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review by Linda Rogers
Time traveler Mary Novik has the gift of overlay, layering the transparencies of moments captured by light and creating living, breathing history. Her second novel, Muse, linked with the first in its acknowledgement of narrative as metaphor or metaphorical device, reinforces the notion that we are all conceit, creations or recreations of the one human story. Novik is a magnificent storyteller, her tongue rich with the savory and unsavory details that make history compelling as analogue for the lives we continue to pattern after flawed examples.
Muse, the second single word title an anonymous, invisible noun, tells us as much about the story of the visionary Solange le Blanc, and we won’t say alleged Mistress to Petrarch and Pope Clement V because she was so much more than that, as all the words within her compelling text.
Solange, the first person narrator of this story of the Avignon Papacy with its sycophantic poets and sybaritic clergy, is as heroic a character as Joan of Arc, the feminist warrior who was burned at the stake. Ironically Novik has chosen the great poets Donne and Petrarch and their satellite women to describe the narcissism of ambitious men. Perhaps “muse” is a word Novik wishes to erase from history, because her heroic women, anything but the romantic embodiment of female inspiration, are engaged in the rapture that transcends Adam’s rib.
Solange, illegitimate daughter of one pope and mistress to another, is a scholarly scribe and prophet whose great intelligence is almost eclipsed by the men she mentored, but not by Novik, who makes her betrayal by Petrarch, the courtly lover, painfully immediate and his succinct circumscription by his female issue immensely satisfying.
I first heard my mother’s heartbeat from inside her dark, surrounding womb. It mingled with my own heart’s rhythm, then changed to a harsher, more strident beat. It was then that I had my first and most famous vision of a man kneeling in a purple cassock and biretta. I could see him as if I were looking out a window made of glass.
Like Lady Murasaki, Heian courtesan and first novelist, Solange survives in a world of intrigue and cruelty because of her superior intelligence and the comfort and aid of like-minded women. Even Laura, Solange’s aristocratic rival and Petrarch’s fair lady, is more than the cartoon the poet drafted in the cruel expectation of Solange’s transcription is transformed into a vehicle of redemption. But Muse is not a polemic. Novik makes all her characters understandable and most of them, male and female, sympathetic. They are momentary illuminations in ephemeral, almost uncompromising frames in the ongoing film of life.
Novik manages to write with light even in her novel’s darkest moments. The Avignon papacy was dictated by politics, as French prelates lived like princes in direct rivalry with Rome, which had outlived its greatest power. Moving backward, or forward, to Novik’s recreation of Seventeenth Century London in her first novel, narrated by Pegge the daughter of the powerful poet and cleric, rector of St. Paul’s where the current Prince of Wales married his doomed bride, the novelist draws the broader map of a power shift from Rome to Paris and London. Even today, the Catholic Church, making its desperate bid for the Third World, is a Medieval Morality Tale, light, currently abetted by tabloid journalism, wrestling with darkness, the corruptibility of men, especially men whose dogma is hypocrisy.
Francesco had claimed his love for Laura was only spiritual. Why had I believed every word he uttered while we lay in one another’s arms? He had deceived himself most of all, believing the lies of his own poems.
The script for political power is still all about sex and death, which Novik illuminates in colours saturated with sensory detail. Her reds rhyme with blood, her golds with appetite. Her liturgy is a five-part harmony where the sounds of the street and childbirth harmonize with the unholy descant of neutered men and abused children and the death cries of the plague that precipitated the scientific, social and artistic exploration of the Renaissance and Reformation.
The fertile bed of the age of discovery is made in the pages of Muse. We are privileged to lie between the covers with a woman of spirit.
Linda Rogers, recently awarded the Gwendolyn MacEwen Prize for Poetry, is the author of Homing, poetry, and The Empress Trilogy, the story of three generations of women living in the opium triangle.