Donna Leon’s Venice ambivalence

June 30, 2017 at 9:38 pm (Italy, Mystery fiction)

  Yes – well, this is not news, exactly. That ambivalence is once again present in Earthly Remains, the author’s latest Guido Brunetti novel.

First, there’s this:

They sat in silence for a moment, three Venetians, relatives at the wake of a city that has been an empire and was now selling off the coffee spoons to try to pay the heating  bill.

Then some ninety pages later, there’s this:

Another bridge, then open water on one side. On the other was the Basilica and the Palazzo, and Brunetti had the sudden realization that, though none of this belonged to him, he belonged to all of it.

Illegality, incompetence, indifference, venality, stunning beauty, inescapable history – all there, all part of the rich stew that makes up present day Venice.

And then, there’s that other problem….

Donna Leon’s image graced the cover of the Spring 2017 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine:

The feature piece was written by Oline H. Cogdill, whose reviews and analyses of crime fiction are always a pleasure to read. For me, the surprising nugget here was the news that Donna Leon has shifted her primary residence to a small village in Switzerland that consists, she avers of “a couple hundred people, a couple hundred cows.” Although she still spends a lot of time in Venice, she avoids the city in the summer months. The brutal influx of tourists has at last become intolerable, a sad commentary, I think.

Leon has written about this problem in previous novels. In By Its Cover, she describes Brunetti’s shock when he’s suddenly confronted by an ocean-going behemoth of a cruise ship. Here’s what I wrote in my blog post:

As we loyal readers of this series have come to expect, plenty of social and political commentary finds its way into the story. Early in the novel, Brunetti is in the police launch, piloted by the skillful and reliable Foa, when they round a curve and come upon a scene that leaves them dumbstruck. It’s the stern of a gigantic cruise ship:

Seven eight, nine, ten storeys. From their perspective, it blocked out the city, blocked out the light, blocked out all thought or sense or reason or the appropriateness of things. They trailed along behind it, watching the wake it created it avalanche slowly towards the rivas on both sides, tiny wave after tiny wave after tiny wave, and what in God’s name was the thrust of that vast expanse of displaced  water doing to those stones and to the centuries-old binding that kept them in place?

And that’s not all:

Suddenly the air was unbreathable as a capricious gust blew the ship’s exhaust down on them for a few seconds.

Earthly Remains is not concerned with the tourist scourge per se; rather, it’s about a type of ruination that Venetians themselves bring on their own city. It’s a sad story, replete with the disillusionment that Brunetti, a decent and caring man, all too frequently experiences in the course of his work. The almost total absence of his family  – the astute and shrewd Paola, and their children Raffi and Chiara – from the narrative only serves to accentuate the bleak atmosphere.

I wrote about this novel in a recent post about pacing in crime fiction in general and noir fiction and film in particular. At the time I was about a third of the way in and becoming impatient for the plot to take shape. I was also reading Colin Harrison’s thriller You Belong To Me. The latter really had me in its grip. And yet Earthly Remains ultimately won me over, while Harrison’s book began to pale beside it.

At any rate, time spent with Commissario Guido Brunetti is invariably time well spent. I am grateful that in the crowded world of mystery fiction, both he and his creator persevere.

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“…the glory that was Greece, / And the grandeur that was Rome.” – The Classical World by Nigel Spivey

October 16, 2016 at 1:15 pm (Art, History, Italy)

spivey  A marvelous book on ancient history, as these  excerpts must show:

Freud had followed the excavations at Troy with passionate interest, and eventually came to liken his own methods of psychoanalysis to an archaeological process of ‘peeling away’ layers in quest of some residual ‘truth’ that had become ‘mythical’ over time….the significance of Freud’s reaction to the marble relics of classical Athens lies precisely in the sensation that caused pangs of filial piety. The Acropolis was symbolic not only of Athens at the height of her ancient glory in the mid-fifth century BC, but of civilized values generally. So for Freud, and for many others, it symbolizes a bourn, a destination, for the human spirit, amid the amber glow of columns standing on a rocky mass.

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece. [click to enlarge]

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The sources…tell us that Alexander, though well proportioned, was not a physically large man…Yet…by consensus, [he] possessed a commanding presence, radiating from his eyes. These generated much comment, regarding their size, colour and glistening quality, but above all their contribution to a ‘heavenwards gaze.’ Accordingly, many images of Alexander show him as if transfixed by some distant prospect. Admirers took this as a symptom of his ‘divine inspiration’ (enthousiasmos). He appeared superhuman.

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The Alexander Mosaic, originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, now preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum (I have seen it!)  [click to enlarge]

Alexander on Horseback

Alexander on Horseback, Hellenistic bronze

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The villa of Livia Drusilla, wife of Caesar Augustus

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The paintings from this room, relatively well preserved, are among the loveliest pictures from antiquity — at least, in their cumulative effect; they create a vista that seems like an earthly paradise. Only when we peer closer do we notice a strange level of biodiversity here. Flowers that bloom in the spring, such as blue periwinkles, appear with fruit that mature in autumn, such as quince. Birds — quails, thrushes, nightingales — animate the foliage, regardless of their migratory habits. Such is the marvel of the Golden Age created by Augustus.

Livia Drusilla

Livia Drusilla

Caesar Augustus

Caesar Augustus

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Aeneas escaping Troy, carrying his father Anchises on his back and holding his son's hand. Terra cotta figure found in Pompeii, now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum

Aeneas escaping Troy, carrying his father Anchises on his back and holding the hand of his son Ascanius. Terra cotta figure found in Pompeii, now in the Naples National Archaeological Museum

The commission to compose an epic about Rome’s arch-founder Aeneas was, we are told, reluctantly undertaken by Virgil. He worked upon it for a decade, licking its lines into shape (as he put it) as a mother bear would tend her cubs. He died, in 19 BC, without finishing it to his satisfaction, and asked his friends to burn the manuscript. Fortunately for us, those friends disobeyed the poet’s wishes.The Aeneid survives as proof not only that epic could be written, after Homer, but also that epic could grow, in moral scope,  beyond Homer….With Virgil, the epic tradition resonates with concerns of justice and sympathy, earning him the critical accolade of writing ‘civilized poetry’. His capacity ‘to harmonize the sadness of the universe’ – the dictum approved by scholar-poet A.E. Housman as poetry’s purpose – has endeared Virgil to pessimists down the ages; in his time, however, Virgil articulated a vision of Roman identity that made the construction of empire a mission of laborious benevolence.

The Aeneid, Book VI, translated by Seamus Heaney
(excerpt published in the March 7 2016 issue of the New Yorker)

Elsewhere Anchises,
Fatherly and intent, was off in a deep green valley
Surveying and reviewing souls consigned there,
Those due to pass to the light of the upper world.
It so happened he was just then taking note

Of his whole posterity, the destinies and doings,
Traits and qualities of descendants dear to him,
But seeing Aeneas come wading through the grass
Towards him, he reached his two hands out
In eager joy, his eyes filled up with tears
And he gave a cry: “At last! Are you here at last?
I always trusted that your sense of right
Would prevail and keep you going to the end.And am I now allowed to see your face,
My son, and hear you talk, and talk to you myself?

This is what I imagined and looked forward to
As I counted the days; and my trust was not misplaced.
To think of the lands and the outlying seas
You have crossed, my son, to receive this welcome.
And after such dangers! I was afraid that Africa
Might be your undoing.” But Aeneas replied:
“Often and often, father, you would appear to me,
Your sad shade would appear, and that kept me going
To this end. My ships are anchored in the Tuscan sea.
Let me take your hand, my father, O let me, and do not

Hold back from my embrace.” And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck.
Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped
Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.

What is purported to be Virgil's tomb, pointed out to us as we sould on the shore of the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius behind us.

Burial vault purported to contain  Virgil’s tomb, pointed out to us as we stood on the shore of the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius at our backs (in 2009)

Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Virgil 70 BC-19 BC

Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Virgil
70 BC-19 BC

 

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Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland

July 29, 2016 at 8:00 pm (Book review, books, History, Italy, Music)

Dynast11  I finally finished it. I didn’t think I would, but I did.

So: what was it like, spending in excess of four hundred pages in the company of the mighty, world-conquering Caesars? You may judge for yourself….

When people think of imperial Rome, it is the city of the first Caesars that is most likely to come into their minds. There is no other period of ancient history that can compare for sheer unsettling fascination with its gallery of leading characters. Their lurid glamour has resulted in them becoming the very archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts. Monsters such as we find in the pages of Tacitus and Suetonius seem sprung from some fantasy novel or TV box-set: Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools; Caligula, lamenting that the Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through; Agrippina, the mother of Nero, scheming to bring to power the son who would end up having her murdered; Nero himself, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome. For those who like their tales of dynastic back-stabbing spiced up with poison and exotic extremes of perversion, the story might well seem to have everything. Murderous matriarchs, incestuous powercouples, downtrodden beta males who nevertheless end up wielding powers of life and death: all these staples of recent dramas are to be found in the sources for the period. The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.

Celebrity, admittedly. But notoriety might be closer to the mark.

Here’s the genealogy of the Caesars:

 

Julians.jpp

[Click twice to enlarge]

In Holland’s telling, Julius Caesar was indeed as dangerously ambitious as  Brutus claimed. He was a genuine threat to the Republic. But perhaps the Republic was doomed anyway. Aside from subduing the Gauls – no small feat – Caesar’s greatest gift to the Roman people was his appointment of his great-nephew Octavius as his heir.

 

Augustus von Prima Porta (20-17 v. Chr.), aus der Villa Livia in Prima Porta, 1863

Imperātor Caesar Dīvī Fīlius Augustus (born Gaius Octavius) 63 BC – 14 AD

(The names will drive you crazy, if nothing else does first.)

Augustus was a reasonably good ruler and, by our standards anyway, a reasonably decent man. And his wife Livia was one of  the more powerful, memorable, and upright female presences in Roman history.

She was the mother of the emperor Tiberius, paternal grandmother of the emperor Claudius, paternal great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and maternal great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.

from the Wikipedia entry

Livia_Drusilla_Louvre_Ma1233

Livia Drusilla, also know as Julia Augusta 58 BC – 29 AD

 

 

statue of Livia Drusilla at Paestum

Statue of Livia Drusilla at Paestum

Alas, from here it was downhill all the way. Tiberius, successor to Augustus, seemed worthy at his reign’s outset, but he became increasingly erratic, finally withdrawing to his estate on the cliffs of the Isle of Capri, high above the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sorrento. Here he indulged in grotesque orgies far from the prying eyes of Roman citizens. (But of course. tales of what was going on eventually reached the capital, a place where people indulged lavishly in rumor mongering and gossip.)

The following are pictures taken by me in Italy in 2009:

The approach to Capri by boat

The approach to Capri by boat

As we circled the island, our guide first told us about Tiberius; then he pointed to some jagged rocks sticking straight up out of the water. There, he said, is where the Sirens lured ships to their doom:

2009 May - Walking the Amalfi Coast 182-X2I was stunned. We had gone from history to prehistory, and were now reaching all the way back to the kingdom of myth.

Next comes Caligula, great-grandson of Augustus.

Ever since his childhood, …Caligula had displayed a taste for dressing up. Capri, that wonderland of stage sets, enabled him to give it free rein. Wigs and costumes of every kind were his to try on, and opportunities to participate in pornographic floor-shows freely granted. Tiberius was happy to indulge his great-nephew. He knew what he was leaving the Roman people in the form of their favourite – and he had ceased to care. ‘I am rearing them a viper.’

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula 12 AD - 41 AD

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka Caligula 12 AD – 41 AD [Photo by Louis Le Grand]

Next up: Claudius:

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 10 BC - 54 AD

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 10 BC – 54 AD

Up until now, my knowledge of Claudius derived exclusively from the TV series I Claudius, in which Sir Derek Jacoby so memorably portrayed the seemingly hapless ruler.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. THe series caused a sensation on this side of the Atlantic and vaulted this brilliant actor to instant stardom.

Derek Jacobi as Claudius. The series created a sensation and vaulted this brilliant actor to instant stardom.

Somehow I remember Claudius as being a better man than he seems to be in Tom Holland’s telling. Oh, but he was positively saintly compared to his successor, the incredibly loathsome

Nerō Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus 37 AD – 58 AD

Nero had a wife, Poppaea Sabina, whom he adored and whom he had obtained for himself by putting her husband, his closest friend, out of the way. (oh – and Nero himself had also been married, too poor, dull Octavia; she, too, was got rid of.)

As ambitious as she was glamorous, the radiance of Poppaea’s charisma exemplified everything that Nero most admired in a woman. Even the colour of her hair, neither blonde nor brunette, marked her out as eye-catching: praised by Nero as ‘amber-coloured’, it was soon setting the trend for fashion victims across the city.

But the beautiful and vainglorious Poppaea Sabina made a fatal mistake: she nagged the ruler of the known world, thus committing the unforgivable sin of discomfiting him.. Never mind that she was heavily pregnant with their child; Nero kicked and beat her to death. No sooner had he done this than he was filled with remorse. The kingdom was scoured looking for another who was just like her. The closest he could get to achieving that goal was embodied in the person of a young boy whom he called Sporus. Nero joyfully took possession of this prize: “…it was as though his dead wife had been restored to him. So completely did he imagine himself to be gazing on her face again, caressing her cheeks and taking her in his arms, that Poppaea seemed to him redeemed from the grave.” But the youth needed to be kept smooth cheeked and beardless forever. How to prevent the onset of puberty? There was only one way: Sporus was castrated.

Meanwhile, Nero’s mother had moved heaven and earth to make sure he attained Rome’s highest office.

Nero and Agripppina

Nero and Agrippina

How was she ultimately rewarded?

Nero and Agrippina had spent an harmonious evening at a villa he was then occupying on the Bay of Naples. Then , as a gesture of filial devotion, he presented his mother with the gift of a yacht.

Greatly affectionate, he gave her the place of honour next to himself, and talked with her until the early hours. By now, with night lying velvet over the Bay, it was too dark for her to take a litter back home; and so Nero, informing his mother that her new yacht was docked outside, escorted her down to the marina. There he embraced and kissed her. ‘For you I live,’ he whispered, ‘and it is thanks to you that I rule.’ A long, last look into her eyes – and then he bade her farewell. The yacht slipped its moorings. It glided out into the night. Lights twinkled on the shore, illumining the curve of ‘the loveliest bay in the world’ while stars blazed silver overhead. Oars beat, timbers creaked, voices murmured on the deck. Otherwise, all was calm.

Then abruptly the roof fell in.

By some brilliant luck – read helpful fishermen who happened to be nearby –  and her own native strength and resourcefulness, Agrippina was able to attain land and return, bleeding but alive, to her villa. But her good fortune was short lived; Nero was not through with her yet:

A column of armed men came galloping down the road. The crowds outside were roughly dispersed; soldiers surrounded the villa, then forced their way in. They found Caesar’s mother in a dimly lit room, attended by a single slave. Agrippina confronted them boldly, but her insistence that Nero could not possibly have meant them to kill her was silenced when one of the men coshed her on the head. Dazed but still conscious, Agrippina looked up to see a centurion drawing his sword. At this, rather than protest any further, she determined to die as who she was: the daughter of Germanicus and the descendant of a long line of heroes. ‘Strike my belly,’ she commanded, pointing to her womb. Then she fell beneath the hailstorm of her assassins’ swords.

As for the famous fire of 64 AD that Nero supposedly waited out while playing the fiddle, that’s a slightly erroneous legend. He didn’t play the fiddle; he played the lyre. And he played the lyre so he could accompany his singing performances. Nero sang everywhere and anywhere there was a stage – or not –  and an audience. He entered innumerable vocal competitions and naturally enough was awarded first prize in every one of them.

Nero as he might have looked at one of his 'shows'

Nero as he might have looked at one of his ‘shows’

Down through history, unconfirmed rumors have held that Nero himself torched the city. The accusation was made during his own lifetime. He in turn blamed the Christians, thus initiating their persecution.

Soon it became clear that Rome had had quite enough of this particular despot:

‘Murderer of mother and wife, a driver of chariots, a performer on the public stage, an arsonist.’ 70 The list of charges was long. Few in the upper echelons of Roman society doubted that Nero, if permitted to live, would add to it. To kill a Caesar was, of course, a fearsome thing; but by early 65, enough were convinced of its necessity to start plotting Nero’s liquidation.

The deed was finally accomplished in 68 AD. Knowing his death at the hands of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard was imminent, Nero took his own life.

‘What an artist perishes with me.’ So Nero, with his customary lack of modesty, had declared as he steeled himself to commit suicide. He had not exaggerated. He had indeed been an artist – he and his predecessors too. Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius: each, in his own way, had succeeded in fashioning out of his rule of the world a legend that would for ever afterwards mark the House of Caesar as something eerie and more than mortal. Painted in blood and gold, its record would never cease to haunt the Roman people as a thing of mingled wonder and horror. If not necessarily divine, then it had at any rate become immortal.

Thank you, Tom Holland, for this book. You are a terrific storyteller, and this was one wild and totally engrossing ride.

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A number of fiction titles, some read by me and some not, kept entering my thoughts as I was reading Dynasty. Not all of them were directly related to the specific time frame covered in this book, but they did deal with some aspect of ancient Rome.

These I have not read but have long known of and hope to get to some day:

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These were the first two books to appear in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa mystery series. I’ve read nearly all of them and recommend them most highly. (Later titles actually go back in time – see the link provided above.)

Roman_Blood_cover  17406306411

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KeyJaro  I read this novel when it first came out in 1988 and loved it. Benita Kane Jaro, who lives in this area, came into the Central Library shortly after I’d finished her novel, and we had a chance to chat. I’ve always meant to go back and read the two subsequent books in her Ancient Rome Trilogy – The Lock and The Door in the Wall.  I’m delighted that that Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers are keeping these works in print. (The Key, newly purchased, is currently on my night stand.)

Finally, there is this: once read, never to be forgotten: 12172 . Marguerite Yourcenour’s masterpiece, decades in the making, was first published in France in 1951. It is not a fast read; rather, it is slow, majestic, and deeply rewarding.

This passage is quoted in Wikipedia:

Of all our games, love’s play is the only one which threatens to unsettle our soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy. …Nailed to the beloved body like a slave to a cross, I have learned some secrets of life which are now dimmed in my memory by the operation of that same law which ordained that the convalescent, once cured, ceases to understand the mysterious truths laid bare by illness, and that the prisoner, set free, forgets his torture, or the conqueror, his triumph passed, forgets his glory.

IMG_20160728_201332  This is my own copy of Memoirs of Hadrian. I’ve had it since 1982 and intend to have it always.

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Tom Holland’s translation of The Histories of Herodotus came out in 2014.  61HHV3wB42L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_  It’s a regular doorstop of a tome, so this reader is both grateful and admiring. I’ve long wanted to read Herodotus on the Egyptians, and I believe Holland’s lively prose reworking will facilitate this goal:

After the meal at any party where the hosts are well-to-do, a man carries round the likeness of a corpse in a coffin, carved out of a block of wood and painted to look as lifelike as possible, which in size can be anything between one and two cubits. Showing it to each guest in turn, he says: ‘Look on this carefully as you drink and enjoy yourself, for as it is now, so will you be when you are dead.’ Such is the practice at any drinking-party.

Well, not exactly a laugh a minute, those Egyptians – at least, in this particular setting.


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Let’s conclude with The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. If you don’t have the time to hear the entire symphonic poem, then go forward to 15:25 on the drag bar and listen to the final section, “The Pines of the Appian Way.” This is the most heaven-storming music imaginable. If you ever have the chance to hear it performed live – drop everything and go!

The Pines of the Appian Way is a representation of dawn on the great military road leading into Rome. Respighi recalls the past glories of the Roman Republic. The legions approach to the sound of trumpets, where possible in the form of ancient Roman buccine, instruments best imitated by the modern flügelhorn, and the Consul, elected leader of the Republic, advances, as the sun rises, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.

From the Naxos site

 

 

 

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The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon

July 10, 2016 at 6:22 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

51h0TPh95SL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_  Commissario Guido Brunetti has been tasked with investigating what is essentially a cold case. Fifteen years ago a teenage girl, Manuela Lando-Continui, was found floating in one of Venice’s canals. Pietro Cavanis, a bystander, pulled her out of the water, but not before serious brain injury had occurred. Cavanis, an alcoholic, remembered almost nothing of what occurred that day. As for Manuela, she was in a coma for a period of time. When she finally awoke, it was with the mental capacity of a seven-year old. There would be no growth, no change, as the years passed.

A dinner party at the home of his wife Paola’s parents serves to introduce Brunetti to Manuela’s grandmother, Contessa Demetriana Lando-Continui. The Contessa requests a private meeting with him at a later time. At that meeting, she reveals to Brunetti the full extent to which her heart has been broken by Mauela’s  cruel fate. Added to her anguish is a suspicion that there’s a dark secret hidden behind that fate. Quite simply, she wants that secret brought to light. Can Brunetti do anything to make that happen?

His initial response is negative. But the Contessa is in her eighties. She is frail and death-haunted. She yearns to know the truth before it is too late.

It did not sound to him as though the Contessa were after vengeance. Perhaps she believed that simply knowing what had happened to her granddaughter would lessen her pain. Brunetti knew how illusory that belief was: as soon as a person knew what had happened, they wanted to know why, and then they wanted to know who.

Even so, compelled by the Contessa’s urgency and her distress, Brunetti finds that he cannot refuse her. He will, he assures her, do what he can.

And so begins an investigation unlike any other, circuitous and serpentine, full of shocks and false assumptions, culminating in more than one stunning revelation.

Throughout this compelling narrative, Donna Leon’s ambivalent feelings about her adoptive homeland peek coyly around every corner. Venality and bureaucracy rear their ugly heads with depressing regularity. But there is goodness at the ready to combat them, especially in the person of Brunetti’s partner in this inquiry, Commissario Claudia Griffoni.

As for Brunetti, he finds his solace and his refuge in the literature of the ancients – Apollonius this time – and in the companionship of his close-knit family.

This scene occurs after yet another grueling day of the investigation:

His spirit was at peace by the time he reached home. Paola was happy for his kiss of greeting and the children pleased to have his full attention during dinner. As he ate his bean soup, knowing there was only lasagne to come, he wondered why this wasn’t enough for so many people….

Later, when Paola came back to place the deep dish of lasagne on the table, Brunetti looked at her, looked at his children, and said: ‘How happy this makes me.’ His family smiled their agreement, thinking he meant the  food, but it was the last thing on Brunetti’s mind at that moment.

(That said, the food in this novel is described in the usual mouthwatering detail.)

I’d like to add, without inserting a spoiler, that in my view many contemporary novelists lose their way as they approach the conclusion of their respective narratives. The opposite happened with this novel: the ending was exactly apt, and deeply moving as well.

I’ll say no more except to assert  how much I loved The Waters of Eternal Youth. I’m having trouble settling on what to read next; this book set the bar so high.

Donna Leon

Donna Leon

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“‘Grant riches, and progeny, and every kind of glory to the people of Romulus.’”

June 21, 2016 at 12:18 pm (Art, books, History, Italy)

51ODkof-fHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_  As May turned to June, the Roman people were invited to celebrate a profound mystery: the turning of the centuries and the dawning of a new cycle of time. Entertainments were staged; chariot races held; lavish banquets thrown. First, though, for three days in succession, the gods were given their due of sustenance and blood; and by night, illumined by the torches which had been handed out free to the entire population of the city, the Princeps himself led the celebrations. To the Moerae, the three white-robed Fates who directed the city’s destiny, he offered a sacrifice of lambs and goats; and then, to the goddess of childbirth, a gift of cakes. A golden age was being born – and just in case there was still anyone who had failed to take in the message, a poem composed specially for the occasion by Horace was sung on both the Capitol and the Palatine, with the aim of ramming it home. ‘Grant riches, and progeny, and every kind of glory to the people of Romulus.’ Many who heard this prayer sounding out across the Forum, hymned by a choir of girls and boys of spotless probity, and framed by a skyline edged with gold and gleaming marble, would doubtless have reflected that the gods had already obliged. ‘Truth, and Peace, and Honour, and our venerable tradition of Probity, and Virtus, long neglected, all venture back among us. Blessed Plenty too – why, here she is with her horn of abundance!’

Yes, the times were Golden for the Romans under the benevolent stewardship of the Princeps, otherwise know as Gaius Octavius, otherwise known as Imperator Caesar Augustus. (Names were fluid – and very confusing, at least to me – in ancient Rome.) At any rate, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun reading about ancient Rome. Historian Tom Holland does a terrific job of bring this remote time and place to vivid and sometimes disconcerting life.

(How disconcerting? Well, I’ve just finished reading a description of the use to which a fabulously wealthy Roman named Hostius Quadra put the mirrored walls of his bedroom:

The mirrors on his walls boasted a particularly distinctive feature: everything reflected in them appeared larger than it actually was. ‘So it was that the freak made a show of his own deviancy.’

The author proceeds to specifics, but this being a family oriented blog, I shall quote no further.)

Holland’s prose is engaging; his view of the past tinged alternately with irony and wonder. It’s a marvelous book, and I highly recommend it.

Tom Holland

Tom Holland

As it happens, I recently encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal by Joseph Epstein, a writer I esteem highly, in which he extols the virtues of a work by Montesquieu on ancient Rome. It’s entitled Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence. This can be translated as Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of Their Decline. According to Epstein, Considerations is “…a lesser-known work but one deserving the highest acclaim.” Herewith an excerpt:

It was a maxim then among the republics of Italy, that treaties made with one king were not obligatory towards his successor. This was a sort of law of nations  among them. Thus every thing which had been submitted to by one king of Rome, they thought themselves disengaged from under another, and wars continually begot wars….

One cause of the prosperity of Rome was, that all her kings were great men. No other history presents us with an uninterrupted succession of such statesmen and such captains.

In the infancy of societies, the leading men in the republic form the constitution; afterwards, the constitution forms the leading men in the republic.

Considerations appears to be replete with such provocative observations. Of course, the fact that it was written in 1734 and that we are reading it in translation makes it rather a challenge to take on. The author’s full name is Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. He was a leading figure of the French Enlightenment.

Baron de Montesquieu 1689-1755

Baron de Montesquieu 1689-1755

Finally, I’ve been listening to one of the Great Courses entitled “Famous Romans.” The material is presented by J. Rufus Fears. Professor Fears punctuates his narrative with war whoops; he’s an exhilarating and enthusiastic raconteur. I could not help envying the students who had the good fortune to be in his classes.

I found to my dismay that J. Rufus Fears, Professor of Classics at Oklahoma University, passed away in 2012. He was 67 years old. David L. Boren, current president of the university (and former senator) praised Fears as “one of the greatest teachers in the history of our state.” One of his former students, in  a moving tribute, declares that “Dr. Fears taught a class that was basically everything I had hoped college would be.”

Professor J. Rufus Fears 1945-2012

Professor J. Rufus Fears 1945-2012

9783822854549-uk I’ve also been enjoying yet another of Taschen’s wonderful art books – that’s Gaius Julius Caesar on the cover. And the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory series offers a rare glimpse inside Livia’s villa:

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s ancient history: Robert Harris brings his Cicero trilogy to a stunning conclusion

June 10, 2016 at 10:33 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Italy, Music)

Here are the three novels in the trilogy:

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I just finished Dictator. Words fail me, but luckily they did not fail Robert Harris. Quite, in fact, the opposite:

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium— their yearning, keening howls, like animals in heat— and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.

It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.

The story of Cicero’s turbulent life and dramatic death is told to us by Tiro, a former slave who remained in Cicero’s service as scribe and factotum after Cicero had freed him. Tiro supposedly invented a type of shorthand writing; moreover, it is said that he penned a biography of Cicero. This document has never come to light – at least, not until Robert Harris resurrected it through the power of his imagination. It is a brilliant conceit, brilliantly executed.

 

cicero-portrait-1

Marcus Tullius Cicero 106 BC – 43 BC

Whether writing about contemporary political intrigue or ancient history, Robert Harris produces works that are compelling, convincing, and altogether satisfying.The Fear Index was a high tech thriller, at times difficult to follow but nonetheless enjoyable. The Ghost is a riff on post-Blair Britain and America. It was turned into a terrific film entitled The Ghost Writer:

Pompeii was about…well, the volcano of course, but Harris fleshes out the story with fascinating characters and incidents. (There is something uniquely powerful about fiction in which an impending catastrophe looms over the narrative and you know it’s coming but the characters don’t. One thinks of Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself about the sinking of the Titanic. And of course,  Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in Stone, with its famous opening sentence that at the time – 1977 – astonished the world of crime fiction: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”)

Finally there is An Officer and a Spy, in which Harris tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Lieutenant Georges Picquart. In the course of the novel, Picquart becomes increasingly convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence and ends up putting his career and even his freedom on the line as he doggedly pursued the truth of the matter.

So I wish to salute Robert Harris, master storyteller.

Robertharris*******************************

For a musical accompaniment, may I suggest the finale of The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. You may have to adjust the volume as this piece attains its blazing climax!

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Revisiting a Donna Leon novel proves a worthwhile endeavor

November 20, 2015 at 3:00 am (Book clubs, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

2464531  I’ve been a faithful reader of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series for quite a few years now, so that when I began preparing to lead a discussion of The Girl of His Dreams, I did not expect much in the way of previously unknown facts to emerge in the course of my research. Nevertheless, they did. I’m not speaking of perception altering revelations, but rather of subtle, belated realizations. These cast both the novel and the author in a somewhat different light, for this reader.

I started out with Donna Leon’s life. Now, this is a subject where details are notoriously thin on the ground. In 2010, the blogger at About “Donna Leon” queried, rather peevishly I thought:

There’s no information about her education; when, where, and if she went to college or university, and if so, how far she got before she quit? Her last employer says she wrote on her application that she had been in a doctorate program, had completed all the required coursework but had not submitted a dissertation. But again, no indication of dates or institutions. Why not? What’s so secret about where and when you went to college, and what degree-level you attained?

(There’s more along these lines. The blogger, who gives his name as Ken Kellogg-Smith, seems almost to cherish a sense of personal injury over Leon’s steadfast withholding. He wouldn’t be the only one who feels this way.)

519WObeIicL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_  There’s a bit more on offer in My Venice and Other Essays, published in 2013.  In this collection, Leon affirms that she was born (in 1942) and raised in Montclair, New Jersey:

“My father read The New York Times, my mother did secretarial work, we had a dog, we had a garden, I had a brother.”

The above is actually a quote from an interview with Tim Heald of The Telegraph in 2009. It’s obvious that Leon wishes this brief statement to be the end of the story. In the essays she dilates somewhat on the subject of mildly eccentric aunts and uncles. She does not seem to harbor a particular animus toward any one of them.

As for her education, Leon states that she did graduate work in Massachusetts, but she doesn’t specify exactly where. In his article, Tim Heald states that she “did a doctorate” in Indiana, her specialty being 18th century novelists. (Again, no specific educational institution is named.) So did she tell him this at the time of the interview? Is what we have here a bit of deliberate misinformation?

I must confess that what I was really hoping to gain from the essays was some disclosure regarding Leon’s personal life. It was a vain hope, however, and I can’t say I was surprised.

[An almost entirely irrelevant aside: I was born in 1944 in West Orange, New Jersey, only a short drive from Montclair, where my grandparents owned and ran a confectioners shop. I like to think that as kids, Donna Leon and I might have been there at the same time, browsing the aisles  for favorite candy – mine was candy dots Candy_Buttons –  and hearing mischievous  boys asking the proprietor – my grandfather – if he had Prince Albert in a can. “You do? Well. let him out!”  11-1-11-rpiper_0035-copy]

What is  fairly certain is that Leon knocked about teaching English in various places – Iran, Saudi Arabia, China – until the 1980s. She then decided it was time to put down roots somewhere. She had close friends who lived in Venice, so that is the place she too chose to live.

Before zeroing in on the books in general and The Girl of His Dreams in particular, I provided some brief information on several relevant aspects of Italian civic structure and society. The Brunetti novels being police procedurals, I reviewed the way in which law enforcement entities function in the country. Then, because Gypsies – or Rom, or Romani people – figure prominently in the narrative, we talked a bit about the origin and present status of this famous but little understood (by me, anyway) ethnic group. Finally, because the parents of Brunetti’s wife Paola are referred to as the Count and Countess, I provided some background as to the history of titled nobility in Italy. (All three subjects are covered in detail in their respective Wikipedia entries.)

Donna Leon’s career as a writer of crime fiction happened almost accidentally – certainly incidentally. Leon, a passionate lover of baroque opera, was chatting backstage with some musicians after a performance. They were engaged in bad mouthing a certain prominent conductor (purportedly Herbert von Karajan). Speculation arose as to how such a person could be cleanly removed from the world stage.  It occurred to Leon, an avid reader of crime fiction, that  this would be a great premise for a murder mystery. Thus, in the pages of Death at La Fenice did Helmut Wellauer come into existence, if only to be quickly dispatched backstage. Commissario Guido Brunetti has proven far more durable.

Mystery novelist Donna Leon continues the long tradition of foreigners writing about Venice. No other city has been so celebrated by its expatriate writers and visitors, from Ruskin’s glittery tributes to Henry James’s hesitant adoration to Thomas Mann’s fatal seduction.

Dr. Toni Sepeda, literature and art history professor and close personal friend of Donna Leon

In The New Republic, Peter Green sums up the Brunetti series this way:

…the audience [Leon] aims at (as she cheerfully admits) is educated, civilized, well-read, morally alert, and intellectually curious: quick to catch allusions or arcane literary jokes, involved in the political and social problems of the modern world, humane and liberal in the best sense of those much-abused terms. She has a weakness for aristocratic virtues. Guido Brunetti himself relaxes with Aeschylus or Marcus Aurelius; his wife Paola not only teaches Henry James (among others) at a Venetian university, but when last seen was re-reading The Ambassadors for the fourth time.

When I first began my re-reading of The Girl of His Dreams, my confidence in my choice for the reading group of this particular title in the series was somewhat shaken. The novel opens with the presence of the entire Brunetti family at the funeral of Guido’s mother. It is a deeply poignant scene.But Leon pulls back from this sadness as Brunetti returns to his official duties. The first of these involves looking into the activities of a non mainstream religious leader who may be scheming to bilk his followers of their money and possessions.

This investigation is not especially compelling and may lull the reader into thinking that this will be a gentle read. Just shy of the midpoint of this short, tightly structured novel, that expectation is shattered.

The body of a young girl is discovered floating in one of the canals. The scene in which she is pulled from the water is harrowing in more ways than one. Vianello, Brunetti’s second in command, does most of the work. Brunetti stands close by ready to grab him. It is pouring down rain.There is a danger that he’ll slip on the seaweed, possibly striking his head on the hard stone or going into the water.

She was small with fair hair that fanned out from her head. Brunetti looked at her face, then back at her feet, and then her hands, and finally he accepted that she was a child.

Vianello struggled to his feet like an old man. Suddenly there was a surge of noise, and then silence and only the sound of the rain hitting the water. They looked up, and there was Foa, the boat floating silently a hair’s breadth from the embankment.

The image of the girl, fair hair fanned out and clothes sopping wet, will haunt Brunetti throughout the novel. His sense of personal anguish over this cruel death will not leave him. At the same time, thoughts of his mother come from to time, but these are of a far more benevolent nature.

In The Girl of His Dreams, the character of Guido Brunetti shines forth in all its vulnerability and humility. One feels that his quest for justice is of the old school. He has no illusions about the possibility of achieving this goal, in Venice or anywhere else on Earth. But the effort must be made, especially on behalf of those who have no one to speak for them. (In the back of my mind I’m hearing Linda Loman’s beseeching cry, echoing down the corridors of time: ” …attention must be paid!”)

In the end the sadness, the ephemeral quality of human life that was so vividly bodied forth at Guido’s mother’s funeral, has reasserted itself. There is one small ray of consolation, though, and it comes from an unexpected source, about which I will say no more  at present.

Paola Brunetti, no shrinking violet when it comes to asserting herself, is deeply appreciative of her husband’s rare and fine qualities. At one point she calls him her shield and her buckler. As strong a woman as she is, she knows how much she depends on him. (The domesticity of  Guido and Paola, with their son and daughter frequently joining them for delicious meals, is one of the major selling points of the series.)

It has been noted that Donna Leon minces no words when she trains her gimlet eye on contemporary Venetian culture (not to mention the scourge of tourists that regularly descend in hordes on the city). You get plenty of this in the above mentioned essay collection. And yet, you’ll have moments like the one in which Guido and Paola are strolling the city at night, and she turns to him and says, “We live in paradise, don’t we?” This moment of supreme savoring occurs in Falling in Love, the latest entry in the series. And in The Girl of His Dreams, Vianello asks if Brunetti if her could even conceive of living somewhere else. He answers, inevitably, in the negative.

(Donna Leon has thus far not allowed her Brunetti novels to be translated into Italian. It’s been alleged that she’s afraid of alienating her friend with her sharp critiques if the city. She claims that it is simply a desire not to be famous where she lives.)

The members of AAUW Readers who attended this discussion were uncommonly perceptive in their comments and observations. I doff my cap to you, ladies – Thanks!

I prepared a reading list for the group. Here it is:

DONNA LEON and GUIDO BRUNETTI

My Venice & Other Essays, by Donna Leon
Brunetti’s Venice, by Toni Sepeda
Brunetti’s Cookbook, by Roberta Paniaro
Venetian Curiosities, by Donna Leon

OTHER NONFICTION TITLES ABOUT VENICE

City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt
A Venetian Tale and Lucia, by Andrea Di Robilant
The Venetians: A New History from Marco Polo to Casanova, by Paul Strathern (not read by me)

OTHER FICTION SET IN VENICE

Don’t Look Now, by Daphne Du Maurier
The Aspern Papers, by Henry James
Alibi, by Joseph Kanon
The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan

OTHER MYSTERIES SET IN ITALY

Aurelio Zen series by Michael Dibdin (set in various locales in Italy)
Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia series by Magdalen Nabb (set in Florence)
Salvo Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri (set in Sicily)
The Guido Guerrieri series by Gianrico Carofiglio (set primarily in Bari, in the Apulia region of southern Italy) This author has also written several standalone novels. I was especially impressed by The Silence of the Wave.

The Carnivia Trilogy by Jonathan Holt (I have not read these):
Abomination
    Abduction
    Absolution
Remember to consult stopyourekillingme.com for information about books in a series and Italian-mysteries.com for books specifically set in that country.
*********************
The Girl of His Dreams is the seventeenth novel in the Guido Brunetti series. There are currently twenty-four Brunetti titles, with the twenty-fifth, The Waters of Eternal Youth, scheduled for publication in March of 2016.

“An American in Venice,” the most recent feature piece I’ve found on Donna Leon, appeared in Publishers Weekly in March. It provided me with a very pleasant surprise; namely, that she and I have a favorite mystery writer in common: Ross MacDonald, creator of the private eye Lew Archer:

“Macdonald’s prose is wonderful, his sentences are sometimes serpentine, sometimes as balanced as anything Alexander Pope wrote,” Leon says. “I also like the way the past always comes along to haunt and destroy the present in his books.”

Like Macdonald, Leon’s evildoers are not psychopathic serial killers or rapists. She, too, delves into the more interesting territory of moral corruption, in all its forms.

Leon adds that Brunetti could be seen as “Lew Archer with a wife.”

I recommend this video interview with Donna Leon:

*************************

Many are the cultural riches that Venice has bestowed on us all. I recently created a post illustrating some of the art work that’s featured in The Girl of His Dreams.  Now here is some of the music.

First: Il Complesso Barocco is a performing arts organization that’s dear to Donna Leon’s heart:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Visuals relating to The Girl of His Dreams, by Donna Leon

October 25, 2015 at 8:30 pm (Art, Book clubs, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

Assunzione, Tiziano (Titian) 1515-1518

Assunzione, Tiziano (Titian) 1516-1518   p. 7

crucifixion4

Tintoretto, Crucifixion 1565 p.73

Madonna with Child, Giovanni Bellini ca 1485. Stolen - for the third time! - in 1993; present whereabouts unknown p. 9

Madonna with Child, Giovanni Bellini ca 1485.
Stolen – for the third time! – in 1993; present whereabouts unknown p. 9

Gigantic cruise ship dwarfing the surrounding buildings

Gigantic cruise ship dwarfing the surrounding buildings

An interior in Venice, John Singer Sargent, 1899

An interior in Venice, John Singer Sargent, 1899

Palazzo Mocenigo - currently a museum

Palazzo Mocenigo, mentioned on p. 100. It’s now a museum. See Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, by Andrea Di Robilant

Palazzo Mocenigo

Palazzo Mocenigo

Palazzo Mocenigo

Palazzo Mocenigo

Author1304921785

Donna Leon

These images have been assembled as part of the preparation for a book group discussion. I have also reviewed The Girl of His Dreams in this space.

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Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio: a book group discussion

July 16, 2015 at 9:02 pm (Book clubs, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

temporary-perfections_1024x1024  This past Tuesday evening, as my contribution to the ‘international year’ of the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group, I chose to present Temporary Perfections, the fourth entry in Gianrico Carofiglio’s Guido Guerrrieri series.

I began by passing around two maps of Italy. The first shows the twenty regions of which the country is comprised; the second gives the precise location of Bari, the city in which Guido lives and has his law practice.

RegionsofItaly

 

Bari

Next, I recommended Jane Kramer’s recent New Yorker profile of Italy’s new young and dynamic prime minister, Matteo Renzi. Having begun public life as mayor of  Florence, Renzi  declares: “This year, I will change Italy or change jobs.” When Angela Merkel admitted that she’d only been to Florence once, he invited her to visit his native city as his guest. The visit – dubbed by the media as a “charm offensive” -went exceedingly well:

It has to be said that Merkel flew home to Berlin looking uncommonly reassured that Italy wasn’t Greece.

Matteo_Renzi_2

Matteo Renzi

Next, we zeroed in on Bari, where most of the novel’s key events transpire.

Collage_Bari

Bari, in Italy’s Apulia region

Bari is the capital city of Apulia (or Puglia), the region which encompasses the boot heel of the Italian land mass. (See the maps above.):

Until recently, the southern region of Apulia was often dismissed as the run-down heel of Italy, an undeveloped Spanish-Greek-Italian coastal crossroads of parched landscapes and poverty, its glorious food, wine and architecture known only to hardy adventurers. But under the leadership since 2005 of its charismatic, gay, Berlusconi-busting governor, Nichi Vendola, Apulia has emerged as an attractive, solar-energy-driven destination of choice for green businesses, music festivals and tourism. It even has its own Mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita – smaller than the organised crime outfits of its southern neighbours Sicily and Naples, but lethal nonetheless. And, for nearly a decade Apulia has had its own celebrity crime writer, Gianrico Carofiglio.

From a review of Temporary Perfections written by Rosie Goldsmith and appearing in The New Statesman

A trullo plays an important part in the novel. 11705174_10153924568888912_1887971549878056278_n   Trulli are quaint little structures formerly used as storehouses or shelters  for farm laborers. They are unique to the region of Apulia. (Those located in the town of Alborabello have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.)

Before getting to our novel, I wanted to address briefly the subject of Italian crime fiction. In a 2009 article in Italica Magazine, Nicoletta Di Ciolla comments on the proliferation of Italian mysteries currently being written in the noir idiom:

The increasing success enjoyed in Italy by the noir genre–evidenced by a variety of indicators including volume of sales, permanence in the best–(and long–) sellers lists, creation of specialised series and/or publishing houses–has been accompanied over the past decade by a concomitant singular phenomenon: the emergence of a new category of writer that could be named ‘the law professional turned noir practitioner’. Senior police officers (Giuttari, Matrone, Di Cara), judges (Cannevale, De Cataldo, Cacopardo, Mannuzzu, Carofiglio, Von Borries) and lawyers (Filasto), whilst fully engaged in the exercise of their principal activities as custodians and upholders of the law, have also become the newest breed of Italian noir authors…. Their novels, often making use of the array of statutory genre conventions that typically include crime(s) and investigation(s), are however different from most, or perceived by readers as such, because of the position of authority from which their discourses are uttered. The “passionate and large public” that, according to Carlo Lucarelli, finds in some writers accurate interpreters of the social dynamics of contemporary Italy, will trust in the knowledge and vision of authors who experience and navigate the dysfunctions of the system in their working life and trust them to shed light on–if not to make sense of–the inconsistencies of Italian society.

Carofiglio has a short – very short – story in the collection entitled Rome Noir.  51yS+YPYgDL  This volume is a good place to go if you’re searching for other Italian crime writers. (The Akashic Noir series spotlights numerous locales, with more to come.)

Carol recently pointed out to me that there’s a piece in the Spring/Summer issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine entitled “Mediterranean Nouveau-Noir.”  Nancy-Stephanie Stone begins her article with this observation: “There’s an evolving area of European crime fiction known as Mediterranean Noir that may challenge  the Nordic hold on mystery readers.”

She goes on to discuss such French writers as Jean-Claude Izzo, Patrick Manchette, and Pierre Lemaitre. Among the Italians are Maurizio De Giovanni and Massimo Carlotto. (Although I’ve glanced through a couple of titles by Manchette, Izzo, and De Giovanni, I’ve not yet read any of the aforementioned authors.)

At the conclusion, Stone offers this comment:

These French and Italian crime stories present pictures at odds with the Air France and Alitalia travel posters that introduced and enticed visitors to the Mediterranean.

My guess is, that’s probably an understatement.

On Tuesday evening, I recommended an article in an October 2013 issue of Library Journal entitled “Crime Italian Style.” Author David Keymer offers up lengthy annotations of eight novels of crime in Italy – titles which he deems “first-rate.” (One of his selections is a book that I loved: The Silence of the Wave by Gianrico Carofigio.

And speaking of Carofiglio: he was born in Bari in 1961. He was a lawyer and judge before starting a career as a novelist. For a period in the 1990s, he specialized in the prosecution of members of Mafia. This was not an undertaking for the faint of heart:

I had some difficult years. Between 1993 and 1998, I went around with an armed escort, in an armored car, because in those days I was involved with some very dangerous criminal organizations.

[From a 2005 interview with Bloomberg News]

Carofiglio notes that he and others achieved some notable successes during that time, bringing a number of significant malefactors to justice. He adds: “Today, Mafia organizations exist, are dangerous and operational, but, fortunately, they’ve abandoned the frontal clash (with the state), and this reduces the risk for magistrates and policemen who work on these things.”

Gianrico Carofiglio is currently serving in Italy’s senate. He is married and has two children. (If one of his goals is to keep his private life private, I’d say he’s doing an excellent job.)

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

I provided some information on the Italian criminal justice system and policing in Italy. Both topics are covered nicely by Wikipedia.

In addition to the Guido Guerrieri series, Gianrico Carofiglio has wriiten two standalones, The Silence of the Waves, mentioned above, and The Past Is Another Country. He has also collaborated with his brother Francesco on a work entitled La Casa Nel Bosco (The House in the Woods).

Francesco Carofiglio and Gianrico Carofiglio

Francesco Carofiglio and Gianrico Carofiglio

The Guido Guerrieri series currently consists of five novels. I only recently discovered that a fifth novel, The Rule of Balance, has already been published in Italy. It came out in November of last year; as of this writing, it has not appeared here and may not yet have been translated into English.

We began our discussion of Temporary Perfections with an assessment of the narrator and protagonist, Guido Guerrrieri. His tendency toward self-deprecation was duly noted by us – first positively, then not so much. Genie and Frank felt it wore thin after a while; I believe others agreed with them. Oddly enough, I did too. It was only one of the several ways in which I felt somewhat let down by the experience of rereading this novel. (In my notes, I wrote that after a while, all that self-abasement began to seem perversely like a kind of reverse egotism.)

Guerrieri’s sense of humor did garner some well deserved praise. And we all appreciated Carofiglio’s sensitive, compassionate portrayal of Antonio Ferraro, a man driven to the extremity of grief and anxiety over his daughter Manuela’s disappearance. This is what goes through Guerrieri’s mind  as he sits face to face with this person:

As I looked at him, the words of an old song…floated into my mind: “Do you by any chance know a girl from Rome whose face looks like a collapsing dam?” The face of Signore Ferraro, furniture salesman and desperate father, looked like a collapsing dam.

Guerrieri has been asked by his friend Sabino Fornelli to assist in the search for Manuela. He demurs at first. He is, after all, an attorney and not trained in investigative techniques. But absent some kind of definitive breakthrough, the police are preparing to close the case. The Ferraros and Fornelli see Guido as their last hope. Reluctantly, he agrees to provide whatever assistance he can in the quest for the missing young woman.

I think that despite his tendency to indulge in long bouts of nostalgia, plus certain other reservations, generally speaking the character of Guido Guerrieri found favor with this group of readers. That is, until Caterina Pontrandolfi enters the mix. She’s one of Manuela’s closest friends. Among others, Guido will need to interview her in order to move his investigation forward.

I’m tempted to refer to Caterina as a “beautiful seductress.” Certainly she knows how to use her endowments most effectively. She proceeds to manipulate Guido, using the oldest tricks in the book. Eventually, almost inevitably, he succumbs, all the while berating himself for doing so. (Among other things, he’s old enough to be her father.)

As this aspect of the plot unfolds, Guido sacrifices in some measure the reader’s good will. At least, this was the reaction I detected on the part of our group. (In some cases, ‘detecting’ was not needed. Pauline was clear about her growing aversion to both characters.) In her review of this novel, the author of the blog Petrona voices the same reservations.

I asked how people felt about the novel’s plot. Frank zeroed in on a plot point involving a cell phone in which the author had not played fair with the reader. I agreed with him; I had not picked up on that. Unfortunately, I can’t recall any other specifics of that part of the discussion – I think my brain was getting tired by then – but I will say that for myself, I found the plot singularly weak, insufficiently inventive, and lacking in momentum. In addition, it meandered in and out of focus, partly due to the aforementioned digressions supplied by Guido himself.

This assessment stands in rather stark contrast to my initial reaction to the novel  when I first reviewed it in 2011. What accounts for this change? It’s hard to say. Marge and I agree, though, that in regard to books we select for discussion, this change of perception occurs from time to time.

This is not to say I’m dismissing Temporary Perfections out of hand. There were still aspects of the book that I appreciated the second time around. I enjoyed the literary references with which Carofiglio salts his narrative. Auguste Dupin appears, as does Sherlock Holmes. And there’s this lovely homage to memory, and to Proust:

It’s not like memories dissolve and disappear. They’re all still there, hidden under a thin crust of consciousness. Even the memories we thought we’d lost forever. Sometimes they remain under the surface for an entire lifetime. Other times, something happens that makes them reappear.

A madeleine dipped in tea, or a huge dog with melancholy eyes that offers you his throat to be stroked, for example.

I’ve by no means covered our entire discussion, or indeed everything I have to say about the book. I am, however, running out of steam, so I’d like to sign off shortly. But, speaking of memory, I’m just now recalling that someone said toward the end that her view of the novel had changed as a result of our discussion. Not surprising, given what terrific talkers and thinkers the Suspects are.

Next up for our group is another volume with much to say about the workings of memory: Suspended Sentences, a beautiful and poignant collection of three novellas written by Patrick Modiano of France, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Modiano  Genie will be the presenter.

 

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The Youth Hostel Murders by Glyn Carr

June 13, 2015 at 8:26 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

yhmurders  The plan was, I’d write up the Usual Suspects’ discussion of The Youth Hostel Murders, which I read some months ago. But in one of those ‘man-proposes-God disposes’ moments, I came down with a flu like illness which prevented my attendance at the discussion this past Tuesday.

Well, darn it anyway….

Still, I’d like to say a few words about the book, which was originally published in 1952.  The youth hostel of the title is located in the Cumberland fells, in the far north of England. The chief protagonist is Abercrombie Lewker, a professional actor and manager who moonlights as an amateur but gifted sleuth. His wife Georgie – Georgina -does her best to keep her husband’s flights of fancy from becoming overly extravagant.

The countryside of this setting is mountainous and wild, sparsely populated by humans but nicely populated by sheep. In fact a shepherd, Ben Truby, figures prominently in this narrative. We first encounter him as he emerges from the shadows surrounding a fireplace “like a troll emerging from a cave.”

He was a tall old man with scanty gray locks and very long and muscular arms. His gaunt body, bent like a question mark but still suggestive of great strength, was clad in an old velveteen coat with tails, much patched tweed breeches, and huge nailed boots. His face was weather-browned and bony, and the inordinate length of his bristly jaw gave him a horse-faced appearance which instantly reminded Georgie of William Wordsworth.

Wordsworth? Really? Still, it’s a compelling description, one of several found in this novel.

What did I like about The Youth Hostel Murders? The atmospherics, for one thing: the danger and eeriness of the fells. And Carr  throws in a soupçon of witchcraft for good measure.The text is replete with quotes from Shakespeare. I particularly liked “hell’s black intelligencer,” as Queen Margaret venomously terms Richard III in the eponymous history play.

Abercrombie Lewker is usually referred to as the “actor-manager” rather than just an actor. as though the additional designation would confer more status. He “booms” as opposed to merely speaking. He’s an avid climber, although he doesn’t seem cut out for this rugged sport. Pauline wrote me that she found him an “extremely annoying” character, and if you’ve ever spent time with someone who declaims rather than simply talking, you’ll know what she means. Georgie’s nickname for her scenery-chewing husband  is “Filthy,” and Pauline found this likewise irritating. (So did I.) Marge, for her part, was put off by Carr’s prose style. I gather that for the rest of the Suspects, the verdict on the novel was generally positive, albeit with some reservations.

(The nickname “Filthy” put me in mind of Jane Gardam’s trio of novels about a character called “Old Filth.” He’s actually Edward Feathers QC, and the sobriquet is an acronym of ‘Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.’ Is this a specifically British thing, I wonder? The legal system over there can seem somewhat alien to Yanks – or at least, it does to this Yank. The Gardam novels are worth seeking out, though, especially the first one, Old Filth.)
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Presently, The Youth Hostel Murders is a publication of the good people at Rue Morgue Press. Theirs is an extremely admirable initiative, aimed at bringing neglected classics and other unjustly ignored older titles back into print. Some of the authors currently on their list are Gladys Mitchell, Catherine Aird, John Dickson Carr, and Craig Rice. Click here for the complete list.

Glyn Carr, by the way, is a pseudonym for Showell Styles, a remarkably prolific writer of whom I ‘d not previously heard.
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I’m next up for the Suspects, and I’ve just started rereading my selection, Temporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio. I’m always a bit uneasy at this preliminary stage; I’ve had the experience of picking up a book group title that I’ve committed to but not actually read for some time, only to find myself wondering why I ever made that particular choice. That’s not happening with this book. I’m enjoying it all over again and I hope that my fellow Suspects feel the same.

And those of you who were in attendance Tuesday night, please feel free to comment on this post and/or correct any errors.

 

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