“The more I write, the more I discover that the partition between real and invented is as thin as a wall in a cheap hotel room.”
So says Jeanette Winterson, but thinking of Mary Novik’s novel Muse, one might think the partition as thin as the pope’s bedroom chamber curtain.
When touring the Palais des Papes in Avignon, the author writes that she was “stunned by the secular frescoes in Pope Clement VI’s bedchamber…wondering what exactly went on there”.*
It took some wondering, and “[not] much research to confirm that the Avignon popes were no saints”.
Still more wondering, and Mary Novik produced an accomplished novel which offers an imagined glimpse inside that chamber.
Muse, however, is neither the story of a building nor a man; it is the story of Solange Le Blanc.
Readers meet her as a child, being raised by the Benedictines in Clairefontaine, and follow her through her years as a scribe in Avignon.
The abbess tells her: “One day, Solange, you will be as great as Hildegarde, the sibyl of the Rhine. I have decided that you will take the veil at fifteen, as she did.”
Hildegarde came before Solange’s years at Clairefontaine; the early and much-celebrated Benedictine visionary lived from 1098 – 1179, but for those readers accustomed to settling into more recent history on the page, it might seem as much of a stretch to Solange’s years in the abbey, 1309-1324.
In short, a long time ago.
But Mary Novik’s prose entices the reader into Solange’s story.
It begins with a vision. For, yes, Solange sees what others cannot see.
She also possesses other unusual talents. With the abbess’ encouragement, the librarian teaches Solange to work with ink and parchment (for bookish readers, this is a truly seductive aspect of the story).
“Over the winter, the rhythm became second nature – the scratching nib, the oaky scent of the ink, the parchment moving beneath my hand until it was warm and slippery. The ink flowed dark and alive from the well-cut quill.”
This trade serves Solange well, and the depiction of it showcases her author’s talent for sensory and visceral detail.
“My nose, so clever at picking out a single herb from the surrounding countryside was defeated by the clashing odours. Swabbing brushes, animal glue, gelatin, book covers bent and burnt into shape, uncured parchment. At any moment, I expected to see the skeleton of the cow from which these by-products had been carved.”
Muse‘s readers, however, never see the cow’s skeleton. The historical details stand on their own, collectively transporting the reader without cluttering the narrative.
But as striking as the novel’s setting and historical reproduction is, Muse is a love story.
Partly, it’s true, a love of wonder, a love of craft, a love of literature, and a love of kin, but partly a traditional love story, too.
In her work on muses, Francine Prose writes:
“Accidentally, or unconsciously, Dante and Petrarch, medieval and Renaissance poetic tradition discovered that the absent, distant, or unattainable muse was an ingenious solution to the question of what to do when the muse did descend from the airier realm and incarnate herself as a woman.”**
And this is relevant because Petrarch finds his muse in this novel, one descended from the airier realm, one decidedly blood and flesh.
Nonetheless, before anyone jumps to conclusions, Solange is not the only woman in the story. She is not the only potential muse.
“Bishop Giacomo whispered, ‘It is Madame de Sade. Laura is a real muse, not figment of his imagination. The face is divine.’
Laura his muse? Waves of angry red swamped my vision. ‘But her nose is unfortunate.’”
Solange continues to have her visions; they are problematic, both practically and emotionally.
“With a speed that catapults me into a deep void. They arrive in pain, and when they go, I remember little of them.”
And the roles which she inhabits are simultaneously rewarding and threatening:
“I heard those smiths saying that you cast a spell over the moon to make it taste so bad the devil spat it out. The more they glorify you, the more they give you dangerous powers.”
And that is the stuff of good stories, the inherent conflict between celebration and mourning.
This sort of tension combines with the overt political shifts of the time period (no spoilers, for you can’t tell which characters are speaking) to create a pervasive sense of intrigue.
“‘Which you will never be allowed to see. Be warned. The Pope’s men will drag you down as swiftly as they raised you up, for you have been privy to their secrets.’
‘And you have grown envious and petty. You visit court to beg favours like the others, repaying the Pope’s generosity with insolence.’”
And, throughout, readers who have a grounding in the historical personages, events and settings (for instance, the ancestors of the Marquis de Sade, Pope Clement VI, the Palais des Papes, the poet Petrarch, Laura, the Black Plague, Mont Ventoux) can enjoy the possibilities raised by Mary Novik’s depiction of Petrarch’s earthly muse(s).
“Muse is the second novel in a series I am writing, which began with Conceit, about the minor characters in the lives of great figures of literature,” writes Mary Novik.
If you love the idea of minor characters finally shifting into centre stage, Muse belongs on your reading list.
If you believe that the truth can shift from one side of a curtain to the next, that what happens between the lines of verse is as valid as what was recorded in it, then Muse belongs in your stack.
Now, to read Conceit. (And who would have thought anyone could convince me to read a novel with John Donne in it. But, no, I’m reading for Pegge.)
* The author’s site is lovely: do check it out here
** Francine Prose, The Lives of the Muses (Aurum Press – Harper Collins, 2002): 14