The marble yawn

 

© Airmont Books    

 

I’ve always been an admirer of the elegant 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Over the years, I’ve enjoyed Hawthorne’s novels The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852), his collection of Greek myths rewritten as children’s stories Tanglewood Tales (1853) and his marvellous short fiction like The Minister’s Black Veil (1832), The Maypole of Merry Mount (1837), Dr Heidegger’s Experiment (1837) and Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844).  I therefore had high hopes a few weeks ago when I started his 1860 novel The Marble Faun, which is set in Italy and was written after Hawthorne spent a year-and-a-half touring the country in the late 1850s.

 

Maybe it’s because I’ve grown more demanding in my old age or because by 1860, four years before he died, Hawthorne had lost his touch.  Whatever the reason, it pains me to say I found The Marble Faun a real plod.

 

It didn’t help that the main characters failed to engage me.  The plot centres on four young people, three of them artistically inclined, living in mid-19th-century Rome: Miriam, Hilda, Donatello and Kenyon.  As well as being an artist, Miriam is an enigma because her past is shrouded in rumours and speculation.  She’s variously said to be “the daughter and heiress of a great Jewish banker”; and “a German princess”; and “the offspring of a Southern planter” who’d fled her native land because “one burning drop of African blood in her veins so affected her with a sense of ignominy”; and “the lady of an English nobleman” who “out of mere love and honour of art, had thrown aside the splendour of her rank, and had come to seek a subsistence by her pencil in a Roman studio.”  Whatever else she might be, though, I found Miriam a royal pain.  She’s so absorbed in her murky past and intent on projecting a sub-Byronic aura of torment and danger that she reminded me of various posers I knew at college who’d swan around and emote: “Watch out!  I’m dark and edgy, I am!  I’m trouble!  I’m mad, bad and dangerous to know!”  (Come to think of it, they’re probably all working as stockbrokers now.)

 

Still, Miriam is preferable to the insipid Goody-Two-Shoes Hilda, an American copyist artist whom Hawthorne is determined to present as pure in thought, word and deed.  He has her living in a studio at the top of a tower, symbolically high above the city and all the crime, squalor and corruption that it harbours.  The outer wall of this tower is also home to a shrine of the Virgin Mary, with a lamp burning at the effigy’s feet, which Hilda ensures never goes out – though coming from good Puritan stock, she makes it clear that she only keeps the lamp burning as a neighbourly kindness: “You must not call me a Catholic.  A Christian girl… may surely pay honour to the idea of Divine Womanhood, without giving up the faith of her forefathers.”  And to ram the idea of Hilda’s saintliness home yet further, Hawthorne shows her caring for a flock of white doves that frequently alight on her windowsill, something that brings Miriam out of her self-absorption long enough to comment: “…how like a dove she is herself, the pure, fair creature!  The other doves know her for a sister, it is sure.”

 

Also unpromising is the winsome but artless Donatello, a youth from the Italian countryside who’s latched on to the group and, in the earlier chapters at least, behaves like and is treated like their airheaded mascot.  “What a child, or what a simpleton, he is!” remarks Miriam to Hilda.  “I find myself treating Donatello as if he were the merest unfledged chicken…”  Probably it’s just as well that Miriam’s attitude towards him is so patronising, for the lad is madly in love with her and for the first half of the book he practically stalks her.  If Miriam wasn’t so blinkered by her condescension, she might find the way that Donatello dogs her every step a little creepy.

 

The last member of the quartet is Kenyon, an American sculptor.  Compared with the others, he’s a reasonably sensible and balanced character.  Unfortunately, he’s also the only one who isn’t directly involved in the plot’s main incident, which occurs a third of the way into the book.  As a result, for the remainder of The Marble Faun, he’s an onlooker rather than a participant in the story – in other words, the most tolerable character becomes the least proactive one.

 

Having said all that, the first half of The Marble Faun is promising.  It’s a potpourri of fanciful and mildly macabre elements that made me think I was in for an agreeable gothic entertainment in the tradition of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) or Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) – albeit in a more genteel form.

 

For instance, we get an episode where the group realise Donatello is the spitting image of the Faun of Praxiteles in the Capitoline Museums.  (And why is Donatello so reluctant to lift his long brown curls off his ears?  Could it be because those ears are… pointy?)  There’s some creepy stuff in the Roman Catacombs, which are said to be haunted by the malevolent spirit of “a pagan of old Rome” who “for fifteen centuries at least… has been groping in the darkness, seeking his way out of the Catacombs.”  Miriam duly gets lost in this subterranean maze and encounters an evil-looking figure who, subsequently, starts following her around above ground too – with this apparition and Donatello both stalking her, she really doesn’t have much luck.  Also disturbing is how the face of the spectral Catacombs-dweller begins to appear in her artwork.

 

Later, there’s a murder.  And then comes a satisfyingly grim scene in Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins – a real-life church famous for its crypt, which has ghoulish decorations and displays made out of the bones of some 4000 friars from the Capuchin order – where the murderers are unexpectedly confronted with their victim’s corpse.

 

From biography.com

 

But around the midway point, the book goes astray.  Literally astray, for Donatello relocates to Tuscany, presumably to give Hawthorne an opportunity to use some of the descriptions he’d jotted down whilst travelling through the Italian countryside.  Improbably, it transpires that Donatello is an aristocrat who’s in possession of a country house and tower.  More improbably still, he transforms from a bubble-brain into a morose, introspective type who spends his time stalking around and brooding on top of his battlements.  Kenyon pays him a visit and we get a long section where the pair seem to do nothing but discuss life, death, love, God and, generally, What It All Means.

 

Later still, Kenyon contrives to bring Donatello together with a now-chastened Miriam and then the plot returns to Rome where – oh no! – for another long section it focuses on Hilda, who’s still such a vapid milksop she makes Laura Ingalls Wilder seem like Courtney Love.  There’s some business where Hilda forces herself to enter a confessional – not, Hawthorne stresses, because she likes the Catholic Church, but because she has a terrible secret she needs to get off her chest.  After that, she mysteriously disappears, much to the consternation of Kenyon, who’s now back in Rome.  And then in the last few pages Hawthorne ends the tale in a decidedly hurried and ambiguous manner.

 

In fact, the ending annoyed Hawthorne’s contemporary readers so much that he felt obliged to add a postscript to the book’s second edition, explaining more of what’d gone on and addressing some of the plot-threads that’d been left hanging.

 

The Marble Faun, then, is ruined by its tedious second half, which I found a chore to read.  However, I’ll give Hawthorne credit for his descriptions of Rome.  It’s interesting that while he records the glories of the city – St Peter’s, the Coliseum, etc. – this is no starry-eyed travelogue like the movies Roman Holiday (1953) or Three Coins in a Fountain (1954).  For he observes its darker and seamier side too.  At one point he muses: “All over the surface of what once was Rome, it seems to be the effort of Time to bury up the ancient city, as if it were a corpse… so that, in eighteen centuries, the soil over its grave has grown very deep, by the slow scattering of dust and the accumulation of more modern decay upon elder ruin.”  Elsewhere, he wonders if a ‘malignant spell’ has compelled modern Romans to “fling dirt and defilement upon whatever temple, column, ruined palace, or triumphal arch, may be nearest at hand, and on every monument that the old Romans built.”

 

Even during an account of a Roman carnival, at which vendors are selling thousands of flowers, he notes how the flowers are ‘miserably wilted’ and ‘muddy’, because they’ve already been bought, discarded, trampled on the ground and picked up again by the vendors to be sold again “ten times over, defiled as they all are with the wicked filth of Rome.”

 

Whenever Hawthorne’s Rome turns from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde in this fashion, it reflects something correspondingly dark and troubling that’s happening in the plot or in the psychology of the characters.  And these glimpses of a dissolute and decayed city, amid the expected descriptions of its venerability and beauty, are one of the book’s saving graces.

 

It’s just a shame that during the latter half of The Marble Faun, in terms of plot, Nathaniel Hawthorne loses his marbles.

 

© Dell Books

 

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