Tuesday, March 21st, 2023

Armchair travel plus multiple plotlines set in Italy

The Sibyl’s Mistake

by Edward C. Wilson

Published by iUniverse

Published September 28, 2010
176 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

July 11, 2011

I’m pretty sure that I have never read a novel with as much geology explication as there is in The Sibyl’s Mistake by Edward C. Wilson.

Wilson is a Berkeley-trained paleontologist, as is one of the characters, with the too-apt name Frank Bones in the book. Bones is on sabbatical from UC Berkeley in Naples, planning to make himself indispensable and to stay on…in large part to avoid the nephew with who he has been involved in an s&m relationship back in San Francisco.

There is also a geologist, Carl, who is part of a group calling itself the Prime Numbers, gay men of a certain age from Palm Springs. Mark, the tour leader who was born in Naples but grew up in the U.S., invites lectures on volcanoes and the caves under and around Naples from Carl, and the group goes on to Stromboli, an island west of Sicily with a hyperactive volcano. (En route from Naples by boat, there is a screening of Roberto Rosselini’s movie Stromboli, and the house where Rosselini lived with Ingrid Bergman during the shooting of the movie is also visited).

In addition to the gay tourist group, three young Senegalese males who delight some of the group members, a Neapolitan gay co-fraternity, and the opera management that is mostly gay, there is a Des Moines widow being preyed on by a Bluebeard and his sister on a luxury cruise that docks at Naples, and a straight man working on a musical about Woodstock in residence with his wife and daughter.

In short, there are a lot of characters, along with extended discussion of the sibyl of Cumaea (whom Apollo granted the request of a thousand year life; the mistake alluded to in the title is that the prophetess failed to stipulate remaining young and beautiful during this long life of breathing sulphur fumes in her large cave…) and a mysterious fat man.

Reading the book was like being along on a very informative and pleasant visit to Naples (and a less pleasant one to Stromboli, where most of the characters go next). Though I recently read The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples by Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller and Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis, and have been around Naples (Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri, down the Amalfi Coast) and Sicily, I feel that I learned a lot about the history and geology of the Naples region from The Sibyl’s Mistake.

Michelangelo’s Cumaean Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel

There are multiple plot lines skillfully interrelated (particularly at a costume party that goes onstage on a special production of Aida at the Real Teatro di San Carlo when the supernumeraries are trapped in traffic). Mark elicits views from the Prime Numbers about what they think about continuities and discontinuities from the time when Pompeii was buried under ash (79 AD) that flesh out characters (and their formative experiences) interestingly. I can certainly recommend the book on its strength as an armchair travel book.

Wilson, who is Curator Emeritus (and a Research Associate) at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, knows a lot about a lot of subjects (beyond his specialties, coral and mollusks) and delivers from his knowledge (about human relationships as well as about the geology and history of the Naples region) gracefully, almost breezily.

For a portrait of the subjectivity of an ancient sibyl, see Pär Lagerkvist’s (1956) The Sibyl.

© 11 July 2011, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.