No Place Like Rome

Surviving by Allan Massie

For Allan Massie’s admirers, of whom I am one, his enduring claim to literary fame is his novels set in Ancient Rome: historical political fiction at its sinuous best. Surviving also has a Roman setting, albeit a contemporary one. Where once Massie wrote of emperors, here he writes of English expats, a motley crew of writers and other bohemian types whom one might expect to find getting sozzled together in a café in Trastevere. Instead, in glorious defiance of stereotypes, their focal point is the weekly meeting of the English-speaking branch of Alcoholics Anonymous. Not so much la dolce vita, as Methodists on Tour. 

“…Haven’t had a drink for seven years…still get twitchy come Martini time…proud of my hangovers…running away from myself when I drank…” Out they come, one after another, the nervous confessions of fragile, booze-weakened souls, clinging to hope. It is a clever idea and gives shape and purpose to the narrative. All the main characters — from the once-successful scriptwriter Tom to the young actor Erik — are damaged before we meet them. They may be on the wagon now, but what will happen if one of them falls off? As they make their bleak admissions, and cling to each other for moral support, they coalesce into a group of characters whose fortunes you care about — the first requirement of any good novel. Incidentally, they may not drink, but they smoke a prodigious amount. I cannot remember a recent novel in which the characters lit up quite so often.

The plot is a tad rickety, introducing too many melodramatic elements to what would otherwise be an elegant comedy of manners. A middle-aged female crime writer adopts a young man who has just been cleared of a murder charge in London. Did he do it? And if he did, is she playing with fire? When the eminent QC who defended the man arrives in Rome, and is then himself murdered, the stage is set for a protracted game of hide-the-body, with half the members of the AA group getting involved in the cover-up. It is the kind of storyline that might work in the cinema but in a novel feels rather stilted. However, as an observer of human nature, Massie is always excellent value. He is a master of terse descriptions and crisp, pared-down dialogue. His sly humour peeps through again and again. “He’s an MP, but only a Lib Dem.” “He had polished his Welsh accent away, just before regional accents became the fashion.”

There is a lot of disappointment in Surviving: failed careers; unsatisfactory sexual encounters; friendships turned sour; marriages heading for the rocks; lives that promised much fizzling out like undrunk champagne. But there is also, as the title implies, resilience, fortitude in adversity, a determination to soldier on. The members of the AA group are not fair-weather friends, but men and women who, in the Eternal City, have discovered real soulmates.

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