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From the Hardcover edition.
Posted February 20, 2004
By Bill Marsano. This small book is a large achievement. In less than 40,000 words (about one-third the length of the average novel) Francine Prose commits almost every sin in, as the say, the book. It can't have been easy. Prose is a novelist of some reputation, chosen probably because the editor thinks novelists are Real Writers who will lend credibility to travel writing, which is, after all, journalism's sandbox. (Also because they know travel books by novelists are routinely over-praised.) Prose's passion for Sicily is dubious. Although she claims often and unconvincingly that she wishes to be re-born a Sicilian, she has visited but once before--10 years ago. Such devotion is a little on the cool side, is it not? Does she have some insights to ipart? Indeed, she tells us traffic in Palmermo is 'homicidal'; that Catanians love sweets immoderately; that Sicilian life 'burns at a high heat'; that the Ancient Greeks wouldn't recognize Sicily today; the Sicilian food is not subtle; that Sicilians have a gift for overcoming tragedy that is specifically their own. Her silly comments on the Sicilian aristocracy are at least mildly amusing. And her writing is both awful and lazy. She writes in the present tense--the lazy way of getting to the bottom of the page, of getting it over with, with a minimum of effort. ('Name' writers love book assignments like this because they pay well, but their work ethic often deserts them. They think they're on vacation.) Like so many other bad travel writers, Prose is short of imagination: She can't get past the first graf without reaching for 'magical,' the travel hack's favorite word. She piles up words instead of really writing. For example, when she wants to tell us that 'many pilgrims in a religious procession carry candles' (that's eight words) she says instead that they 'carry long yellow candles they will light in the course of their peregrination around the holy sites associated with the saint scattered through the old quarter' (that's twenty-six). What we want from a writer is some electricity in the words, some vigor, some sign of delight in mastery of language. Prose gives us prose, not poetry--drab, bloated, prosaic prose, comma-crippled and tedious. She uses crutches so often I began counting them. Eternally indecisive, she says 'seems' more than 60 times, occasionally switching to 'perhaps,' 'almost,' 'maybe' and 'a little like.' She finds things 'disturbing' nine times and also leans on 'perilous,' 'upsetting,' 'alarming' and 'spooky.' Well of course: The Real Writer does NOT enjoy herself, especially because she is in Sicily 'to discover what this island has learned and can teach us about the triumph of beauty over violence of life over death.' (Really?) Prose often mentions 9/11 as if she were the only one affected by it. She experiences 'panic' at an old castle and again while planning to visit Mozia, a tiny island a few yards off the coast: '. . . what if the fisherman who ferries us out there gets distracted and forgets about us, and we're stuck out there all night? What if we're stranded, exposed to the elements, alone with the spirits of the Phoenician traders who first came to Mozia in the eighth century B.C. and who lived in harmony with their Greek neighbors until the Carthaginian wars, when Dionysius the Elder of Syracuse, using catapults, missiles and battering rams--state-of-the-art tools of fourth-century warfare--destroyed the settlement and much of its population?' What if, indeed. This is drama-queen panic--she's still in her hotel. If stranded, she can just return to the island's museum and tell the attendant. And why on earth would she write or commit such a gross and clumsy sentence to begin with? Apart from the awful writing, Prose misquotes Goethe and commits numerous grammatical and spelling errors. Everyone connected with this shabby performance should be embarrassed, copy editor included.--Bill Marsano is a professional magazine
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