Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Grand Tour #11 – Italy. The Betrothed / Alessandro Manzoni

May 27, 2017

When I asked him for ideas of books to read for this project, an Italian friend suggested Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), which he had read at school and enjoyed. (All Italians read this book at school: it’s the classic Italian 19th-century novel.) I’d heard of the book, albeit primarily as an opera title (Ponchielli’s is the most famous adaptation), and was attracted by the idea of reading a substantial book for a change, most of those I’ve read so far being on the thin side. I read an anonymous 1834 translation of the novel’s original version from 1827 (it was revised by Manzoni in 1842). I’d like to say I chose it carefully, but in fact it was the only one on Project Gutenberg.

Just because a book’s long, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily long-winded, but this is both. The plot is minimal. It is 1628, and the intended marriage of two young peasant lovers, Renzo and Lucia (called Lucy in this translation; the fashion among translators of the time was clearly for Anglicisation), is stopped by the intervention of a corrupt baron, Don Rodrigo. The lovers, under threat, separate, throwing themselves on the mercy of well-wishers. Following nearly two years apart, each of them having suffered the privations of e.g. bread riots and plague, Renzo and Lucia are reunited and get married at last. (Spoiler alert.)

The secondary characters are more intriguing than Renzo and Lucia, who are open books, the former good-hearted but overly rash, the latter good-hearted but overly pious. The Nun of Monza, who takes Lucia under her wing but is herself under the power of shady forces, is a fascinating character, a woman living as a nun almost by mistake, and has a personal story related with great compassion, but is abandoned when her part in Lucia’s rescue and capture has been completed, her eventual fate related in a few brief paragraphs towards the end. The conversion to Christianity of the enigmatic character called L’Innominato is also involving, and might be the model for similar twists in more recent works of fiction.

Among the comic characters, the priest Don Abbondio is a success, if rather one-note, making every decision according to what will cause the least inconvenience for him. The scene where Federico Borromeo (the real-life Archbishop of Milan) attempts with limited success to show him the error of his ways is very amusing. Satisfying too, if not to the same extent that similar talkings-to in other books (I thought particularly of Trollope) are.

(The presence of Borromeo is restrictive: as a real-life character, moreover a documentedly heroic one, Manzoni cannot treat him as anything other than a saint, nor would he wish to. Other religious characters are morally flawless, most notably Fra Cristoforo, the protector of Renzo and Lucia. They cannot be otherwise. When Oscar Wilde wrote there was no such thing as a moral book, he presumably hadn’t read this. Almost without exception the good end happily and the bad unhappily.)

The most satisfying moments tended to be those where I was able to join dots between The Betrothed and other books. I thought most frequently of Candide, a book that packs ten times the action of this book into a fifth of the space. The moving reunion of Renzo and Lucia amid the devastation of the plague of Milan (the plague scenes are quite harrowing, which is to Manzoni’s credit) is like one of the unexpected reunions in Candide, both characters changed by their experiences but evidently meant to come together once more. Just as Cunégonde becomes ugly in Candide, there’s a nice detail about Lucia losing her looks after her recovery from plague (or perhaps never having been a looker in the first place).

The reports the Bergamascans had heard of Lucy, together with Renzo’s extraordinary attachment to her — perhaps, too, the representations of some partial friend — had contributed to excite an extravagant idea of her beauty. When Lucy appeared, they began to shrug their shoulders, and say, “Is this the woman? We expected something very different! What is she, after all? A peasant, like a thousand others! Women like her, and fairer than she, are to be found every where!”

Unfortunately, some kind friends told Renzo these things, perhaps added to what they had heard, and roused his indignation. “And what consequence is it to you?” said he. “Who told you what to expect? Did I ever do so? Did I tell you she was beautiful? She is a peasant, forsooth! Did I ever say I would bring a princess here? She does not please you. Do not look at her, then: you have beautiful women; look at them.”

I was quite touched by this, though I’m not sure quite why. Elsewhere, Don Ferrante is a character straight out of Voltaire: he surrounds himself by books and thinks himself a scholar, believes the plague is caused by planetary motion, takes no precautions against it, and dies. You see, the book’s not without humour. Manzoni even knows he’s a bit of a bore, and that the chapters giving historical context derail the narrative rather too much. ‘Don’t be alarmed, reader,’ he writes at one point in a paragraph about the progress of the plague, ‘our design is not to relate its history.’ I just wish he’d practised this abstemiousness a bit more elsewhere.

Grand Tour #10 – Austria. Magdalena the Sinner / Lilian Faschinger

May 12, 2017

For Austria, I had in mind Joseph Roth’s classic The Radetzky March, which I’ve been intending to read for some years; only I foresee quite a lot of grimness ahead once I reach Eastern Europe (it’s what publishers seem to think we want to read), and, all things considered, prefer not reading about social unrest to the alternative. Call me an ostrich if you will.

Not that the book I settled on, Lilian Faschinger’s 1995 novel Magdalena the Sinner (Magdalena Sünderin), translated by Shaun Whiteside, sounds light-hearted exactly. Magdalena abducts a Catholic priest at gunpoint during a Mass for Whitsun, drives him off into the countryside in her motorbike and sidecar, ties him to a tree and gags him, and proceeds to confess to the murders of seven ex-lovers.

Although ostensibly narrated by the priest, who comments periodically on his reactions to Magdalena’s confession, the novel’s real voice is that of Magdalena, who talks uninterrupted for the best part of 300 pages. At times it resembles another novel in the form of an extended monologue, Philip Roth’s filthy masterpiece Portnoy’s Complaint, although Magdalena rants less than Portnoy, and rarely if ever reaches his pitch of self-righteous anger. Perhaps ranting is the prerogative of men; certainly one recurring theme is the unrealistic demands men make of women.

Magdalena’s irreverent tone is established early on, as she compliments the priest for his response to being kidnapped, while critiquing the performances of the panicked server and organist. She proceeds to tell the story of her life, and there is a pleasingly absurd strain running through her recollections – a food-related dream in which Magdalena’s family house is surrounded by a moat containing a series of sauces; her sisters protesting Magdalena’s attempts to emancipate herself with entreaties to ‘declare your aunthood!’; a delightful description of her escape from the stifling pretensions of middle-class existence …

You must try this recipe that we found in southern Burundi, the cosmopolitan academics cried; you must listen to these songs performed only in a little mountain village in the interior of Sardinia during Easter week by three ninety-year-old women, which have thankfully been made accessible to us by the tireless efforts of a Viennese ethno-musicologist; you must try on this mask carved from the wood of a two-hundred-year-old sequoia by a Shawnee tribesman directly descended from Chief Tecumseh.

Magdalena’s relationships with her seven lovers overlap, so that often one will provide a refuge from her present relationship before becoming a problem himself. They’re a motley bunch, each from a different country, each with his own particular flaw (self-absorption, violence, philandering, vampirism, etc.), each dispatched in a different way, often pleasingly. Highlights? You have to go some way to beat a Transylvanian Jehovah’s Witness, I think, but the Bluebeardesque Baron Otto is an engaging character, as is the swimming instructor Karl Danzinger, who spends most of the duration of his relationship with the preternaturally patient Magdalena observing the various ways in which his three ex-wives are her superiors. Magdalena brokers peace between the wives, but there comes a point when Karl has to go the same way as the rest.

You come to love Magdalena. The reason she has gagged the priest is that she needs her story to be listened to in its entirety, something no man has ever been able to do. There’s a certain element of danger involved: I can’t be the only reader who has wondered if the nasty twist at the end, and this is exactly the kind of book that would have a nasty twist, will be that the priest is victim number seven. You see, like all of her victims, he loves Magdalena, a love that evolves slowly but surely during their brief time together. His pious sister Maria aside (the saint Maria and the sinner Magdalena – you see the hints at religious allegory; it’s pleasing but unsurprising when the priest’s name is eventually revealed to be Christian), he has never really spent time alone with a woman before, and has led an altogether sheltered life. At first shocked by Magdalena’s crimes, he comes to feel compassion for her, taking her part against her victims, and even begins to desire her. He compares her beauty favourably with a number of artistic depictions of her namesake Mary Magdalene, and, as the end of her narrative approaches, appears to be on the verge of throwing over the priesthood to run away with her.

Twenty-four hours ago I had been feverishly wondering how I could free myself from the power of my abductor, but in the meantime our relationship had changed so drastically that I was already yearning for her return. I realized that it was a scandal, and not only from the point of view of Catholic doctrine, for a consecrated Catholic priest, a man respected and popular both in his parish and beyond its borders, to be on the point of entering a frankly erotic relationship with a woman leading an extremely indecent life in comparison to the overwhelming majority of her sex, who had abducted him at gunpoint, but that it also, from the perspective of so-called common sense, revealed a rashness bordering on insanity, which could lead to my excommunication. But I simply swept such considerations aside.

It is the tension of this relationship, I think, that makes the book special, and the way Faschinger resolves it is simple but undeniably right-feeling.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. To finish with another detail that pleased me, early on Magdalena recalls having fallen in love with Cary Grant and James Stewart at a Hitchcock film festival (we’ve all been there, I thought); later, Hitchcock returns, with this moment, surely intentionally, combining elements of Vertigo and Psycho.

Michael looked at me speechlessly for a minute, and then said quietly, with emotion in his voice, that it was astonishing how closely I resembled his departed mother wearing those clothes. Couldn’t I put my hair up in a bun before we set off? he asked.

Grand Tour #1 – Portugal. The Crime of Father Amaro / Eça de Queiróz

January 14, 2017

My literary tour of the EU begins with a novel from Portugal, The Crime of Father Amaro: Scenes from the Religious Life (O Crime do Padre Amaro) by Eça de Queiróz, in its final edition from 1880, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. The author’s name is nowadays more commonly spelled de Queirós, but in her introduction Costa calls him simply Eça (as one would Leonardo), so that avoids any orthographic heartache.

I’m letting this project be dictated, where possible, by the availability of books in the library, and this happened to be the only Portuguese book we have in translation (titles from e.g. Brazil and Mozambique excepted). It wasn’t a wholly unknown quantity to me, though. I haven’t seen it, but I was at least aware of the 2003 film adaptation, sexed up (not that the book needs much sexing up) and moved to modern-day Mexico and starring my not very secret crush Gael García Bernal.

A bit about Eça (1845-1900). One of the great Portuguese realist writers. Lived in the UK for much of his adult life, working for the Portuguese consular service in Newcastle and then Bristol. A fan of Dickens, the introduction notes, though I thought this book was closer in spirit to Zola or Flaubert, with its simmering sexuality. Zola, quoted on the back cover: ‘Queiróz is far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert.’ I raised an eyebrow.

The book opens explosively with the death from apoplexy of the priest José Miguéis. (He’s in good company – there are three deaths from apoplexy in the first 100 pages; clearly the way to go in nineteenth-century Portugal.) The fat, bloated carcass of José Miguéis seems symbolic of the Catholic Church in Portugal – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Drafted into his place is young Amaro Vieira, not long out of the seminary.

The corruption and hypocrisy rooted deep within the church in the town of Leiria, where the book is set, are evident from the start. Canon Dias arranges for Amaro to lodge in the household of his own mistress, São Joaneira, so that she can have some extra money from his rent. This forces Amaro together with São Joaneira’s daughter Amélia, and after a bit of pussy-footing (not a euphemism) they embark on their own illicit affair. Ah! you think, this is the crime of Father Amaro. Well, it’s one of them, but really there are so many to choose from.

This thing about Dickens. The introduction plays up the similarity between the two writers, and Eça’s book is undoubtedly full of characters who, while not in most cases as vividly drawn and described as Dickens’ finest comic creations, are larger than life. For a book full of anger and bitterness (Amaro is aptly named), it has its fair share of comedy. The scene where the ladies of Leiria inspect Amaro’s room while he’s out and admire his underwear is memorable, as is this forensic pencil sketch:

Dona Maria da Assunção had dressed in her Sunday black silk; she was wearing a reddish-blonde wig covered in ornamental black lace; her bony, mittened hands, which lay solemnly on her lap, glittered with rings; a thick gold chain made of filigree hung from the brooch at her neck down to her waist. She was sitting very stiff and erect, her head slightly tilted, her gold-rimmed spectacles perched on her rather equine nose; she had a large, hairy mole on her chin, and whenever she spoke of religious feelings or of miracles she would make an odd movement with her neck and then open her mouth in a silent smile that revealed enormous, greenish teeth, like wedges hammered into her gums. She was a wealthy widow and suffered from chronic catarrh.

(Dona Maria da Assunção lives surrounded by religious tat, the crowning glory of which is a reliquary containing a piece of Christ’s nappy.)

Eça, writes Costa, disliked Dickens’ sentimentality. I think I’d have worked that out by myself: he’s brutal. Dickens gets most maudlin when he’s engaged in social commentary, perhaps. (To take the first example that came to mind, that of Dick, one of the workhouse boys in Oliver Twist: ‘I heard the doctor tell them I was dying … I know the doctor must be right, Oliver, because I dream so much of Heaven, and Angels, and kind faces that I never see when I am awake.’) Eça’s way of approaching the problems of society is blunter. With the honourable exception of Father Ferrão, who becomes Amélia’s confessor – though even his motives can sometimes be read as sinister – the priests are boorish, self-satisfied and corrupt, wedded to the bed and the bottle.

The sacristan stood behind him, arms folded, slowly stroking his thick, neatly trimmed beard and casting sideways glances at Casimira França, the cathedral carpenter’s devout wife, whom he had had his eye on since Easter.

One of the political points Eça makes, rather well, is the folly whereby men (boys, really) enter the priesthood at an age when they have no vocation and little self-knowledge, as is the case with Amaro. Surrounded by fornicating priests, it’s hardly a surprise that the temptation to follow their example is too strong for him, or that, when faced with the prospect of a love rival, he spins out of control.

Then he tried to get a grip on himself and all his faculties and to apply them to finding the best way to have his revenge. And then the old despair returned that he was not living in the times of the Inquisition and could not therefore pack them off to prison on some accusation of irreligion or black magic. Ah, a priest could have enjoyed himself then. But now, with the liberals in power, he was forced to watch as that wretched clerk earning six vinténs a day made off with the girl, whilst he, an educated priest, who might become a bishop or even Pope, had to bow his shoulders and ponder his grief alone. If God’s curses had any value, then let them be cursed. He hoped to see them overrun with children, with no bread in the cupboard, their last blanket pawned, gaunt with hunger, cursing each other – then he would laugh, oh, how he would laugh!

Such bitterness, such self-pity. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel, for me, was the emotional immaturity of Amaro and Amélia, each so quick to think the worst of the other when (as happens occasionally) one ceases communication with the other, both of them so unversed in human psychology. When, halfway through the book, Amaro finally gets what he wants, i.e. Amélia, he becomes not more level-headed, but a tyrant, forbidding her from reading novels and poetry, suspecting her of infidelity at the least provocation. It invites the question, can we forgive Amaro? Can we pity him, even? To what extent is his cruelty a product of the repressiveness of his situation? What is the point at which we have to assume responsibility for our actions? By the end, I found myself wishing he had suffered more, if anything.

At Chapter 22, the unexpected happens: a shopping list between pages 390 and 391.

shopping-list

I don’t suppose I will ever know what happened to this student’s nails.

The story of Amaro and Amélia, though, is resolved. It’s a resolution that feels right, though dully predictable. I don’t think predictability is necessarily a bad thing, but goodness Eça likes his signposting. When, in an earlyish episode, Amélia’s childhood friend Joaninha is publicly dishonoured, having fallen from grace following an affair with a priest, it doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to read it as a prefiguration of what is to come. With all the evidence that destruction is on the way, why does neither Amélia nor Amaro come clean? That’s another symptom of society’s corruption, I suppose, that it compels you to conceal the truth.

Anyway, if you like a mix of self-righteous satire and torrid melodrama, this is your book. I liked it. It’s a page-turner.

Shakespeare, pastries and holy water

April 23, 2016

There’s John Falstaff, a comical fellow
And that envious Moor called Othello
But the star of the folio
Is surely Malvolio
In cross-gartered stockings of yellow

The above is my humble contribution to mark the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s shuffling off of his brief candle.

Relatedly, this is what I recall of the dream I had last Sunday night:

I met J at an unspecified event. She was sitting in some communal room, like the Green Room at Gonville and Caius but a bit swisher. She had a bowl of water and was aspersing people. I said ‘Asperges me hyssopo’ and she chucked a bit of water at me.

Then we had a good-natured chat about Shakespeare in which I surprised myself at my knowledge of the plays. I certainly mentioned Florizel and Perdita, and we discussed Twelfth Night, which I said was my favourite. I suppose knowledge grows by accretion without one realising it.

I took a pastry at her prompting, which appeared to be a loosely coiled croissant, then walked with her as I ate. It uncoiled into a kind of baguette, much more substantial than it had seemed, the end dragging on the ground, the other still in my mouth. I was glad to see her looking so well.

Shakespeare