Reviews by Wirkman Virkkala

Greifenstein

by Francis Marion Crawford

This is a fascinating romance from American novelist F. Marion Crawford. In "Greifenstein" Crawford strings together interesting elements into an amazing plot, featuring one of his most daring incidents in any of his books, an astounding, even shocking murder and double suicide. And yet Crawford has you sympathize with the nobles who do the deed . . . only to return the reader back to the main story of the young people in love.

This is not a masterpiece, I readily acknowledge. But it makes for an enjoyable page-turner, and might even make a great movie. By today's standards, Crawford's prose is periphrastic; by the standards of his own day, he was a master of concision; styles change, times change. If you want a good indication of what an expertly produced popular novel of the 19th century was like, then you could hardly find a better example than "Greifenstein." Though it is by no means as weird as the author's gothic "Witch of Prague," or as fantastic as "Khaled," or as sophisticated as "Saracinesca," or as well-observed as "Don Orsino," or as charming as "A Tale of a Lonely Parish," it is a good book.

And as always, the author's keen eye to social station fleshes out what otherwise might be considered a trivial entertainment. Hardly trivial. But, first and foremost, entertaining it is.

Reviewed on 2006.03.22

Don Orsino

by F. Marion Crawford

The third novel in F. Marion Crawford's "Saracinesca" series is arguably the best. Crawford hones down his style to a greater concision than he usually mustered, and his eye on the changing social conditions of Italy in the 19th century remained as acute as in the first book in the series.

In "Saracinesca" Crawford told of Giovanni Saracinesca's courting of Corona d'Astradente, complete with intrigue and sword fights. In "Sant' Ilario," a fight over the title "Saracinesca" contrasts with a break in the marriage between our staid hero and the lovely Corona. In "Don Orsino," their eponymous son seeks out love and fortune as a real estate bubble burgeons and bursts in late 19th century Rome. Few novels have dealt as realistically with business as this romance does. This added level of realism places this tragedy high in Crawford's oeuvre.

Though this book contains "an evil businessman," it is not like most other novels of this period that deal with such issues: it is not anticapitalist. It does not overstate the evils of the system, nor does it make a thorough critique against bourgeois society. Crawford, a conservative, looked back fondly to the medieval past. Yes. (After all, he wrote numerous historical romances set prior to the 19th century.) But Crawford was no extremist in his fondness for older times, and he saw the emerging commercial society as a complex system that produced much good as well as trouble. Crawford was immune to facile socialisms or de rigueur critiques of middle-class culture. For Crawford, evil was to be found in every system, as was, surely, mediocrity and the foibles of the easy-to-compromise. But goodness can be found in most societies, too, and as was made clear in "The American Politician," Crawford regarded business enterprise with admiration. Because of his resistance to trendy anti-capitalism, and because of his sharp-eyed observations, commitment to character, and expert use of plot, this book stands brightly in the long bookshelf of once-popular but now mostly forgotten classics. It is a classic, and a fine capstone to his most popular trilogy.

Subsequent sequels in this series, such as "Corleone," continue the saga of Saracinesca family, but with a diversion from the previous focus on the drama and status of family members into heavily plotted, incident-heavy melodrama. Characters from "Saracinesca" and its sequels also appear in "A Lady of Rome" (1906) and "The White Sister" (1909).

But "Don Orsino" and its immediate predecessors remain among the very best books that F. Marion Crawford produced.

Reviewed on 2006.03.22

Marzio's Crucifix and Zoroaster

by F. Marion Crawford

This short novel from F. Marion Crawford became very popular in its day, and was awarded one a prize of 1000 Francs from the French Academy. It is an odd tale of a miserly leftist who preaches universal brotherhood and socialism in public, but treats his wife and daughter -- and, especially, his brother, a priest -- in a shamefully old-fashioned and tyrannical way. But the man is also an artist, and makes his living making lovely monuments in silver. His greatest work is to be a crucifix, and its making leads to his undoing . . . and his conversion to humility and love from his previous proud malice.

Most modern readers will note, however, that Crawford has little sympathy for political radicalism. His discussion, early in the story, of what "anarchism" and "socialism" mean in the various European countries -- and especially in Italian coffee houses -- is perhaps the reason to start the story. You will find few such exercises in literature, a domain filled to the brim with leftist critics criticizing "the right" and the old order. But in this book, the old order, as instantiated in this case in the Catholic Church, is lovingly portrayed, and the critic is seen in the darkest light.

This book is probably all the clue one needs to learn why Crawford's art has become neglected over the years. Few conservatives proved as successful at telling tales, and in pleasing both critics and audiences. But pleasing 20th century academics is another matter. The political biases of the college educators are well known. Crawford's work could not be included in any modern syllabus.

This is not my favorite of Crawford's works. But it is important, and perhaps must reading for anyone interested in the relationship between art and religion, or moral practice and political radicalism.

Reviewed on 2006.03.22

Saracinesca

by F. Marion Crawford

Widely regarded as F. Marion Crawford's greatest work, "Saracinesca" is a fine historical romance set in mid-19th century Rome. The book proceeds at a leisurely pace, as Crawford paints a broad picture of the fading Italian aristocracy, and his leading characters' place in that society. It is a romance, but in such a careful setting and with such a long time getting to the actual courtship that many readers judge it as great literature long before such incidents as sword fights take center stage.

And yet, when the sword fights come, it is told with the same realism the frames the earlier parts of the novel. Indeed, it will come as no surprise to learn that not only had Crawford been born in Italian society, and heard many tales of aristocratic intrigue as gossip in his own home, at an early age, he was himself an expert fencer.

Few novels balance as carefully and delightfully "romance" with historical realism. If you want a reliable picture of Italy's transition into modernity, you could hardly do better than this book. Crawford's attention to detail, and his command of Italian history, were proven again and again in his novels, as well as in a later series of histories. But it is with "Saracinesca" and its immediate successors that we see his art at full flower.

This is that rare thing: a great book that also qualifies as a "page turner."

Reviewed on 2006.03.22

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