The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days – Kate Holden

As a guy, The Romantic wasn’t the easiest novel to read in public.  First, there’s the girly title.  Then, there’s the cover – a nude woman  lying with one breast slightly exposed – that made me worry people would think I was reading the book equivalent of Zoo.

I could get around this by reading with the novel flat against a coffee-shop table, or on my lap when I was reading on the bus, but this presented a new problem – the curious passenger.  See, people who don’t bring a book or iPod on the bus get understandably bored and look around at what their neighbours are doing.  And since The Romantic has generous lashing of sex throughout, and people only pick up the a few words when glancing at a page, anyone who sat next to me over the past week probably knows me as “the guy who reads porno on the bus”.

Oh, well.  It was worth it, not just because I’ll probably have a two-seater to myself from now on, but because The Romantic was damn good.  It’s beautifully written, brutally honest, and, yes, very sexy.

In her second memoir, Kate is thirty and has just given up heroin and prostitution.

”She has come to Italy in search of three things: Rome, Romantics and Romance.  Four things.  Herself.

Rome seems the best place.  She had to leave Australia.  And here, in the city of eternity, she might find something to help her endure.  She can lose herself, before she is found.”

Drug addiction and her previous career have taken their toll on her, and she is lost and fragile.  She finds comfort in the poetry of Byron and Shelley and Casanova, and in dalliances with different men.

The book is divided into seven sections, the first six named after her various lovers.  The sex is great, and there’s lots of it.  Sex in public, sex in groups, sex with dildos, sex with women.  It’s a notoriously difficult subject to write about, and Kate Holden does it better than anyone I’ve read.

Its never pornographic, gratuitous or repetitive, a remarkable achievement considering the sheer volume of it.  She avoids the traps that ensnare many of the best authors by steering clear of similes – no waves crashing, no flowers blooming, no lepidopterists screwing tough-skinned insects into boards with too blunt pins.  She doesn’t try to make it transcendent or too creative.  She doesn’t use an excess of ugly words, like Christos Tsiolkas in The Slap.

She gets the sex right because she keeps the scenes short, leaves most of it to the imagination and anchors it in concrete physical and emotional sensations.  She captures the fun, sensuality, disappointment and power-play of sex, each encounter reflecting something about her mindset and her relationship with her partner (or partners).

The rest of the writing is great, too.  She knows just the right amount of detail to include to create a romantic, exotic atmosphere that makes you want to be drinking wine beside a fire in a villa surrounded by a sea of olive trees, or exploring Rome to search for your favourite poet’s house.

The dynamics of her relationships are communicated through action, with good dialogue, active sentences and romantic scenarios, making for very readable prose.

It’s a confronting book.  Kate is neither a feminist nor a victim.  She is honest and unrelenting in her self-analysis, defying judgement by laying herself bare.  She enjoys the power sex gives her over men, and is simultaneously proud and ashamed of her expertise.  Sometimes she is dangerously passive in her acquiescence to sex, such as when she is seduced by a hotel porter.  Other times she considers it a form of currency, or a source of affirmation.

Her character doesn’t achieve the growth she is looking for in the text, although it is alluded to in the epilogue-like final section.  She merely moves from one partner to the other, shaped more by their needs than her increased maturity or confidence.  She constantly feels the need to confess her past so that she can be assured that she is not contemptible.  She allows herself to be drawn into a situation that she is clearly uncomfortable with by her last lover.  Her passivity and self-absorption can be grating, but her significant flaws also make her an intensely relatable character.

My only criticism (which isn’t really a criticism) is tied in with the whole memoir genre.  The whole book is about one thing – her personal journey.  While her character may represent certain things about modern life, autobiography is self-indulgent.  Kate Holden is one of the best modern Australian writers I’ve read, and I’d love to see her turn her attention to fiction so that her skill, intelligence and honesty could be focused outwards as well as inwards.  Luckily, I’ve heard that she’s currently working on a few novels.  In the meantime, I’ll definitely be picking up her first book, In My Skin.


2 Responses to The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days – Kate Holden

  1. Tom says:

    Don’t you think that most fiction has elements of auto-biography – do you think that is self-indulgent?

    • Absolutely fiction has elements of autobiography. But I think it tends to be less self-indulgent because fiction has to conform to conventions that are all about good storytelling and keeping people entertained. Autobiography is also only from the author’s perspective, meaning they’re less likely to consider other people’s viewpoints. And because autobiography is about events in the author’s lives, they’re less likely to examine larger themes.

      That being said, Kate Holden says in the opening of the book, “This is a work of imagination as well as truth… It is a sincere memory in shaped retrospect”, and she uses plenty of fiction conventions. That’s what makes the book readable for me. I’ve put down plenty of autobiographies that plodded through the events of someone’s life. But The Romantic doesn’t actively engage larger issues the way that, say, Dreams From My Father does.

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