Wednesday, August 23, 2006
This evening's book was Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund, a great big historical novel about Marie Antoinette.
Naslund has a pretty good track record with me. Not only did she write Ahab's Wife, which has its moments, very distinctly has its moments (although its version of Ahab is woefully anemic), but she wrote Sherlock in Love, which is a very good Sherlock Holmes pastiche novel (trust me, I've read 'em all, and good ones are hard to come by).
The whole Louis and Marie milieu has never done much for me. I've read a wheelbarrow full of Marie Antoinette novels, and almost all of them seemed ... well, lazy. Like they were resting heavily on the inherent drama of their subject. And I don't really SEE that drama - a corrupt, venal, attenuated monarchy was overthrown by a people prone to doing just that. Big deal. Louis himself had about a dozen ancestors who suffered identical fates.
There's not even a special concentration of personal characteristics. No matter what Naslund would have you believe, neither Marie nor her Dauphin were particularly intelligent or charismatic, and on top of that, they were cowards - they fled their kingdom, were caught running away.
The most degenerate Plantagenet would have spat in their faces.
Nevertheless, legend focuses where it will. And if you write a Marie Antoinette novel, you're mining pure legend. Naslund must know this - she starts and ends her novel with historical bracketing (just like Dark Angels, only in this case the research is both deeper and worn lighter).
Abundance wlll be easy to recommend. It's intelligent, free of fat despite its length, and extremely atmospheric. I'm not in complete command of untranslated French novels (calm yourself, my little turnips! I have, sometimes, feet of clay), but absent that, I'd be willing to say Abundance is the best Marie Antoinette novel ever written.
It's an awful burden, Antoinettists have to shoulder: she was a twit, a clothes horse, and, beyond any doubt, a complete stone-cold moron. This is the tragedy of Readers Digest women's history - the iconic figures Amelia Nettleships always light on (Joan of Arc, Bouadicea, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scotts, Marie Antoinette) are almost always either propped-up hand-puppets of the strong men around them or else twits whose legends have prospered despite reality (Princess Diana, anyone?)
This novel gets around those limitations with an ease that looks easy. The novel is told in short, almost telegraphic mini-chapters in Marie's own first-person voice. That makes us all accomplices in a bit of authorial oversight, since the novel extends right to the moment the blade comes down, and little Marie could scarcely be telling us the whole story if that were so.
That's another little problem historical novelists (which Naslund seems intent on being, although I'm not sure why - I get the plentiful impression she'd kick ass as a contemporary novelist): HOW do we get the story? Hidden codicils? Related testimony? Undocumented personal survival? Every historical novelist faces the question: HOW do I tell my story?
Naslund simply avoids it. She has Marie tell her story in the immediate first-person right up until the end, right up until the blade falls, without ever any gesture in the direction of HOW we could be reading these thoughts. In order to enjoy the novel (and there's plenty here to enjoy, make no mistake), you just have to keep your mind quiet on the MEANS of TRANSMISSION.
(it might seem like a little point to all of you who've never written a historical novel, but believe it or not, MEANS of TRANSMISSION positively obesses those of us who have).
Oddly enough, one of the book's passages I liked the most in the whole book was the very last one, the one in the crucible of Means of Transmmission. Our Marie is on the plank, seconds from execution:
I kneel in order to lie upon their board, and they help my body to lie straight. So lay my noble husband nine months ago; I but follow. Through a crack between the planks - a man squats beneath on the balls of his feet. He has the dirty, upturned face of madness. Ah, he is waiting to bathe in my blood. I meet his wild eyes. The sled slide forward - the basket - no need to hold on - I open my hands resting on the small of my back - the basket - I had friends, loving friends (I am not afraid).
There's something in that. It's overwritten, yes, but there's something in that - the lightning-quick incoherent image-shifting that comes right before death when the moment is pre-ordained. 'I had friends, loving friends (I am not afraid)' - that's good.
All the familiar names are here in this big novel - not just Marie and her (surprisingly well-delineated) husband, but Robespierre, Marat, Danton, Mirabeau, and even 'our' very own Thomas Paine (who, it should be remembered, wanted the young French king and queen to be exiled to America, where I honestly don't know what the Hell we would have done with them). They're all perfectly delineated, a delight for any reader.
So I've got an equal-weight thumb-on-the-scale recommendation for this big book Abundance. If you want a sprawling, involving historical novel, well ... they very seldom get better than this one, Means of Transmission notwithstanding.