Anthony Pacitto. A Sense of Ancient Gods.
Fictional versions of D.H. Lawrence have a lengthy history, extending back at least as far as Aldous Huxley's Mark Rampion in Point Counter Point (1928), a portrayal which was admiring but which Lawrence himself disliked. Frieda too has been fictionalized, as in Sasha Bristol's recent The Novelist's Wife (2015) (reviewed in DHLR 41.2). Such literary likenesses have their seductive appeal, but also their pitfalls.
On the Copyright page of his fictional account of the Lawrences' stay in the Abruzzi region of Italy, Anthony Pacitto states: "Some of the events and situations described in this novel are based on biographical and historical research, all the rest is true." In Pacitto's witty formulation, "true" presumably means imaginatively faithful to the spirit of Lawrence's relations with people, places, and himself. His title is derived from The Lost Girl (1920) Chapter 15, at a point where the protagonist, Alvina Houghton, has recently arrived at Pescocalascio, a fictional stand-in for the village of Picinisco, where Lawrence and Frieda had stayed in December of 1919--"that damned Picinisco" as Lawrence calls it in a letter. Lawrence recreates this austere milieu in the striking final chapters of his novel, which he had begun before the war but had then broken off. In actual fact the Lawrences' stay in the area lasted little more than a week, after which they migrated to the more forgiving climate of Capri. In Pacitto's narrative, however, one gets a sense of a more prolonged sojourn, and one pivotal in the lives of both Lawrences. During these days they fight through to a renewal of their love, while Lorenzo, as he is called throughout, finds the inspiration he needs to complete his abandoned story.
The relationship between the wandering couple and their host, Orazio Cervi, once an artist's model in London, is made much more significant in Pacitto than seems to have actually been the case. Rather playfully, to bolster this impression, Pacitto includes a fictional letter from Lawrence to Orazio, in simulated "holograph" script, reflecting fondly on their stay: "Caro Orazio, What a time we have had with you, unlike any other place we have been." What is more, he invents for the old ex-model an alluring nephew, "Ciccio," to trigger Lawrence's imagining of the character of that name, Alvina's Italian lover, in The Lost Girl.
To recreate within the pages of a fictional text figures as complex and contradictory as Lawrence and Frieda is a daunting task, and Pacitto's attempt, unsurprisingly, fails to be entirely convincing. Pacitto's enthusiasm is palpable, and the novel displays an energetic imaginative outreach. Unfortunately, his execution does not always match his investment. In the "Historical and Literary References" guide prefacing the narrative, he confuses The Rainbow's Lydia Lensky with her daughter Anna, identifies Ursula and Gudrun as daughters of Tom Brangwen rather than Will, and reverses the pairs of lovers in Women in Love, making Ursula rather than Gudrun reject Gerald Crich in the denouement. This is not an auspicious beginning; fortunately, few such gross oversights occur in the body of the novel. In any such effort, though, there is a tendency to reduce many-sided biographical subjects to travesty, and Pacitto all too often runs afoul of this temptation. His renderings of episodes of combat between husband and wife, though supported by well-known eye-witness accounts, can seem sensationalized to the point of farce, as when Lorenzo, after Frieda breaks a plate over his head, retaliates by pouring tea on hers: "He opened the lid, looked inside, closed the lid, stood up, and with slow deliberateness, baptised her lovely thick fairish hair with dregs of the yellow liquid, little trickles dripping off her springy curls, running down her cheeks, she immobile, accepting the response--at least this time." Such moments may be deliberately comic, but they favor slapstick rather than nuance; they end up turning Lawrence and Frieda into Punch and Judy.
Pacitto, no doubt emulating Lawrence's practice in stories like The Fox, leans heavily on animal analogies in characterization. Orazio's "simple" brother, Giovanni, "clambered along and over the boulders with the surefootedness of a mountain goat," to choose one among a plethora of examples. In evoking the remote and "primitive" Italian setting, the author goes some distance toward exoticizing it, though he can also recreate it with arresting vividness. But his insistence on applying animal analogies not just to his secondary characters but to his leading pair can often seem gauche. Revitalized after gamboling in the Alpine snow, Frieda "let[s] out another great lioness roar"; later, after D.H. addresses her as "[m]y little brindled adder," she replies jocosely "Come and hibernate with me"-and he does. At times the animal gets fused with the visceral: "[Frieda] went on watching, the way a cat watches, eyes half closed, unfocussed, unreadable. Sometimes [Lorenzo] was sure he could hear her purring from deep down in her belly." She repeatedly takes "little nips" from his flesh; there seems no limit to her amorous voracity. One is tempted to retitle the novel, channeling Margaret Atwood, "The Edible Man."
Both retrospectively and in the Active present, the novel touches on a broad range of familiar Lawrentian topics: Lawrence's mistreatment by British officialdom during the war years, the suppression of The Rainbow, his championing of "blood knowledge," his aversion to Frieda's Freudian leanings, and the like. Interestingly, and 1 think wisely, Pacitto for the most part avoids probing Lawrence's subjectivity, allowing Frieda's thoughts and perceptions to hold center stage. These tend for the most part to reaffirm rather than to interrogate Lawrence's core doctrines. ("Lorenzo came back in from the landing and stood there looking at her with that deep blue gaze, and she felt a blood surge of pleasure down inside.") The ample stretches of banter between the sparring protagonists eventually become tedious, giving the reader a sense of staginess rather than fertile intimacy. Meaning, no doubt, to counter the popular misconception that Lawrence lacked humor, Pacitto endows him with a propensity for exorbitantly bad jokes. One specimen can suffice: "I'm going to call this bed Bertrand," Lorenzo announces. "Why?" Frieda naturally asks. "Because it Russells so much." As readers of works like Studies in Classic American Literature are aware, Lawrence could indulge in the occasional wisecrack, but to attribute to him this sort of buffoonery is to make him appear not approachable but trivial. Frieda, for her part, is lavish in her words of leadenly jocose admiration: "You are a conjuror," she remarks at one point. "I will call you Lorenzo the Magnificent."
As Pacitto's book demonstrates, a drawback of the self-publishing process is the lack of editorial oversight, which might have screened out the numerous solecisms and anachronisms marring the text. Describing to Orazio someone he has met en route to Picinisco, Lorenzo explains, "Like I said, he was a fellow passenger." No, that is not "like" what the properly Edwardian D. H. Lawrence would have said. Or take, again, the narrator's description of the approach to the village: "In the distance, mountain peaks spectral white, overhead a scintilla of stars." And so on, many times compounded. This last example, however, suggests a more positive point: aside from the malaprop of "scintilla," it exemplifies an offsetting strength of Pacitto's writing, his ability to transmit a strong sense of both the wildness and the visual charm of the Abruzzi milieu. And, despite his tendency to exoticize and, so to speak, animalize them, he has something of the same success with the human fauna of his Active scene. This is particularly true of his portrayal of Orazio Cervi, nostalgic for his time in pre-war London posing for artists like Lord Leighton. Borrowing some details from the character Pancrazio (based on the actual Orazio) in The Lost Girl, Pacitto fleshes out the character, making his relationship with the Lawrences much richer and more varied than it seems to have been in fact. One gets a plausible, indeed poignant sense of the returned native's bittersweet recollections of his London years, and of his ambivalent attitude toward his remarkable guests. One is left wishing for a more ample exploration of the character of this melancholy Piciniscan, even at the cost of sacrificing a good many pages of arch repartee between Pacitto's central pair of literary celebrities.
Michael L. Ross
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|Author:||Ross, Michael L.|
|Publication:||D.H. Lawrence Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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