The Marble Faun

AngelsBridgeAndBasilicaDiSanPietroAtNight

By Andreas Tille (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Lightmatter colosseum
By Aaron Logan (http://www.aaronlogan.com/ and http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php) [CC-BY-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

StPetersBasilica Keyhole 2
By AngMoKio (selfmade photo) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Via appia
Kleuske at nl.wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

I went to Rome this summer; Hawthorne was my tour guide.  I saw catacombs, cathedrals, gardens, tombs, fountains, picture galleries, countryside–he described it all, with great detail.  And we met some interesting people, too.

Magnus Selbstbildnis 1827

There was Kenyon, the American sculptor, studying the statuary and working on a portrayal of Cleopatra.  He’s a “well-informed” gentleman, with an unfortunate tendency to go off onto long, philosophical discourses whenever he has an opportunity to do so.  It is very like him not to choose a Roman legend as his subject…wherever he is, his truest thoughts seem elsewhere.

Cecile Mendelssohn Bartholdy

They revert often back to Hilda.  She is a New England girl; and she has a gift for copying the classic paintings.  That is how she makes her living in Rome.  Ironically, while capturing perfectly the masters’ art and dedicating her life to its study, her own artistic originality is neglected.  In her personal life, she is upright, optimistic, and rather naive.  I find her easy to understand.

Adolf Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel 037

Hilda’s friend is a mysterious painter, known only by the name of ‘Miriam’.  Nobody knows where she comes from.  She’s beautiful and independent, but her life is haunted by a strange acquaintance of hers, who follows her wherever she goes.

And finally, there’s Donatello–a cheerful young count, with apparently not a care in the world.  They say he resembles the Faun of Praxiteles, and that, under his curly hair, he has pointed ears.  He fell in love with Miriam and would do anything for her, but he also has a capricious streak in him that is very dangerous. 

NMS Mackie Nymph and Faun detail 1
By photo: Ad Meskens, sculpture Charles Hodge Mackie (Own work) [Attribution, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Marble Faun is very similar to Moby-Dick.  Two-thirds of it is history, sightseeing, and in-depth descriptions.  I felt some pictures would have been helpful in the description department–I’ve never actually been to Rome, and so I could only picture it vaguely.  In the end, you feel as if you know Rome, inside and out, and simultaneously don’t know it at all.

The other 1/3 of the book is one intense story.  You can think of it as a tragedy of star-crossed lovers, or you can think of it as a biblical allegory…it’s both.  Hawthorne’s Gothic tone shows up as well, in some very poignant scenes, such as Donatello in the forest, or Kenyon at the carnival.  Altogether, Hawthorne took an epic theme–the Fall of Man–and studied it through the lives of four characters.  The garden of Eden, the temptation, sin, guilt, and punishment are all there. The Marble Faun is often described as fantasy, but I’d hardly call it that–the truth in the book far outweighs the fantasy elements.

Overall, I give it a solid 5 out of 5 stars.  It takes patience.  Sometimes the descriptions were as wearisome as taking a city tour in Converse shoes (just speaking from experience, here).  But the story itself holds so much truth, and moments of genius, that I think it was well-worth reading.  🙂

The Blithedale Romance

The Blithedale Romance
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Edition:  Oxford World’s Classics, paperback.
My overall rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

19th century New England.  A group of men and women set out to establish “Blithedale”, a community of farmers whose aim is to set an example to the world of their peaceful, profitable, and simpler life.  Blithedale is led by three celebrities:  Miles Coverdale, a poet and the narrator; Hollingsworth, a philanthropist; and the elegant “Zenobia”, an author and women’s rights advocator.  They are also joined by a strange, timid girl, Priscilla, whose very existence and loving personality changes their lives–or rather, it helps bring to light the true characters of those around her.

This book was not originally on my reading list; I chose it at random at the library, because I’d been wanting to read more Hawthorne and it looked very readable.  I really didn’t know what to expect.

As a work of American literature, I think The Blithedale Romance is hugely underrated.  Not only is it easy to read, but it gives some excellent glimpses of American life/culture during Hawthorne’s times.  The story, too, reads like a mystery novel, with a great climax and a heartbreaking ending.  Unlike certain other 19th-century American lit, this book is not lofty, verbose, or slow; instead, it’s fast-paced, concise, and elegantly readable.

The word  “romance”, though relevant also in modern-day meaning, would nowadays translates to “fantasy”.  Rather than describing life in detail at Blithedale, Hawthorne simply uses the “community atmosphere”, as well as a rather unlikely plot, to make a study of the four main characters.  They certainly make it an interesting read.

Miles Coverdale is a much more participating narrator than one would expect…mostly because he’s just plain nosy.  He makes it his business to delve into people’s secrets, then he feels all hurt when nobody wants to confide in him (ha!).  He’s certainly an unusual narrator and oddly likeable at times. 

Priscilla is a bit of a mystery.  Her personality is simplistic; at first she’s likeable, but later on she gets to be irritating. 

Hollingsworth may well be more of a mystery than anybody else.  He’s a man who has turned all his devotion to his philanthropic cause, leaving his personal life greatly drained of emotion, humanity, and conscience.  Not cool.

Last but far from least, Zenobia.  She’s an anti-heroine, but one can’t help but have a little sympathy for her.  Her story is as tragic as any Thomas Hardy book, only more subtle and very poignant.

As for the plot, there’s a sort of love rectangle going on, a couple appearances by the enigmatic Professor Westervelt, and some weird magic show subplot that isn’t ever explained.  Though ambiguous plots are fun to write, I wish Hawthorne had explained everything more–it’s a trifle frustrating.  The ending, too, was sad. One thing I did like about the book, though, was that it reads like a movie or a play–there’s a heavy touch of drama and mystery in it.  It would make an excellent costume drama!

Now, I subtracted 1/2 star for some of the plot elements and the fact that the narrator is very annoying at times.  Other than that, it was a good read, and I recommend it!