Sunday, 13 July 2014

Penguin no. 1590: A Love Affair in Rome
by Ercole Patti

Cover drawing by Charles Mozley
Marcello, who was thirty-five years old, was a clever, sensitive man, but though fond of women, he had hitherto proved incapable of establishing a true and proper relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Up to now he had been satisfied with brief, fleeting affairs. After knowing a woman for a short time, he would find in her qualities which displeased him. The women he knew had always turned out to be too dull, or else quarrelsome, or over-flirtatious, or fond of things which he found detestable.

I have no idea how old Ercole Patti was when he wrote this, but I assume he must have been young, as here, in a novel about a love affair, or more precisely in a novel about a series of love affairs, Patti includes a tirade against literary critics, asserting that those who can write do so, while those who lack literary talent concentrate on criticising and merely affect to be writers. He contends that such critics would never risk their reputations by publishing anything original.

And this one episode stands in such stark contrast to the rest of the book that you cannot help but suspect that Ercole Patti must have felt himself slighted, overlooked not because he lacked ability but because he possessed it. He asserts a conspiracy, with critics intentionally praising those without talent and condemning those with it, their agenda to hobble the gifted in order to enhance their own comparative brilliance. And those putative writers who spend their working hours as civil servants (and whom the critics admire) come in for particular condemnation.

In A Love Affair in Rome, Ercole Patti creates a character who lives too much within his own head. Marcello seems a brilliant young man, with his scholarship, his prospective fellowship and his published essays on philosophical topics, but it is clear that he is also a little naïve and unworldly. Another man might have confronted the problems with which he must deal by responding more immediately and more passionately, but Marcello draws upon his intellectual faculties to rationalise all his doubts away. The problem is that such rationalisations invariably lead him astray.

In particular, another man might have questioned why it was that a young woman he met late in the evening on the Via Germanico submitted to him so readily during their first date, why she even considered inviting him up to her room, and why she treated the whole thing in such a matter-of-fact way afterwards. But Marcello conditions his response on his previous reflections, for he carries an ideal in his head and he has already decided that Anna is the one woman who meets all his criteria; who, in effect, passes his test. But it is an assessment based on one or two conversations, in which nothing she said or did contradicted the image of her he had imagined. It would seem that he has fallen for his own projection of who she might be.

Anna seems initially impressed by her relationship with Marcello, and she responds in just the way he might have hoped: she modifies her way of speaking, adopting his vocabulary and adapting her views to conform with his. He can view himself as her mentor, and fancy himself as creating the perfect woman. But there is no way to keep Anna just for himself, and so no way to prevent other men from benefiting from his efforts. During the following months, this simple fact becomes a source of frequent torment.

For Marcello is mistaken; his conception of Anna bears little resemblance to the real woman. She is unequivocally wanton, sleeping with anyone, irrespective of her feelings for them or her perceptions of their feelings for her, and irrespective of anything they might have done. Anna is quite literally a woman who will never say no, and so to love her, or to want her, means submitting to months of suspicion, jealousy, and unhappiness. But there seems to be something in Marcello's make-up which has him lose interest in the women who are available to him - and he has but to leave his apartment to meet yet another -  but remain fascinated by the one woman whose affection eludes him.

Marcello enjoys walking through the streets of Rome, and so this aspect of the story alone makes it an enjoyable book to read. But it is also a forensic analysis of one intelligent man's ability to delude himself, and while that can be frustrating at times, it is also interesting.

Un Amore a Roma first published 1956. This translation (by Constantine FitzGibbon) first published by Chatto and Windus 1958. Published in Penguin Books 1961.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting post: thank you. I'd not heard of Patti, but he seems to have been born in 1903 or 1904, so was not that young when this book was published. I was struck by the formal language of the extract (' hitherto proved incapable of establishing a proper relationship...' - it sounds a bit like officialese. Perhaps it sounds better in Italian.



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