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John Tessitore

Nero's Mistress
Fawcett, 1960


Described by the publishers both as “a savagely funny novel” and “based on the motion picture” starring Brigitte Bardot made in Italy. The troubled relationship between Nero and his mother Agrippina over a few days is told with blithe indifference to what is going on (or an assumed air of the same) by Poppaea Sabina, who is at the opening of the novel Nero’s mistress (replacing his slave-love Acte). The action revolves around repeated (comic) attempts by Nero to kill off Agrippina (snake, poison, falling ceiling, collapsing boat) and Agrippina’s attempt to bump off Nero (various poisons), all the while talking sweetly to one another. Nero has just lost a favorite slave, Pallidus, who was tasting for him a special wine sent by Agrippina to her son for his birthday. Other recurring themes are Nero’s artistic endeavors (singing, training an owl-pig-rabbit trio to accompany him). Nero is sure everyone loves to hear his public performances, though the occasional contrary voice is heard. Poppaea thinks Nero is a dear and an artiste as well. Agrippina keeps nagging Nero; Seneca keeps advising him (e.g., you certainly wouldn’t want to kill your mother, but if you were you would send a deaf-mute to do it, because he then couldn’t tell who had sent him.) There is not much plot, beyond the mutual murder attempts and Poppaea’s attempts to be presented to Agrippina and then to oust Octavia and take over as Nero’s wife and Empress. There is the fire, but Nero had nothing to do with starting it and, in fact, does a good job of directing the relief. Seneca is presented as very clever in extricating himself from trouble and of seeing no conflict between his Stoic philosophy and his great wealth, some of it gained through money lent at exorbitant interest. Nero is presented as clumsily naive, given to vapors and hurt feelings, but still plotting Agrippina’s murder (botched time and again by Anicetus), though Poppaea doesn’t seem to realize this, since Nero says that all he is doing is to protect Agrippina. Agrippina bosses everyone, aided by her German bodyguard, though she doesn’t succeed in her attempt to get Nero to lead an invasion of Britain to punish Boudicca’s revolt. Agrippina has a romantic interest in Rubellius Plautus, who is a potential replacement for Nero on the throne. She is still alive at the end of the novel, but, historically, she shouldn’t have been; she is shown returning to Rome after surviving the boat collapse. Historically, she did survive the collapse, but she was run through by a centurion’s sword soon afterward. It is hard to characterize the voice Tessitore gives to Poppaea. She is either the ultimate blonde joke, unaware of the murderous intentions of those around her and focusing only on her appearance (bathing in the milk of 500 asses to keep her skin lovely) and on her advancement, or she is telling the story (as the author clearly is) tongue-in-cheek for her audience’s delight or her own simulation of innocence. I incline toward the bimbo explanation because it makes a better characterization. There is not a great deal of valid historical detail (though the characters are mostly real) and there are some outright mistakes (doors of Temple of Janus open as sign of peace; curtain drawn across the stage of the theater). I wouldn’t assign this to a class (though there is not really anything in it that even a fairly young reader couldn’t handle, except perhaps the tone), but I would mention it as a possible light reading for someone who already knew the story of Nero and wanted a slightly different perspective. Note that Tessitore starts off each chapter with one quotation from Suetonius and one from Tacitus. It is funny, partly in and of itself, partly because of the view we already have of Nero before picking up the novel. The humor is wry and there are some in-jokes that younger readers will miss, but it’s a quick read and excellent for the beach or when riding in a train. Continuity is not a major issue, so you can read it in bits and pieces without loss of any threads. -Fred Mench 8/99

- Fred Mench, 8/1/1999

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