June 14th, 2010 by EVENTS

Cecilia by Linda Ferri; trans. by Ann Goldstein

A diary in three parts, Cecilia is Linda Ferri’s fictionalized account of the life of St. Cecilia of Rome, the patroness of musicians who lived and died in the second century AD. The novel opens on Cecilia’s fifteenth birthday, when she’s practically an old maid and her fears that her parents will soon arrange her marriage are coming to a head.

Granted a year’s reprieve, our heroine scribbles her feelings and frustrations as she continues lessons with her tutor, visits with her married girlfriends, and watches her mother spiral into depression after her third miscarriage. Cecilia is perceptive and thoughtful, putting her unusual education to use when she argues with her teacher about the Aeneid and insists, “But Virgil, too, would admit I’m right!” She cleverly cites a passage in support of her opinion that “to get [Aeneas] out of trouble, to conceal how hard-hearted he is, the poet has had to resort to the intervention of a god who takes pity and makes him deaf.”

Unfortunately, Ferri’s structure does not serve her narrative well. The diary breaks off twice, each time at a point when Cecilia’s life breaks with itself: first, when she marries, then when she becomes a Christian. The possibility of Cecilia’s marriage has been on the horizon from the first page, and its path in the narrative is organic. But her conversion, heavily foreshadowed though it is, can only be carried off through an artificial device that Ferri doesn’t even attempt to fit within the story.

Cecilia’s conversion to Christianity is far from the only religious matter in this novel. Her mother Lucilla, distraught after a lifetime of miscarriages and dying children, herself joins the semi-exotic cult of Isis. Introduced to the generally scorned faith by her sister, Lucilla becomes fanatical in her devotions, fasting and praying until she’s too ill to remain in the city. Her transformation to selfish piety prefigures Cecilia’s own conversion even as Cecilia slaps her for her refusal to conform to a more normal family life.

Among the Christians, Cecilia, like Lucilla, finds peace but is not treated well. As a wealthy woman, she is looked on as a milch cow. They like her money, but they don’t much appreciate her education. “You must ask God’s pardon, my daughter, because with your immodesty you have sown discord among the brothers,” one of the brothers tells Cecilia. “Only divine charity, certainly not knowledge, can transform your woman’s weakness into strength.”

This mirroring of Lucilla and Cecilia in each other helps put the competing ideas in the book on generally equal footing. The novel is the life of a saint, but that saint is closely compared with the adherent of what can only be described as a cult. Paulus, Cecilia’s father, follows a more traditional Roman philosophy and often seems like the wisest person in Cecilia’s life. But this is a novel open enough for many readers to see what they want; the rationalist will cheer for Paulus when he exhorts:

No, I wish to appeal not to an affection that you evidently don’t feel but to a faculty to whose development I devoted all possible care, in spite of your sex, and which now you give proof of insulting, accepting a doctrine without being guided by reason. ‘Don’t question, have faith,’ the Christians say, or, ‘Your faith will save you.’ …As in other superstitions, the Christians refuse to give or receive an account of the object of their belief, and exalt as a good in itself the blindness of faith. I only want you to answer me, to tell me how it could happen that such attitudes have won you over to the point that you are willing to put your life in danger to defend them.”

But Cecilia does not cheer, and other readers will be just as pleased to see the steadfastness of the blind faith Paulus so decries. Ferri keeps the narrative open to several avenues of faith and philosophy, with interesting but obligatory-feeling sidelines into Gnosticism and other early Christian heresies. While this imparts a sense of simple candor, it can also feel sterile and frustrating and Cecilia comes off largely as a novel of ideas, perhaps an inevitable artifact of its time and place.

Characterization is a strong point of the novel, especially in the secondary roles, and Ferri’s prose is vivid and accessible. Cecilia’s voice may be a bit precocious for her time, but the novel does attempt to treat history, especially the history of ideas, as integral to the plot rather than a picturesque backdrop and impressive display of facts. But during the trip from fifteenth birthday to the story’s finale, the intimate life of a young girl becomes the inscrutable life of a saint, casting off much of her humanity in the process. By the end of her diary, it seems we know less of Cecilia than at the beginning.

Reviewed by Nicole Perrin

Cecilia by Linda Ferri; trans. by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 2010
Paper, 288 pp, $15.00
ISBN-13: 9781933372877

Posted in Reviews

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