July 08, 2006
Today, I’d like to share my ongoing confusion about the meaning of books to different people. This blog is about paragone, the Italian word, a comparison, and the idea of a writer’s paragon as seen in two novels with identical subject, but completely different approach.
More importantly, I'd like to know what does the label "historical novel" mean to different people.
When Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia first caught my attention in 2003, I quickly decided that it was not for me. Va bene, as her Artemisia would say.
I saw a pleasant cloud of words. If mingled with new names of characters and places, and tossed in the wind, it would have instantly produced a new book.
In 2003, Alexandra Lapierre’s Artemisia already sat quietly on my shelf, a book so rich in compelling narrative, that the moment I finished it, and had admired the illustrations, I reread it cover-to-cover.
Yes, the book was that compelling.
My hat off, Ms. Lapierre, I said, wondering how many reviewers and readers would agree with me, even more so now, since I decided to buy Ms. Vreeland’s book, and have read it in one quick sitting.
I adore historical novels. I’ve loved them for forty years plus. With each carefully selected title, another piece of a puzzle settles into the framework of my mind.
With Alexandra Lapierre’s book, I could have been the scribe at the heroine’s trial, and not even have blushed at the incredibly obscene language captured by my quill, as it has been “an integral part of the way men communicated in seventeenth-century Italy.” I instantly understood the period’s mentality and about men's rights.
Had I been Artemisia’s invisible biographer and followed her more faithfully than her shade, I could not have captured a more accurate, literary, compelling, breathtaking tale of her life.
The reviewers’ recommendations were solid.
No wonder: Ms. Lapierre uses the actual words spoken by her historical protagonists, backing them by a doggedly solid roster of documents. For example, Part II, Judith, the biblical heroine so often mentioned by Ms. Vreeland, has a subtitle: Rome in Scipione Borghese’s Day: 1611-1612. Chapter 15 takes place on Monday 14 May 1612; chapter 16, May to November 1611, etc. All this, with a stack of references, for a historical novel.
Here’s where Susan Vreeland’s book randomly opened for me today:
I heated water and washed my hair and Palmira’s in the stone sink.
“Ouch, you’re digging too hard,” she cried.
“Doesn’t it feel good to have your scalp scratched? Makes you feel more alive.”
“But you’re hurting me. Let me do it.”
Reluctantly, I stepped back to relinquish this pleasure of motherhood, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the sweet, slender taper of the back of her soapy neck.
The passage wouldn’t quite fit the likes of Mary Queen of Scotts or Josephine Bonaparte. But can you see thousands and thousands heroines saying the same words, filling the blank pages of a novel--with what?
You tell me. Does this passage belong to the category of a historical novel? What is a historical novel?
Can the above passage be be considered “Haunting … stunning … exquisite moments,” as the Christian Science Monitor writes?
There are indeed some nice moments in Ms. Vreeland’s book, other than washing hair. There’s little Palmira, Artemisia’s daughter. I’m sure she might have been a cute little girl, growing like a weed. Like any child we women continue to bring forth into today's world with “our own groans.”
Painstaking details of paintings, descriptive passages, and then feelings that have nothing to do with history. And I wonder: WHO reads, labels, and reviews HISTORICAL FICTION?
On Ms. Vreeland’s book:
“Intelligent, searching, and unusual … it has a way of lingering in the reader’s mind.”
—THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“In borrowing from the news and focusing on a single looted piece of art, the novel performs its own revealing act of appropriation.”
—SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
“The novel sparkles without being shallow.”
The New York Post finds Ms. Vreeland’s book “a work of art.”
Parade calls it “a little gem of a novel.”
288 pages cover some twenty-seven years of Artemisia’s life in Susan Vreeland’s book! Amazing. In fairy tales, heroes with magical boots flew over seven leagues in one step. Here, so little about seventeenth-century Rome, Florence, Naples, Genoa, London is understood, far, far less one might have gleaned from a guide book: Brunelleschi’s ribbed dome, Michelangelo’s scowling David, milk-white oxen still gracing Rome’s countryside, colorful details of Genoese harbor. Then descriptions of paintings interpolate feelings:
[Masaccio’s] Adam covered his bowed face with his hands. Eve’s eyes were wounded hollows nearly squeezed shut, and her open mouth uttered an anguished cry that echoed through time and resounded in my heart. The pathos of their shame moved me ...
And fashion. As I read another description about slashed puffy sleeves, I wondered if these details were removed, what would be left of the novel?
So much carefully orchestrated fluff, to make ones heart quiver for the brave heroine, what might otherwise be good historical narrative.
Is it a privileged glimpse into an extraordinary woman’s soul, as Margaret George announces on the back cover? Perhaps a sweet glimpse into the soul of any brave heroine.
La dolce vita. Or is it porca miseria?
So many cute Italian words to endear Ms. Vreeland’s novel to the reader.
I prefer clean historical facts magically blended into a plot. Like in As Above, So Below, a book that flies on the solid carpet of facts.
Why are so many novels are called historical, when they’re not? Can you help? Anyone? Please?
Posted by Eva Siroka at July 8, 2006 05:05 PM