Top ten books set in Rome

Book Depository used to have a weekly post called Tuesday Top Ten. I thought it would be fun (and useful) to pick out my top ten books set in Rome. Unfortunately, Book Depository decided to discontinue their Tuesday Top Ten, leaving me with my list and nowhere to put it. So, in a spirit of practicality and bitter revenge, I thought I’d put it on my own blog, with one or two additions. Here it is.

Charles Lambert has lived in Italy for more than thirty years. Like the ten books below, his new novel, Any Human Face, just happens to be set in Rome.

1. The Twelve Caesars – Suetonius
In his lives of the first dozen Caesars, Suetonius laid the foundations, and provided the dirt, for much historical fiction about the rulers of imperial Rome, including the two Claudius novels by Robert Graves, who translated the Penguin edition. This book made a worryingly deep impression on me as a thirteen-year-old, but that’s material for another post. Supremely readable and often shocking, at its best the book feels like an inspired collaboration between Lytton Strachey and Kitty Kelley.

2. Coriolanus – William Shakespeare
Often considered a minor Shakespearean tragedy, and certainly less read and performed than the great five, this is my personal favourite. It’s devoted to one of history’s most sublime bully boys, successful soldier and less successful senator, and refreshingly – as tragic Shakespearean heroes go – almost entirely unreflective. At heart, Coriolanus was as contemptuous of public opinion as most modern-day politicians, though rather less careful of his own safety, and infinitely less hypocritical. The fact that I still love the play is proof that studying Shakespeare at school (and being taken to see it performed at Stoke’s theatre in the round) is not the kiss of death it’s reputed to be.

3. Autobiography – Benvenuto Cellini
The best example of real-life picaresque I know, from a period when artists were more likely to die in prison or tavern brawls than in their own beds. Cellini’s vivid account of his travels, artistic commissions, love affairs and acts of murder pulls no punches, and the sections set in Rome are among the best. And let’s face it, pace Tracey Emin (I’m thinking tents here – don’t ask), it isn’t every artist-cum-goldsmith who can conjure up enough demons to fill the entire Colosseum. And his Perseus (see left) has got to be the hottest Renaissance nude of them all, even without the rather suggestive positioning of his sword on the cover of this edition.

4. The Italian – Ann Radcliffe
Ann Radcliffe never set foot in Italy, but that’s all to the good – the slightest touch of authenticity might have stifled her wild and wonderful imagination. This novel, which winds up in the Roman prisons of the Inquisition, is as labyrinthine in its plot as the prisons themselves. Written in angry response to that other great Gothic novel (which, to be perfectly honest, I prefer), The Monk by Matthew Lewis, The Italian is Radcliffe’s dark, occasionally ludicrous but always gripping masterpiece. And talking of weird and wonderful novels, why isn’t Jan Potocki‘s The Manuscript found in Saragossa much better known?

5. Daisy Miller – Henry James
Henry James often returned to Rome, as a visitor, temporary resident and writer. In The Portrait of a Lady, the capital is portrayed at its ‘tortuous and tragic’ best, but his most poignant vision of the city is the one presented through the eyes of Daisy Miller, an ingenuous and ultimately tragic American girl who falls victim to her own desire for experience. One of James’ great themes, that of the life unlived, finds its freshest and most appealing form in this short work.

6. The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone – Tennessee Williams
Lush, passionate, decidedly non-PC when it comes to sexual politics, this tale of a rich widow seeking solace, and finding humiliation, in the arms of an attractive young Roman, is probably the only fiction by Tennessee Williams that bears comparison with his plays. William’s usual themes – solitude, desire, betrayal, physical beauty, despair – are reworked in the setting of post-war Rome, where boys were for rent (see below) and aging countesses pimped for them. And if you’ve never thrown your keys down from a window you should definitely read this book. If you have, it might be wiser to avoid it.

7. A Violent Life – Pier Paolo Pasolini
The second of Pasolini’s two great Roman novels– the first was Ragazzi di Vita (currently, shamefully, unavailable in English!) – A Violent Life portrays the world of Mrs Stone from the bottom up, so to speak, recounting the adventures of the young Tommaso Puzzillo, as he struggles to survive in one of the degraded outskirts or borgate of the city. Tommaso thieves and whores to scrape together a living, before doing time, contracting TB and achieving an all-too-brief redemption through his involvement in the Italian Communist Party. The harsh truth of postwar pre-boom Italy, described by a master, whose sympathies were always with the born-to-lose, and whose presence in today’s Italy, an Italy he predicted with horrible accuracy, is sorely missed.

8. The Public Image – Muriel Spark
Spark spent part of the 1960s in Rome, and set this novel – one of only two of her books to be shortlisted for the Booker prize – in the city. The action takes place in the world of Italian film-making, with the shadow of La Dolce Vita lurking behind Spark’s pitiless, hilarious and startlingly prescient examination of celebrity. I wonder what Annabel Christopher, the heroine, would have made of Katie Price. Inexplicably, the book is currently out of print. So, even more inexplicably, is Spark’s hilarious, shocking The Takeover, set just outside Rome, in Nemi. Where’s a good publisher when you need one?

9. The Discovery of Heaven – Harry Mulisch
This book starts off in Holland and comes to its mind-blowing, death-defeating climax in Jerusalem. But, for me, the heart of the action takes place in Rome, at the Holy Stairs beside St John Lateran, normally climbed by pilgrims on their knees. It’s an extraordinary metaphysical romp, taking in Judaic mysticism and friendship, World War 2 and contemporary politics, that makes Foucault’s Pendulum read like Swallows and Amazons. Sadly, Mulisch died last month. It won’t do him much good, but let’s hope that his death brings new readers to his work, not only The Assault, his best-known work, but also the decidedly odd, and intriguing, Siegfried.

10. When We Were Romans – Matthew Kneale
As unreliable narrators go, children are ideal; they’re observant but ingenuous, and have their own agenda, which rarely coincides with that of the adults around them. The Rome of Kneale’s young narrator and his anxious out-of-work mother is one I recognize uncomfortably well, but it’s also freshly worked by the slant of the instantly likeable nine-year-old Lawrence who, like me, is a Tintin fan and fascinated by ancient Rome. Maybe he should read Suetonius (see above). Thinking about it, maybe not.

This entry was posted in book depository, henry james, italy, pasolini, review, rome, shakespeare. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Top ten books set in Rome

  1. nmj says:

    Hey Charles, I have only read Daisy Miller but am in a Muriel Spark phase and will certainly read The Public Image! There is a fab BBC archive of Muriel being interviewed in her flat in Rome in 1971, which I came across a few months ago – you may be interested.


  2. Annemarie mcallister says:

    Pleased to see when we were. Romans in your selection – such an evocative and well written book.

  3. Pingback: Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham | His Futile Preoccupations….

  4. Pingback: The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone by Tennessee Williams | His Futile Preoccupations….

  5. rottingpost says:

    I never met anyone who read, “When We Were Romans”. I really liked and admired that book. Very impressive you are gradually clued about what is really going on through the boy’s eyes. Personally, I really think “I Claudius” deserves it’s own mention. A total different, but also quite masterfully done narrator, and a fabulous story (I never read the original Suetonius version).

    • I’d forgotten this list completely, so thank you for reminding me! I’d still stand by my choices, although you’re absolutely right that Graves deserves more than a passing mention. Maybe I should amend it to my top eleven?

      • rottingpost says:

        sure. top 10 is kind of arbitrary. this list made me try to dredge up from memory other books i’ve read set in Rome. I remember reading some Alberto Moravia short stories i thought were really excellent. Definitely Italy. Not sure if they were Rome or not though. btw, my comment above is missing a couple of words. should read, “very impressive the way you are…”.

  6. Moravia’s stories were almost certainly set in Rome. Maybe I should think about another city now… Paris? Too easy….

  7. rottingpost says:

    Paris is definitely easy. But still fun. London would be rather too easy. One could also try countries.

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