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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Bishop's Bedroom

Piero Chiara

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To purchase The Bishop's Bedroom

Title: The Bishop's Bedroom
Author: Piero Chiara
Genre: Novel
Written: 1976 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 151 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Bishop's Bedroom - US
The Bishop's Bedroom - UK
The Bishop's Bedroom - Canada
Das Zimmer in der Villa Cleofe - Deutschland
La stanza del vescovo - Italia
  • Italian title: La stanza del vescovo
  • Translated by Jill Foulston
  • The Bishop's Bedroom was made into a film in 1977, directed by Dino Risi and starring Ugo Tognazzi and Ornella Muti

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Our Assessment:

B : effectively atmospheric but a bit off in its pacing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/11/2019 Scott Bradfield
Publishers Weekly A 27/8/2019 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a strong, well-written and weirdly seductive little novel about enjoying the small pleasures of life on your own little boat -- or pretending that you can live apart from the world you think you’re simply observing, dispassionately, from way up there in "the bishop’s bedroom."" - Scott Bradfield, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Readers will be swept away by this lush, gothic-tinged mystery and its unscrupulous characters." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Bishop's Bedroom is set shortly after the end of the Second World War, largely on and around Lake Maggiore, the very long (over 65 kilometers), narrow lake in northern Italy and Switzerland. The narrator has a small yacht, the Tinca, and since his return from Switzerland, where he was interned for the last years of the war, spends much of his time sailing the long lake -- a kind of fishbowl-freedom that seems like more than it is because of the many-sidedness of the lake and its shores. (The extended elongated form of the body of water allows for much more variety than on your usual lake/side.)
       The boat often attracts attention, especially from "vacationers or bored villa owners hanging about in our ports", and so also at the start of the novel when the narrator moors at Oggebbio he is approached by a stranger who expresses some interest in the unusual craft. The man invites him for a drink, and then for dinner at his home, the Villa Cleofe, which the narrator is happy enough to accept. The local's name is Temistocle Mario Orimbelli; the house is from his wife's family, the Berlusconis -- which two generations earlier had included a bishop; it's his room the novel takes the title from.
       Orimbelli is no great catch -- the narrator notes that he is about: "forty and looked fifty, with an egg-shaped body and short arms and legs" -- but turns out to be quite the ladies' man (if of the sleazier sort); his wife is: "very thin, schoolmarmish and snooty", and the narrator takes her to be at least ten years older than her husband. Living with them is Matilde Scrosati, Orimbelli's sister-in-law, who is a more agreeable sight: "young, voluptuous, pale and blond". She is also a widow: she had married Angelo Berlusconi in 1935 -- but only by proxy, because he had been sent off to the Ethiopian battlefields before the papers were ready -- and he had been reported missing and presumed dead since 1936; just now the requisite ten years had passed so that he could be written off and declared dead, a bureaucratic process the family was in the process of completing.
       If the narrator -- and Orimbelli -- are a bit adrift, without actual professions to keep them busy for the time being -- and Signora Cleofe is all stasis, Matilde soon shows herself ready for something new:

I just want to have a life again. I'm thirty years old, the war is over, and I'm not a widow anymore.
       Orimbelli is itching for a bit of adventure, too, and quickly latches onto the narrator, convincing him first to stay over at the villa, as well as then having him take him out on the boat on some local jaunts. Soon the two are buddies, sailing about from spot to spot -- and picking up women, with Orimbelli somehow managing to almost always get the better of it, to the narrator's slight annoyance. Eventually, the narrator thinks there's an opening with Matilde -- but even here Orimbelli blocks him, telling him a tale of how, in fact, he and Matilde are in love and looking to be together after he leaves his wife.
       The narrator, without any real ties of his own, can't quite figure out exactly what the Villa Cleofe situation is. Matilda's missing husband complicates matters too; as the narrator soon learns from Orimbelli, Angelo is not dead (and Orimbelli isn't the only one in on that not-quite-secret) -- and beside the not-quite-marriage to Matilde (since it was conducted by proxy, and then not consummated within the requisite time, it doesn't count, officially), the actual circumstances around what happened to him in Ethiopia would seem to render him ... unfit to be a spouse. (It's not exactly that simple, and Chiara rather overcomplicates the figure and his role(s) in the story, usefully using him to tie up one end but not finding much more for him to do.)
       The men have long been absent, because of the war -- which, in Angelo and Orimbelli's cases began with the Ethiopian campaign -- and while the narrator was only interned for a few years in Switzerland, Orimbelli also just returned home after nearly a decade away, including several years in Naples; his background remains several degrees of shady. (The woman who is the narrator's steadiest girlfriend over the course of the story is also married, and simply free for the moment because her husband has been an American prisoner of war; when he returns, the narrator (readily) leaves her to him.)
       It only sinks in for the narrator that Orimbelli had his reasons for roping him into this odd family situation when it is too late -- but even though he has been used, it's not nearly in as effective a way as Orimbelli presumably hoped. The Bishop's Bedroom is a bit of a mystery -- there's a death, and, for a while, it's unclear whether it was suicide or murder, but the how-dunnit resolution is not exactly top-tier mystery plotting and writing -- but that's almost only incidental. It's mainly about atmosphere, and the dark -- and/or empty -- layers to Orimbelli and the narrator (with Angelo thrown in for good, if very odd, measure), their murky pasts and unmoored presents; hence also so much of the novel taking place on the boat on the lake (with its own impressively imprecise geography and unpredictable winds, blowing this way and that ...). So also, much is meant to be left unspoken -- even as most of it comes to fore, one way or another, as denial only goes so far, Orimbelli's entreaty more wishful thinking than realistic, even if much is only hinted at rather than precisely spelled out:
Let's not refer to that. We'll not refer to it, ever. What happened, happened.
       It makes for a reasonably engaging dark story, certainly livened up by the dramatic deaths that take place, and with a nice melancholy-gloomy shading throughout -- so also in the conclusion, as the narrator faces a choice of what future he might embrace (not that there's much doubt that he remains a cut-and-run kind of guy -- understandably, too, after what he's lived through at Villa Cleofe). But the pacing is a bit off -- they spend an awful lot of time sailing, under various conditions, and the arrangements with their changing cast of female companions are rather more detailed, boring, and sordid than need be (though given that the narrator so often winds up playing second fiddle, this perhaps appropriately reflects some of his exasperation). More problematically, the payoffs to what would seem to be the build-ups fall pretty flat; Chiara has his talents, but lacks the mystery-writer's finesse with suspense and resolution. The narrator's occasional odd, too-certain pronouncements -- "He was permanently irritated, as short people always are" -- also contrast oddly with his general uncertainty about events and people, as the narrative finds itself a bit too often just slightly off-key.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 October 2019

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The Bishop's Bedroom: Reviews: The Bishop's Bedroom - the film: Other books by Piero Chiara under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Piero Chiara lived 1913 to 1986.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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