Beard’s Roman Women is a moving, provocative, puzzling, even irritating novel that treads a number of thin lines: between the elusive present and the demanding past, between life and death, between the farcical and the serious, between the real and the hallucinatory, and even, perhaps, between the profoundly serious and the pretentiously slick. The setting, mood, and atmosphere suggest a Fellini film; the language, plot, and theme suggest a Nabokov novel. But the mix is thoroughly and uniquely Anthony Burgess.
Ronald Beard, the antihero of the novel, is a fifty-year-old screenwriter who faces the prospect of starting over following the death of Leonora, his wife of twenty-six years. Her demise forces him to a reevaluation of his life, his marriage, his career, his values, his remaining possibilities, and, of course, his own precarious mortality. “Starting over” means putting the marriage behind him, “getting laid” regularly by girls with “flat young bellies and firm young breasts,” and by going at his art with new energy and purpose.
All of which is impossible. The marriage torments him with guilty memories and unanswered questions: “the end of a marriage . . . was also the end of a civilization. More than twenty-six years spent in constructing a mythology, a joint memory bank, a language, a signaling system of grunt and touch—all gone, wasted.” How much had he loved his wife? Was their companionship that ignored sex (he had gotten out of the habit) the rationalization of a growing distaste for her physically? Did his denial of her sexual needs intensify her drinking? To what extent was the Far Eastern sojourn and the heavy drinking lifestyle he created responsible for her fatal cirrhosis? And, worst of all, was he happy about her death? Beard reads an article in Vogue entitled “Every Widower Feels Like a Murderer” and accepts it as a verdict.
And Beard soon has to deal with more than a simple memory of Leonora; the dead past refuses to stay neatly dead. Midway through the book he hears reports that she is still alive. “She” begins phoning him to warn him about her impending return and to keep him posted on the details. Beard—as well as the reader—reacts with confusion: he—and we—saw her die. Were we wrong? Or is it, as Beard tries to tell himself, a conspiracy? Or is he quietly and drunkenly going insane? Or do ghosts have palpable powers? Beard never finds out for sure—or, if he does, we never share his certainty.
Beard’s Roman Women, like a number of other contemporary novels, moves deliberately, but subtly, from old-fashioned realism to borderline surrealism. Whether this increasing ambiguity enhances the novel’s power and meaning or undermines its credibility and seriousness—or both—is a matter for the individual reader to decide. Or, to be specific, whether Leonora’s “resurrection” via telephone is an inspired artistic touch—like the mysterious phone calls in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori—that underscores the novel’s meaning, or is simply a clever contrivance for furthering the action, may be a matter of individual taste. How one feels about this device, however, probably also predicts one’s attitude toward the novel’s surprising conclusion and, for that matter, one’s final estimation of the book’s merit and importance.
Beard is given his opportunities both for artistic accomplishment and sexual rejuvenation in Hollywood. For the former, he gets a contract to write a musical screenplay based on romantic intrigues between Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron on Lake Leman during the summer Mary wrote Frankenstein. For the latter he begins an affair with Paola Lucrezia Belli, beautiful descendent of a great Italian poet, photographer (it is ostensibly her photographs that illustrate the book), and ex-wife of noted novelist P. R. Pathan.
But if his chances are given to him in Hollywood, it is Rome where they are—or are not—realized. It could be argued that this is essentially a two-character book, the characters being Ronald Beard and the city of Rome. The author’s method is sharp, impressionistic, and synecdochic. He sketches the city with precise details, concrete images, glimpses of urban life in motion, and brief anecdotes that emphasize its speed, corruption, and sense of danger. And it is all filtered through Beard’s extremely acute, slightly jocular, bitterly ironical sensibility. In keeping with Beard’s profession, the atmosphere suggests a film by Fellini from a screenplay by Dante.
Beard’s own feelings about Rome are intense, but mixed:He considered that he detested Rome, meaning its bloody history, its cowardly citizens, its godless bishops who were also godless popes, its boastful baroque, its insipid cuisine, its sour wine. A venal and a cruel city and a city of robbers . . . even at the most rarefied professional level.
But for all that stated antagonism, he is fascinated by the city and flees there as soon as he can after his wife’s death and the Hollywood interlude, and sets up housekeeping with Paola (in her apartment, inherited from Pathan), in an attempt to find both love and art. Rome becomes, for Ronald Beard, what Venice was for Gustave Aschenbach, the hero of Thomas Mann’s great novelette Death in Venice: the place where all of the elements of his life—physical, moral, artistic, spiritual—must coalesce to give a final shape and meaning to that existence. Paradoxically, while the past Beard is trying to flee clings to him with increasing tenacity, his present is, both literally...
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