Cafiero (Vincent Van Gogh: The Ambiguity of Insanity, 2015, etc.) investigates the life of recently deceased Edgar Allan Poe via an invented editor in this hybrid work of fiction and biography.
At the Old Swan Tavern in Richmond, Virginia, some of Poe’s acquaintances have gathered to recall the dead man’s demons. Present are Dr. Joseph Evans Snodgrass, who knew and treated Poe, and Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s rival and detractor. From these men, the editor hears rumors of Poe’s trauma, grief, insanity, and addictions, some or all of which led to the end the underappreciated poet’s life. Yet the editor’s curiosity is not satiated: “The editor then thought it time to leave the tavern...and to begin to examine Edgar’s life by means of his stories.” The Old Swan is merely a launching pad for an investigation—Poe was, after all, the inventor of the detective story—that takes the editor from the rotting docks of Cape Charles to a gray limestone asylum in New York to the lonesome lighthouse of Cape Hatteras and the ominous alleyways of Baltimore. Along the way, the editor is guided by Poe’s work and their ties to the places of their composition as well as the grim history of the author, his family, and his nascent nation. Always too late to save his dead subject from himself, the editor begins to bump up against the same existential madness that consumed Poe. Cafiero’s prose, translated from the Italian by Christie, seeks (and often succeeds) to evoke the dense, frantic style for which Poe is so famous: “Glittering reflections of moonlight. The Schuylkill River. The impalpable figure of a woman suddenly began to turn in the air. A woman. Which woman? Perhaps a mother or even a child-wife.” Readers interested in straight biography or gripping mystery might want to look elsewhere, yet those interested in the relationship between author and subject—between admiration and obsession—will enjoy this inspired love letter to Poe.
Unorthodox but admirable mix of fiction and biography.