Sunday Book Review: The Cloister by James Carroll

 

The Cloister is a novel of ideas that made me feel as breathless and on edge as I do when reading a thriller. With masterful writing and pacing, the author creates two worlds for the characters to inhabit—1140s Paris and the scholastic sphere of the brilliant Peter Abelard and Heloise, and their inevitable, and separate, retreat from the world.

How this all fits into Nazi occupied Paris, concentration camps, and on to post WWII New York City is an amazing literary feat. Entering this hall of mirrors is the Catholic priest Kavanaugh and the Jewish docent for the Cloisters, Rachel. Rachel’s father is the link back to Abelard and Heloise, as before the war he was a scholar in Paris working on a study of Abelard’s: Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian (1136-1139).  She carries Abelard’s book History of My Calamities with her everywhere because it was her father’s. When the priest seeks the shelter of the Cloisters during a rainstorm, they fall into conversation, and she spontaneously hands it over to the priest.

The themes of obligation and exploitation, retreat and annihilation, manipulation and survival are golden threads to follow through this labyrinth. A beautifully horrifying and shattering story.

Thank you NetGalley and Doubleday.

Book Review: The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle

 

I gave this story 5 stars on Good Reads, and if I could I would double it to 10. 

Good Reads:

“In 1937 Freddie (English), Isabella (Italian) and Oskar (a German Jew) become friends at an art school in Florence where they are taught by the dictatorial but magus-like Maestro and his sinister fascist assistant Fosco. When war arrives Freddie returns to England to become the pilot of a Lancaster bomber. Oskar, now a dancer, has moved to Paris where he escapes the 1942 roundup of Jews and arrives in Italy with his young daughter Esme. Isabella remains in Florence where she continues to paint. Until she is called upon by Maestro to forge an old master painting, apparently at the behest of the Führer himself, and as a result is seen as a Nazi collaborator by her neighbours. The murderous skies over Germany and a war-torn Italy in the grip of Nazi occupation provide the setting for this novel about the love of a separated husband and his wife and the love of a man for his young daughter. Freddie and Oskar both hope to find their way back to Florence. But Florence’s heritage of preserving the identity and continuity of the past has never before been so under threat.”

This beautiful and tragic story is told in alternating viewpoints and with gorgeous language. The author’s level of detail is so deep, there are times I feel the vibrating of the Freddie’s Lancaster bombers and smell the paint on Isabella’s palette. 

 The opening chapters had me in tears, not so much for the separated lovers, but Freddie’s feelings as he prepares to bomb his beloved Florence are exquisitely—can you tell I love Florence?—and vividly detailed.

So the story broke my heart at the very start and continued to stomp it into little pieces as I continued to read.  The writing held the story up, like the music of a cello, if you follow me, deeply sad yet uplifting at the same time.

The narrative returns to when Isabella and Freddie met in 1937 in art school as Mussolini rose to power, along with Oskar, a German Jew, and Francesco, the Maestro and his assistant, the evil Fosco. From there, we follow the ensemble cast at they navigate Nazi occupied Italy.

While I read, and many times when I read stories from this era of Nazi-occupied Europe, I’m always struck by how neighbors turn on neighbors or how some become partisans and fight.  Isabella just wants to paint, to create, while all she knows is being destroyed from within and from above. She loves Freddie, but her fatalist attitude won’t let her see past today and the occupation, the war. When a German officer takes an interest in her, her fear of what her neighbors think conflicts with her fears of reprisal in not going along with the occupiers. Survival for Oskar is centered on his young daughter, Esme, and returning to Florence, where he knows Isabella will help him, and Francesco, after the truly foolish mistake of losing his crush Marina’s diary, and which eventually leads him to join the partisans.

This is a dark story, though, like the cello, there are moments of joy. Torture and escape. Starvation and a generous stranger. Terror and wonder.

An historical aside:  The Allied bombers had maps with X’s on them where the art treasures of Florence were and with pinpoint accuracy, managed only to hit their targets–usually train depots.  The retreating Germans mined the bridges of Florence, all but the Ponte Vecchio, and blow them up to slow the advancing Allies.

More here, where I got the photograph: https://www.democraticunderground.com/10025494043