one or two in his home, were it not for the fact of Paola’s allergies. He then recalls this line of poetry:
‘For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.’
This quotation is from a poem entitled “Jubilate Agno,” written by Christopher Smart. This is a lengthy work, consisting of four fragments and running to some twelve hundred lines. In the poem’s best known section, Smart praises his cat Jeoffrey and speaks lovingly of what he perceives as the feline’s relationship with God. From 1757 to1763, Smart was confined to two different asylums for the mentally ill. It was while he was resident in the first, St .Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, that he composed Jubilate Agno. During this period, it is believed that Jeoffrey was his sole companion.
I very much like the use Leon makes in these novels of the third person limited point of view. It has allowed her readers over the years to attain a kind of intellectual and emotional intimacy with Guido Brunetti. The pace of her narratives is not necessarily swift. Sometimes, in fact, it seems downright leisurely. There’s a reason for this. Time must be allowed for pithy observations of Venice, in all its uniqueness and peculiarity. (Leon, a native of New Jersey, has dwelt in La Serenissima for some thirty years.) Likewise, the reader gets to spend time en famille with Brunetti, Paola, and their two children, Chiara and Raffi. This last is one of the chief pleasures of this series. This is a close and devoted family. Meals are taken together, including lunch – on weekdays – very civilized. The meals are invariably delicious; Paola is a terrific cook. The conversation at table is often both bracing and raucous. Here, Brunetti has just a told a joke they’ve all heard many times before: “Chiara slapped her hands over her erars, knowing what was coming. Paola sighed; Raffi ate.” They all chime in at different parts of the story.
The cacophony gradually ebbs. This is how Brunetti experiences the rest of the meal:
He ate the rest of the dinner, though he didn’t know what it was he was eating. He drank a glass of wine, left the second one unfinished, drunk with the words that crossed the table, their different meanings, the fact that they indicate time: future and past; that they indicated whether something had been done or was still to do; that they expressed people’s feelings: anger was not a blow, regret was not tears. Atone point, Paola expressed a wish and used the subjunctive, and Brunetti felt himself close to tears at the beauty of the intellectual complexity of it: she could speak about what was not, could invent an alternative reality.
In all my years of ardent crime fiction consumption, this was a first for me: a policeman – or any fictional character, for that matter - ready to cry over the use of the subjunctive! (As a great fan of the subjunctive mood, or rather, the correct deployment of same, I really appreciated this odd but illuminating interval.)
Guido Brunetti is a born and bred Venetian. Its culture, its folkways, are deeply embedded in his make-up. He no longer attends church, but one thing he does firmly believe in is the unique and special status of his native city. This brief exchange with a member of his team, herself newly arrived from Naples, pretty well sums it up:
As they passed San Giorgio, she turned to Brunetti and asked, in an entirely normal voice, “Do you ever get tired of all this beauty?”
His gaze passed beyond her to the clouds scuttling behind the dome. “Never.” The answer was automatic, unconsidered, true.
I haven’t said much about the plot of this novel. As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t read Leon’s novels primarily for their plots, but because they give me the chance to hang out with an exceptionally appealing group of people in a wonderful place.. But in fact, The Golden Egg relates a particularly gripping and ultimately bleak story. When he learns the truth about the actions of certain individuals, especially a certain woman, Brunetti is gutted. It takes all of his natural resilience to lift his spirits in the face of this egregious example of just how far some people will go in the pursuit of easy money. A walk alone on the Beach at the Lido is his chosen restorative.
Blogger Lizzie Hayes recently had a chance to interview Donna Leon. Here’s her delightful write-up of the experience.
Here’s my favorite video of Venice. For me, it captures the allure and the mystery of the place. The music is The Four Seasons (Le Quattro Stagioni) by Antonio Vivaldi; the violinist, Federico Agostini:
Click here to read the story of the dramatic ‘rediscovery’ of Vivaldi’s music.
If I don’t simply sit down and start writing, I’ll never get back to it. So, here goes:
Ron and I have just returned from California. More specifically, we were in the South Bay Area, aka Silicon Valley as it is now known. I loved it last year, and loved it twice as much this year. It is an utterly magical place. My head is still swimming with visions of seals and sea lions, majestic redwoods, and Stanford’s spectacularly beautiful campus. More to come on this journey, which now seems to me to have been momentous for several reasons.
Meanwhile, I find myself entangled, at least to some degree, in three different book clubs. I’m making it a rule simply to opt out if I really don’t want to read the selection – or if the date’s not good for me – or whatever. The only time I require myself to attend is if I’m involved in presenting. (Big of me, isn’t it?)
And speaking of books, the reading I brought with me had nothing to do with California. Let me provide a bit of background to explain my seemingly eccentric choice of reading matter.
Several weeks ago, I read a review of a book that I knew, beyond question, I wanted to read: . I immediately realized that it made no sense to do so, however, without first revisiting its subject, a novel I read many years ago, in my English major days. And so I obtained a copy of Portrait of a Lady from the library. They carry the Penguin Classics edition, with its arresting cover featuring a detail from John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler: .
I have seen this painting; it hangs in one of my favorite places, the Smithsonian American Art Museum: . Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler – slightly imperious, even more mysterious - became, in my mind, the image of James’s heroine, Isabel Archer.
I finished Portrait of a Lady last night at 3 AM. Reading it at times felt like a massive undertaking, but the rewards were commensurate with the effort. The pacing is at once stately and urgent, a seemingly impossible narrative coup on the part of the artful Henry James. It keeps the reader glued to the page – at least, it did so with this reader.
Meanwhile, I had almost forgotten how reverent, how brilliant, a great novel can be. Isabel Archer is so very alive for me at this moment. Another thing I’d forgotten was open-ended nature of the novel’s concluding paragraphs. For Isabel, almost nothing concerning her relations with Gilbert Osmond has been resolved. Why has she determined, in the teeth of a profound crisis, to embark on a seemingly perverse course of action? What is to become of her?
One of the few things I remembered from my long-ago first reading of the book is Henrietta Stackpole’s ringing declaration, in the novel’s penultimate paragraph: “‘Look here, Mr. Goodwood,…just you wait!’”
One of the many joys of Portrait of a Lady is the strongly evocative nature of some of the descriptive passages. In this one, Isabel, Henrietta, and several others are exploring Rome:
The herd of reechoing tourists had departed and most of the solemn places had relapsed into solemnity. The sky was a blaze of blue, and the plash of the fountains in their mossy niches had lost its chill and doubled its music. On the corners of the warm, bright streets one stumbled on bundles of flowers. Our friends had gone one afternoon – it was the third of their stay – to look at the latest excavations in the Forum, these labours having been for some time previous largely extended. They had descended from the modern street to the level of the Sacred Way, along which they wandered with a reverence of step which was not the same on the part of each. Henrietta Stackpole was struck with the fact that ancient Rome had been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy between the deep chariot-ruts traceable in the antique street and the overjangled iron grooves which express the intensity of American life. The sun had begun to sink, the air was a golden haze, and the long shadows of broken column and vague pedestal leaned across the field of ruin.
Two thousand year old ruts made by chariot wheels, broken columns casting their shadows courtesy of the brightness of the sun, the intense blue of the sky….I remember it all from my last visit to Rome, more than forty years ago. It came back to me as though it had been yesterday, and the longing to be there along with it. (My journey to Italy three years ago, wonderful as it was, did not include a stop at the Eternal City.)
And as for Henrietta Stackpole: what a pleasure it was, after so many years, once again to spend time on her company! She’s a wonderful, down to earth, straightforward person, utterly immune to the affectations of languid aesthetes like Gilbert Osmond. She is unmistakably a woman of the future, and she is also a fast and immoveable friend to Isabel Archer. The two women have vastly different personalities, yet in the ways and at the moments that matter the most, each is for the other a tower of strength. (The need is invariaby more urgent on Isabel’s side.)
Benjamin Taylor begins his book about Naples by describing two miracles that he he witnessed there. One involves the liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro (Januarius), the city’s patron saint. The other has to do with the author’s lost passport. The stories are connected, and he tells them both in this video:
I love the way Benjamin Taylor describes the geographic and geological attributes of Naples:
What has escaped no traveler is that this oval bay, arms reaching out irregularly into the Tyrrhenian, islands beautifully situated to either side of the mouth of the harbor, makes the loveliest of geologic settings–not least because it is equipped with a reminder of how provisional all loveliness is: Vesuvius, this coast’s incomparable emblem of uncertainty, in whose shadow a hundred fifty generations have lived: ‘Vesuvius, which again and again destroys itself,’ as Goethe says, ‘and declares war on any sense of beauty.’
(British paleontologist Richard Fortey writes with great eloquence of the significance of Naples in his book Earth: An Intimate History. “The Bay of Naples,” he informs us, “is where the science of geology started.” He is referring to the precise and dispassionate eyewitness account given by Pliny the Younger of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.)
In the front of Naples Declared, Taylor has placed a detailed chronology of the city’s chaotic, eventful, and often harrowing history. When I began my reading about Naples in preparation for my journey thence in 2009, I recall being astonished to learn that it was first settled by the Greeks around 600 BC (although there’s evidence that other Greek explorers reached the islands as early as 1800 BC). I like Taylor’s wry observation: “The wonder of the place is that it has not been annihilated by so much history.” His deep admiration of the ancient Greeks informs his love for ‘Neapolis:’
At Naples, from which it spread to Rome, the Greek response to life–natural, canny, sensate, disabused–persists in subtle and overt ways, despite the centuries of permutation.There is, in Naples, a living interdependence between Christian and pagan emotions. It is said that the land is Christian but the water pagan. On land, the Mother of God has her dominion; but Sirens rule the Bay.
(I recently encountered a very similar sentiment, expressed in an almost flippant manner, in the short story “The Lotus Eater” by Somerset Maugham. The events of the story take place around the turn of the last century, on the Isle of Capri. A visitor to the island asks a long time – and rather world weary and cynical - expatriate resident about a street festival that appears to be some sort of religious celebration:
‘Oh, it’s the feast of the Assumption,’ he said, ‘at least that’s what the Catholic Church says it is, but that’s just their hanky-panky. It’s the festival of Venus. Pagan, you know. Aphrodite rising from the sea and all that.’)
Taylor’s sojourn on Capri was, for me, a revelation. (A short time after you arrive in the Campania, you’ll be pronouncing ‘Capri’ with the accent on the first syllable.) I now fully realize how much I did not see in 2009, and how much of the island’s fascinating history I was ignorant of. I particularly regret missing the Church of San Michele Arcangelo, with its spectacular majolica floor:
I knew that I wanted to see if the Villa Rosaio, a house once lived in by Graham Greene, was still there. I did not get to do that either. Basically, we tour members were deposited in the shopping district and left free to roam. Not that that in itself is a bad thing; it’s just not the only thing. I was pleased to read of Taylor’s conversations with Shirley Hazzard, whose Greene on Capri I loved.
For anyone who’s writing about Naples, quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is virtually inevitable. The great German polymath first arrived in Italy in 1786. He spent two years there and was especially taken with Naples, writing innumerable letters about his experiences there and his impressions of the place. These were later collected, along with his other Italian correspondence, to comprise the book Italian Journey. (The blog The Solitary Walker graciously provides some direct quotes from this volume.)
Of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Taylor tells us: “This artist, nowadays equal in interest to Rembrandt or Vermeer, Monet or Cezanne, went all but forgotten for three hundred years, his art a comet that astonished and then disappeared.” He goes on:
Still, Caravaggio’s heightened chiaroscuro, somber glowing blueless palette, concentrated action, and meaty naturalism persisted thereafter in painting as a kind of underground song, anonymously nourishing artists who did not know they were his legatees.
(I love “meaty naturalism.”) Caravaggio was rediscovered in the early twentieth century when his praises were sung by English painter and critic Roger Fry.
Three great canvases by this master are to be found in Naples:
The Seven Acts (or Works) of Mercy was painted circa 1607 expressly for the Pio Monte della Misericordia, a church located in the historic center of the city. The church was founded in 1602 by group of young noblemen, as a charitable enterprise. The painting still hangs in that church.
The Flagellation, circa 1607-1608, resides in the Museo di Capodimonte. (When I realized what treasures were housed in that edifice, originally a palace built for King Charles VII of Naples and Sicily in 1738, I was amazed anew at what we did not see in 2009.)
The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, painted in 1610, was one of Caravaggio’s last completed works. It is currently housed in the Banca Intesa in Naples. There’s an interesting story about how it got there.
Taylor’s ability to discourse with equal eloquence on history, music, art, and other subjects is one of this book’s most appealing qualities. In Naples Declared, he’s packed a great deal into a relatively short space. Even so, there was a bit more about the city’s convoluted history than I could readily take in. In addition, Benjamin Taylor recounts his personal struggle with religion and spirituality. Some readers might find these passages irrelevant. I did not, being a veteran myself of similar struggles. And finally, his author is a man of strong opinions, freely expressed. Although I found this startling at times, it did not really distract from my overall enjoyment of the book.
Taylor addresses the question of why tours and tourists tend to give Naples a miss. The fall of the Bourbon dynasty in 1860 was followed by an appalling cholera outbreak in 1884. From that time to this, Naples was increasingly left off travelers’ itineraries:
Called the most beautiful of cities in Greco-Roman antiquity, in the High Middle Ages, and again in the eighteenth century, Naples will never again exercise its old allure. Venice must have ten thousand sightseers for every independent soul who seeks out the inner secrets of this place. It is Capri, Ischia, Sorrento, Positano that are the shining destinations. Naples hides its glamour from the hordes on their way to such watering places….Here is a metropolis that has not become a boutique of itself–for painful reasons, it must be said: underemployment, bureaucracies of legendary ineptitude, widespread exactions by the criminal rackets (the ubiquitous and damnable Camorra).
After I returned from the tour of Naples and the Amalfi coast, I wrote about the experience. The title I gave to my first post about Naples was “Chaotic, anarchic, harrowing, defaced…and sublime.” The place frightened me. At one point my friends and I decided to slip into an building with an odd and forbidding facade, just to get away from the noise and chaos in the streets: . Once inside, we heard beautiful music – if memory serves, it was the Miserere by Allegri – and we saw this: . (We were inside La Chiesa del Gesu Nuovo.)
Well, that is Naples in a nutshell, a city of vast contradictions that most assuredly has not, as Benjamin Taylor so sagely put it, become a boutique of itself.
All my posts on the trip can be accessed via this link.
All in all, Naples Declared – subtitled ‘A Walk Around the Bay,’ – is a fascinating read, and I recommend it highly.
I will close by saying this: I have a powerful longing to return to Naples and the Campania of which it is the capital city.
It’s been some weeks since I read this, so I’m going to let New York Times reviewer Dwight Garrner sum up The Book of Secrets for me:
At its heart it weaves together the lives of several not-especially-well-known women, around whom more famous men (Lord Randolph Churchill, Auguste Rodin, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster among them) sometimes revolved.
One of those characters is Eve Fairfax. Her principal claim to fame is that she sat for a bust by the sculptor Auguste Rodin.
In the course of a peripatetic, rather impoverished existence, Eve carried around with her a large book whose pages were blank. Various individuals of note were invited to inscribe something in it. As Holroyd tells us:
Archbishops, generals and royalty filled up the pages and there was a picture of the Prince of Wales fondling a baby kangaroo in Australia (1932). Rosamund Lehmann copied down a page from her novel Invitation to the Waltz describing the seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis running into the sunlight, Hilaire Belloc added a poem and so did Vita Sackville-West’s one-time lover Geoffrey Scott, while John Betjeman, Harold Nicolson and Somerset Maugham contented themselves with signatures.
A major character in the first half of the book is a not-especially -well-known man: Ernest Beckett, second Lord Grimthorpe. (And isn’t that name like something straight out of a Dickens novel.) Beckett was at one point Eve Fairfax’s fiance, though they never actually wed.
Eventually two women move to the fore of this narrative and occupy center stage in its second half. Violet Trefusis was the daughter of Alice Keppel, mistress to King Edward VII. Mother and daughter had an extremely fraught relationship. Violet and Vita Sackville-West were lovers; their affair is chronicled in a series of passionate letters from which Holroyd quotes liberally. The author makes a good case for Violet as a writer of distinction, although nowadays her novels seem to be little read and not readily obtainable, at least in this country.
Michael Holroyd is a wonderful writer. I have to admit, though, that I wasn’t sure why I should interest myself in the doings of the large and somewhat confusing cast of characters that dominates the first half of this book. When Holroyd ultimately brings a laser-like focus onto Violet Trefusis and her extravagant passions, things got more interesting. The fact of the matter is, though, that I picked up this book in the first place for a very specific reason; namely, that the aforementioned Ernest Beckett was for a time the owner of what is, for me at least, possibly the most beautiful place on the planet. It’s on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, and it is called the Villa Cimbrone. Here’s how Michale Holroyd describes it in his preface to A Book of Secrets:
High above the Gulf of Solerno, some fifty miles south of Naples, is the medieval town of Ravello. Higher still and at thee end of two meandering roads from Ravello, you find yourself in a place of fantasy that seems to float in the sky: a miraculous palazzo, now called Villa Cimbrone, which answers the need for make-believe in all our lives.
So poetic – and so true. I was prepared for more on the subject, but in fact, there wasn’t much more. And this is probably what made me somewhat impatient with this quirky, admittedly intriguing little volume.
Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer. George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John, and Lytton Strachey have been among his subjects. At one point in The Book of Secrets, he makes an interesting observation concerning his craft:
Biographers often struggle to escape from the prison of chronology before resigning themselves to opening with a birth.
This statement affords some insight into why, in this book, Holroyd chose this somewhat sidelong approach to his subject matter. In the epilogue, he concludes thus: “Now, as in a film, I can bring back the characters who occupy the pages of this, my last book.”
I took these pictures of the gardens of the Villa and of its famous “Terrazzo dell’infinito” (Terrace of Infinity) when I was in Italy in the Spring of 2009. The spot is aptly named. Time does indeed seem to stand still there.
‘It was his words that stuck in my memory, and when I think back on them I feel something ambiguous, a mixture of tenderness and horror, at how those naive aspirations were swallowed whole by the voracious crevasses of life.’ – Temporary Perfections, by Gianrico Carofiglio
I usually wait until I have finished a book to write about it. In fact, I have a fairly large stack awaiting my attention.
They’ll have to wait a bit longer.
Defense attorney Guido Guerrieri has been asked to look into the disappearance of a young woman named Manuela Ferraro. It has been six months since Manuela, age 22, was last seen. A thoroughgoing investigation by the Carabinieri, one of Italy’s national police forces, has turned up nothing. As all avenues of inquiry seem to have been explored, an assistant district attorney has requested that the case be closed. Manuela’s parents are understandably desperate.
Guido is not a trained investigator. But the lawyer for the Ferraro family is a friend of his. And besides, he finds himself empathizing deeply with the parents of the missing woman.
And so begins Guido Guerrieri’s involvement in the case. Currently I’m about two thirds of the way through this novel, and so far this genial ‘avvocato’ hasn’t made any discernible headway. But I’ve had a wonderful time getting to know him.
This is not a plot driven novel. Its richness lies in its character creation, vivid sense of place – the place being the city of Bari, in Italy’s Puglia region – and terrific writing. Temporary Perfections is the fourth in the Guido Guerrrieri series. The previous three have been translated and published in this country. I’m shaking my head and asking myself: How have I managed thus far to completely miss this author?
A brief piece on Carofiglio appeared in The New Yorker in 2005. In it, we learn that Gianrico Carofiglio began his career as a judge but then became a prosecutor “‘because I’m kind of a cop in my soul.’” (As a prosecutor, he specialized in going after the mob bosses of Puglia.) The Guido Guerrrieri series has been filmed for Italian television. Just going by appearance, the author himself could have taken the lead: .
I plan to go back and read the other Guerrieri novels. I absolutely love this book!
On the night of November 1 2007, Meredith Kercher was found murdered in a house she shared with several other young persons of varying nationalities. Like her housemates, Meredith, herself a British national, was a university exchange student in Perugia, Italy. Three individuals were charged with the crime and brought to trial: Rudy Gude, a resident of the city and native of the Ivory Coast, Amanda Knox, an American from Seattle, and Amanda’s Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito. All three were found guilty and sent to prison. Attention is now focused on Knox, who is currently appealing her conviction. A decision in this matter is expected any day now.
Nina Burleigh reviews all aspects of this crime with admirable lucidity and attention to detail. She’s especially enlightening on the subject of the Italian legal system, which in some aspects is similar to our own. There are, however, differences. For instance, juries are not held to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, one assistant prosecutor declared, “Only God has no doubts.”
What Burleigh does in her book that I found very valuable – not to mention fascinating – is to put this crime in a cultural context. Where the history of Perugia is concerned, I came away with the sense of a place where evil and depredation are inextricably yoked to a transcendent beauty. One could also say this of Naples, a city I first journeyed to in the Spring of 2009. I’m thinking of the title I bestowed on my post about that city: ” Chaotic, anarchic, harrowing, defaced… and sublime.” Naples is home to two Caravaggio masterpieces, the veiled Christ, and many other priceless works of art. It is also home to its own crime family: the Camorra. (In 2006, at the astonishingly tender age of 27, journalist Roberto Saviano penned Gomorrah, an expose of this notorious organization. The book’s jacket flap tersely informs readers that as a result of the book’s explosive content, Saviano “…has been placed under police protection.”)
There is also the Beast of San Gregorio. Her name was Caterina Fort. Think carefully before you pursue further knowledge of this woman. I personally would be happy never to have heard of her.
Perugia is home to great art, magnificent churches, and numerous medieval artifacts. There are some jarring juxtapositions: “For nine months out of the year, the San Lorenzo duomo steps are an Italian Amsterdam, with young people sunning themselves and drinking beer from plastic cups and smoking spinelli–joints filled with hash.”
Indeed, as Burleigh tells it, life for Perugia’s college students was a Bacchanalian feast, with numerous bars and discos open till the wee hours, liberal consumption of drugs and alcohol, sex on offer anywhere and everywhere. The pace of the partying was frenetic. The life of the mind seemed the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Inside the duomo, a stone wall’s width away from the party scene outside, lies the town’s most precious relic, the Virgin Mary’s wedding ring, a circle of green onyx that pilgrims and knights supposedly rescued from Jerusalem in the fifteenth century through great peril. The ring is secreted in a locked silver reliquary tucked high in the wall behind red velvet curtains, accessible only by a ladder and pulley system. It has been displayed only once a year for the last five hundred years. The reliquary can be opened only with fourteen different keys, held by fourteen different prominent Perugians.
For me, the most eye-opening content in this book involved the description of pagan rites whose practice allegedly persists alongside the rites of traditional Christianity:
Despite the fact that the Pope resides among them, Italians are not as Catholic as one might expect. Italy remains, as the journalist Luigi Barzini put it, “gloriously pagan.” It Italy, “Christianity has not deeply disturbed the happy traditions and customs of ancient Greece and Rome” but is “a thin veneer over older customs.”
(I was pleased to encounter the name of Luigi Barzini. I well remember his celebrated work, published in 1964, claiming pride of place on my mother’s bookshelves. She had just begun traveling to that storied place, and she loved Barzini’s book.)
What, you may well ask, does all of this have to do with the crime that forms the centerpiece of The Fatal Gift of Beauty? The answer lies primarily with the crime scene, and the way certain features of it struck Giuliano Mignini, the magistrate whose brief it was to investigate and prosecute the murder of Meredith Kercher. Mignini, a devout Catholic, was struck by several odd aspects of the crime scene. First, there was the broken bedroom window that lacked any trace evidence whatsoever, either organic or inorganic, as though “whoever had come in through that window–if anyone had–possessed a superhuman power of levitation….” Then there was the cat’s blood on the lower floor.
Possibly most bizarre of all, there was a trail of bloody footprints made by a single shoe: “The removal of one shoe during Masonic initiation is a piece of pagan symbolism so ancient that historians don’t even understand its significance.” Burleigh continues:
After studying numerous statues with one sandal and myths such as Cinderella, involving lost shoes, or the laming or hobbling of one foot, as in the Achilles’ heel, the Italian cultural anthropologist Carlo Ginzburg theorized that the ritual laming of a foot or the removal of one shoe was a symbol of stepping into and out of the underworld.
There’s more – quite a bit more. By the time I finished this part of the book, I wanted to run and hide somewhere. (A church or synagogue would have served nicely.) Inevitably, these and other characteristics of the crime scene raised the specter of Satanic ritual.
In the final section of her book, Nina Burleigh brings us firmly back down to earth, to the hard reality of this case. She lays out the evidence in a clear and forthright manner. As the investigation and the trial have run their course, Amanda Knox has exhibited some strange behaviors. At times it was just a matter of an inappropriate demeanor. She seems throughout to have exhibited an oddly flat affect when faced with the horror of her roommate’s murder. At one point, while being questioned in open court, she shocked those present by imitating the sounds a person would make after his or her throat had been slashed. She has done herself no favors by these actions, but neither do they in and of themselves signify guilt.
I picked this book up last week and read it through to the end, with no break. It was riveting.
Closing arguments in Amanda Knox’s appeal were heard today. And once again, hundreds of reporters and photographers descended on Perugia. Click here for coverage by CBS News.
A verdict is expected on Monday.
I’ve waited too long to write about this novel. I no longer recall the details of the plot – or much about the plot at all, actually. But there is always so much more to a Brunetti novel than the detection aspect. I’d like to share some of the highlights.
The first concerns the somewhat enigmatic Signorina Elettra, factotum of the Questura:
Brunetti passed outside Signorina Elettra’s office and peered inside, relieved to see an abundance of flowers on the windowsill. A step further confirmed his hope that more of them stood on her desk: yellow roses, at least two dozen of them. How he had prayed in the last months that she be returned to her shameless depredation of the city’s finances by claiming these exploding bouquets as ordinary office expenses. Every bud, every blossom was rich with the odour of the misappropriation of public finds: Brunetti breathed in deeply and sighed with relief.
Oh those deliciously satisfying little acts of workplace subversion…
Donna Leon may have issues with the current state of affairs in La Serenissima, but she gladly pays tribute to the city’s glorious past. An address that Brunetti and Vianello are searching for proves to be “in a building just to the right of the church where Vivaldi was baptized….”
Willful Behavior concerns the search for the truth about a crime committed in the past. Brunetti must investigate events that occurred during the Second World War. The Commissario seeks help from his father-in-law, Count Oralio Falier. When he’d first married Paola, Brunetti’s relations with her father, a member of Italy’s old aristocracy, had been uneasy. But as the years elapsed, they’d grown to like and respect each other. On the occasion of this particular interview, the Count is forced to revisit some painful truths and searing memories from his own past. It’s one of the most powerful scenes I’ve yet encountered in this series. Here’s how it ends:
Brunetti stood and, compelled by an impulse that surprised him, walked over to the Count and embraced him, held him in his arms for long moment, then turned and left the study.
Click here for a reading group guide to Willful Behavior.
An article by Alex Ross in the July 25 New Yorker alerted me to an extraordinary event in Italian opera. In “At the Brink,” Ross describes what happened during a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco at the Rome Opera in March. The conductor was the renowned Riccardo Muti. First, a bit of background information is necessary.
Written in 1842, the opera Nabucco contains the Chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va pensiero.” In it, the Hebrews lament their captivity and give expression to their longing for their homeland: “Oh, my country so beautiful and lost! / Oh, remembrance so dear and so fatal!” At the time, Italy was chafing under the yoke of its Austrian occupiers. “Va pensiero” became, in the words of Alex Ross, “an unofficial national anthem,” expressing as it did the desire of a nation to seize control of its own destiny. For Italy, this goal was finally achieved in 1861, the year of Risorgimento. (This is a tremendously complicated story. I was having a great deal of trouble pinning down the date of unification. but since Italians are celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, let’s just accept that date as a given and leave it at that, for the time being. Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive entry on the subject.)
No doubt you have read of Italy’s ongoing financial crisis. One of the line items to get its budget slashed was arts funding. Finance minister Giulio Tremonti was quoted as saying, “You can’t eat culture.”
I’ll let Alex Ross take it from here:
On the opening night of Muti’s “Nabucco,” during the ovation after “Va pensiero,” someone shouted out “Viva L’Italia!” The conductor made a little speech, with television cameras running. “Si, I am in accord with that “Viva L’Italia!’ he said, in a quiet, pensive voice. Alluding to the budget cuts, he declared, When the chorus sang ‘Oh mia patria si bella e perduta!’” – Oh, my country so beautiful and lost! – “I thought to myself that, if we slay the culture on which the history of Italy is founded, truly our country will be beautiful and lost.” He then led an encore of “Va pensiero,” inviting the audience to sing along.
Ross observes that “Muti, who seldom indulges in political posturing, knew exactly when and where to strike.” There were reverberations from this extraordinary event. The aforesaid Signor Tremonti rolled back the funding cuts. Ross concludes: “Seldom has a celebrity musician intervened in politics to a more decisive effect.”
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Muti expresses his own frank amazement at the events of that evening:
“At the end of Va’ pensiero, I heard shouts of “Viva l’Italia” and turned instinctively towards the audience. I could see groups of people getting to their feet here and there. In the end, everyone was standing, including the chorus, and singing an encore at my request. It was a steadily rising tide of participation and intensity…. It was a call for a united fatherland, in Verdi’s name. I thought I was dreaming. I’ve never experienced a thrill like that before”.
Muti goes on to assure the interviewer that the outburst of patriotic fervor was completely unscripted: “I spoke to remind everyone that the arts guide our society. Then the whole theatre sang Va’ pensiero. Some members of the chorus were in tears. A moment of outstanding Italianness.”
Riccardo Muti has had his share of health problems in recent months. He recently had a pacemaker put in. Reports claim that he returned to his conducting duties sooner than his doctors had advised. Maestro Muti turned seventy last month. Happy Birthday, Maestro – and may you celebrate many more!
A view words about the video: First, I was not able to find a word for word translation of Muti’s impromptu speech, but I think you can get the gist of it from what I’ve written and quoted above. With regard to the leaflets cascading to the floor: Muti explains what they were in the newspaper interview I linked to above.
At any rate, may blessings continue to rain down on music-loving Italians; they know what makes life worth living.
It’s summer in Venice. Things are slow at the questura. The heat is so intense, even the criminal element is completely enervated. Commissario Guido Brunetti cannot wait to escape from the city with his family. It will be a well earned vacation, far from the tourist crowds, the oppressive temperatures, the evil-smelling waterways. They are going to the mountains! Cool air, gorgeous scenery, time to relax and read…
Such a beautiful dream.
At times, though, the rank of Commissario places a heavy load on Brunetti’s shoulders – never more so than when a murder occurs on his beat, at a most inopportune moment. The beautiful dream must, alas, be deferred.
The victim, Araldo Fontana, is a mild-mannered civil servant, a man in his fifties who works at the law courts and lives with his mother. A seemingly innocuous individual. Who would desire the death of such a person? Meanwhile there’s another problem. It involves the aunt of Brunetti’s second in command and close friend, Isspettore Lorenzo Vianello. It seems that Vianello’s beloved aunt has lately been pulling large amounts of money out of her savings and giving it to some sort of New Age Healer. You’re a policeman, Lorenzo, his cousins plead with him – do something!
Much have I traveled in the realms of Leon’s Venice…always this storied city comes alive in her writing. Donna Leon has lived in La Serenissima for over twenty years. Her take on her adopted home is striated with ambivalence. On the one hand, she is angered by corruption, incompetence, and indifference; on the other, she’s inspired by beauty, singularity, and history. And of course, there’s the fabulous food, loveingly described – no ambivalence there!
In Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon has created a modern day knight: a man of goodness, decency, and compassion who strives daily with bureaucratic rigidity, self-indulgence, and downright wickedness. One senses that for him, loving his natal city is akin to loving a wayward but irresistibly charming child. Its virtues outweigh its defects. But not by much. And Brunetti’s situation is made all the more trying by his immediate superiors, who are in thrall to Venice’s high and mighty and who, instead of trying to help him, seem at every turn to make his job more difficult.
But still he perseveres. He does have sources of support. At work, he can always rely on the staunch Vianello and the incredibly resourceful, exotic, and faintly mysterious Signorina Elettra. At home, he is truly blessed. His wife Paola, a university professor and ardent Henry James reader, is astute, passionate, and utterly loyal. Children Raffi and Chiara are every parent’s dream: not perfect – but very, very good.
Guido Brunetti is a philosopher-detective, a genuine intellectual whose idea of leisure reading includes Tacitus and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He has a wonderful mind; I love the way Leon makes us privy to his ruminations:
He had read so widely in the Greek and Roman historians that he found nothing strange at all in the desire to consult the oracles to fin some way to decipher the messages of the gods. Whether it was the liver of a freshly killed chicken or the patterns made in the air by a flock of birds, the signs were there for those who could interpret them: all that was necessary was someone willing to believe the interpretations, and the deal was done. Cumae or Lourdes; Diana of Ephesus or the Virgin of Fatima: the mouth of the statue moved, and the truth came forth.
Brunetti can seem cynical and world weary, not without cause. But he is also respectful of people’s needs, in particular their need to believe in something larger than themselves. He himself has the same need.
In an effort to find out more about Araldo Fontana, Brunetti and Vianello talk to his cousin Giorgio. This interview brings forth one of the saddest, most poignant conversations I have ever encountered in fiction, rendered as it is in Leon’s flawless, pointillist prose. Once again I was put in mind of Virgil’s phrase lacrimae rerum – the tears of thing, tears of the world – tears for the world, perhaps – our fallen but still striving world.
The soundtrack suggestion for this post is the music of one of the greatest composers of the Italian Baroque period, Antonio Vivaldi.
It all (re)started with my first visit, last year, to chaotic, fabulous Naples – Napoli, as it is known in Italy. But the city has had other names: it was founded in the 700s BC by the Greeks. It was then Neapolis – “new city.”
But no – before that, there was Robert Harris’s riveting novel. I read Pompeii shortly after it came out in 2002. Like many the world over, I’ve been intrigued by the story of this lost and resurrected city since I was a small child. I had been to Italy several times, when I was in my twenties, but not since; while there, I had been to Rome, Florence and Venice – never to the southern portions of the country. I was pretty certain that I would never see Pompeii. I was wrong – gloriously wrong!
But I must go back further…to the appearance, in 1991, of Roman Blood, the first book in Steven Saylor’s superb series, Roma Sub Rosa.
Actually, now that I give it careful consideration, I think I know when and where I first became fascinated by ancient Rome. It was when Mrs. Gelber, my ninth grade Latin teacher, had us do projects concerning the Romans. I took two small plastic dolls and dressed them up in togas. My satisfaction with this effort was all out of proportion to the rather modest effect I achieved. Mrs. Gelber, an inspiring teacher if there ever was one, praised my efforts nonetheless. From then on, I was well and truly hooked.
Of course, I can provide no image of these small effigies. Nevertheless, they are clearly etched in my mind’s eye.
Recently, I listened to Part One of The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome. These lectures are given by Professor Garrett Fagan, an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and History at Penn State University. (Professor Fagan is from Ireland; this makes him an especial pleasure to listen to on this recorded course.)
I’m also thinking and writing about Rome because I’ve just finished listening to Conspirata, the second novel in Robert Harris’s projected trilogy based on the life of Cicero. The events are narrated by Cicero’s slave Tiro. Tiro took dictation for Cicero and managed his garden as well his finances. He made himself quite indispensable to his master and was ultimately freed in 53 BC. Despite his new status, Tiro continued to work for Cicero. (The audiobook versions of the novels in this series are read superbly by Simon Jones.)
The following commentary is from an article on Cicero by William Harris, Emeritus Professor at Middlebury College:
Tiro, a diligent slave perfected a system of Latin shorthand, which served to preserve fairly accurately Cicero’s speeches. A number of medieval MSS in “Tironian annotation” survive, containing much of the master’s speeches and perhaps more than we are aware of, since the specialization required for a study of this esoteric field deters all but the most laborious of scholars. The list of extant speeches is immense, the text fills several volumes.
The story Tiro tells in Conspirata and Imperium, its predecessor, is extremely complex. The characters are numerous; keeping track of them is made challenging by the fact that Roman names are easily confused. Nevertheless, I got completely caught up in the story, and in the author’s vivid re-creation of a vanished world. The last thing I expected, as Conspirata was concluding, was to be moved to tears by the events being narrated – and yet, I was.
The third volume in the trilogy is due to appear in 2011. (Note: for some reason, Conspirata was published in the UK as Lustrum.)
On his wonderful site, Steven Saylor provides terrific links to ancient world websites. (Scroll down to “Links to Classical World web sites.” This site also links to my review of the most recent Gordianus the Finder novel, The Triumph of Caesar. Scroll down to the bottom and look for Books to the Ceiling under “Reviews & Misc.”)
I have purchased the Penguin edition of Livy’s The Early History of Rome: . I immediately needed to know more about that eerie, vaguely familiar cover image. It is The Capitoline She-Wolf. It resides in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, where, I now realize, I first saw it some forty years ago. This video brings the viewer up close to this remarkable sculpture:
So, to recapitulate, I recommend the following:
Pompeii, and Imperium and Conspirata (aka Lustrum), the first two books in a trilogy based on the life of Cicero. (The versatile Robert Harris is also the author of the contemporary thriller The Ghost, the novel upon which the film The Ghost Writer is based. )
The entire Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor. I’ve read and loved all twelve books!
The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome, with lectures by Garrett Fagan.
Livy’s History, fascinating but quite challenging. I’m reading it in small – very small – chunks.
Finally, there’s a novel I read years ago and have never forgotten: The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. This is a demanding but hugely rewarding work of fiction that lays bare the heart and soul of an Emperor who proves only too human. It is on my list of books to re-read.
Soundtrack for this post: The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. Here is the final paragraph of program notes written by Richard Freed for a performance of this Heaven-storming work by the National Symphony in 2008:
As the dawn mists rise and settle, the tread of ghostly legions is felt and, in Lionel Salter’s splendid phrase, “fanfares begin to echo down the centuries.” The mists disperse in the blaze of thousands of burnished helmets and breastplates. The already large orchestra swells with the addition of an organ and the augmented brass already noted. Respighi summed up, “To the poet’s fantasy appears a vision of past glories. Trumpets blaze, and the army of the Consul advances brilliantly in the grandeur of a newly rise sun toward the Via Sacra, mounting the Capitoline Hill in final triumph.”
If you ever have a chance to hear this piece performed live – drop everything and go!
Here is the finale, in a 2004 performance by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by the venerable – born in 1924! – French conductor Georges Pretre: