Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Art And Sin In Fifteenth Century Florence

Tim Parks is better known as a novelist than a writer of non-fiction and perhaps that's why I found his account of the rise and fall of the Medici family a little frustrating. When he describes the reality of life in Venice in the fifteenth century his writing is vivid and arresting:

Technology had not yet removed the ordinary things of life from view. Piss did not stream into clear water to be sucked away beneath gleaming porcelain. Shit steamed in the pan. If you were a florin kind of person, you could pay a picciolo person to take it away for you and empty it elsewhere. In a back alley, perhaps. The plague victim did not die in starched sheets, nor was his agony alleviated by analgesics. Where there was a perfume, that was because an unpleasant smell was lurking beneath. Your mortality was ever present. People died young.

What he's not so good at, however, is the chronology, the list of events, which in this book are sketched out somewhat impatiently; and the individuals who work for the Medicis, borrow from them, marry them, conspire against them and try to assassinate them, most of whom feel like under-developed characters in a novel.

I had also hoped for a little more detail of the Medici's financial arrangements, given the title. There are some tantalizing details, like the mechanics of the 'discretionary deposit', a device developed to circumvent the ban on usury:

The holder's return on the money he deposits is at the discretion of the banker, and thus is a gift and not a contracted interest rate at all, even if it can usually be expected to work out in the region of 8 to 12 percent per annum.

But, again, it's a little bit short on substance.

Nevertheless, the arc of the family's ambition is colourfully drawn: two generations of skilful empire building, then the hopeless squandering of money by men who were more interested in hobnobbing with aristocracy than keeping accounts, culminating in the pursuit of political power at all costs.

What interest Parks most, and what makes this book worth reading, is the depiction of the tension that existed in the lives of the leading members of the Medici family, particularly Cosimo and Lorenzo, between the conflicting imperatives of religion and humanism, spirituality and sensuality. It was the continual manoeuvring with which they sought to reconcile those tensions that created room for an outburst of creativity which still dazzles and is the reason the name of the Medicis resonates five hundred years later.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Context Of Renaissance Art

Geraldine Johnson's no-nonsense approach to Renaissance art contrasts the very different contexts in which Renaissance paintings, sculpture and crafted objects can be viewed. On the one hand she examines attitudes at the time: the very specific demands of the patrons who commissioned these works, and the uses to which the works were put, whether devotional, political, familial or domestic. On the other hand she considers the reverence with which the same objects are regarded nowadays by gallery-goers gazing through a post-Romantic lens in which the artist is seen as a creative genius in conflict with the world, giving expression to his troubled personality through his art

The scope of the book is limited by the parameters of the series in which it belongs. Nevertheless, Johnson does an excellent job, focusing on a series of individual artworks and outlining how they embody the economic, religious and political forces of the time. Clear, precise and informed.

Narrative History At Its Best

Tom Holland's account of Early Medieval Europe has two main themes: the impact of the millennium on a society conditioned to expect the end of the world as described in the Book of Revelation; and the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman emperor that culminated in the Investiture Climax and saw an emperor excommunicated and a pope imprisoned in the Vatican.

Holland's argument that the battle between emperor and pope, a conflict given greater urgency by the imminent arrival of Antichrist, laid the foundations for the birth of modern Europe is perhaps a little strained but it's worth it for the sheer panache with which he romps through Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

The sweep of the narrative is impressive, taking in events from Trondheim, to Jerusalem via Saxony, Cordoba and all stations to Constantinople, and the style is distinctly upbeat. At times almost taking on the voice of the characters, he is determined to convey what it felt like to be caught up in the events he describes.

You either like this approach or you don't - I read a distinctly sniffy review in The Telegraph by the historian, Noel Malcolm. But I couldn't put this book down. I found Holland's delight in the period completely infectious and I read the whole thing in about three days, neglecting all sorts of important jobs in the process. This is popular narrative history at its very best

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Arrogance and Innocence

Two decades after Cass Wheeler, a hugely successful British singer-songwriter, retired abruptly from the music business, she is preparing to break her silence and release simultaneously an album of new material alongside an album of her greatest hits. The narrative of Laura Barnett's novel is structured around a day that Cass spends listening to each of the chosen tracks for her Greatest Hits album and remembering the events that inspired them.

Cass's reminiscences stretch right back to the early days of her career and Barnett does a very good job of evoking the heady sense of freedom of the nineteen seventies as the structures of post-war Britain, breached by the cultural explosion of the sixties, begin to crumble away, revealing a world where anything seems possible.

Unfortunately for Cass, the promises that a life of music seemed to offer turn out to be hollow: marital breakdown, the incompatibility of motherhood and the music business, and the mental illness of her daughter all conspire to turn her dream of unfettered creativity into a nightmare of recrimination.

It's an immensely readable novel. For me, however, the weak link is the lyrics with which each new section begins. Significant claims are made for them as the kind of songs that might speak to a generation but I wasn't entirely convinced. But this is no more than a quibble, amply compensated by the strongly drawn personality of Cass - flawed, damaged but always struggling towards redemption - and by the portrait of an era, already almost forgotten, full of arrogance, enthusiasm and a naïve kind of innocence.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

A Compelling Study Of Child Abuse

Set at the beginning of the twentieth century in Ireland, The Wonder is the story of Lib Wright, an English nurse who, having learned her trade in the Crimea under Florence Nightingale, takes up a position in rural Ireland watching over eleven year old Anna O'Donnell, a girl who has supposedly been existing without food for several months and is now being talked of as a saint by the local community.

Lib is entirely sceptical of such claims and scathing in her judgement of the Irish and their religion. Determined to unveil a hoax she watches the girl like a hawk but gradually comes to understand that, whether or not Anna was secretly eating before her arrival, she is certainly not doing so now. As a consequence, Lib finds herself presiding over the slow starvation of a child, an atrocity in which the girl's family and her entire community are complicit.

Exchanging her scorn for pity, Lib tries desperately to change the girl's mind-set and persuade her to choose life instead of death. But Anna remains resolute and Lib struggles to understand what lies at the root of such implacable religiosity?

I wasn't always convinced by Emma Donoghue's portrait of the local Irish Catholic community which sometimes felt one-sided, even allowing for its portrayal through the lens of Lib's self-important Anglophile gaze. Moreover, the end, when it came, felt a little hurried.

A detailed chronicle of a young girl's self-inflicted starvation, The Wonder is not an easy book to read. More than once I had to set it aside for a day or two as I struggled with the emotions it evoked. Nevertheless, this is a compelling study of child-abuse so embedded within a community as to be invisible to victim and perpetrator alike.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Made For The Market

If you were looking for a definition of a high-concept book, then look no further. Behind Her Eyes is as high-concept as it gets. A clever, plot-driven woman-in-jeopardy thriller with a paranormal twist, written in an easy-to-read confessional style and aimed directly at the thirty-something female reader, it hooks you into the story from the very first page.

For me, however, the lack of depth to the characters was the book's fatal flaw, particularly the villainous Adele who leads Louise, the victim, by the nose. In place of characterisation we get a great deal of coy pre-figuring of the if-only-she-knew-what-I had-in-store-for-her variety which quickly started to get on my nerves. But then, as a sixty something male, I'm not the target readership.

The ending took a little longer to arrive than I wanted. When it did come I thought it was going to be just as I had expected and at first that was exactly how it seemed Then came the final very neat and entirely unpredicted twist. I have to take my hat off to the author: It's a very well crafted ending but not an emotionally satisfying one. This is one of those books that ends with a shudder rather than a sigh of relief. I didn't enjoy that.

It's very much made for the market: a dash of Gone Girl, a splash of Before I Go To Sleep, a hint of Girl On A Train and then a little bit of mumbo-jumbo thrown in for good luck. But it's extremely well done. Not profound or meaningful just ingenious and entertaining.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Telling Winners From Losers

The first of a trio of Anglo-Saxon novels, The Conscience of the King focuses on the beginnings of the kingdom of Wessex, as told by its founder, Cerdic, a renegade Romano-Celt who betrays his own culture and seeks his fortune with the Saxon invaders. A completely selfish and unscrupulous individual, the progress of his carefully laid plans and the constant self-justification with which he explains his treachery is, nonetheless, quite compelling.

Equally fascinating is Duggan's portrait of the disintegrating Romano-Celtic society- in particular, the abandoned and haunted cities gradually falling prey to the elements:

"What made Calleva such a queer place to wander in in was that it had been abandoned while it was still a concern. The streets were overgrown, and most of the roof-beams had been stolen by people who were too lazy to cut timber even in that thick Forest, but many house-walls were intact. In sheltered corners you could trace frescoes on the plaster, and mosaic floors glimmered through a layer of mud."

At the end of the tale, his new kingdom established, Cerdic looks back with regret at the change he has helped usher in and, in an observation that has resonance in post-Brexit Britain, he sums up the absurdity of the Romano-British belief that their society could function as an independent unit, paying fewer taxes to Rome and organizing its own affairs:

We light-heartedly broke with the Emperor, thinking that all the honestiores of Britain would then become little Emperors on their own. Too late. we discovered that Rome really gave us something in return for the gold that left the province.

A layered view of a period of enormous historical change, The Conscience of the King reminds us that in the long term it's not always easy to tell the winners from the losers.