Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Desire of the Moth.#3

OK, the conclusion to my reading of Maxwell Gray's 1913 novel Something Afar aka The Desire of the Moth.

So, our hero, the retired bank clerk Ronald Leith, has discovered that his shooting in Sicily decades before wasn't down to betrayal by the Italian contessina he loved. So now he's off to Switzerland, with his wife Blanche and daughter Beatrice in tow, to reconnect with the past.

The Leiths get to Lucerne, where Blanche gets a little addicted to gambling on roulette and the Petits-Chevaux. Leith is perturbed by seeing Beatrice crying after talking to a mysterious man; it turns out to be Giorgio, the young baron she knew from London, and Beatrice confesses that he had kissed her passionately. “Who and where was this brute of an Italian?” Leith muses. “And ought he to be kicked if found?”

They travel on Lugano, where they stay at the Hotel Magnifico. Unknown to them, another family is staying there: the Baroness Bice di Gagliardini and her grown-up children Remigia and Gino. The Baroness recognises Leith, and when Leith takes a solo boat trip to a nearby villa, they meet. She turns out to be the Beatrice that Leith fell in love with decades before, and they are reconciled as friends. She never married Leith's rival Malorio, having escaped by having a breakdown after Leith's supposed death, but is now widowed with two surviving children from marriage to another man. Her scheming Mafia-connected uncle Onofrio - the man who shot Leith - is still alive.

Onofrio, now the Count della Rovesca, is getting bad dreams relating to the events surrounding Leith's disappearance. He's also struggling with gossip containment, playing down to Remigia stories that her fiance dishonoured a young woman, who subsequently committed suicide. Although Remigia is really in love with the young composer Mario Melata, for some inexplicable reason she has agreed to marry Malorio.

Leith resolves to help, and starts plans to foil Onofrio in aiding Remigia and Mario, as well as brokering the match between his daughter Bice and Gino (who is the Giorgio from London, and a nice chap despite his hotbloodedness). He begins by telling Gino about Onofrio's criminal past. He also talks to Remigia, who explains that she is bound to marry Malorio through an obligation of family debt; but Leith's investigations have proved that she has been conned – no such debt exists, but their properties have been mortgaged dishonestly by Onofrio. Over the next few days, the Leeses and di Gagliardinis become firm friends; Ronald tries to explain his past to the nice-but-dim Blanche, though she doesn't fully grasp its importance to him.

Onofrio, not yet realising that Leese is in the process of thwarting him, is growing impatient with inexplicable delays in settling the marriage plans. He is enraged on coming with Malorio to the Hotel Magnifico and finding Remigia hasn't turned up for a promised meeting. Remigia takes Onofrio on a mountain walk and springs the first part of the revenge, confronting him with what Leith has told her of his fraudulent dealings. She then leaves him behind, but at the top she runs into Malorio, and tells him she won't marry him. He is enraged, but she threatens to throw herself off the cliff and talks him down by appealing to his better nature. The two then go to investigate a cry for help.

Leith has meanwhile been shadowing Onofrio, and finally confronts him in a wood, explaining how he survived Onofrio's ambush decades before (a silver flask in his pocket deflected the bullet). They grapple – Onofrio has a gun – and as they fight, an accidental shot hits Remigia.

The scene moves to the following Christmas in the Leith household. They are joined by the Baroness, Gino and Remigia (who survived the shooting). Malorio has done the decent thing and formally dissolved the engagement; and Leith has coerced Onofrio (by threatening to reveal the extent of his dodgy dealings) to return to the family the money he has appropriated. The young couples get engaged, and all ends amicably.

I read this book with a floundering sense of dismay in places, and I just had to revise the plot summary, because on first reading, I mistook a large section for flashback, and I was wondering why one character had changed her forename and also named her two children the same as ones in a previous generation. Then I was puzzling how a Pomeranian dog - life expectancy 12-15 years - had survived several decades, until I read back and found I'd missed the detail about the family always keeping the same breed and naming it the same.

It isn't actually a bad novel once you've thoroughly digested the detail and got it into context, but it shouldn't be such hard work. Some of the plotting - particularly the handy bequest that bails the Leiths out of their financial doldrums - is a bit deus ex machina. However, MG nicely describes the atmosphere of pre-WW1 Lugano and its environs, with little of the overblown pathetic fallacy of landscape and weather that plague her earlier books. The Bookseller review is fair enough ...
The Desire of the .Moth, by Maxwell Gray, will attract the attention of all fiction readers, for the author's "The Silence of Dean Mainland" blazed a trail for all her other novels. This is a dramatic and vivid romance of the Italian Lakes, with scenes so full of human passion controlled and uncontrolled that in the hands of a less skillful author would be lurid and sensational. London is the setting of the early situations, where a father of a family is the central figure of a plot as unusual as it is complicated. The man's early romance, which includes a tragic incident that resulted in his friends believing him dead, colors his life and is an ever present background to the love affairs of his daughter which are absorbing. The Italian temperament is depicted with vividness and there are passages of extremely fine writing. The diversity of character introduced and the tenseness of the situation, together with the wreakage that weakness brings in its wake, and the unexpected turn life frequently takes, makes this a novel of prismatic emotional interest with the central figure of Ronald Leith always predominately fine and unselfish.
- The Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer, Volume 39, Nov 1, 1913
I did spot an Isle of Wight reference: the well-known whale skeleton, which still exists, at Blackgang Chine.
Como was a favorite place for honeymooning, the baroness thought, commenting on the wastefulness of choosing the most beautiful spots for that class of travelers, who ought to be too happy to care where they went; while Gino cynically hinted at a need of consolation in such cases, to the great indignation of Blanche, who held that a honeymoon could be spent with equal enjoyment in a balloon or a coal mine. "Ours," she said, "was in the Garden of England— that is, in one of them—the darling little Isle of Wight— inside a whale. How happy we were inside that sweet whale!"

"A honeymoon inside a whale, Signora? Una balena?" the baroness asked, mystified.

"So poetic, dear Baroness. It was, of course, quite innocuous—dead, long dead, and may be so still for all I know. Ah me! the days that are no more—just like a church aisle, only the arches got smaller toward the tail and began on the ground so there were no pillars. How it all comes back—the bones, the bliss, the starry night, one is afraid to say how long ago, but that tall child tells such sad tales. We walked up and down the whale, realizing the sensations of Jonah. So sweet and scriptural! There was melon at dessert that very evening."
On reaching the terrace, Blanche was much comforted by coffee, which she said reminded her more strongly than ever of the Garden of Eden and that of England, and caused her to produce more reminiscences of the long defunct whale, whose remains embellished the hotel grounds in Blackgang Chine.
- Ray


  1. JSB> I read this book with a floundering
    JSB> sense of dismay in places...

    [chuckle] Well, I've thoroughly enjoyed your recounting of it!

    I feel there ought to be a gripping post modern Possession style fiction (novel? film? both?) to be made out of your whole Maxwell Gray project.

  2. The trouble with MG is that she often doesn't provide enough information to collate details. You get a couple talking on first-name terms in one chapter; someone else referring to "Mr and Mrs Smith" in the next; and only two chapters later the necessary information to work out that these are the same people.