In this novella, Pietro Maneos continues his project of revitalizing an aesthetic Romanticism in which the poet (or "poeta" as one of the main character's lovers insists on, and "poesia" rather than pedestrian poerty) is a hero and lover in the mode of the classical Jason, Theseus, Achilles, and the very real Dante, Lord Byron, Jean Paul and Gabriele d'Annunzio.
Because of the beautiful poetic forms of Maneos' previous publications (at least two volumes of poetry so far, supplemented by many YouTube videos of Pietros reading his and similar poetry, including his unpublished "American Bards"), I had half-expected the new work would be a novel in verse, probably Petrarchan sonnets, but "The Italian Pleasures of Gabriel Paterkallos" is actually epistolary prose, and the form is exclusively the letters that Gabriele sent in the second half of 2001, when Gabriele was living in Rome.
And these letters are exclusively those Gabriele sent to his friend and mentor, whom the editor describes as "a self-exiled American novelist residing in Paris, Odysseus Pane, a few years his senior". Because Odysseus's letters are absent from the novella, the few things we know about this Odysseus are what Gabriele writes in his own letters. The focus is, thus, as it should be, on Gabriele's self-reported adventures and experiences in the Eternal City.
According to the foreword, the publication of even these letters is accounted for by Gabriele's letters having been purloined by a lover of Odysseus and sold to the highest bidder; it is the triumph of Gabriele's and Odysseus' shared aesthetic that the highest bidder turns out to be the same publisher of the novella and not a certain Middle Eastern government that would certainly have an interest in keeping the content of many of the letters unpublished.
Maneos adopts for his salutations and letter closes what could have been mere Homeric mnemonic techniques and instead adopts a different descriptive phrase of himself and Odysseus that parallels the content of the specific letter. This makes for a special treat, because Maneos is imaginative and right on point in summarizing in just a few words the story that unfolds in each individual letter.
In brief, the plot begins thus: The 21-year old Gabriele has decamped for as many weeks as his finances support to Italy, not merely "to find his soul" but rather "to make his soul" in the Eternal City. Somehow, he has obtained a publisher in Rome for his first book of poems, coincidentally titled "The Soul of a Young Poet" (the same title that Maneos himself used for his 2002 first book of poetry). Gabriele also comments on his own famous (for some, notorious) photo shoot for Abercrombie and Fitch (climbing into a helicopter nude), a Bruce Weber shoot that Maneos coincidentally also got his first major press about.
Also coincidentally, Gabriele as well as Maneos modeled for a full-length portrait in the pose of Polyclitus's great classical statute "Doryphoros" (spear-bearer), with the spear replaced with the torch of Enlightenment, and both Gabriele and Maneos included "Keatsian butterflies" with the figure. ("I almost wish we were butterflies and liv'd but three summer days -- three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain." ' John Keats, "Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne"). And Gabriele has the same Greek athlete-god body ("gymnos") body that Maneos's own modeling and training is famous for.
I recognize some of the names associated with Maneos' own biography even if they are craftily spelled in the novella, so I might have room to speculate that it just might be possible to read "Italian Pleasures" as a roman à clef. (Lovers, friends and colleagues of Maneos - take heed and buy this book to see if and how Maneos transformed you! And if I'm totally off the mark, and Maneos isn't writing about his own life, then he is an obviously a writer inspired by the muse of his own artistic presence.) And, indeed, if the novella is true to Maneos' own life, then being able to read that he can exclaim after each sexual encounter, "Oh, the Beauty! The Beauty! The Pleasure! The Pleasure!," is reason enough to buy this book and enjoy the repeated readings.
Maneos' program in support of an aesthetic Romanticism permits many of the letters to be more than mere vignettes and actually read like short stories, one folding into another à la Boccaccio. Frequently, the letters deliciously report how Gabriele has connected with many different women, à la d'Annunizio. Some of Maneos' best writing is in his loving descriptions of how these many women respond to him and how some enjoy the moment and others merely project their own personalities onto him. Also very engaging is Maneos' ability to describe the stage set in Rome, Florence, Venice and Miami in their own right.
In his "Dangerous Liaisons," Laclos used letters to show the destructive gamesmanship of French royal society. Maneos avoids not only the Laclos trap of an ironic stand ex cathedra but also static interiority such as one sees in, say, Huysman's fictionalized account of a decadent scholar, "Against Nature." As vigorously athletic as he is a lover and a poet, Gabriele exercises a Byronic appeal: He begins to have certain dealings with shady characters that touch on criminal law and plans an uprising and military attack in the Eastern Mediterranean. (Gabriele writes to Odysseus: "If nothing else, we will die . . . disproving Auden's famous saying, `Poetry makes nothing happens.'" Later, "Show me a man's heroes, and I will show you his soul, and if he has no heroes, you have revealed everything." In short, the man of action is poetic in his self-understanding: "History is not a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken, but rather, a glorious tale which I wish to be cast in.")
The trajectory of Gabriele's time of self-exploration, self-creation, and self-fulfillment leads to a conclusion of the novella that makes one wonder what further adventures and loves such a life already richly lived and loved will have, wherever in the world Gabriele finds himself (with Odysseus on the run from government agents or criminals? as a Felix Krull-like confidence man? as a Byronic hero finding the next injustice to set right?). "Italian Pleasures" will bear rereading until the necessary sequel comes along. "The Pleasure! The Pleasure!"