Leaving Traces

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hereOne of my last forays on a stage was to play the double role of Beatrice of Bar and a peasant girl in a historical play about Beatrice’s daughter, Mathilda of Tuscany – the great lady of the Italian Middle Ages.

It wasn’t exactly my idea – but the company was one Beatrice short after a last minute forfeit, and the peasant girl was thrown in for good measure, and I’ve never been terribly good at saying “No”…

Anyway, to make a long story short, I was there when Mathilda – Woman and Countess, was played, very appropriately, before an 11th Century church originally funded and founded by Matilda herself.

We had someone really good taking care of the lighting, and a suitably windy night – enough to stir the many cloaks, but not enough to mess with the mikes. So the play was lovely to look at, and we were all rather happy with the result.*

And after it was all over, I stood there with the director (who had also worked with my Carthaginian play) watching the lovely romanesque façade, as the crew took down the lights. It was a beautiful sight.Untitled 1

“See?” the director asked, pointing. “Your Hannibal, he left behind nothing of the sort.”

Which – as I admitted then, and have no trouble admitting now – is absolutely true. Hannibal didn’t leave behind anything of any sort, when it comes to brick-and-mortar – except perhaps the town of Artashat, that he may have designed for a king of Armenia, but even supposing it is true, the ancient Artashat now is less than ruins.

And this, theatre-wise, makes Hannibal by far the most interesting of the two – or, at the very least, the more tragic.

Come to think of it, there are similarities between Hannibal and Mathilda. Both were born to rank and privilege, both soon proved exceptional, both took on their roles very young, both had remarkable fathers they lost early and far exceeded, both played pivotal roles in the clash between the two great powers of their time, both left no heirs…

But Mathilda died leaving a reasonable approximation of peace and all kinds of tangible legacy, and having accomplished much of what she’d set out to do, after reigning for many years. Hannibal, on the other hand, died a defeated, hunted, betrayed exile, took his own life to avoid capture, and left… nothing.

HanNothing except a name that even his worst enemies admired – if grudgingly. Nothing except tactical notions that are still studied in military schools all over the world. Nothing except, and here is a paradox, the greatness of his enemies – because it was with the II Punic War that Rome graduated from power to Power.

And so, I’m sure Mathilda was a very remarkable lady – but my heart and my imagination root for the man who, defeated and with no monument to leave behind, managed to throw his name across more than two millenia – out of sheer, burning, titanic greatness.

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* Well, with the possible exception of the author – another playwright, who never forgave me for saving the performance by stepping in at the last moment… But this is another story.

 

 

 

In Memoriam: Magda Olivero

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MagdaMagda Olivero died last Monday at 104. She was a wonderful soprano – though not of the usually acclaimed torrential sort. She had a very distinctive voice, flawless technique, and an infinite capacity for refined, intense, detailed, deep interpretation. She wasn’t over-demonstrative, she wasn’t sentimental in her singing, she recorded sparingly, and she had an amazing longevity, when you consider that she sang in public for little less than seventy years.

She also was a delightful person, witty, intelligent, and sharp as a tack. I only met her once, well in her nineties, but she was something of a household name, being my mentor’s operatic idol and good friend.

And in memory of her intelligent artistry, I like to remember her here.

Here you can read a lovely article about Magda, by Deceptive Cadence‘s Tom Huizenga.

Why don’t you write something contemporary?

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DSN2Indeed, why don’t I?

Through the years, I have published three historical novels – slightly unconventional ones, perhaps, but still. And I’ve had six plays staged, five of which are set at some point in the past.

And at every launch, at every book signing, at every performance, some well-meaning soul turns out with The Question: why don’t I write something contemporary? And the funny thing is, they usually mean it as a compliment.

As though writing historicals were some sort of second best, ‘prentice work I’ll have to outgrow, sooner or later. Oh, what a lovely book/play. You are ready now, dear girl. You can go on to write something serious

And nine times out of ten, it is perfectly pointless to tell say I am writing what I want to write, thank you very much. Or that it’s not that I cannot write present-day – it’s just that I don’t like it all that much.

After all, I write historicals for a reason. Several reasons, actually: the difficult task of really grasping past events, a fascination with the things we don’t know anymore, the way legends, clichés and literature grow layer after layer, the pull of  century-old lies, the constant tension between period-ness and interpretation… All of which, you’ll agree, is better explored by writing historical fiction.

So, it seems to me that I know what I am doing – and why I do it – but no. Let it be publicly known that I write historicals, and someone is bound to ask: why, why, oh why, don’t I write something contemporary?

Well, maybe because I don’t care to? Because I don’t feel I have much to say or tell in a contemporary setting? Because I’m better at other things?

And I’m not saying I’ll never do it. Apart from the fact that writers have been known to change their minds, I’m never averse to dabbling with genres outside my own, trying something different. Stepping (cautiously) out of my comfort zone… So, who can tell what the future will hold?

Meanwhile, though, nothing contemporary, thank you – and no sugar.

A Gladius by Any Other Name?

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gladius-training-sword-largeThis is from Karavansara, my friend Davide Mana’s great blog of pulp and historical adventure, with an Asian slant. It’s not for nothing that Davide subtitled the thing “East of Constantinople, West of Shangai.”

While doing research for his wonderful Aculeo and Amunet stories (check them out, if you’ve never read them), he stumbled across some great video resources about ancient weaponry, and collected a few in this post.

When you are writing historical fiction (or historical adventure), you never have enough of this sort of things – because it’s damnably easy to mess up… And of course, a novel is a novel, and not a treatise on ancient hoplology – but it’s so much better if, while providing great characters engaged in interesting action and meaningful stories, you also get your swords right, isn’t it?

Minor Works

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What can I say? I have a thing for minor works. The less liked, known and read ones. The ones you name, and eight times out of then are met with stares between wary and blank.

And if an author only experimented once with historical fiction, and the result is unanimously regarded as minor and weaker – that’s where I unerringly give my predilection.

Charlotte Brontë, probably by George Richmond ...

Take Charlotte Brontë: only once did she dabble with history. Recent history, and local, and small scale – for her Shirley is set in Regency Yorkshire, against the Napoleonic Wars and early Luddite riots. Partly written as a piece of escapism as Charlotte struggled with the illness and death of her three siblings in short order, Shirley is indeed an uneven affair. And yet, I love it for what works in it (Robert Moore, the Yorkes, Dr. Helstone, the three curates…), and what doesn’t still provides fascinating glimpses on the artistic growth of Charlotte-the-novelist, as well as the mind of Charlotte-the-woman.

English: Illustration by Phiz for Barnaby Rudg...

Dickens wrote two historicals: the enormously famous A Tale of Two Cities, andhalf-forgotten Barnaby Rudge. I love both, but have a soft spot for Barnaby. It’s a rather purple tale set against the Gordon Riots – a nearly-surreal anti-Catholic insurrection in early 18th Century London – and sports a singularly ill-conceived eponymous hero, and the flattest pair of cardboard lovers. And yet, poor mad Lord Gordon and his evil secretary, Grip the Raven (that was to inspire Poe), Miggs the maid, Dolly Varden, the winter night in the inn at Chigwell, and most of all the assault on Newgate prison, make the whole memorable. Uneven as they come, but where it works, it’s more than worth the pain.

John-SteinbeckSame goes for Steinbeck. Is it very bad of me to confess that The Cup of Gold is not only my favourite Steinbeck, but the only Steinbeck I really like? I suppose it is – also because The Cup is unmistakably ‘prentice work – but what’s a girl to do? It’s not so much Morgan-the-pirate, as Morgan-the-liar – the man who spends a whole life in the effort of fashioning his life according to his expectations, by way of storytelling and actions in equal parts. Except, the man is so busy making up his own myth, he never quite grasps that the more he weaves it, the less his listeners believe him.

And in the same vein, I could go on and say that of all the works of A.C. Doyle, Brigadier Gérard is my favourite, and when it comes to Kipling, I like the short stories much better than the novels, and I love Yourcenar’s The Abyss more than Memoirs of Hadrian

I don’t know. At times it’s the historical setting, at times it might just be sheer contrariness, but what draws me most is, I think, the occasional awkwardness of an author still seeking his or her voice. I have a liking for the imperfections caught in the texture of the writing, for the still rough edges, for the contrast between what works and what doesn’t, the friction with the unusual genre, the inner mechanism glimpsed through the cracks…  Ah well – it’s a weakness.

And how about you, o Readers? What minor works do you like? And why do you like them?

 

A Lot of Silents

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silent-movieI was recently introduced to OpenCulture, a website that boasts “the best free cultural and educational media on the web”.

Well, they certainly list heaps of excellent and very interesting content: ebooks, audiobooks, courses, MOOCs, language lessons, movies, teaching resources… but what really got me is their selection of 101 silent films.

If, like me, you are not wild about Charlie Chaplin, the numer is somewhat smaller – but all the same, the wonders you’ll find on that page! From Fritz Lang to Méliès, from very early Hitchcock to the Lumière Brothers, from Murnau to Eisenstein, to Renoir…

Quite mouth-watering. Oh, to just have time enough and world…

Of Plays and Novels

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NovelYesterday morning, over tea and seemingly out of the blue, my mother asked when am I going to write another novel.

“I think you miss it. I think I even miss it myself. So, when are you writing a new one?”

Which is, I’ll admit, a very good question. I have published three novels in Italy, and written a few more – but that was several years ago. Then I went back to my first writing love – theatre, and never looked back.

I love the constant quest for maximum effectiveness, the need to convey everything through dialogue and action, the effort of compressing a world, a century, an epoch in just the way people speak. I love to work with a company and write around their needs – likely the best way to learn what will or won’t work onstage. And most of all, I love to see my writing come to life on a stage, to be surprised at the new colours it acquires through other people’s interpretation of it, to sit in the dark house or backstage, and feel the audience react… Yes – writing for the stage is a complex form of happiness.

And yet…

And yet it may be that Mother is right. It may be that I miss novel-writing. The long and painstaking research, the complex planning and plotting, the long-term engagement with characters and setting, the broader scope, the large population, the room for character study, multiple plots and slow change… scripts

Writing a play is like opening a window. Writing a short story is jewellery-making. Writing a novel means to build a world – and it may be that I miss building worlds. Actually, the last few times I tried, it didn’t go entirely well. I have three half-finished first draft and one complete sleeping somewhere in my hard-disk. One of them I ransacked for the glimmering bits, which I then made into a monologue – a really good one, if I say so myself. I’ts unlikely that I’ll ever pick it up again. The other two, though… They are stories I like, with characters I like – and what I have written isn’t bad. Both still need a good deal of work, and each was set aside in favour of a play. On the face of it, my playwright self has swallowed the novelist whole…

And yet. I really, really do love playwriting to distraction – but lately I’ve been feeling a sort of homesickness for novel-writing. I want to try again. I miss the peculiar set of joys and sorrows of a novel-in-progress.

Isn’t it annoying, the way mothers tend to be always right?

 

 

 

Playing Games

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shakespeare-2bActually, one game.

The one they play on the Shakespeare in Action Blog.

They start from some outlandish sort of What if, such as What if Shakespeare ran a Halloween shop?, and then answer it by selecting and arranging speeches from all over the Canon… Here is the Halloween shop one. And here several more. It’s silly, creative, very funny – and with the right company, I can see it as a perfect parlour game.

Anacronodonyms

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RTEmagicC_western_district_01.jpgIt’s not as if I’d never seen it before, but now I have stumbled across it twice in a month, and always about Verona. Medieval Verona – or rather Romeo and Juliet’s Verona, which means rather generic Middle Ages, but Middle Ages nonetheless.

So, when in a novel I read about Benvolio and Mercutio strolling through Via Mazzini, I very nearly choked on my tea – because Giuseppe Mazzini happens to be a XIXth father of Italian Unification, very unlikely to have had a street named after him at any point of the Middle Ages. And then I am fairly sure that Ponte della Vittoria, that is to say Victory Bridge, must have had some other name before WW1. And there were more like these: clearly the author did her research on a modern map of Verona, never bothering to check her street names…

And yesterday, while googling shakespearean images, I found this Czech boardgame set “in Prince Escalus’ Verona”… nice idea – except, the first thing I notice in the illustration of the board was a street named Viale Pascoli. Not only Viale , that is “Avenue”, is most definitely not a Medieval street type designation, but Giovanni Pascoli is, again, a XIXth Century poet. And next to poor Pascoli were other modern-sounding odonyms… Again, the game designer clearly relied on a modern map of Verona.

What can I say? It makes me unhappy. No matter how I am enjoyng the novel – or the game – an anacronistic odonym, just like any other anacronism , will jettison me out of the story. All the more because it is really not all that hard to get yourself a map of Medieval Verona – or, at the very least, to check street names on Wikipedia to find out whether there could be such a place in your chosen epoch…

The past is a foreign place, remember? They do things differently. The past in a foreign place is doubly foreign – and call me peevish if you like, but when you choose to set your story twice abroad, in time and place, there is no way around it, but to be doubly careful, doubly accurate, and double-double check your maps, streets, poets and avenues.

Stamps

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StampMy father was a stamp collector. When I was very young, he tried to share the hobby with me – and failed. All I remember are endless sessions sitting at a table covered in green felt, being scolded for breathing too hard on the silly little paper squares…

Usually Dad knew how to grasp my interest, so I can’t imagine why he never thought of really showing me what the silly little squares depicted… Even as a child, I would have loved history- themed stamps, or literary ones, like the British stamps from the collection of James M. Hutchisson, to be found at this link.

It’s interesting to see which books and authors are chosen, and how they are portrayed to go traveling around on letters and postcards.

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