• U.S.

Books: Mixed Fiction, Jun. 22, 1959

4 minute read

TEMPO DI ROMA, by Alexis Carvers (328 pp.; McGraw-Hill; $4.50), is evidence that nothing makes more pleasant reading than a novel that is both light and serious—unless it is a love letter written with tact. Alexis Curvers’ light and serious novel is a moving love letter to the city of Rome. It consists of the memoirs of Jimmy, an exquisitely cultivated Belgian bum who gets a job as a tourist guide in the Holy City and finds a few shadowy, crackpot friends. There is Sir Craven, so named for his Craven “A” cigarettes, a fop straight out of the Oscar Wilde era and The Yellow Book. There is a businesslike crook named Enrico, and there is a beautiful girl named Geronima, who tucks a flower into Jimmy’s buttonhole each morning. Soon he becomes known across Rome as “the guide with the flower.” With such a cast the story, such as it is, can only be dreamlike and tragicomic.

But the attraction of this strongly appealing book lies not so much in the plot as in the author’s passion for the city. Rome, says Belgian Novelist Curvers, is “like a woman lying in a shallow bowl of marble who, leaning now on one elbow, now on the other, constantly lifts one hand toward the blue bowl of the sky.” Since that hand holds offerings—the offerings of art—the book also contains more genuine insights into art than a shelf of criticism. Of the Sistine Chapel: “Poor Michelangelo—to have been put to so undignified and superhuman a task! It was obvious that they had overestimated his genius in expecting him to make up by painting alone for the Sistine’s total lack of architecture.”

And always there is Rome itself, giving shape and glory to what might otherwise be a formless fantasy. When the gates of the city finally close behind Jimmy as on a condemned playground, the picaresque hero carries with him two bittersweet truths: youth is short and Rome is eternal.

CALIFORNIA STREET, by Niven Busch (377 pp.; Simon & Schusfer; $4.50), suggests that a subject too long neglected by writers’ conferences is epigraphman-ship. Nothing subdues a reader more thoroughly than a cowcatcher of another author’s prose or poetry, bolted to the front of a book or chapter. And no novelist now working is better equipped to conduct a seminar on the technique than Niven (Duel in the Sun) Busch. His current novel, about a moneyed San Francisco clan, has ten epigraphs—one at the beginning of each chapter. A Latin proverb assures doubters that the author is classically educated, a quotation from the San Francisco Examiner implies that his feet are solidly on the ground, a scrap from T. S. Eliot warns that there is subtle stuff ahead.

But epigraphs can be embarrassing, especially if they are better than the prose that follows. Busch rashly prefaces a chapter that deals with a child’s illegitimacy with Ring Lardner’s grand old gag about the bumpkin who remarks, on learning that his friend was born out of wedlock, “That’s mighty pretty country around there.” Lardner’s act is hard to follow, and by comparison, Busch’s novel is as solemn as a convocation of bishops. Its most egregious epigraphy comes before the climactic scene. The book’s central figure, a bombastic newspaper publisher who is given to raging soliloquies, is cruelly beset in his old age by two ungrateful daughters, who try to seize the paper in a proxy fight. Only his third daughter remains steadfast. Does the reader see the Shakespearean parallel? To make sure, Busch nudges him with the “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” line from King Lear.

Author Busch blows lengthily but achieves only a slight turbulence. Anchylus Saxe, his publisher, is a routinely drawn old thunderer. His women, drunk or sober, are the four-martini kind—it would take that many snorts at a cocktail party to make them endurable. But for old newspaper hands who happen on the book, there is at least one reward—the characterization of a press lord so noble that he allows his own gossip columnist to malign a much-loved member of his family, because, by God, the facts are right.

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