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Niklas Rådström, Månens anförvant (Kinsman of the Moon)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2010. ISBN: 9789100124922

Reviewed by Silvester Mazzarella in SBR 2011:1

Mozart lovers remember Lorenzo da Ponte today as the brilliant librettist of three famous operas: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. In fact he lived a very adventurous life and outlived Mozart by nearly fifty years. Born Emanuele Conegliano in 1749 in the Jewish ghetto of the small Italian town of Céneda (now Vittorio Veneto) near Venice, he converted to Catholicism and became a priest, but after various relationships with women eventually married and had a large family. Attempts to make a living from writing or when that was impossible, by anything from theatre management to bookselling, led to long periods of residence in Venice, Vienna and London, and finally in Philadelphia and New York. In his last years in the United States, when not running a general store and giving private lessons in Italian, he was appointed the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia College and then, at the age of 79, became a naturalised American subject. The four volumes of Memoirs he wrote are presumably the basis of Niklas Rådström’s ambitious new novel. It is easy to see why Rådström thought da Ponte an ideal subject for fiction. Although the Memoirs may have been inspired by the more famous ones of da Ponte’s contemporary and friend Casanova, they are disappointingly sketchy about his creative life; he seems to have been more concerned with getting even with the many more forgettable figures he rightly or wrongly felt had treated him badly. As the Amazon critic David Olivenbaum writes: ‘Da Ponte cheerily declares that Mozart was the greatest composer of his time – perhaps the greatest ever – yet he gives him perhaps a half dozen pages out of the entire 472-page text; less than any of a dozen drifters and dreamers or down-market impresarios whom he met along the way.’ Rådström adds flesh to these arid bones. His fictional da Ponte addresses us confidentially, coming over as a persistently optimistic and fundamentally warm-hearted and loyal man never quite crushed by a lifelong succession of personal disasters. Rådström introduces events we know to have happened even if these may not have been recorded in da Ponte’s Memoirs. Da Ponte does claim that while writing the libretto of Don Giovanni for Mozart he was also simultaneously writing librettos for two other composers. But Rådström also brings in a particularly unpleasant public execution that took place nearby in Vienna at the same time, of which Mozart and da Ponte must at least have been aware. And he suggests what is at least possible, that a then unknown teenage visitor from Bonn called Beethoven may have called on Mozart and unsuccessfully tried to become his pupil. In what is presumably another imaginative touch, Rådström imagines da Ponte, nearly ninety years old, planning for a local American choir to sing Allegri’s Miserere at his own forthcoming funeral. The Miserere had been jealously kept by successive Popes for performance only in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week, and there is a well-known story that the 14-yearold Mozart, in Rome with his father, not only heard it sung in the Chapel but managed to write it down and thus reveal it to the outside world. In Månens anförvant, Niklas Rådström does belated justice to a man who though he may have had limitations as an autobiographer, clearly deserves better of posterity than he allowed himself in his own account of his life. Lorenzo da Ponte’s Memoirs are available in a twentieth-century annotated edition in English; perhaps we can hope that Rådström’s fascinating fictional attempt to set the record straight will also be translated.

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