three pairs of lovers with space

A review of Cry to Heaven by Anne Rice, New York, 1982

 

Plaintively thrilling  ****

American paperback edition, 1995

During the eighteenth century, about four thousand Italian boys were castrated before puberty.  They were then trained until they could sing with the power and tonal richness of a baritone combined with the range of pitch of a soprano or alto.  The most successful of these “castrati” became the stars of their age, performing in operas in all the great cities of Europe, showered with gold by royalty and nobility and often sought in bed by the great of both sexes.  Through the story of one Tonio Treschi, a Venetian aristocrat with superlatively good looks and voice, castrated through treachery at fifteen, Anne Rice has brought to brilliant and convincing life the world of these “children mutilated to make a choir of seraphim, their voice a cry to heaven that heaven did not hear.” 

I was bound eventually to read this due to what it has in common with my favourite novel, Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy.  The latter was presumably the main inspiration for Rice choosing a boy eunuch as her main protagonist, since she has said it “profoundly influenced me as a writer” and Renault was “my writing teacher whom I never knew” (to which I say “me too”).  Both women write beautifully and evocatively, Rice’s prose being lusher but less lucid.  Both give meticulous attention to historical authenticity, which I think indispensable for historical novels.  The only flaw I noticed in this respect was the marriage of Carlo Treschi to his step-mother: it is inconceivable he could have got a dispensation for it, and there is no suggestion that her marriage to his father had been annulled.

Evidently massive and painstaking research into eunuchs, eighteenth-century musical training and the great Italian cities of the time was done to achieve this resurrection of a long-forgotten type of human life, and equally considerable imagination has gone into recreating the castrati’s emotions.  Much of Rice’s deeper learning could easily pass unnoticed by the uninformed reader, being woven into the story rather than explained.  A critically important example is the much higher age at which puberty was then reached.  Boys’ voices were not expected to break until they were eighteen. Tonio was still pre-pubescent at fifteen, though this had not held him back from experiencing abundant “dry” joy in the beds of a tavern girl and a motherly cousin.

Farinelli, most famous of the castrati, by Amigoni, 1734-5

The choice of subject matter obviously sets the story up as especially promising ground for exploration of gender identity and sexuality, and by infusing the story with plenty of eros, Rice far from disappoints.  “What in God’s name did they hack away from you that you have laid a siege to the beds of Rome as great as that of the barbarian hordes?” Tonio is asked by the disappointed orchestrator of the theft of his testicles.  The answer is little if anything except the means to procreate, which should not surprise anyone except those labouring under the delusion that pre-pubescent boys are asexual. The castrati are presented as in one respect enjoying an enviable sexual freedom: they can sleep with females without danger of causing pregnancy, while their androgeneity opens possibilities with males. Tonio also enjoys complete freedom from the constraints and unnecessary sense of contradiction that dubious assumptions about fixed orientation impose on people today.  With men, he adopts the passive role automatically and fully relishes its physical and emotional joys; with a more feminine boy and later a girl, he equally automatically and happily plays the man.  I found all this thoroughly convincing.

The plot is fine and credible except that I found its central premise a bit implausible.  The atrocity against Tonio was evidently very risky for its perpetrator, who was frightened with good reason that people would not believe the lies put about that it was Tonio’s choice.  Tonio was given every opportunity for exacting immediate revenge through the law, but instead went out of his way to confirm the lies, and chose to wait four years during which he lived always under the dark cloud of unexacted revenge.  The explanation given, that he wanted the man who had cruelly wrecked his life to have time to beget sons to continue their family line, feels simply inadequate for a boy in Tonio’s horrific predicament. I also found the story sometimes too drawn out. 

Nevertheless, these are minor flaws in a deeply imaginative and haunting story.  The three of Tonio’s liaisons that are love affairs are moving, especially the greatest and final one with the beautiful English girl-painter Christina.  Above all though, it is the imagined sound of the beautiful, free-spirited boy troubador echoing in exquisite song along the canals and alleys of night-time Venice which continues to ring in my ears.

Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 7 May 2017

                         Some of the last of the castrati, who sang in the Sistine Chapel choir until 1913