Magazine article The Spectator

Or What's a Heaven For?

Magazine article The Spectator

Or What's a Heaven For?

Article excerpt

THE LAMENT OF THE LINNET

by Anna Maria Ortese

Harvill, L15.99, pp. 325

Described by her publishers as 'the doyenne of Italian writers', the author of this rich, mysterious, tantalising novel is, at the age of 83, one of those rare and lucky people, like William Trevor and Penelope Fitzgerald, whose creative gifts become stronger, instead of diminishing, with the inexorable encroachment of old age. Indeed, if one knew nothing about her, one would guess, on the evidence of her book, so ambitious in its overall conception, so complex in its story and so lavish in its detail, that here was a writer at the outset, not near the close, of her career. Typically youthful too is the sense that, for much of the time The Lament of the Linnet is being extemporised, one improbable revelation succeeding another, out of an imagination in a constant state of undisciplined ferment.

The book begins soberly, in the manner of some historical novel of a time long past:

Towards the end of the 18th century, or Age of Enlightenment, three young gentlemen, the Prince de Neville, the sculptor Dupre, and the wealthy merchant Nodier, all of them citizens of Liege . . . resolved to undertake a journey to Naples, for a reason which could scarcely be taxed as reprehensible.

But, although there are many references to the conflict between Napoleon and the Bourbon monarchy and between the new Enlightenment and the ancient faith, Ortese is far less concerned with history than with myth.

Having once arrived at their destination, her three young gentlemen are at once irresistibly drawn to the beautiful and chillingly enigmatic Elmina, daughter of a wealthy merchant, whom they surmise to be burdened with some secret sorrow or guilt. It is her declared belief that 'happiness is evil. Loving other creatures is evil.' After the sculptor Dupre has married her, the Prince becomes obsessed with the task of solving the mystery of a nature so strange, so magnetic and so formidable.

Aided by the necromancy of a friend of his, a Polish duke resident in Naples, he constantly seems to be in possession of the solution, only to be obliged to replace that solution with another, and so on and on. Nothing is ever as it first seems to him; every relationship, whether of blood or of emotion, undergoes a series of increasingly baffling transmogrifications. …

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