The idea is that this will be the first in an ongoing, semi-regular series of posts, and that they’ll be substantive but less formal than book reviews. I’m more interested in writing about what it’s like to read a particular book than I am in arriving at a conclusion about its quality in relation to other books. Competitions are difficult for me to get my head around, even more difficult to maintain an interest in, and who am I to decide such things anyhow?
My latest favorite is Fr. Rolfe’s Hadrian the Seventh. A novel about a Pope by an author quite obsessed with religion — “Fr.” is short for “Frederick,” who longed for priesthood and didn’t want everyone to know he’d been tossed out of the seminary — might seem like a strange choice for a life-long atheist, but very shortly after I began reading it I developed a deep, abiding affection for both the book and the titular character.
How strange they both are! Strange in the best possible way, vigorously individualistic, mind-clearingly so. Before I get to that, permit me to back up for a moment and say that although I’ve never been Catholic my family more or less is (long story), and I’ve always had an appreciation of some sort for the relics, rituals, incense, candles, etc. As a little girl I would sneak into the church at the top of my grandmother’s street to peek at the Jesus statue nearest the side door. It was the type with fairly graphic crucifixion wounds, and it was in an alcove that always felt refrigerator-cold no matter the temperature outside. The only source of light in this part of the church was votive candles in dark, blood-red glass holders, and I would go in and stand there until I was good and terrified/thrilled. Then I would dash out into the sunlight and enjoy how different the familiar surroundings looked for the first few minutes afterward, slightly dangerous in a way they never seemed to be if I was just riding my bike in figure-eights in the church parking lot. On one occasion, sometime around 2nd grade, this little routine led me to have a terrifying dream in which Jesus was driving me through a desert in an excessively air-conditioned black car with blood-red velour seats.
Ecclesiastical fashion show from Fellini’s Roma (1972), music by Nino Rota.
All of which sets an appropriately outré stage and high religious mood for the entrance of George Arthur Rose, protagonist of Hadrian the Seventh, a failed candidate for priesthood bitterly toiling away in obscurity as a hack writer, troubled by debts and disdainful of just about everyone apart from his beloved cat Flavio.
more after the jump:
George is highly intelligent, well-read and possesses “[a] sense of beauty . . . a great deal more than acute.” (p. 13; all page numbers refer to the 2001 NYRB edition pictured above). His solitude and penury are intolerable until, through a complex but swift-moving series of events, he is made Pope. Yes, the Pope, the one who lives in the Vatican and wears a fancy hat. He takes his position as Successor of St. Peter and the name Hadrian the Seventh without hesitation, explaining that “[t]he previous English pontiff was Hadrian the Fourth: the present English pontiff is Hadrian the Seventh. It pleases Us; and so, by Our Own impulse, We command.” (p. 84)
The similarities between Rolfe and his protagonist (apart from, you know, the Pope thing) are often noted and there is a very definite (bracing, even) element of score-settling to the book. Alexander Theroux’s introduction deftly captures this, and his description of what sort of Pope George Arthur Rose becomes is equally on point when it comes to summarizing some of the highlights of his papacy. As Hadrian the Seventh George
brings correctives to the Vatican as if he were born to do it, as indeed he feels he is. He is impatient, critical, petulant, decadent . . . and endlessly and inventively uncharitable—especially regarding his two vulgar antagonists . . . The Pope is a coherent and fully realized double of his creator, as oblique, learned, and fussified a fellow as ever lived, a master of contumely and weird detail.
. . . .
He prays in Greek, dabbles in astrology, attacks socialists, mocks equality, smokes cigarettes—who can’t love that moment when the Pope angrily pitches a butt at a lizard?—criticizes Tolstoy, sits for a portrait, sells the Vatican treasures, practices no self-denial, takes photographs, reads Trollope, prefers to speak only to good-looking prelates, and, among other extravagances, canonizes Mary, Queen of Scots . . .
(introduction, pp. xi – xii)
Alec McCowen as Hadrian the Seventh in a play based on the book, from Hadrian VII: A Play by Peter Luke (Alfred A. Knopf 1969).
Rolfe wore a number of hats other than writer, including those of photographer and painter, but to his perpetual dismay none of them came with canonical power. He died in Venice at 53, reportedly so broke near the end of his life that he’d taken to going out only in the darkness of night in hopes of avoiding creditors. (This didn’t get in the way of him occasionally using the name Baron Corvo; your call whether it’s a bit aristocratic for one sleeping rough in gondolas). Every so often a friend or acquaintance would help him out, but then he was prone to write any such persons long, detailed letters explaining why they were unworthy of his kindnesses. George Arthur Rose finds a similar pleasure in making clear how others have wronged him, and what better place to do that from than the Vatican?
‘I seem to take an impish delight in making my brother-Catholics,’ Rose confesses, ‘especially clerks, smart and wince and squirm,’ and in Fr. Rolfe’s self-projection as Hadrian VII, it is height that he needs in order to criticize and castigate his enemies . . . . But notice too how much fun the persona of Hadrian allows Rolfe in the exercise of his grandeur, his compassion, his lordliness, his comfort, his absolution. He redecorates the Apostolic Chamber. He designs a new crucifix. He canonizes whom he wants, blithely raises his friends to the cardinalate, and preens like a peacock. ‘How delicious to wear white in the sun,’ he reflects. Hadrian VII could not possibly have loved his position as much as Rolfe loved the assigning of it to him.
(introduction, pp. xiv – xv)
Another thing to notice — to savor, really, because of its uncommon quality — is Rolfe’s skill as a writer, both in his way with words and his ability to interject his keen sense of humor exactly where needed. Humor is always welcome, for me, but it’s urgently required in the situations George Arthur Rose finds himself in, and Rolfe does a bang-up job of setting it off to advantage. When a bishop and a cardinal archbishop come to call upon him in advance of the big news, for example, George doesn’t hesitate to tell them that he “[finds] bishop-johnnies excessively tiresome” (p. 33); later on, when confessing to one of them, he explains that he sometimes doesn’t make it to mass because he “detest[s] kneeling in a pew like a protestant, with somebody’s breath oozing down the back of my collar.” (p. 47) The scene in which he is consecrated Pope is as rich with comedy as it is with papal regalia: “At the conferring of the episcopal ring, He drew-back His hand; and demanded an amethyst instead of the proferred emerald. The ceremony halted till the canonical stone came.” (p. 84) There is humor throughout, and Rolfe is more than capable of weaving it around the more fraught moments of the narrative arc of Hadrian the Seventh’s papacy. As funny as the book is and as imperious the protagonist can be, we never forget that he’d been living a very solitary life before the white smoke wafted over St. Peter’s Square, and that he is very often made uneasy by the many people who now surround him. As an individual he finds it trying—he has always been “a thing apart” (p. 218)—and as Pope he is well aware he needs to work on his ideas about love. Part of what makes the character so compelling is the way his qualities are fused together, contradictions and all, as they are in living, breathing people who go on existing throughout the strangest and weightiest ordeals: “He had the big vision, the seeing eye, the hearing ear, wit, perverseness, daring, and the lonely heart, and the contempt of the world. . . . Sometimes He caught Himself wondering how long He could maintain the pitch: but from that thought He turned away. It was enough that He was able.” (p. 169) In one of many strangely touching scenes, the Pope, enjoying some relative solitude in a lake-side castle borrowed from an Italian prince, deliberates whether he might chance going for a swim:
He cared jot or tittle for what the world might say—personally. No. But— No. If He were to ask for the use of the boat, tongues would clack. And He could not go alone with the deliberate intention. Still—didn’t Peter swim in Galilee. Weren’t the Attendolo gardens private? Some night He might stroll down to the shore: the water was fathomless at once: there need be no wading with the ripples horribly creeping up one’s flesh—Yaff! But the toads on the path, and the lizards and the serpents in the grass—oh no. Then, thus it must be: the Pope must not go to seek His pleasure: if God should deign to afford His Viceregent the recreation of swimming, an opportunity would be provided. Otherwise—
Pope-watchers eager to spot a new Pope, from the LIFE Magazine archive here. There’s no date on it but based on what the crowd is wearing I’m guessing it was at the papal conclave in 1963.
Does Hadrian the Seventh remind you of a certain someone, someone who bears more grudges than lonely high court judges?
In so many ways he’s a very Morrissey-ish Pope. I started thinking about this very early on in the book, when George Arthur Rose, scrutinizing his reflection in the mirror, not yet aware of what lies ahead, counsels himself to “[c]ultivate the art of looking as as though you were about to say No.” (p. 13)
The tomb of Pope Hadrian IV (I think), from the LIFE Magazine archive here. The caption on it would have one believe Popes Hadrian I – VI are in there, but that sounds awfully crowded. Hadrian IV, a 12th century guy and to this day the only English Pope, may have met his end by choking on a fly in his wine. Wikipedia says so.
The body of Pope Pius XII lying in state, 1958, from the LIFE Magazine archive here.
Hadrian the Seventh is available from NYRB here. (Generous souls, they also have a free PDF of the introduction for your perusal). Alternatively, if you are the Amazon type, it is available through my Amazon bookshop here.