Tag Archives: Italy

The Bishop’s Bedroom: Piero Chiara

I still think about Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signor Guilia, so I was delighted to see a translation of The Bishop’s Bedroom. The New York Times Book Review compared the book to a Patricia Highsmith novel, but I basically ignored and forgot that comment. But it’s a well deserved comparison, and I wasn’t too far into the novel when Highsmith popped into my head. This is a suspense/crime novel set against post war Italy. The dreariness and deprivation of war is over, and those who have survived, at least most of the characters in the book, are approaching life with new attitudes. There’s a sense that leisure and pleasure are to be valued above all else. The war is in the past, a shadow that still can be seen with a backward glance.

The Bishop's bedroom

It’s 1946, and WWII has ended, yet the ripples of the conflict still extend in Italian society in spite of the book’s emphasis on relaxation, leisure, and sun. The unnamed narrator, a man in his 30s who has recently returned from Switzerland, has a sailboat and he spends his life sailing around putting off the day he must pick up responsibilities again. The narrator is a consummate bachelor (lothario), and with a knack with women, some of them married, he picks one up, takes her for a sail and then drops her back home. There are no commitments, no broken hearts, and no demands.

One day he sails into the port of Oggebbio on Lake Maggiore and a local man named Orimbelli, who reminded me of an oily Peter Lorre, strikes up a conversation. The narrator finds that he can’t quite read his new acquaintance:

He smiled often, sometimes for no reason, as if to seem obliging, but with the world weariness of a gentleman, or a man who’s lived a lot. His voice was somewhat nasal and yet not the least bit affected. He wore a gold ring on his little finger, and a fancy wristwatch, the kind that tells the day and month as well as the hour. It was immediately obvious that he was someone of a certain refinement, but it wasn’t easy to pin down his class. Clearly, he wasn’t a businessman or industrialist. Perhaps a doctor or notary, or just a rich idler who had established himself by the lake before the war, someone who’d stuck his head out after the army had gone by, to see which way the wind was blowing. 

One thing leads to another and Orimbelli, who tells his story of how he spent some of the war in Ethiopia,  followed by a stay in Naples for health reasons,  invites the narrator to his villa for dinner. Orimbelli lives at the Villa Cleofe with his older “very thin, schoolmarmish” wife and his sister-in-law, the lush widow Mathilde. While the villa is gorgeous, the atmosphere around the dinner table is suffocating, so it seems no surprise that Orimbelli should want to lighten the domestic atmosphere with the diversion of a guest. And neither is it too surprising that Orimbelli expresses an interest in sailing away with the narrator.

Over time, the narrator and Orimbelli, who connect over the pursuit of women*, make a number of sailing excursions together with the narrator sleazily picking up various women for himself and Orimbelli. If the idea is that Orimbelli needs to escape from his wife’s scrutiny for a while, then Orimbelli, once off leash, knows no restraint. Orimbelli has the annoying habit of shamelessly poaching the narrator’s women, and in spite of the fact that he’s not particularly attractive, he’s remarkably successful with women, perhaps because he’s so persistent.

While the story is set mostly in sun-filled days spent on the water, there’s a dark thread which runs through the plot. Is Orimbelli just the overweight, harmless married man he appears, or is there something far more sinister afoot? After a few incidents, the narrator, who calmly observes Orimbelli, decides he’s a “well-mannered monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but even after that recognition, Orimbelli’s deviousness still catches the narrator off guard.

The Bishop’s Bedroom, incidentally, the room in which the narrator stays in at the Villa Cleofe is a lavish red and gold bedroom–a creepy shrine like room with a morbid atmosphere.

Soon the sun would flood the bishop’s bedroom, rendering it violet rather than red in the first light, and transforming it into a first-class mortuary with its canopy, the altar-like chest of drawers, the walnut wardrobe with large panels. the prayer stool and crucifix between two purple festoons.

*It’s possible to say the two men also connect over sailing, but IMO, the boat is a means to an end.

translated by Jill Foulston

Review copy


Filed under Chiara Piero, Fiction

A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940):Iris Origo

Some books serve as incredible mirrors of history. These books have the power to create a range of emotions in the reader: disturbed, sad, horror.  I felt uncomfortable and disturbed by Curio Malaparte’s books The Skin and The Kremlin Ball. Teffi’s Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea was poignant rather than uncomfortable–a haunting read, and when I finished the book,  I found myself thinking about the many people she encountered on her epic journey.

Iris Origo’s A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940), also from New York Review Books, another mirror of a particular time, doesn’t have that uncomfortable feeling, and neither is it haunting. Instead imagine an Anglo-American woman of considerable privilege, brought up in Italy, married to an Italian, living on a grand estate in Tuscany, who records events with intelligent, cool detachment and a growing sense of unease, as they occur in 1939-1940.

A chill in the air

The book opens with Iris Origo on a train “packed” full of squadristi–“the fascists della prima ora, those who belonged to the first squads of 1919.” The men are headed to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the Fasci and also to hear a speech from the Duce. It’s a brilliant opening which shows fascism deeply embedded in society, ‘respectable’ fascists who look “good-natured, friendly and peace-loving. About 80% of them belong unmistakably to the working-class; the others look like small tradesmen or employees. Impossible not to like them; impossible too not to feel that Fascism was, in its beginning, a genuine revolutionary movement of the people.” 

The rumors of war are just that. Yes, there’s unrest in the world, and as events unfold, Origo takes particular note of the newspapers, again with that cool detachment she recognises shifts in attitudes. There’s a “sympathetic tone now adopted towards Russia,” which she intelligently realises “suggests that there may be some foundations in the persistent rumours of a German-Russian rapprochement.”

Although Mussolini makes speeches about arming the country, Origo expresses the thought that people are “entirely right in saying that Mussolini intends to avoid war,” and yet she speculates about “Mussolini’s capacity to act as a moderating influence on Hitler.” Meanwhile foreigners are expelled, foreign papers are not available, while “voluntary exodus” requires German subjects to move back to Germany and Italian subjects of Austrian origin to “move either to Germany or to other Italian provinces.”

Other restrictions kick in, there’s the last day that cars can be used, and on this day, the author visits old friends. The sale of coffee and tea is forbidden, and the English leave the country “except for a few very old ladies, who can’t move.” Still the general mood is that “it won’t come to a real war: the Duce will get is out of it somehow.” The diary notes how people manage, or fail to manage, the depression of anti-fascist neighbours, the mothers who worry that sons will be hauled off to fight. The war creeps closer and the mood darkens…

Iris Origo initially admired the Duce; her husband was, at one point, the president of the local fascist consorzi (landowners’ association). As the diary continues, we see the author’s attitude shift until she is galvanised into action, and that’s the story that continues in her book: War in Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary 1943-44. Sometimes book introductions are spoilers, and while the introduction, written by Lucy Hughes-Hallet, explains some of what happens in the book, it also explains who Iris Origo was, her connections, and her politics. I’d recommend reading it prior to starting the book.

Review copy


Filed under Non Fiction

Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions: Mario Giordano

“Fragrantly, in a white caftan and gold gladiator sandals plus dramatic eyeliner and plenty of rouge, she used to sail into the bar like a cruise liner visiting a provincial marina.”

german-literature-month-2016Yes it’s German Literature Month 2016 and what would this event be without a crime novel? Last year for GLM, I reviewed Thumbprint a 1936 novel from Friedrich Glauser; this year it’s Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano. The author, a child of Italian immigrants was born in Munich, and this first crime novel was originally published in German. Interestingly, the novel’s protagonist, Auntie Poldi is a German woman who decides to move to Italy. …


The novel’s narrator is Auntie Poldi’s nephew, a would-be writer who plans to write a “big, epic family saga spanning three German-Sicilian generations” but, so far, has made little progress. He relates how Auntie Poldi, at age 60, decided to move to Sicily “intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view.” The nephew comes to visit once a month, living in his aunt’s attic ostensibly to work on that great novel, but also to keep an eye on his aunt. Auntie Poldi, a “pig-headed Bavarian,” is a sort of larger-than-life Auntie Mame figure; her hobby is to collect photographs of “good looking traffic cops from all over the world.”

My Auntie Poldi: a glamorous figure, always ready to make a dramatic entrance. She had put on a bit of weight in recent years, admittedly, and booze and depression had ploughed a few furrows in her outward appearance, but she was still an attractive woman and mentally tip-top-most of the time, at least. Stylish, anyway. 

Auntie Poldi (Isolde) had a career as a costume designer, and married a tailor, Peppe (Giuseppe).

Poldi and my Uncle Peppe had shared a grand passion, but alas, a few things went badly wrong. Two miscarriages, booze, my uncle’s womanizing, divorce from my uncle, my uncle’s illness, my uncle’s death, the whole issue of the plot of land in Tanzania and sundry other unpleasant twists and turns, setbacks and upheavals of life had stricken my aunt with depression.

Poldi’s retirement to Sicily has her relatives concerned, but she refuses to move closer to them in Catania, and instead moves to Torre Archirafi (found photos of the place online, and it is spectacular). The novel goes on to include some unpleasant realities about living there along with details that bring the location to life.

Poldi, in common with those who have strong personalities, has theories on just about everything, and while she may think she wants a quiet retirement, it’s clear that that will never happen. This indomitable woman turns into an amateur sleuth after the disappearance of a young handyman she employs, and she rapidly gets in much deeper than she expected.  Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions would be easy to classify as a cozy mystery, but I wouldn’t place the book fully in that subgenre: it’s too tangy a book for that classification. It’s definitely an amateur sleuth book, on the light side of crime, with an emphasis on humour and irrepressible figure of Auntie Poldi, but the book is also a statement about being comfortable in one’s own skin.  The appeal of the promised series will depend very much on how the reader connects to the character of Auntie Poldi. If you are looking for light, amusing crime set in an exotic location with a confident, older protagonist, then this book is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

Review copy

Translated by John Brownjohn


Filed under Fiction, Giordano Mario

A View from the Tower by Charles Lambert

“No one’s immune, he said, as though the spores of violence were in the air and could settle on anyone.”

With The View from the Tower, Charles Lambert has written an intelligent, page-turner set in Rome–part mystery, part dissection of marriage and friendship, but underlying the story of a life in crisis, the novel examines revolutionary ethics and questions the moral justification of the use of violence. The book’s title, The View from the Tower, is literal and refers to a scene towards the end of the book, but it’s a phrase that also refers to the argument for revolutionary violence and how individuals swayed by the idea of ‘the greater good,’ place themselves on a higher moral ground, above the crowd and there, in isolation decide on that irrevocable step to take human life.

The view from the towerAs with Charles Lambert’s novel, Any Human Face, The View From the Tower is a page-turner, and the story begins powerfully with a long-married couple, now in their 50s saying a casual goodbye as they part for the day, and with neither of them aware that this is the “last morning of their marriage.” British ex-pat Helen and high-powered government official, Frederico, leave their flat and part with plans for a dinner that night–an event, of course, that will never take place:

So she and Frederico have these final moments together, down the dark stairs and across the square, barely time to exchange a dozen words and say goodbye before their separate days begin.

There’s a poignancy here–the illusion of permanence, the fragility of our mortality and a sense of impending loss–a loss that Helen has yet to endure as we read about an evening that exists only in the imagination:

This evening, Helen will set the table and fill up glasses while Frederico cooks and serves. He always cooks; it relaxes him after work. Helen will sit at the breakfast bar with a glass of wine and listen to his stories of the day’s events at the ministry, of people who form an intimate part of Frederico’s world and a less intimate part of hers.

This cleverly constructed introduction sets the scene for the idea that everything we hold dear, everything we assume will happen, all our expectations, can be wiped out in a single moment. Along with that idea, the story describes the spaces Helen and Frederico share, and the way in which their lives separate. These two elements: loss and  the knowledge we think we have of the people in our lives are two of the major themes of the novel.

Within a few minutes, Frederico and his bodyguard are dead–the apparent victims of political assassination, at the very moment that Helen is keeping an assignation with her long-time lover, and Fredrico’s best friend, aging rockstar revolutionary, Giacomo….

Author Charles Lambert takes some terrific risks with his characters by making them all flawed and, at times, unpleasant and unlikable. Frederico, Helen, and Giacomo are not perfect people–and certainly their relationships with one another are complex and intertwined with some sort of latent competitiveness lurking between the 2 men who see themselves reflected through the prism of politics. The novel goes back and forth in time, exploring these relationships–from Rome in 2004, back to Turin in the 70s and Giacomo and Frederico’s involvement in the war against the State.

What’s so interesting about the novel is the way the three characters appear to need each other; when Helen first meets Frederico in the 70s, she hears all these stories about Giacomo, his best friend, and it’s clear that Frederico has no small amount of admiration for Giacomo,–a man he sees as the ‘real thing,’ not just a theorist. If Giacomo appears to be the one who physically embodies the nomadic life of the untamed revolutionary, then Frederico is the intellectual arm of the revolution, and where does that leave Helen? How about smack in the middle? Even before meeting Giacomo, Helen feels that she will instinctively dislike him:

You’ll love him, Frederic said whenever he mentioned him. I know you will. Everybody does. Helen examined the small creased strips of photographs and other photographs of him Frederico showed her, always surrounded by people, and wondered if she would like him as much as Frederico expected her to. She didn’t like doing what everyone else did, or feeling what they felt. Besides, there was something over-masculine and swaggering about him she didn’t take to. Always standing in the centre, the largest smile, the others more often looking at him than at the camera, to see what he wanted, from them. She wouldn’t give him what he wanted, she decided, whatever that might be.

As the main female protagonist of the novel, Helen goes through various stages of grief when her husband is murdered: denial, shock, anger and acceptance, but whereas in a simpler novel, the character of Helen would be a vehicle for our sympathy, here she’s difficult to like. As the days pass after Frederico’s death, she turns to Giacomo for support, and it becomes increasingly apparent that Frederico, who seemed distracted and troubled weeks before his death, was keeping some very big secrets from his wife. As she uncovers layers of lies, her anger and feelings of betrayal, while very real, fail to garner much sympathy due to the fact that her relationship with Frederico has been tainted by duplicity for decades. In a lesser novel, this could be a plot flaw, but here the result is a pervasive sadness that these three people who profess to feel more for each other than anyone else on the planet, lived lives of tangled deceit and half-truths which all come spilling out only after Frederico’s death.

Underneath this drama involving murder, betrayal and infidelity, The View from the Tower tackles the question of revolutionary violence. Part of this comes through from the 70s backdrop of the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro–an event that Helen notes mainly as white noise, but an event, as it turns out, that may involve Frederico and Giacomo. Several decades later, Giacomo has morphed from the dashing, charismatic radical and is now a middle-aged man who has turned author, tending to the heaviness of his sedentary lifestyle. He makes the lecture circuit on the merit of his past exploits, and his current rockstar status is thanks to his past which includes a jail sentence. Now he’s wealthy, jets around the world and has an anorexic, high-maintenance Parisian trophy wife. These days, Giacomo is about as revolutionary as a Che Guevara T-shirt. The fact that he arrives in Rome on the very day of Frederico’s murder is enough for those investigating the assassination to be suspicious of his involvement. Meanwhile, Frederico’s death suddenly becomes a matter of State, and Helen finds herself fighting over his corpse with her mother-in-law. The real fight, of course, goes much deeper than this.

While I can’t say that I liked the characters in this tale of tangled loyalties twisted with bitter betrayals,  I wanted to see what happened to them as Helen and a friend dig around looking for answers to Frederic’s murder. I should interject that I really liked the adulterous twist that removed Helen from the devastated widow figure. This throws a wrench in her role as a tragic wife, and since I don’t like books that milk my emotions, ‘nice’ people who do bad things always add to the interest of any story.

Politics is a dirty game, and here we see those layers at all levels: world, state and personal. Just who comes out as a winner in this well-written, engaging story isn’t who you’d expect. While the very-human drama plays out against the underbelly of Rome’s political structure, ultimately, the biggest question is: who has the moral right to decide to end of the life of another in order to secure political goals?  

Review copy & purchased copy.


Filed under Fiction, Lambert Charles

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

There are some women, Philip, good women, very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster. Whatever they touch somehow turns to tragedy. I don’t know why I say this to you, but I feel I must.”

Why is one book from an author’s considerable body of work remembered more than others? I don’t think it’s necessarily because that book stands out for its excellence. In the case of Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, often termed her masterpiece, seems to be the book she is best remembered for. The Hitchcock film version helps, no doubt, and then there’s the remake with Diana Rigg. Plus there’s that unforgettable first sentence: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

This brings me to My Cousin Rachel, a book du Maurier published in 1951–13 years after Rebecca. There’s also an excellent film version of this book, but as I write this post, the film is OOP. My Cousin Rachel, is, I think, the superior book, at least in my opinion. Rebecca is much more traditional, but it’s a wonderful book, and perhaps part of its success can be traced to the way du Maurier makes the reader feel the presence of a character who isn’t there. We feel the presence of the enigmatic Rebecca everywhere–as does the new, very different Mrs de Winter. Curiously, a surface examination of the plots of both novels yields some similarities. Both are set in du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall, and in both novels men marry women they hardly know while they are holidaying in Europe.

But enough of Rebecca. What of My Cousin Rachel? It’s easy to define the plot, but not so easy to describe what is actually going on. This is a novel that explores the dark ambiguities of human nature and the toxicity of jealousy.

It’s the 19th century, and the narrator is Philip, an orphan, who is brought up by his cousin Ambrose. There’s about a twenty year difference between Philip and Ambrose, and no small degree of hero-worship is directed towards Ambrose, “god” of Philip’s “narrow world.”  We only see Ambrose through Philip’s memories, but he’s larger than life, a good man, but a man with some peculiarities.  Ambrose is a confirmed bachelor, and laughs at the notion of marriage and producing an heir as he argues that Philip is a “ready-made heir” for his extensive Cornwall estate. Ambrose is considered “eccentric perhaps, unorthodox,” but he’s much-loved by everyone. Philip is influenced by Ambrose’s eccentricity. He’s taught the alphabet by using swearwords, and they live in an all-male household as Ambrose will brook no female servants.

Ambrose begins to winter abroad due to his severe rheumatism, and he turns the time to collecting plants from abroad and bringing them back to Cornwall:

The first winter came and went, likewise the second. He enjoyed himself well enough, and I don’t think he was lonely. He returned with heaven knows how many trees, shrubs, flowers, plants of every form and colour. Camellias were his passion. We started a plantation for them alone, and whether he had green fingers or a wizard’s touch I do not know, but they flourished from the first, and we lost none of them.

So there are some benefits to Ambrose’s exile. Until the third winter….

For his third winter away in Europe, Ambrose decides to travel to Florence. In his first letter from Florence, Ambrose mentions that he’s met “a connection” of the family. This connection, a distant cousin, is the recently widowed Contessa Sangalletti–also known as Rachel. Ambrose’s letters continue to mention Rachel and the information that she’s burdened with her husband’s debts.  Then a letter arrives in which Ambrose announces that he’s now married to Rachel. This would be news indeed from anyone, but coming from Ambrose, a confirmed bachelor in his 40s who generally dislikes the female sex and swore he would never marry, the news is unexpected. Philip is shocked and feels displaced by the news. Meanwhile the locals are titillated by the thought of a new bride on the estate, and everyone looks forward to Ambrose’s imminent return:

What shamed me the most was the delight of his friends, their real pleasure and true thought for his welfare. Congratulations were showered upon me, as a sort of messenger to Ambrose, and in the midst of it all I had to smile, and nod my head, and make out to them that I had known it would happen all along. I felt double-faced, a traitor.  Ambrose had so tutored me to hate falsity, in man or beast, that suddenly to find myself pretending to be other than I was came near to agony.

Spring moves into summer, then autumn and finally winter. Still Ambrose stays abroad kept by constant delays, and finally after more than 18 months abroad strange, incoherent letters from Ambrose begin to arrive. Philip decides to go to Italy and determine exactly what is going on, but he arrives too late. His beloved cousin Ambrose is dead, and Rachel has disappeared. There are some very peculiar circumstances to Ambrose’s death, but the will, which had been changed to Rachel’s favour remains unsigned.

Some time later, Philip receives word that Rachel is coming to visit. This will be an awkward visit as Philip is now master of the estate while Rachel inherited nothing. Philip is determined to hate her, and yet when she arrives, she is nothing as expected….

My Cousin Rachel is essentially a mystery, and the mystery surrounds Rachel herself. What sort of person is she? Is she evil incarnate,  is evil unfairly ascribed to her, or does she land somewhere in the middle–a flawed human being with a few bad habits? That’s for the reader to decide as we line up evidence and argue for each case. Also, can we rely on Philip’s observations? Is he an unreliable narrator? Philip is certainly not as overtly unreliable as McGrath’s Edward Haggard in Dr Haggard’s Disease, but he’s emotionally involved with the situation. Is he capable of making clear judgements?

My Cousin Rachel is a marvellous novel–much more complex than it initially appears. This is a story that tells no absolutes and guilt rests only on impressions:

I wondered how it could be that two people who had loved could yet have such a misconception of each other and, with a common grief, grow far apart. There must be something in the nature of love between a man and a woman that drove them to torment and suspicion.


Filed under du Maurier Daphne, Fiction

Any Human Face by Charles Lambert

I had a bit of luck recently when I won a book give-away held by The Fiction Desk. The book, Any Human Face by Charles Lambert arrived and I almost immediately picked it up. I planned to read the back cover and perhaps a page or two as I had another book I intended to get to first. I ended up devouring this book in two separate readings over the course of a twenty-four hour period. The blurb on the front of the novel promises: A dark, fast-paced story of love, sex, abduction and murder, and the book certainly lives up to all those qualities.

The main character of the novel is Andrew Caruso, a man in his 50s who owns a sad little bookshop in Rome. His father was Italian and his mother Scottish, but Andrew manages to be neither. It’s 2008, and he’s lived in Rome now for decades. While he ‘fits’ in when it comes to adaptability, there’s a sense of impermanence to his life. This is expressed in the squalor of his neglected apartment (shared with a “half-starved” cat) and his complete indifference to his appearance. Even though he barely scrapes a living from the bookshop, he’s too kind to chase away the occasional shoplifter.

Andrew lives in a world of dilapidated, permeable borders. The books inside the shop, on the shelves and outside the shop, on the bargain table, are fluid categories, the membrane between his home and his place of work as punched with holes as a long-distance train ticket. Half the time, he doesn’t know where he’s put things and it’s a source of constant niggling disquiet that something important–but what?-might have gone missing.

Andrew is working on an article about one of his past lovers, a passionate explosive young Belgium photographer named Michel who killed himself back in 1983. Andrew has ‘moved on’ from the relationship, but he’s still deeply wounded by the affair. Searching through a box of Michel’s possessions brings back painful memories, but then he discovers some packages of photos he was unaware of. Pushy neurotic art director Daniela dell’ Orto comes up with the idea of holding an exhibition of Michel’s work. And from this point, things go rapidly downhill….

The narrative goes back and forth over time with each section focusing on one of the handful of characters. In 1983, for example, a young hustler named Alex has a close brush with violent death when his older lover, Bruno, is brutally murdered. Alex takes shelter at the home of former actor, the Birdman, a strange character who lives in the Piazza Vittorio. Gradually the segments of the novel show the connections between the characters, and the mystery of the photos deepens. This doling out of information makes the novel intense and an addictive read. At the same time, there’s this nagging feeling that this is a yarn–mainly due to the novel’s structure, but it’s a yarn in the best sense of the word. Any Human Face is described as “part thriller, part love story,” and while I wasn’t crazy about the love part, the story is far richer than a thriller. Yes there is a faceless power structure pulling the strings behind the scenes, but this is a book that primarily examines the shifting relationships between its characters as they cope with corruption, fear and monolithic abuse of power. How does the average person endure when they are surrounded by corruption? Well if you are lucky, you have family and friends you can count on. If you’re alone, you’re screwed.

Any Human Face tracks the way in which some characters mature or disintegrate. Alex, for example, morphs from being a selfish hustler to a decent human being, and in the process he learns to appreciate the generosity of caring relationships.  The novel also explores the idea that fringe-dwellers like the Birdman are quite aware of the darker, seamier side of life, but while they rub elbows with these elements, they manage to maintain some ethics in their personal behaviour. The Birdman dabbles in pornographic photography, and yet he is one of the kindest people in the book. He’s a marvellous friend, generous, forgiving and unselfish, yet he hardly fits into any sort of acceptable societal rules. He’s the one character who immediately grasps just what’s going on and the dangers involved of plunging in too deep. Here’s the Birdman warning Alex:

 “I don’t mean decent, respectable working-class homes like yours. I’m talking about our ruling classes. Bureaucrats, pimps, upholders of the faith. The worst kind of scum, but they don’t know that because nobody has the nerve to tell them, and if they do they’re branded as mad, or bad. As I have been, to my cost.  I’m talking about people with money and power.”

In one part of the novel, Andrew engages in anonymous wanking via an internet video, and while it’s a pseudo encounter with very little risk, it’s bleak, lonely and ultimately unsatisfying. Andrew catches himself trying to read the book titles in the background behind the anonymous man who’s wanking for an unknown audience.  There’s an emptiness to the experience that echoes through Andrew’s life. Any Human Face is a novel of connections and contrasts–anonymous sex and pornographic photographs, a missing girl snatched from the streets of Rome, sex and power, sex and vulnerability, human beings who use and exploit each other and relationships that endure.


Filed under Lambert Charles

Beard’s Roman Women by Anthony Burgess

In the Anthony Burgess novel Beard’s Roman Women, when writer Beard’s wife of twenty-six years dies of cirrhosis of the liver, he’s at a loss to know quite what to do with the rest of life. But a summons to Hollywood distracts him from the slight confusion he feels due to his wife, Leonora’s permanent absence. Once in Hollywood, it becomes the goal of American film mogul, Ed Schaumwein to ensure that Beard “start[s] to live again meaning work a little and get laid a lot.” This translates to the usual tourist trips and a few showy parties. Beard meets glamorous photographer Paola Lucrezia Belli. “Out of the habit of sex,” Beard falls hard and fast for Paola, and follows her back to Rome.

Beard, who’s being paid fifty thousand dollars for a film script, has a series of misadventures in Rome which include an irate ex-husband, Roman thieves, an old friend who’s a perpetual boozer, and a gang of violent, vengeful Italian women. Throughout these misadventures, Beard continues to work on his atrocious screenplay–a big screen production that tells the story of Byron, Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein. But Beard’s work is interrupted when he begins to receive phone calls from the dead Leonora.

The novel begins very strongly with a solid description of Beard’s marriage and his wife’s long illness:

“She died in an English March. He should have known, those quiet years in London when he was earning their living as a writer of scripts for radio, television and cinema, what her trouble was. He had even written a television play in which one of the characters, a writer of scripts for radio, television and cinema, died of cirrhosis. From these years in Brunei on, when he worked for Radio Brunei, it never seemed to him that either of them drank excessively. In the tropics, surely, you sweated all the gin out before it got anywhere near the liver. To the house in Hammersmith they had had, true, one dozen bottles of Gordon’s delivered weekly, but they dispensed tropical hospitality even to the delivery man; they drank wine only with dinner and did not invariably take a liqueur after; they spent no more than two hours a day in pubs. He had emerged undamaged from this; why not then she also?”

Leonora’s illness leads to a death that is predicted but still stunning in its swiftness. From that moment, Beard flounders–chasing love and sex while encountering jealousy and delayed grief. Naturally all of this trauma contributes to the difficulties of trying to write his ridiculous script.

The greatest character in the novel has to be Greg Gregson, Beard’s doppelganger who brings tales of encounters with Leonora and heralds in a series of phone calls apparently from ‘beyond.’ Greg’s notions of lunch (“blotting paper”) are peppered with his inappropriate ideas of empire and imperialism. Greg Gregson, however has the opportunity to save the day at the risk of pissing off the locals.

Some time ago I read One Hand Clapping also by Burgess, and I thought it was a marvellous novel. Beard’s Roman Women, on the other hand, was not as good. Published in 1977, Burgess based the tale partly on his experiences as a widower, and interestingly, the passages about Leonora are the most stunning in the novel. Excellent in parts but dated in others, the novel is in some ways a literary version of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Fellini’s film also examines the struggles of the creative process, and his main character Guido Anselmi is plagued with marriage problems and memories of the past that blend with fantasy. After reading Beard’s Roman Women, I have images of Albert Finney playing Beard on the loose in Rome, and these imagined reels collide into segments of Anita Ekberg dancing half-dressed in the Trevi fountain.

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