The Jew of Rome/the Son of Marietta
[Little, Brown, $3.00]
I SUSPECT that the experience of many readers of that superb novel, Josephus, was not unlike mine. Until I had read it, my acquaintance with the remarkable man whose later life is now told in The Jew of Rome was, I must confess, very slight. Two large and heavy red volumes of his War and Antiquities, which stood among my father’s books in the family living room during my boyhood, left me, after I had dipped into them here and there, with so strong an impression that he was only a dull chronicler that I had never taken the trouble to know him better.
The fact is, of course, that he was a man of considerable importance and interest. The friend of the Emperors Vespasian and Titus and feared by Domitian, a Jew by birth though a Roman by choice, he was not only affected in his own life by the destinies of Judaism, but quite materially affected them; indeed, his entire history serves quite well as a symbol of the two movements within his race which we now call liberalism and orthodoxy. No doubt it was the representative character of his hero that attracted the author to him; for Josephus is as instructive an example to-day, as ever, of the struggle between nationalism and internationalism in that exciting and disturbing type, the intellectual ‘reformed’ Jew, who is also an expatriate.
The Jew of Rome opens with the death of Vespasian and the triumph of Josephus as a historian, when his bust is placed in the Temple of Peace. The narrative from this point deals mainly with his family affairs, his sentimental journey to Palestine and the ruins of Jerusalem, and his humiliation by Domitian. Each of these major situations is shrewdly chosen to illustrate his lifelong dilemma. ‘ With his heart he was for the Fatherland and stood shoulder to shoulder with his Jews; with his mind he was a citizen of the world and stood above them.’ His wives Mara and Dorion, his sons Paulus and Phineas, his friends Titus and Justus, dramatically represent the double pull; and the last scene of the novel, which is also the most powerful, points it with a horrible irony. He is compelled to ‘bow under the yoke’ — to humble himself before the Romans and thus to win the execration of his own people — in order to save his people from further humiliation.
Those who remember Josephus will be glad to learn more about the Princess Berenice, John of Gishala, Justus of Tiberias, and, especially, that amusing actor, Demetrius Libanus. And, while this volume is more largely concerned with doctrinal disputes and political scheming and less with adventure and pageantry than the first, the backgrounds of Rome and Palestine are still painted with acrid humor and realistic power. But, concerned as it is with long views and world issues, it is much more a philosophic than a historical novel. The central figure, so paradoxical and yet wo transparent, — a noble, ridiculous, admirable, execrable Mr. Facizigboth-Ways, — is a truly superb creation.
The Son of Marietta is a leisurely but never dull portrayal of humble life in Todi, in Italy, during the second half of the eighteenth century, supplemented by scenes in the decadent Venice of that day. Anyone who loves Italy and the Umbrian hill towns will enjoy it. There is no doubt, I think, that it is much too long, and that the second half is greatly inferior to the first. The author’s talents seem to be idyllic rather than tragic. But as idyll, which deepens at times into intense pathos, the story of Marietta is very charming.
Her story in the most cursory view tells how Marietta, a foundling, after a childhood spent in a degraded inn and later in a rural convent, formed an infatuation for a worldly bishop, by whom she had a son and by whose advice she married a worthy young carpenter; and how her son, Benedetto, an attractive degenerate, after a wild boyhood and youth, was forced to flee from Todi to Venice because of his crimes and was there overtaken by retribution.
The greatest strength of the novel lies in its scenes of ordinary life among the poor. I do not remember ever to have read so faithful and understanding a description of the society of a provincial Italian city. Marietta herself might be called a symbol of her class, a woman living — like simple folk the world over — almost wholly on the plane of feeling, and differing from her neighbors chiefly in her beauty and sensitiveness. Her son, demoralized by his mixed spiritual inheritance and the dubiousness of his social position, spoiled by his mother and gifted with some genius, goes quickly to the dogs. The account of his final months in Venice, where he moves like a man pursued by a devil, too often touches melodrama and the city seems nightmarish. The author was perhaps interested in pointing the contrast between Todi, the unchanging, and Venice, rotting at the core; between the world-old and earthy joys and sorrows of the people and the phosphorescent decay of a city society; but his abilities are best engaged in describing Marietta’s life in the convent and the bishop’s palace. These scenes are wholly appealing, while the account of her illness in a hospital in Rome is the most moving of all.
The lovely undulating country, with its strange hills and valleys haunted by an immemorial past, such as one sees best perhaps from the parapet at Perugia, and its lovable people, so shrewd and yet so childlike, happy in their stony rookeries and chattering in their bare piazzas, these are caught so unerringly that one hesitates to call this a historical novel at all. It is rather a realistic novel, dated a hundred and fifty years ago.
R. M. GAY