adventure, anachronisms, astrology, book review, Dante, David Blixt, fate, feminism, fourteenth century, historical fiction, information dumps, narrative drive, Shakespeare, theatrical quality, unification of Italy, Verona
Review: The Master of Verona, by David Blixt
St. Martin’s, 2007. 561 pp. $28
In 1314, Verona’s master, Cangrande della Scala, extends patronage to Dante Alighieri, who has been banished from Florence, and his two surviving sons, Pietro, seventeen, and Jacopo, fourteen. The poet has recently published Inferno, to great renown and no little fear of heresy or impiety. But della Scala quickly realizes that Dante’s not the only gifted member of the family, nor the most useful.
Rather, he fixes on Pietro, who longs to escape his father’s shadow (while hoping pater will actually notice him one day and approve). And when Pietro falls in with two other youths — one noble, one from a merchant family pretending nobility — military adventure offers. Della Scala, a twenty-three-year-old wunderkind, dreams of uniting Italy under his banner. His approach to war, diplomacy, and familial politics has much to do with an ancient prophecy that says a figure called the Greyhound will realize that far-fetched scheme. He’s magnetic, generous, and apparently scrupulous, a rare combination. Pietro’s enthralled, and his passion takes him places, often alongside his new friends, the first he’s ever had in his life.
Between the derring-do, battle scenes, court intrigue, and the question of occupying many thinkers on the cusp of the Renaissance — do the stars foretell fate, or does free will have influence? — The Master of Verona makes for epic adventure. The thrumming plot, larger-than-life characters and perilous twists and turns evoke an approach like that of Dumas. The pages turn rapidly, numerous though they are. Astrology, poetry, chivalry, prophecy, and love figure here, all entertaining subjects, and I enjoy many of the characters, who take them seriously.
Besides Pietro and della Scala’s sister, Katerina, I particularly like Dante himself, who unfortunately drops out of the narrative. Blixt portrays him as a self-absorbed narcissist conscious of his genius who has little time for his children, except when they disappoint him. The exception? His daughter, Antonia, who, at thirteen, keeps the booksellers in line and acts as self-appointed caretaker of her father’s career. In letters, he calls her Beatrice, which she treasures. Katerina and Antonia are women ahead of their time, seeking power and influence denied them because of their gender.
Otherwise, the novel has wars, a horse race through the streets, trysts, duels, and every action conceivable. Not all are credible, and Pietro’s powers can test belief, especially as he’s received little schooling in the martial arts; but never mind. As an added conceit, Shakespearean characters and situations waft through the narrative, whether the plays belong to Vienna (Romeo and Juliet), or not (Othello, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing). Note that Blixt is an actor and director, and you can tell: His approach is theatrical, to say the least.
As a storyteller, he offers brio, panache, and a command of historical detail:
Inside the city walls, the streets were all but impassable. Spectators, gamblers, merchants, peasants, petitioners — all had traveled for days to vie for what lodging they could find. The decent rooms were already rented out to triple or quadruple capacity.… Many visitors, even noble ones, were forced to sleep on dirty floors, or in stables, where the beds were somewhat more comfortable. But fully half the people in the city were not sleeping. Other attractions called — treats and spectacles and mythical beasts, lights and sounds and smells.
However, as this passage suggests, Blixt sometimes trowels on the detail, drawing back the authorial focus and distancing the reader. This narrative technique, which can seem static, undermines the drive he achieves with the storyline and makes you work to stay connected. The author also indulges in information dumps, swelling the dialogue with facts and background, at which the reader’s eye grows impatient. Or this reader’s does. If these facts matter to the story, and I’m not sure they always do, better to show them through action, rather than have people explain them to each other.
I doubt fourteenth-century people, or those anytime, would speak the way Blixt has it, unless they’re all pedants. Then again, these folk often think like moderns, however intently they hew to the philosophical framework of their era. Present-day vocabulary dots the dialogue, and when characters discourse on various subjects, they occasionally refer to knowledge that lies in the future. They also speak incorrect French, admittedly a minor quibble, though indicative of carelessness of writer or editor that emerges elsewhere.
But it’s the discursive, lecturing quality that hampers the novel most. The final chapters are particularly striking for that, as the narrative struggles to wrap up convolutions and contradictions through speechmaking. It’s an unsatisfying, melodramatic conclusion.
For a wild, evocative ride, in which action carries the day, The Master of Verona makes for entertaining reading. Less would have achieved more.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.