Book Report 006: Guido Morselli, DIVERTIMENTO 1889

E. P. Dutton · 1975

I don't remember what I was looking for when I came across this slim paperback in one of the used-book chain stores that dot the state (and I know the location of every one by heart, more fool me). Something in the M's, obviously; Moore? Montgomery? Morley? Morris? But I might not have been looking for anything in particular, when the bright silver spine with Art Deco lettering caught my eye. I'd never heard of Guido Morselli; apart from the introduction to this volume, I still haven't. (As of this writing, he doesn't even have an English Wikipedia page.)

Briefly, then: Morselli, born in 1912, was the son of a rich manufacturer who received a good education, fought in Mussolini's army, and, not needing to write to live, mostly published erudite journalism while completing seven novels which remained unpublished until his suicide in 1973. Of the seven, this is the shortest (it's really a novella, or even a long short story), and apparently the least serious-minded, though it'd be a stretch to call it comic. A quick search of Amazon suggests that only three of his novels were ever translated into English; none of them, naturally, remain in print.

The back cover copy describes the book as a "jewel-like fable of the Belle Epoque," which, together with the phrase "with the delicacy of an operetta," was probably what convinced me to drop the four bucks the pencil scrawl on the first page says it cost. I wouldn't call it a fable, though I could imagine a remarkably sophisticated and slightly dull operetta being made of the plot (Sondheim, in his A Little Night Music mode, could probably handle it.) It relates a fictional interlude in the life of the second king of Italy, Umberto I, who in Morselli's hands is a not-very-intelligent man in his mid-forties who hates the responsibility and endless paperwork of being king, and when the opportunity to raise cash in a clandestine way presents itself, snatches at the opportunity to shed his identity and spend the summer holidaying in the Swiss mountains, incognito. What develops is not the farce you might expect (or, in my case, hope), but a low-key retailing of minor adventures, intrigues, and near discoveries which sometimes approaches being funny but is mostly too sober and even somewhat elegiac for laughter.

Sober and elegiac, of course, isn't a bad mood at all; and Morselli writes (so far as I can tell under the distorting lens of translation) very well, keeping the proceedings full of life and flavor even if they are never allowed to get too hilarious. He says in the author's note at the end that he was writing in conscious imitation of the literature of the era, and I recognize hints of James or Proust or Mann, though with a somewhat greater frankness about sex and bodily functions than the nineteenth century would have permitted; the king has one affair and nearly achieves two, but events overtake.

Umberto I was assassinated by an anarchist in 1900; there would only be one more king of Italy before World War II and the era of the Republic. With the benefit of hindsight, Morselli treats the monarchy as an anachronism, meaningless and unnecessary in a world of trains, telegraphs, and journalism, sentiments which his Umberto wholly endorses. (The real Umberto might have agreed with him: Wikipedia gives his only notable "quote" as "Remember to be a king all you need to know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper and mount a horse.") In fact, about the only benefit the crown seems to confer on Umberto (called "the Count" throughout most of the novella in deference to his incognito) is that it makes girls flirt with him.

The book was written in 1970-71, when Morselli was in his sixties; even though the king is supposed to be about forty-five in the book, he feels like a much older man, and one of the undercurrents of the story is the humiliation and boredom of aging. Not that it's an Updikean or Rothian complaint: Morselli means the title seriously, and his author's note speaks of escapism in terms which J. R. R. Tolkien would approve. Temperamentally, Morselli seems to have been a lot like Tolkien; he disliked the twentieth century, though he was aware of the pitfalls of romanticizing history:
"I am . . . perfectly ready to accept the notion, itself a cliché by now, that the Belle Epoque never existed. The most I would say is that we still have need of fables, and that that particular myth is as good as another."
In fact I'd love to read high fantasy set in Ruritania; but a gentle evocation of the nineteenth century's most civilized narrative form will do quite as well. I enjoyed the hell out of this novella, and could wish for much more where it came from.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's nice to know that Morselli has been translated in English. Poor guy. By the way - high fantasy set in Ruritania! What a marvellous idea! Not the usual steampunk, but something more Belle Epoque-like! The only thing similar to this I saw was an obscure but intriguing Polish novel named Blogoslawiony wiek (The Blessed Age or The Blessed Century) about a cruel but operettesque war between Protestant and Catholic spy-missionaries that ruin the life of young and naive boy, son of a nouveau-riche.

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