"Faun" by Martha Horton


I think my whole life has been leading up to this summer – seeing, sensing, assimilating bits of history and translating them into music. I want my music to transport people to times and places and emotions they never knew before.
— from the Journal of Dr. Hannah Ingram, in “Faun”

August is time for ferragosto in Italy, when Italians traditionally (ever since the days of the Roman Empire) head for the seashore or the mountains.  In the cities shops, museums and theatres shut down and nearly everyone takes a long vacation.  The exception may be foreigners living in Italy.  It’s been observed (again, for many years) that expatriates in Rome especially enjoy having the Eternal City to themselves for a while.  Italy has a tendency to take possession of the stranieri (Italian for both “foreigner” and “stranger”) and they may remain possessed by the Italian spirit and culture even as they share frustration with some social structures.  That was the case with American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 1850s, and it was true forMartha Horton a century later.

In 1860 the author of “The Scarlet Letter” published “The Marble Faun”, a novel about three Americans living in Italy and an Italian nobleman named Donatello, who bears a physical resemblance to the mythological Faun – supposedly including pointed ears – as sculpted by the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles.  “Perhaps it is the very lack of moral severity,” wrote Hawthorne, “of any high and heroic ingredient in the character of the Faun, that makes it so delightful an object to the human eye and to the frailty of the human heart.”

The Americans – Miriam, Hilda and Kenyon – all have artistic ambitions that seem not to be achieved in the classical atmosphere of Rome.  Donatello commits a murder and is observed by Miriam, engendering guilt and fear that are never really cleansed.  Many critics have found the Hawthorne book unsatisfying, although when it was published it enjoyed great success for its detailed descriptions, lending it perennial value as an Italian guidebook. Hawthorne even rewrote the ending to clarify “romantic mysteries” but “The Marble Faun” remains a flawed classic.

Martha Horton’s evocation in her new novel entitled simply “Faun” transports Hawthorne’s characters into the present day, preserving some of their traits and setting them on the same stage with parallels in the plot.  Now the Americans are Nathan Kendall, a freelance journalist, and Hannah Ingram, a musician and composer.  They are old college friends from Cornell (one of several Southern Tier references in Horton’s story). Hannah is working on an opera based on the life and bloody death of the 16th century noblewoman Beatrice Cenci.  Miriam has become Lili Castelli, an Italian artist and gallery owner who finds herself involved with racketeers stealing antiquities and art work.  The novel unfolds in alternating narratives and notes by Kendall, Hannah and Lili.

Donatello is still Donatello, the Count of Monte Beni, passionate patron of his family’s Tuscan winery but also an aspiring film actor who has been offered the chance to be the next Tarzan.  In preparation for writing “Faun”, Ms. Horton returned to Italy to research the settings and seek out the original Monte Beni and the wine that had been an inspiration to Hawthorne.

Martha Horton was a correspondent and magazine editor during four years in Italy, worked in the publishing and public relations field and was editor of the Chemung Valley Reporter.

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