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Saturday, March 27, 2010

When in Rome...

I'm currently reading Imprimatur, the runaway international bestseller by the Italian journalists Monaldi and Sorti. I'm interested in this book on two main levels: it's set in the 1680s, a period that's been a second home for many years now; and the differences in style and content between this and the genre that I inhabit are proving to be quite fascinating. The book has become famous, even notorious, because of being banned in Italy (allegedly because of pressure from the Vatican), essentially because it claims that Pope Innocent XI secretly funded the 'Glorious Revolution' that brought William of Orange to power in Britain. Now, Britain might have the most absurd and draconian libel laws in any democracy, but it's hard to imagine any work that denigrates a historical figure from 300 years ago receiving a nationwide ban; it hardly reflects well on the maturity of free expression and political discourse in Italy, but then, neither does Silvio Berlusconi. (On the other hand, I should think that Imprimatur makes just as uncomfortable reading in the average Orange Lodge as it does at the Vatican, especially when allied to the various theories suggesting that 'King Billy' was gay.) To historians of the period, the story of Innocent's financial support for William is old hat, and in the political context of the 1680s it made perfect sense for the Pope to assist those who opposed his arch-enemy, Louis XIV of France; only those who have no understanding of the realities of history would find the story outlined in Imprimatur offensive.

As it is, Monaldi and Sorti are much stronger on papal than on Anglo-Dutch history; for example, William was certainly not the rival Protestant candidate for the British thrones in 1683. But their setting - a Rome tavern during a time of plague, with the Turks besieging the walls of Vienna - is memorably claustrophobic, and their characters are well drawn. (I like the fact that the English character is named 'Edward di Bedfordi', surely a nod towards the large Italian community in modern Bedford.) On the other hand, their willingness to include long passages of detailed historical description, to digress at length and to rely on many long uninterrupted monologues are all tendencies that would have agents, editors, publishers and (no doubt) readers castigating a humble scribbler of Restoration naval fiction, and probably rightly so. Or does it mean that Anglo-Saxon editors, publishers etc have a very low opinion of the intellects and concentration spans of Anglo-Saxon readers? But at least those Anglo-Saxon readers have the opportunity to read different styles of novels set in the seventeenth century and then make up their own minds, unlike their counterparts in Italy!  

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