Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Quondam

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Quondam

Article excerpt

What's in a word that CAN AROUSE TEMPERS, end a love affair, or start a war? How do writers setde on one rather than another? Do we read well enough still to see subde differences in an age of reading for information, and where vocabularies created for digital media seem to be shaping the speech patterns of the young? Someone wisely observed that an author's self editing and revision process is only about replacing a good word with a better one.

In the Baptistery attached to the Duomo in Florence is the tomb of Baldassare Cossa, the antipope John XXIII. During the Great Western Schism, various pretenders to the papacy elected by rival conclaves in Rome and Avignon set themselves up as the true pope. Each was busy for years excommunicating the other, creating new cardinals, and generally dividing European states by their loyalties. An attempt at reconciliation produced only a third claimant. Finally a church council deposed all three and elected a new pope. Cossa, the candidate of the Medici, returned to a cardinal's place, and when he thed in 1419, Donatello and Michelozzo were engaged to craft a wordiy tomb. The inscription reads "Joannes quondam papa," which contains something of an ambiguity according to art historian R. W. Lightbown, who did extensive research on the monument. "Quondam" is an adverb that could mean Cossa was eitiier "the former" or "the late" pontiff. The new Pope Martin V took strong objection as it implied diat the antipope was validly elected and still pope until his deadi. "Olim," meaning "at that time" or "once," would likely have placated Martin, or better still to have interred Cossa as a cardinal without reference to his disputed papacy. The tomb was complete by then, and the upshot for six hundred years has been a mitered figure high above the floor looking out from his recumbent position, as if to say, "I was pope, wasn't I?"

But as useful as Latin adverbs and tomb monuments might be in making my point on words, some recent novels struck me as worthy of comment, not just for their plot and characters, but the choice of language that takes them from mere narrative to effective portrayal. Niccolò Amminiti is a storyteller extraordinaire; his novels have been very popular in Italy, and he has been translated into several dozen languages. Pop fiction that transcends its own immediacy is literature, boys and girls, no matter what anyone says. Like a boxer with a sharp jab, quick footwork, and the bob of the head, Me and You} takes off running. Lorenzo Cuni, the fourteen-year-old protagonist, lives with his well-off parents in Rome but has no foothold on life. An outsider and a dreamer, he causes great worry to his parents. To assure them he is all right, he pretends he is wildly popular at his school and has the coolest and most beautiful people as friends. His goddess is Alessia Roncato, the prettiest girl of all, who doesn't know he exists. Hearing that she and some of her friends are going on a ski holiday to Alessia's parents' house in Cortina, he tells his mother that he is on the guest list, too. This little lie turns into an adventure as he has to cover his tracks and pretend to be off skiing. On the day of departure he doubles back and, with supplies laid in, holes up in the basement of his parents' building where he will enjoy his own private universe for the duration. Snacks, PlayStation, and his music will pass the hours until he can emerge after a week from his subterranean safety zone.

The problem wasn't having to tell her that I had made everything up, and that I hadn't been invited by anyone to go anywhere. It was humiliating, but I'd have been able to handle it. What I couldn't handle was the question that would have undoubtedly followed.

"But Lorenzo, why did you lie to me like that?"

The adventure is nearly torpedoed when his half-sister Olivia turns up unexpectedly and finds him in the basement. He has to agree to let her stay in return for not revealing his secret. …

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