The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo (Antony Shugaar, translator)

Title:  The Pope’s Daughter
Author:  Dario Fo
Translator:  Antony Shugaar
Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2015)
ISBN:  978 1 60945 274 2

Dario Fo – playwright, comedian, Nobel Laureate  –  is an admirer of the 16th century form of street theater known as commedia dell’arte. These roving theatrical troupes employed masks, improvisation, wordplay and slapstick comedy to entertain the masses. The actors and actresses performed broad “types” (stereo- or arch-), which were popular in that time period.

For  The Pope’s Daughter Fo has translated the theatrical form into a novel. He encourages these somewhat archaic references by dividing the tale into episodic chapters with old-fashioned descriptive titles such as: “The puppet king who walks like a marionette” and “Out of enmity between women, sometimes a great friendship can spring”.  At the same time Fo imagines conversations, spins events like a contemporary satirist and displays a razor sharp eye for historical absurdities. The narrative voice (which we can only assume is the author’s own) always seems to be on the verge of laughter. It is a charming, farcical portrayal of the Borgias – with a preamble at the front, a bibliography at the back, and Fo’s drawings & paintings of the main characters scattered between.

“… The chronicles of the time, in fact, reported all sorts of social events, some of them held within the walls of the Vatican itself, with a matter-of-fact approach and without the slightest hint of scandal. But when the Borgias strode onto the stage of Rennaisance history, to the cheers of a horde of supporters, first and foremost among them their closest relations, then indeed the attention of the public, an audience both national and international, really became keen.”

What do we know about Lucrezia Borgia, her brothers and her father?  Quite a bit, actually.  She and her family were 15th century celebrities on the scale of Kardashians – subject to all the attention and public scrutiny that kind of celebrity brings.  There are the historical records.  But because they were so much in the public eye, positioned at the epicenter of all of Christendom really, we also have an almost embarrassing wealth of rumors, gossip & innuendos. Take the time to sift through the mess of information and an image forms of a smart, extraordinarily pretty woman who enjoyed all the privileges of status, wealth & education. A woman who made the sacrifices which were expected of well-born females of that time period.  Sacrifices which were necessary to maintain a life of privilege (three marriages to further her father’s & brother’s political ambitions) and luxury.

History has assigned her the alternating roles of virgin and whore, political victim and poisoner, incestuous seductress and cultured Renaissance Duchess.  That need to define Lucrezia through such a multitude of archetypes has obscured her many real accomplishments and achievements. Few portrayals focus on the known facts: that at age nineteen she acted as governor of the cities of  Spoleto & Foligno; or that she remains the only woman to have sat on the Papal throne and wielded the power of the office (which she did at the age of twenty-one while her father was away from Rome); or that after her father’s death, when her brother most needed help, she would raise and send him an army.  As Duchess of Ferrara she would be known throughout Italy as a Patroness of the Arts.  Byron admired her love letters. Where her father & brother failed in their quest for dynasty, Lucrezia succeeded – many European monarchs trace their lineage back to the Borgias through Lucrezia and her granddaughter Anna D’Este (who was also the granddaughter of the French King Louis XII).

Throughout her life Lucrezia Borgia demonstrated intelligence, humility and no small amount of political acumen – all  of which allowed her to survive the fall of the Borgia family’s fortunes.

This is the Lucrezia Dario Fo is set on portraying.  And to that end he has swept aside much of the unsubstantiated speculation (and cable tv melodrama) to present a very real woman who possesses the full range of human emotions.  Fo’s Lucrezia is in turns frustrated, angry, intelligent, desperate, loving, affectionate, wily, passionate and a little bit bawdy. He allows her to grow from a young girl to a matron. And, realizing that her story is always bound to the stories of her brother Cesare and father the Pope, he’s put them in his book as well. Not as sinister demons consumed only by ambition, but as men with a multitude of failings. Setting them all in a world that bears uncanny (but very intentional) similarities to the one we live in today.

The hardest thing for Alexander VI was getting past the stumbling block of the “morality” issue.  That is, how was he to modify, at least in appearance, his licentious need for forbidden copulation? For that matter, how on earth could anyone keep their distance from such an adorable creature as Giulia? An old saying goes: “If the hyenas are on your heels, then toss them the most savory morsel, say a newborn lamb. You’ll see, when they open their maws to savage their prey, there’s not a hyena or jackal on earth that will pay the slightest attention to anything else.”

And so the great reformation was gently lowered into the swamp of forgetfulness. Every so often someone with a good memory would ask: “When are we going to talk about the revolution again?”

And everyone, from the pontiff down to his cardinals, would reply: “Never fear, we haven’t forgotten. Just be patient and we’ll bring it back up again.”

Sure, and who believed them?

If I’ve given the impression that The Pope’s Daughter is a history book or even your typical historical novel then I’ve badly mis-represented it. Fo creates an atmosphere of old-fashioned theatricality which is unusual and at odds with the genre.  He relies heavily on dialogue, usually imagined but sometimes taken from actual letters, which he exaggerates to the point of pantomime.  He uses this dialogue to convey most of the historical plot points of his heroine’s story. For example, when Lucrezia is attended by the same doctor who was also there when she miscarried her first child she spends some time answering his questions and recounting what has befallen her over the intervening years.  Fo tells his story on a stage: sometimes employing a sardonic voice-over commentary as in the passage above…  or creating elaborate set pieces as in the passage below.

Lucrezia was in Rome. The scene opens in the very instant at which the thump of the doorknocker is heard at the bottom of the central staircase and the voice of a servant girl calls: “Milady, it is your lover who just knocked on the door!” And Lucrezia responded: “At last! What are you waiting for? Let him in?”

“He’s already entered, that’s him on the stairs!”

Alfonso appeared, she hurried toward him to throw her arms around him, and he pushed her away.

“Hey, what’s come over you? Why do you shove me away?!”

“Why don’t you ask your brother and your father, too!  You’re a fine gang of blackguards!”

“Blackguards? Why, are you drunk or are you just pretending to insult me?”

“Listen, you’re a woman of letters, do you like ballads and strambotti? Then why don’t you just try reading this!” And with those words, he pulled a sheaf of paper from inside his jacket. “Be my guest, it’s dedicated to you, or really, I should say, to us both. It’s funny as can be.”

Image taken from the Nobel Prize website biography of Dario Fo.

The scene above features the archly delivered, wooden style of dialogue (seemingly fully aware of the audience listening in) that appears throughout the book.  Similar stylistic choices – which in other books would be seen as weaknesses – make up a good part of The Pope’s Daughter ‘s charm.  Antony Shugaar has done an excellent job of reconciling modern language to an antiquated context.  Fo’s storytelling is self-conscious and referencial in a very calculated way. He plays off of the historical events (juicier than anything he might have made up) and theatrical forms, slyly grinning all the while.  My one criticism is that he doesn’t go far enough.  An often quoted description of Fo, made on his receiving the Nobel Prize, is that he is a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”.  With that in mind, this first novel seems to be at odds with itself.  Instead of a jester who mocks authority secure in his knowledge that he does so with impunity, Fo is strangely restrained.  Some of the characters speeches stop just short of becoming pedantic/preachy.  I was expecting wordplay, pratfalls, send-ups… I suppose I was expecting a little more of the Spanish Inquisition. Fo is so much of a playwright that the absence of the visual, performance component in his work is inevitably felt.  The shadow of the author is standing in the wings of this novel, winking at the audience and holding a banana cream pie behind his back.

While it may not be for every reader, The Pope’s Daughter is sophisticated, clever, challenging and flawed – everything we have come to expect from a Nobel Laureate and in a first novel. With it Dario Fo has decided to rehabilitate the image of Lucrezia Borgia – though in his own, unique way.  His substitution of commedia dell’arte for the sinister gothicism we’ve come to associate with the name Borgia is both unexpected and refreshing.  His combining of contemporary social criticism and (yes) Monty Python-style lampooning is incredibly entertaining.  His history isn’t bad, either.  There’s much more to recommend than not, and it seems to me a delightful first introduction of this Italian artist to an English, novel-reading public.

 

 

Must You Go, My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (audiobook)

Must You GoIf there’s one thing you walk away with after reading Antonia Fraser’s memoir Must You Go, My Life with Harold Pinter, it’s that she and her second husband Harold Pinter were deeply in love.  Reading a memoir that doesn’t focus exclusively on tribulations its author has overcome is refreshing.  Remarkable, even.  Fraser has chosen to share what appears to be the happiest period of her life.  And in the process proves Tolstoy wrong.

At a party in 1975 Antonia Fraser was involved in a conversation that included the playwright Harold Pinter.  She was taking her leave when Pinter turned to her and asked “Must you go?”.  And there it began.  Both parties were married – Antonia with six children.  The affair continued until 1977, when she divorced her first husband in the amicable manner that seemed to be the defining characteristic of their marriage.  Pinter’s separation from his wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, was less amicable.  The British tabloids had a field day and Merchant refused to sign the divorce papers until 1980.  Fraser and Pinter married that same year and lived happily together until his death of cancer in 2008.

This 35 year period is told to us through excerpts of Fraser’s journals with some narrative explanation.  She appears to be a rabid diarist – never missing a day.  Which is funny when you consider that she’s a biographer by profession, accustomed to perusing her subjects’ diaries, letters and papers in the course of her research.  The entries that make up the book are not so much stream-of-conscious ramblings or emotional outpourings as they are concise cataloging of the day’s most interesting events.   Fortunately Pinter and Fraser lived interesting lives and knew interesting people – so most of their days together are worth re-visiting.  The name dropping that takes place on these pages is almost shameful!  Jackie-O, Salman Rushdie, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth… the list of literati seems never-ending.  But her commentary is never salacious.  These were the circles the couple traveled in, and as you read you get the sense that Dame Fraser would never commit the impolitesse of gossiping about friends.

I really enjoyed Must You Go, as I have every book I’ve ever read by Antonia Fraser.  It may not be for everyone, though.  One Goodreads reviewer negatively compared Must You Go to “reading a daytimer”, and to be fair the description isn’t far off.  It is this gift of brevity – Antonia Fraser’s ability to capture a moment in a deftly executed prose sketch – that makes her memoir so charming.  Little jokes, witty descriptions, notes left on the pages by Pinter (which she welcomed) – it is the description of a full life encapsulated in a few lines a day.  Fraser had the sense not to overwork the prose, or expand too much on the things her audience already knew. At times her admiration of Pinter seems almost worshipful, but the book was published 2 years after his death.  Her loss is fresh.  She obviously misses him.  Equally obvious is her happiness in remembering.

Is it a complete picture?  Probably not.  But Must You Go is a glimpse into their private world.  Fraser has every right to choose what she shares.

The audio version, which is what I listened to, is narrated by the incomparable Sandra Duncan.  Her inflections are flawless.  The 11 hours and 14 minutes moved by quickly, the only off note being the choice made to have the poetry by Harold Pinter which is referenced throughout voiced by a man.  Whether it would have flowed so well or been so entertaining to read in book form, I’m not sure.  I tend to think it would be.  Yet there was something delightfully intimate about hearing it read (it’s written in the first person) as if Fraser was relating the stories over tea.  In fact, I intend to avoid interviews given by the real Antonia Fraser.  If her true voice differs too much from Duncan’s I’ll be devastated.

AudioBook Publisher:  Whole Story AudioBooks, Leicestershire (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 409 11523 6 or through Audibles.com

Print Book Publisher:  Nan A. Talese, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 385 53250 1

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The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller (translated from the original German by Philip Boehm)

It was brought to my attention that this is a rejected cover design, created by the graphic designer Rebecca Seltzer. To see more of her work, please visit http://rebeccaseltzer.com

The Hunger Angel was my introduction to the work of Herta Müller.  First published in 2009, the same year that she received the Nobel Prize, it is (like much of her work) deeply political.  Romania was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1958.   Müller’s novel deals with the time immediately following WWII when, as she explains in the book’s afterward: “In January 1945 the Soviet General Vinogradov presented a demand in Stalin’s name that all Germans living in Romania be mobilized for “rebuilding” the war-damaged Soviet Union.  All men and women in between seventeen and forty-five years of age were deported to forced labor camps in the Soviet Union.”

These laborers suffered under conditionals comparable to those of the German concentration camps.  Starvation, deprivation, exhaustion and humiliation were constant states of being.  But it is the starvation on which Müller focuses.  It is an all consuming thing – embodied  by and given shape as the hunger angel of the title.*  The angel is a construct of the novel’s teenage narrator.  It functions alternately as a metaphor and as a powerful visual.

Unloading [coal] was always a job for two or three people.  Not counting the hunger angel, because we weren’t sure whether there was one hunger angel for all of us or if each of us had his own.  The hunger angel approached everyone, without restraint.  He knew that where things can be unloaded, other things can be loaded.  In terms of mechanics, the results can be horrifying:  if each person has his own hunger angel, then every time someone dies, a hunger angel is released.  Eventually there would be nothing but abandoned hunger angels, abandoned heart-shovels, abandoned coal.

If you’ve read Martin Amis’ House of Meetings – a typically merciless novel which tells the story of two brothers imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag – you may find yourself (like me) making the inevitable comparisons.  Amis’ description of camp life is slightly different, or perhaps it is in his focus where the differences lie.  There seems to be less fraternization between male and female prisoners in House of Meetings; the inmates are Russian political prisoners rather than German; and the violence is endemic.  Müller and Amis are in agreement over the lack of food (I found it interesting that both books contain scenes where prisoners scrabble for potato peels) but hunger isn’t the focus in House of Meetings.  It is a prop.  Amis is telling a  story about violence, jealousy and its aftermath – his writing lacks any hint of the feminine.  (I don’t mean this as a criticism, just as a statement of fact).  The Hunger Angel, in contrast, is about survival.  It is instructive where House of Meetings is dramatic. Müller’s prose may appear gentler than Amis’, but it’s just as effective in conveying the brutal toll camp life takes on the individual.  Leo Auberg (the narrator from The Hunger Angel) and Lev (the younger brother of the narrator in House of Meetings) have similar reactions after their release.  Both men are too broken to return to the people they loved in their old lives.

Müller chose to write The Hunger Angel as a series of self-contained anecdotes versus a continuous narrative, exploring every aspect of camp life – the work details, the inmates, the capos, relations between men and women, relations to the Soviets, etc.  It was planned as a joint venture between herself and her friend, the poet Oskar Psatior.  His experiences as a teenager are the basis of the story.  He died before the book came to fruition, but Müller had taken copious notes during their conversations.  A year after his death, still grieving I’m sure, she began writing.  The structure –  written in short chapters that often run tangential to eachother – creates an emotional proximity between the teller and the reader.  Müller has recreated the experience, the intimacy, of listening in to a conversation.  I was emotionally engaged despite the restrained tone in which the stories are told… often becoming outraged, upset and heartbroken by what I was hearing/reading.  It was as if Leo was someone I knew personally.  I responded as if we were friends.

*I thought it would be interesting to point out the significance of titles, both their connection to the text and their influence on the reader.  The Hunger Angel was originally published in English as Everything I Possess I Carry With Me (the German title was Atemschaukel). These two titles convey carry and convey completely different meanings.  For example:  the former implies poetry and the latter disassociation.   In my opinion the gap in this case is so large as to possibly change how a reader might perceive/decipher the author’s intent.  Am I alone in finding the differences between the two titles jarring?

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9301 8

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