Italian Fever

Italian Fever : a Novel  by Valerie Martin. London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004. 259 pp.

‘DV’ is a famous US novelist now based in Italy. Lucy is his assistant back in New York, annoyed at the success of his punishingly bad prose. But DV dies in the prologue, while walking at night; there are hints of supernatural involvement. She studies photos of his corpse and sees signs of torment before the end. And there is the disappearance of DV’s lover to account for. Lucy is sent to Italy to settle his business affairs.

With irony and black humour the book takes us through ghost-worlds, deadness, hell, relationships, womanhood, beauty, and art.

Spoiler alert

Near DV’s house in Tuscany Lucy encounters a faintly sinister family of aristocrats: the elegant but feeble-looking Antonio, his mother, his fiery but elderly father. Lucy seeks evidence of their involvement in DV’s death and the disappearance and possible demise of his lover Catherine.

The blonde lovely Catherine, however, is far from done. It turns out that she had indulged DV’s swooning only until she’d learnt that his money was all locked up by ex-wives. Upon learning that, she turned on him with a ridicule that lashed him to the core. This chastisement scoured out DV’s smugness and self-obsession, and set him on the road to better writing, as Lucy discovers in his final ms. Catherine herself learned nothing from their encounter; she simply moved on to set other hearts afire.

Catherine is an artist. She captured DV’s longing and hurt in a quick, mocking sketch. What she really wants is a man to support her painting, and a shop to sell it in. She tells Lucy she has never loved, and generally seems to personify the cold side of art. But while Catherine justifies all in the name of her creative work, she ultimately appears mediocre and petulant to Lucy.

Exposure to Catherine’s charm turns Lucy toward self-reflection. Lucy does not have hardened views on sexual politics that one would expect from a modern-day woman in the publishing industry. Modest, competent, genuine, she is without cunning, brilliance or glamour, and discovers she has no sense of herself as an object of desire. Like DV she is a sucker for charisma. So she is a sucker for the gentlemanly and handsome Massimo, who nurses her through a fever. He is elegant and solicitous, yet ultimately after money and position, all his beauty exterior, like Catherine’s; her love was another fever – a fall into hell, into love, into disorientation.

In contrast to Massimo is Antonio, the unspunky aristocrat who turns out to be sensitive and considerate.

Art stirs longing, but also pain. DV’s ghost labours endlessly at his writing desk. Antonio longed to paint but found it beyond him, though he never lost his reverence for fine works.

Ghosts play their role as symbols of human passions, or events that are stalled, unresolved. The ghost that lures DV to his death was a man killed by a jealous brother. DV as a ghost calls for Lucy to give him some human recognition of his suffering, and when she does, he is at last freed from torment.

In keeping with his artlessness, DV’s fall into hell took the form of a stumble into a cracked septic tank. Only in his suffering does he attain dignity.

DV and Lucy ‘had both fallen in love with beauty, and beauty had briefly toyed with them. But beauty was invioliable, like great art; it both excited and resisted the passion for possession’.

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