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Books, Betrayal and Berlusconi

September, 2013
By Anthony Marshal

Is it ever OK to murder your wife?  And your wife's lover?  I mean, if you find them “in flagrante delicto”?  Some people thought so once, and no doubt some still do.  And this is the very stuff of opera. It was rather refreshing, in this year when opera houses are awash with the works of the two great stars born two hundred years ago, to go to an opera not composed by either Verdi or Wagner: and to get to ponder the rights and wrongs of the climax, a classic “crime passionnel”. Francesca da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai is seldom performed and it is tempting to say that, were 2013 not the hundredth anniversary of its composition, it is unlikely to have been offered here in Freiburg.  As it turned out, what we got was a concert version rather than a fully-staged performance: and parts of it were very good indeed.

Zandonai (1883-1944) was famous in his day: born a generation after Puccini, his operas never quite enjoyed the success of those of the master, but Puccini admired him enough to want Zandonai to complete his last opera Turandot, left unfinished at his death in 1924.  Puccini's son vetoed this proposal, perhaps fearing that Zandonai's reputation did not require any extra boosting. Or perhaps he felt, as I do, that Zandonai was no composer of arias. Nessun dorma is an aria which it would be difficult for any composer to match. What a shame it is so brief: surely, had Puccini lived, he would have spun it out for a few minutes more? Or is this truly a case of  “less is more”?

The opera Francesca da Rimini is based on the stage play of the same name, written in 1901 by Gabriele d’Annunzio.  D’Annunzio is a colorful character.  Poet, novelist, dramatist, journalist, soldier, airman, adventurer, he was a strong influence on Mussolini and an ardent patriot, fully supportive of Italy’s colonial ambitions.  He personally led the successful military expedition in 1919 to annex the Croatian city of Rijeka/ Fiume which at that time had a predominantly Italian population. D’Annunzio's wrote copiously and his collected works run to many volumes, no longer much read. As George Kay writes, in The Penguin Book of Italian Verse (Penguin 1972): “D'Annunzio's poetry is to be rescued from that grotesque, encrusted mausoleum, his complete works. The small body that emerges shows irresistible youth, a maturer, questioning sensuality, and always a vigour, not unshadowed by the Romantic’s dissatisfaction with the world and its promise.”

D'Annunzio's vigour and sensuality proved irresistible to the actress Eleonora Duse, “one of the greatest actresses of all time”, who was born near Venice in 1859.  She became his lover and he created the role of Francesca for her. There was a scandal when Francesca da Rimini was first staged in Rome, not because of the subject matter but because of D’Annunzio’s treatment of it. The story of Francesca is well-known to Italians. She appears in Dante’s Inferno, in the (densely-populated) Second Circle of Hell, which is reserved for sinners guilty of carnal lust.  Married off to an older man for reasons of political and dynastic expediency, Francesca – a real person who lived in the 13th century – fell in love with Paolo, her husband's brother. After dalliance in the family library, where the lovers read together the inflammatory story of another adulterous couple, Lancelot and Guinevere, they consummate their passion. Francesca’s husband finds out and has them both murdered. And Dante, very properly, by the lights of his times, (i.e. firmly on the side of the aggrieved husband, whose wife is his property) shows the consequence of such immorality. Francesca utters the the poignant words: “Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.” “There is no greater pain than to remember a happy time, when you are in misery.”  And her misery, her hellish punishment is this: to be tightly bound face-to face to her lover Guido for all eternity.

D’Annunzio offers a reading very different from the one which was so profoundly satisfying to the male chauvinists of feudal Christendom. D’Annunzio's Francesca is a rounded character, whose feelings and fate we sympathise with: it is not at all clear that her brutish husband has any God-given right to slaughter her and Paolo, simply because she has been unfaithful. A very modern interpretation, very shocking to conservative Roman theatre-goers in 1901.  After three weeks, the play, adjudged by the censors to be promoting immorality, was shut down. Partly no doubt also because the part of Francesca was being played by Eleonora Duse, D’Annunzio's mistress. She dropped him later, when he awarded a starring role to her arch-rival, Sarah Bernhardt. Signora Duse died in 1924 in a hotel room Pittsburgh. Which sounds like a tragic end. But she was feted in America, and was the first actress to be given a White House reception: President Cleveland and his wife were besotted by her. “I want beauty, and the flame of life” she said: and, by and large, that is what she got. Brava!

How does Clive James translate Francesca's “Nessun maggior dolore” speech, I wonder?  The Australian writer and TV personality, based in England, has just had published his translation of Dante: The Divine Comedy (Picador 2013).  I have not yet got hold of a copy but the reviews are highly complimentary:

“An impressively accomplished verse technique.........The best of James's translation has a propulsive urgent energy that finds a clear course through Dante's extended similes and his equally extended history lessons.” (Sean O'Brien in The Independent).

“A translation worthy of this and any other time, and a great piece of literature in its own right.”
(Robert Fox in The London Evening Standard ).

“Often outstanding verse”. (Josephine Balmer in The Times).

Josephine Balmer goes on to speculate that there is a very personal dimension to Clive James’s translation: “James's recent serious illness, alongside well-publicised marital difficulties, lend an added poignancy .....his gargantuan labour appears to offer a gift of love to his Dante scholar wife, an act of contrition.”

I wonder if the gift has been, or will be, accepted. Prue James, who married Clive in 1968, was one of my supervisors in Italian literature at university, forty-five years ago. She is a noted Dante scholar, and has written a book Reading from Dante: From Here to Eternity (to be published next year). It is hard to imagine that Clive James could have translated the Divine Comedy without her help and inspiration. I see that she has now left Cambridge and (presumably) Clive, and is now Emeritus (Emerita? No, of course not!) Reader in Italian Studies at University College, London. Not every woman in the world gets to be a poet’s Beatrice. What hell it must be. And the poet has surely gone through hell too. If Clive has sent her a copy of his translation, perhaps he has written on the title page: "Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria."

There is some irony in all this. Clive James is a very remarkable man, who has made his living, partly at least, by poking fun at the rich and famous for their very human foibles and failings. He has written four long mock-heroic poems which do exactly that, and he wrote and presented a TV series Fame in the Twentieth Century also published as a book (BBC Books 1993)", which investigates the nature of celebrity, and the price to be paid for it. It is fair to say that Clive James has himself pursued fame relentlessly for half-a-century. So is it any great wonder that we, the great unwashed, feel a tremor of schadenfreude when we discover that the great commentator has carried on a secret affair for eight years? Who would hear about, or care about, the infidelities of Francesca da Rimini, or Clive of Cambridge, if they were not celebrities?

You have certainly heard of the foibles and failings of Silvio Berlusconi. Hard to know to which particular circle of Hell he should be consigned, as he clearly qualifies for several: carnality, avarice, peculation, fraud immediately spring to mind. Strange that Dante reserves no circle for the arrogant, for those guilty of the deadly sin “superbia”. Did he simply forget? Such a spot would be fitting for Berlusconi. No man, however much money or power he has, is above the law, even in Italy. It is sheer arrogance (or stupidity) to suppose otherwise. Well, he is now a convicted criminal and no longer eligible for public office. I cannot help noticing that Berlusconi, like D’Annunzio, had a long-standing affair with an actress, Veronica Lerio They had three children on the side (so to speak) and were finally married in 1990. They were recently divorced and Berlusconi, as part of the divorce settlement, must pay his ex-wife 48 million dollars per year. Women are really much more intelligent in these matters than men. Murdering your errant spouse may give you a brief satisfaction, but there are more exquisite – and lasting – ways of making him pay.

Anthony Marshall, is a retired secondhand bookseller now living in Germany. He is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, a past member of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association in England, where for ten years he ran the County Bookshop in Oakham, Rutland, and former owner of Alice's Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia. This bookstore was co-founded in 1986 by Keith Richmond, now co-owner of Weiser Antiquarian Books, York Beach, Maine and author of several books including "Wanderings in Lower Dolpo" (Francestown, NH 1998), a search for traces of the Bon religion practised in this part of the Himalayas. Mr. Marshall has contributed many articles to book magazines, all of which with the exception of "Book Source Magazine” are now defunct. Some of these articles reappear in his two books: “Trafficking in Old Books” (Lost Domain, Melbourne 1998) and "Fossicking for Old Books” (Bread Street Press, Melbourne 2004).