THE GARDEN OF PERSEPHONE is a novel by Cesar J. Rotondi published in 1982. It is also a sad disappointment, a book I threw down after only a few pages. The problems? There is no conflict, it is replete with tells and the characters make speeches to one another. Here is an example:
Julien rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Now you’re happy copying books.”
Edward looked at him loftily. “Our illuminations are considered as elegant as any produced anywhere.”
“That’s just what I mean. Oh, let’s change the subject. Tell me about Cuthbert.”
What a pity to have such a boring exchange hiding behind such a ravishing title. I threw the book down at this point. One star.
Before I journeyed to Sicily, I promised myself to read this novel, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s THE LEOPARD, about Sicily on the brink of the Risorgimento in 1860, based on the life of the author’s maternal grandfather, Prince Fabrizio di Salina.
What is really wonderful about the novel is the luminous prose that comes through in the sensitive English translation of Archibald Colquhuon, and the amazing details that make it come alive. I loved the way in which we follow Prince Fabrizio through his dark palaces, glimpsing his daughters’ dresses billowing as they curtseyed to him. Or as we followed him on an erotic jaunt to Palermo, when he insists on being accompanied by his chaplain! (That was one of my favorite episodes of the novel).
And it is interesting that di Lampedusa chose to deal with such an earthquake of a movement as the Risorgimento at such a remove. There are no scenes where the redshirts storm the palace, or Fabrizio has a loud argument with his nephew or his new low-born relative does anything exceptionally vulgar. Everything is muted, and veiled by civility. But then, that is exactly what life was like in 1860s Europe.
And I think that is why E.M. Forster called it “a novel which happens to take place in history,” as opposed to “an historical novel.” Five stars.
I had a fabulous time visiting Sicily to do research for a forthcoming novel. Sicily is sometimes called “Persephone’s Isle” because it was believed that Persephone was snatched away by the God of the Underworld while wandering in a meadow picking spring flowers in Sicily. The island still has that feel of enchantment about it. The landscape is very dramatic, sometimes reminding me of California, with its steep mountain slopes.
But one thing it has that California doesn’t is Mount Etna. In a way, I feel that the volcano is the heart of Sicily. Imagine waking up every morning and squinting at that plume of smoke that puffs gently out of her. How is she feeling today? Moody? Furious? Sullen? It is like having a furious goddess on your doorstep. You never know what may happen next, and Etna can be lethal. For example, Catania was nearly destroyed in the 17th century and there have been many many scares since then.
If you feel like going to Sicily yourself, I recommend you go soon, for the enchantment is not going to last forever. As we speak, the Italian government is pouring money into Sicily in the form of new autostrada and new apartment buildings that are springing up like weeds to surround old city centers. I’m sure that the money is most welcome to the people of Sicily, but unfortunately, their country may be paying quite a price for it. Click here to see more photos.
This is the first one of Ariana Franklin’s MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH series that I’ve read, and I must say I enjoyed it even though there was one horrendous incident in the novel, in which the screams of the victim were hauntingly portrayed. (The nastiness and brutishness of the Middle Ages was well-portrayed and believable.) I agreed with other readers, however, that the author should NOT have dismissed Eleanor of Aquitaine as someone who was not her husband’s intellectual equal. I can imagine Henry saying that about her, but I didn’t think that Franklin should let her authorial opinions intrude at this point. Especially as she is probably wrong.
The book was enjoyable until the end. What a lazy way to end a novel! It was extremely annoying because it was so obviously a marketing pitch for the next one. Apart from the cheap ending, I enjoyed the novel. Four stars for an entertaining novel, 1 star for the lazy ending making this 3 stars.
Just wanted to let you know this will be my last post until June (apart from the odd book review). As you read this, I’m in Sicily doing research for a forthcoming novel. Can’t tell you much about it (except that it is set in Sicily), because I haven’t written a word of it yet. I’ve been learning Italian for the past several months so that I can converse with the people there and hear their stories. Will post photos on Facebook & Flickr when I return.
Have a wonderful May!
Image: A snow-capped Mt. Etna, taken from the Saracen Castle above Taormina, Sicily, April 2012
Maria Bordihn’s THE FALCON OF PALERMO is an ambitious biography of an ambitious character. Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), was known to his contemporaries as Stupor Mundi (the wonder of the world), because he could speak six languages – including Arabic – and had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Bucking the mores of 1200s Europe, Frederick was not above making sarcastic comments about religion. His reputation was such that Dante consigned him to the sixth circle of hell, in the tombs of the heretics. The only reason why he wasn’t burned at stake is because he was the most powerful monarch of the time, ruling a territory that included Sicily, Southern Italy, and Germany. He was both Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily.
So it was with a sense of anticipation that I opened the pages of this novel, because a larger-than-life character would naturally inspire larger-than-life drama in the pages of this novel. No? Unfortunately, not exactly.
What is wonderful about this novel is the delineation of character, especially those of Frederick and his wives, especially his morganatic fourth wife Bianca.
What doesn’t work so well is the method of telling this story. The novel opens in 1194, when Frederick is born, and trundles on through 56 years until he dies in 1250. It is not possible for a novelist to cover this amount of time without resorting to narrative summary. However, the whole novel is cast in this way. What I mean by that is not that there are no scenes (there are plenty of them), but that the scenes are not dramatic enough. There is not enough raw emotion on the page. There is not enough conflict. So Frederick’s larger-than-life character is curiously muted. Which is a pity, because his story lends itself to some memorable screaming matches (which I would have enjoyed)! Three stars.
I bought this book because I plan to travel to Sicily next spring and am currently reading up on it so that I have as much understanding about this fascinating place as one can gain from an armchair, and also to prepare me for the actual experience of going there.
I was delighted to see that Mary Taylor Simeti had done a travelogue of Sicily, because I remembered her charming tale of Queen Constance and her various travels around Italy that I read some years ago. I was not disappointed in this book. Simeti plans her book around a year, starting with the old New Year that occurred November 1st, with the Feast of the Dead, and gradually working her way around the seasons so that the end of the book finished one year later.
Although she spends much time discussing her garden and her various meanderings around the Sicilian countryside with her family, this book is also a snapshot of life in Sicily during 1982-1983. I was a young woman then, freshly married, and her vivid prose enabled me to go back in time nearly thirty years ago, to re-remember events that I had completely gotten, such as the Italian government’s successful attempts to divert the lava flow of Mount Etna, so that it did not go into populated areas. (They did this using dynamite). But I loved this book because of Simeti’s relentless quest for the shadow of Persephone and the Greek civilization that existed on Sicily so many years ago. Highly recommended. Four stars.