Divertimento 1889 by Guido Morselli (tr. Hugh Shankland)

When Guido Morselli took his own life at the age of sixty, Italy may well have lost one of its finest writers. Up until the time of his death in 1973, not one of Morselli’s novels had been accepted for publication; all seven were subsequently published in Italy, where Morselli now seems to have gained the recognition he so richly deserved at the time. Sadly for us, only one of his books appears to be available in English: Divertimento 1889, an utterly charming story of an escape from royal life during the Belle Époque period of the late 19th century.

IMG_2569

Morselli uses Umberto I, King of Italy from 1878 to 1900, as a model for his fictional protagonist. As the novel opens, we find the King in his office in Monza (the Royal Place in the North of Italy), weighed down by a mountain of paperwork and official duties. His mood is somewhat dispirited as he reflects on the tedium of life as a royal, a role that offers him very little satisfaction or sense of achievement.

This futile slavish job of his, condemned to trail the length and breadth of his ungrateful land – dusty, disjointed Italy – with no power and no responsibilities and yet pursued everywhere by papers and couriers, as though it all depended on him, as though he could alter a thing. Still, nothing but trials and tribulations. One headache after another. And his Household to think of, his family. Two households, two families. And himself caught between the two of them, bored stiff with both, and with his need for freedom, for seclusion. (pg. 5)

It soon becomes clear that the King is living beyond his means. He is married, there is his lover to think of, plus the estates to maintain, all of which means that his outgoings have been exceeding his incomings in recent years. Luckily for the King, a solution may be close to hand. When one of his advisers, the rather dashing Vigliotti, informs him that a lady has expressed interest in purchasing one of his properties – a rustic castle in Monferatto – the King sees an opportunity to solve all his financial problems. With this in mind, he dispatches Vigliotti to Switzerland to sound out the lady in question, a certain Frederika von Goltz. As Frau von Goltz is currently convalescing at home in Wassen, the King wonders whether this development might not present another lucky break. Why not accompany Vigliotti to Switzerland so as to be on hand if required during the negotiation of the sale? Furthermore, as The King is keen to keep any potential deal under wraps, a plan begins to hatch in his mind – why not travel incognito? It would be a chance to experience life as an ordinary human being, even if only for a week or two. All at once his mood lightens considerably.

Adventure? Why yes, in so far as it was a complete novelty. In his line of business the most appropriate description for time off, even a vacation, would be hard labour. On holiday at Racconigi or San Rossore he would be lucky to get three hours a day to call his own. The Royal Palace at Monza was no better than a branch office of headquarters in Rome. Journeys by land or sea, visits to friends, hunting or fishing parties, all came down to strict timetables and fixed itineraries, more or less official engagements. But this was right out of the ordinary. An incognito which was not a joke. Turning himself into Signor X or Y or Z would be like being born again, or living in a different world. And outside Italy as well, where it need not be a delusion, it might even last. (pg. 20)

Once the requisite preparations have been made, the King and a small group of his most trusted advisers set out by train, the ‘official’ reason for their visit being a hunting trip to the Swiss Alps. The King, who is travailing under the alias of Count Moriana, is delighted to arrive at his destination in Goeschenen; the Hotel Adler is simple yet comfortable.

The next afternoon, the King discovers one of the small pleasures in life as he takes a leisurely walk by himself. Unlike all the other foreign visitors who stop to gaze at the landscape surrounding Goeschenen, the King is lost in his own thoughts; nothing else exists outside the private happiness of his world.

Girls up from the valley of the Reuss with baskets of bilberries and cyclamen still had things left to sell, laid out beside them in the backs of carts where they sat, in their black flower-embroidered skirts and white stockings, their legs dangling. He was alone, praise God, in the midst of these people who knew nothing of him. No escort, no bodyguard, no police commissars clumsily got up as civilians for a man who normally could go nowhere without outriders and a whole ‘train’ of swallow tailcoats and kepis festooned with gold braid – guarded, insulted, assaulted, or acclaimed and showered with flowers. He felt no temptation to take the mountain road, happy to promenade up and down between the hotel and the post-station, passing the occasional tourist armed with guidebook and binoculars or country folk making their way home from market or returning with full panniers from their mountain-pastures. (pg 42-43)

Other pleasures await the King while he remains undercover: a spot of shopping in the town; a quiet game of cards now and again; there is even time for a dalliance or two. The King is rather taken with Clara Mansolin, Vigliotti’s beautiful young fiancée who is also staying in the hotel. The attraction is mutual. In this scene, one which illustrates the wonderfully comic tone of this novella, the King is running through his moves in preparation for a secret rendezvous with Clara.

And as he undressed in his room preparatory to taking a bit of a nap he mentally reviewed the ritual objections, and the time-honoured replies. ‘But sir, you propose to rob me of the most precious thing I have.’ Reply: ‘You will be rewarded.’ ‘But sir, you will get me into trouble.’ ‘Never fear, I’ll defend you.’ There was a third possible line of resistance, and here the appropriate peremptory reply was suggested to him by a distant Savoy forebear, Prince Eugene. ‘But sir, I am the wife of one of your officers.’ ‘Madam, I do not detract from my officers’ honour by bedding their wives. I enhance it.’ (pg. 110)

Perhaps inevitably, certain developments threaten to disturb the King’s escapade. An inquisitive journalist happens to recognise Clara, an old flame from his past. Closer inspection of the party reveals the true identity of the Count, leaving the journalist with a potential scoop on his hands – what is the King of Italy doing on an undercover mission in Switzerland? Secret talks of a political nature, perhaps? Furthermore, the King’s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, appears to be threatening to pay him a visit, a development that causes no end of confusion among the royal advisors. The King has absolutely no time whatsoever for his zealous young cousin, a point that becomes abundantly clear from the following passage.

To come charging up into these mountains to turn the whole place upside down for one day, for two days, affronting Swiss neutrality with his performing troupe of bodyguards in silver breastplates and gilt helmets, his generals and his ministers, preceded by an advance party of swallow-tailed flunkeys and aides, secretaries and sundry other hangers-on – the notion would have crossed his mind, without a doubt. And he had to thank all the saints in heaven that some graver task, some bolder project, had driven it out of his head. (pgs. 105-106)

Divertimento 1889 is a captivating story, a celebration of the joys of freedom and the need to escape from one’s duties every now and again. Morselli’s sprightly prose, with its lively humour and somewhat farcical tone, mirrors the delights of upping sticks and going off on a lark to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. On the surface, it may seem a touch frothy, an entertaining tale with no real wisdom to impart. Dig a little deeper, however, and there are other insights to uncover. Morselli’s story touches on the development of technology, echoing a theme that remains all too relevant today – can we ever truly escape from all forms of communication – in the King’s case the telegraph – when in need of a little solitude? Perhaps the novella’s most poignant message relates to the passing of time. I loved the following quote, a passage that encourages us to savour every moment of life before it slips away.

For a long time the Chief had not picked up a newspaper or looked at a calendar, and yet with every nerve in his body he felt time passing. In a way he had never felt it before, so remorselessly fast and elusive, and for the simple reason that it would have been wonderful to be able to slow it down, and hold it. (pg. 136)

I’m delighted to have discovered this little gem via Scott’s excellent review over at the seraillon blog. The book is currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online. It would be wonderful to see it back in circulation with a publisher such as Pushkin Press or NYRB – I’d like to think that it’s just their type of thing.

Divertimento 1889 was published by EP Dutton (Obelisk). Source: Personal copy.

32 thoughts on “Divertimento 1889 by Guido Morselli (tr. Hugh Shankland)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I am ashamed at how little I know my Italian writers, even though the language and way of thinking should be very familiar to me. Poor Morselli – not one of his novels published – no wonder he committed suicide. A bit like Van Gogh!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very tragic. The book comes with an excellent introduction by the translator, Hugh Shankland. By all accounts, Morselli suffered from depression for much of his adult life. He experienced the carnage of war (‘the most catastrophic and futile wart in history’) in Southern Italy during ‘the Italian debacle of July-September 1943.’ When his unit was disbanded, he remained marooned in Calabria for nearly three years, homesick and penniless, unable to get word to his family or to the woman he loved. During this intensely lonely time, he began to keep a detailed working journal which he maintained for the rest of his life.

      I get the feeling that much of Morselli’s other work (aside from Divertimento 1889) was quite philosophical in nature. One of the possible reasons for rejection of Morselli’s books before his death stems from the view that his work was unlike anything else in post-war Italian fiction. I think that’s rather sad…

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds absolutely wonderful Jacqui – and a great review. Yet another European writer who’s slipped out of print, and let’s hope someone picks up his books!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I thought this was absolutely wonderful, a real find! It would be lovely to see it back in print with Pushkin, NYRB or another enterprising publisher of that ilk.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cathy. Yes, doesn’t it just! Grant (of the 1streading blog) runs a ‘Lost Books’ feature every now and again, highlighting gems that have fallen out of print. It’s surprising to see just how many great writers have slipped through the net.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That would be a great feature – very educational, too. It’s hard to find the time to do everything, though. Maybe you could you highlight one or two Irish writers that are ripe for rediscovery?

          Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    The idea of the telegraph making contact with the world at large is so interesting. If this book had not been written more then forty years ago, it would have seemed that the author was drawing parallels to our modern digital age. When one thinks about, this topic has now been relevant for a very long time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brain. Yes, the ideas behind those points on communication are still very relevant today. Even in the late 19th-century, it would have been hard for someone in a position of importance to cut themselves off from all possible forms of communication. We all need to get away from things every now and again, and I think Morselli’s story plays to that idea very effectively.

      Reply
  4. Emma

    Great review, I see several of his books are available in French. The prose sounds fantastic.

    Maybe I have an ingrained revolutionary streak due to my nationality but I have trouble empathising with the inner turmoil of a king. (Who, btw, decides that being an ordinary man is being a Count.)
    Yes, I suppose being a king or a queen can be trying but look at the perks: lots of money and if you’re in Britain, you can even have the country cleaning the streets in your name, like in the good old Victorian times. :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I loved the style, and Morselli’s prose is wonderful. Good to hear that several of his books are available in French – that’s great news.

      Haha! Yes, yes, you’re right to take a pop at the King’s decision to pose as a Count. By rights, he should have tried to live the life of a peasant for a few weeks, but I suspect his minions needed to be on hand in case of any medical issues or hitches. Plus there was the matter of the sale of that castle to Frau von Goltz – I guess his disguise as a Count would have tied in with the fact that he had a sizeable piece of property to sell. :-)

      It must be a strange old life being a member of royalty, despite the perks. I must admit to feeling some sympathy for the King in Morselli’s story. Yes, he is a bit of a buffoon, but there is something rather tragic about him too. (That said, don’t get me started on that ‘clean for the queen’ campaign…it’s so patronising!)

      Reply
  5. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    Some of the books are available in German as well, though they are second-hand copies as well. Only two of the books had one rating on Amazon. How sad! I’m glad that you brought some attention to Morselli and this book. It’s nice to think that even though this story was written a while ago, it still has some relevance and is entertaining on top of it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah…this one turned out to be a real delight, I must admit – very entertaining and a touch poignant, especially towards the end. Based on the translator’s introduction, I get the feeling that Morselli’s other books might be somewhat different to Divertimento. More philosophical in nature, perhaps? In any case, I was happy to give this writer a brief moment in the sun over here! :)

      Reply
  6. FictionFan

    Sounds wonderful! I do admit to a sneaking sympathy for the Royals, and these days it would be pretty much impossible for them to manage to go incognito. Even if they were to give up the throne or their claim to it, they’d still be followed and hounded for the rest of their lives. I guess I’m kinda glad I’m not a Princess… ;)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is pretty special, a charming little escapade! Yes, me too. Even though I’m not a royalist, I do have some sympathy for them. Imagine being born into that world through no choice of your own…it must feel terribly stifling at times despite the upsides.

      Reply
  7. Max Cairnduff

    It does sound fun. I’m reminded of Szerb’s Oliver VII (my favourite Szerb) where a king goes incognito and ends up heading the resistance to his own reign. This sounds slightly less fanciful (though Oliver VII is wonderful) but still very fun.

    Emma’s right that it’s funny that his idea of an ordinary man is a Count. How long is it overall?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, that reminds me – I had Oliver on an old wishlist, but he seems to have dropped off somewhere along the line. I shall have to reinstate him, especially if it’s your favourite of the Szerb’s you read to date.

      Divertimento is 140 pages, plus a short intro from the translator. I read it in an afternoon. It’s absolutely delightful!

      Reply
  8. seraillon

    I’m so glad you liked this, Jacqui. I found this little novel to be one of the best things I read last year, a rare blend of quirkiness, charm, and something quite a bit darker. For all of its wit and undeniable “diversion,” the sense of entrapment not only by mortality but also by institutions – and by the whims of those in power – makes it almost chilling. This is not a simple “trading-places” kind of story.

    The Chicago Review last year published a very funny except from Morselli’s novel The Communists, so I’m hoping the rest of the book finds its way into English soon. There is one other of his novels already translated as Past Conditional, a counterfactual revision of World War I. I have not yet read it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved it, Scott! Thanks so much for writing about it in the first place as I would never have discovered it otherwise. You’re right about the theme of entrapment by institutions, that sense of feeling restricted in life. (In fact, I probably should have mentioned a little more about the darkness in my review.) There’s a melancholy undercurrent running through this story, and I felt it quite strongly particularly towards the end.

      Oh, and thanks for the update on Morselli’s Other work. Now I think about it, your description of Past Conditional sounds familiar, so I’m wondering if we had discussed it in the comments to your review of Divertimento! Anyway, good to know it’s available in English – are you planning to read it at some point? The Communists sounds very promising too.

      Reply
      1. seraillon

        I do plan to read Past Conditional later this year. Also, I’ve just confirmed that The Communist has indeed been translated in full and will appear next year.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Cool. I’ll be very curious to hear your thoughts on Past Conditional – the premise sounds very intriguing. Great news about The Communist, too. Thanks for that, Scott.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? Nevertheless, based on Max’s comments above, it sounds as though Antal Szerb’s novel Oliver VII explores similar territory. As for the King and Clara, I couldn’t possibly say – you’ll have to read the book to find out! :-)

      Reply
  9. Caroline

    I haven’t read him yet. Such a sad story.
    One more Italian writer who ended his life.
    I need to see what’s available in other languages.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s terribly sad – it sounds as though he suffered from depression for much of his adult life. (The English edition of Divertimento comes with an excellent introduction by the translator, Hugh Shankland,) Morselli served in the Second World War during ‘the Italian debacle of July-September 1943.’ When his unit was disbanded, he remained marooned in Calabria for nearly three years, homesick and penniless, unable to get word to his family or to the woman he loved. There is a melancholy undertone running through Divertimento, so I guess that stems from Morselli’s own experience of life…

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. Pingback: Past Conditional | 1streading's Blog

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s