Sunday, November 27, 2022

Of Bad People and Bad Novels: "The Cardinal's Lover" -- by Benito Mussolini


At 26, Benito Mussolini wrote and published a novel titled "L'Amante del Cardinale" (The Cardinal's Lover). It was something that always intrigued me, but only recently I found the time to get a copy of that old book and read it. The story of Mussolini as a leader is fascinating, and I thought I could find some hints in the novel about why and how he behaved the way he did.  

I didn't know what to expect from this novel, nothing especially good, for sure. But I didn't expect it to be so bad. I mean, as a novel, it is written in a decently understandable style, and you can read it from the first to the last page, without feeling too much the urge of throwing it out of the window. But it has all the hallmarks of a bad novel. The main problem is that, for a novel to be any good, the author must care for his characters -- if he doesn't, that's the cardinal sin (appropriately, in this case). The novel will not only be bad, but also hateful. And that's the basic problem with Mussolini's novel. 

Let me tell you a little more about this novel. Mussolini is clearly influenced by Manzoni's "The Betrothed" (I Promessi Sposi), and his novel takes place more or less in the same historical period, the 17th century in Italy. At the start, Mussolini apes Manzoni with a flourish of words that describe the area, mountains, lakes, and valleys, then he goes on, telling us a dark story of love, blood, and murders. Like Manzoni, Mussolini follows real historical events. The difference is that Manzoni dominates the novel's plot: he doesn't need to bend the actions of historical characters to suit his purposes; he just maneuvers his fictional characters in an environment consistent with history. Mussolini, instead, is mainly following historical figures, including the protagonists, Cardinal Carlo Emmanuele Madruzzo, and Claudia Particella, who really was his lover. To make them fit the plot, he needs to take a lot of liberties toward history. For the rest, the historical setting of the novel offers Mussolini several occasions for anticlerical tirades and, occasionally, for showing off his erudition -- but the impression is that his knowledge of history is haphazard and shallow. Nothing comparable to Manzoni's in-depth understanding of the times he was describing.

The resulting novel is a disaster: a jumble of things, people, and events, some of which are quite depressing. Just to give you an example, midway through the novel, Mussolini inflicts on his readers a detailed description of the unearthing of the body of a girl who had died a few months before. The description includes the screams of horror of the gravediggers at the sight of the decaying body, but not the screams of horror of the outraged readers. 

Even the main character, Cardinal Madruzzo, comes out shallow. The figure of Claudia Particella is a little better, and Mussolini shows at least a spark of interest in her. Unfortunately, even here, the results are not great. As described by Mussolini, Ms. Particella turns out to be not very smart, having pardoned the person who tried to kill her not once, but twice (!!). In the end, Mussolini condemns her to the death scene of a bad actress in a b-movie, overlong, and over-acted. After having been poisoned, the poor woman must repeat a total of seven times the words "I die" ("muoio"), together with other assorted and longish expressions of pain, before finally giving up the ghost. Except that the real Claudia Particella died at 70, in her bed, surviving her Cardinal of 9 years. And that's supposed to be a "historical novel." Imagine that, in "War and Peace" Tolstoy was to tell us that Napoleon died in a bayonet charge against the Russian artillery at Borodino. That kind of bending.  

You can pardon the author of a novel for bending reality a little, sometimes even a lot. But the main problem of the whole rigmarole is that Mussolini doesn't care about his characters. It is the opposite of Manzoni, who never misses a chance for a spark of humanity in his characters in the "Promessi Sposi." That's what makes the difference between a masterpiece and a worthless piece of slime. So it goes. 

As I said, the reason I read this story was that I was curious about the possibility of gathering some hints about Mussolini's personality. Maybe his dreams, his goals as a young man, his ideals, this kind of things. But there is nothing like that in the novel. The author comes out of it as shallow as his characters. Which I think is what Mussolini probably was. A shallow character, of modest culture, with no real ideals, and with just a few ideas, but confused. His success as a leader was perhaps due to exactly this factor. He was a blank slate. Which, I think, is what most dictators are. They are no big thinkers or idealists, they are just empty shells on which people can project their dreams, their fears, and their worries. And that was what happened with Mussolini, whose destiny was perhaps written from the beginning in the great novel written in the sky, which has all of us as protagonists. 

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