Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Scalinata in Literature

I had the weirdest coincidence this last weekend, in that I was reading two separate books that take place in two totally different time periods and both of them mentioned the exact same architectural feature in Rome.

The Spanish Stairs (Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti) were built in the 1720's to connect the Piazza di Spagna to the church of Trinità dei Monti. The picture on the left shows the fountain in the Piazza, the church above and on the right is the Keats-Shelley house. That's right, John Keats and Percy Shelley. John Keats lived his last days on earth looking out the window over the Spanish Stairs.

And that's where the story gets interesting.

I started reading Tim Powers's novel "The Stress of Her Regard" a while ago, and still haven't quite finished it. The book is set in the heyday of the English romantic poets, and Keats, Byron and Shelley are main players in the story. The novel follows their lives, and explores what truly was the muse that inspired these greatest of poets to craft their works. Powers's explanation is that the muse was actually a vampiric creature known to the Greeks as a Lamia (note: link contains nude artwork). As the creature slowly drains the life from the poets she alternately inspires them to greater heights of artistry. But over time the poets begin to show the strain on their lives, and eventually they crave to be released from this burden. The scene with Keats plays out with the fantasy creature begging to be let in to keep her lover alive as he dies while gazing over the Scalinata. I totally have not given away even a fraction of this epic fantasy drama by revealing this information. Just know that the rest of it is just as weird and exciting. It took me about 17 years to get around to reading this book, but it was worth the wait.

Halfway through reading "The Stress of Her Regard" I got one of those *sigh* moments and just couldn't be bothered to continue reading it. SO I put down "stress" and picked up something completely different. For no particular reason I was drawn to Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination." I had no idea what it was about, it had just been sitting on my bookshelf at home for too long.

It's the twenty-sixth century and Gulliver Foyle is a space marine of sorts who gets stranded out in deep space with no way home. One day while waiting for who knows how long he spies the passing starship "Vorga" and signals for a ride. Vorga ignores his plea and Gully begins to plot his revenge against the ship. While Foyle is tracking down the crew of the ship to find out who gave the order he finds himself in Italy, looking ot meet up with one of the former crew members, where else, but on the Scalinata!

I can't tell you how weird it was for me to just accidentally read two totally different books, by two totally different authors, set about 700 years apart, where they shared the exact same location at a midway point through the story. Just absolutely bizarre.

Both of the books are extremely interesting, but both for different reasons. "The Stress of Her Regard" is great for people who have a penchant for the romantic poets and a taste for the gothic. There are moments that are positively gruesome, and the language is witty and florid. "The Stars My Destination" is more of a sci-fi vendetta adventure story. The story jumps from place to place quickly, and the ending is completely surreal. It's an absolute page turner.

Check it out!

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