Between the Bindings: Francine Prose’s The Glorious Ones

by Jim McKeown

the-glorious-ones

Francine Prose has written scads of interesting, sometimes bawdy, and frequently funny pieces of literature. In addition to The Glorious Ones, she is the author of the New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer as well as fifteen books of fiction, including A Changed Man, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Blue Angel, a finalist for the National Book Award. A distinguished critic and essayist, Prose has taught literature and writing for more than thirty years and lives in New York City.

One of Francine Prose’s funniest novels is The Glorious Ones, which was later made into a musical. The story, set in 17th-century Italy, is told by seven members of a troupe of actors: Armanda Ragusa, Brighella, Pantalone, Francesco Andrena, Dottore Graziano, Columbina, and Isabella.

The story begins with Armanda Ragusa dreaming of Flaminio Scala, leader of the band of actors The Gorious Ones: 

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark forest. Wild boars lined the wayside, gnashing at my feet. Hissing adders, looped around the branches, spat venom in my face. But I, Flaminio Scala, the Captain, Prince of Warriors, Bravest of the Brave, First to Battle, Last to Flee—I, Flaminio Scala, the most courageous man in Christendom—I, Flaminio Scala, was not afraid.

Slicing through the underbrush with my sword, I forged ahead until the road I traveled forked in two. And there, at that dim parting of the ways, I encountered a most amazing phenomenon.

One of the paths was marked “Fame,” the other, “Obscurity.”

“Virgin Mary the Whore!” I cried, running headlong down the trail which seemed to promise my heart’s dearest wish. Yet my characteristic prudence and intelligence caused me to reconsider:

It was all too simple, too perfect; I sensed a trap.

Slowly, cautiously, I traced my way to the back of the fork—where, now, a small, fair-haired boy was seated on a granite boulder.

“What is this trick?” I asked him, assuming, of course, that he would know.

“There is no trick,” he replied, with a smile of angelic sincerity. “Go whichever way you please.” (3-4)

It turns out the boy is Francesco Andreini, “the first of many deceptions,” and both roads ultimately lead to Obscurity.

The story continues as Ragusa wakens from the dream about Scala: 

That was my vision of you, Flaminio Scala. I woke up sweating, the blood frozen solid in my veins. “Captain!” I screamed. “Is that you, crouching near the door? Are you making those rustling noises in my trunk?”

Yet I knew that the room was empty, and the trunk was full of mice. Longing to find you in another dream, I closed my eyes; but I could not sleep

Flaminio Scala, how clever of you to call on me. Who else but Armanda Ragusa would be lying awake like this, straining to see your face in the darkness? And how wise of you to see that Armanda Ragusa was the only one worthy of your trust. Who else owes you such a debt? (6)

Ragusa, who as a girl lived in an orphanage at a convent, remembers seeing Scala and The Glorious Ones for the first time:

And the women? My God, they were dressed in gowns of orange and red striped satin! Could those creatures really have belonged to the same race as our prioress?

Imagine: in the convent, we had been taught that a mouth open in laughter was a mouth pursed to receive the devil’s kiss. Yet you were all laughing, chattering, reaching out to touch each other’s bodies. One of the younger men spurred his horse and galloped away from the procession; smiling, the women tossed back their heads, and the sparkle of their earrings blinded us like suns.

The girls of the orphanage truly believed that each lascivious thought fueled the fires of hell for ten thousand years—imagine the commotion which began when we noticed those giant codpieces, those half-naked breasts! (7)

The commotion continues:

At first, I assumed that other orphans were all staring at you, that you were the cause of that stillness which had fallen over the courtyard. Then, I realized that they had not even noticed you, for their gaze never left the woman who was riding just behind you. It is her beauty which so fascinates them, I wondered—her blood red lips, her low-cut bodice, that gleaming mane of curly hair which covers her like a cloak? A moment later, I understood.

Whenever the jogging of her mare caused the woman’s hem to rise and sway, the orphans of the Blessed Brides of Christ were treated to an unmistakable glimpse of pink lace stockings!

“Ah,” murmurred one of the older girls at last, “Now I know who that is. It is the Whore of Babylon, and the Company of the Damned.

“No,” hissed Mother Maria Rosario, our prioress, as she herded us inside the convent. “It is something much worse. It is a company of actors—the most devious and clever of all Satan’s minions.”

“In that case,” I answered, “hell must be a pleasant place to live.” I was famous for contradicting everything the Mother Superior said. (8)

Other characters are loaded with similar tales of debaucheries. The second chapter is told from Brighella’s point of view:

That crazy Dwarf is petrified of dying, that coward. That’s why she’s always on my back, nagging me, breathing her nauseating stench down my neck.

“Brighella! Remember this? Remember that? Write it, write it, put it down in black and white.”

“Go stick it up your ass,” I tell her. “You’re just out to keep your name alive after the worms start crawling through your rotten bones!”

This romp through a quite funny story will keep you in stitches and is naughty fun to boot.

Jim McKeown, a lifelong voracious reader and long-time English professor who recently retired from McLennan Community College, hosts the weekly book review program Likely Stories on KWBU, Waco’s NPR station.


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