A woman was on the bridge. Directly across from him, separated by thirty feet and the seething throng of vehicles and foot traffic: as he stared, the sun broke through to cast a flood of pale light upon her. Her clothes were ragged – he had only a vague impression of soft grays and greens, a violent slash of cyan at her throat – and she stood with arms at her sides and the chalky flesh exposed, her sleeves pushed up like a fishmonger’s. A skin had the powdery gleam of limestone, and there were faint green shadows in the cleft of her throat and the hollows of her cheeks. Her eyes, too, were green, a dark, almost muddy color, but the irises were salted with amber, which gave them a strange glitter. He did not think how it was he could notice all this from such a distance, yet he did; her eyes and hair and skin pressed themselves upon him as though he were washed paper absorbing the touch of sable and ink.
She did not see him. She did not appear to see anyone, though her eyes moved restlessly, as if straining to find a point of light in a dark room. Her hands hung limp at her sides as the breeze lifted a strand of hair that gleamed like a dewed cobweb. The rest of her hair was plastered to her skull; a faint vapor hung about her shawl, smoke or mist, and a flicker as though she held a burning Lucifer in one hand.
There I was, reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller dutifully and not enjoying it, when a dear friend came to visit with a suitcase stuffed full of books for me. I’m not sure where I read about Mortal Love – it was on someone’s blog, yours perhaps? – but I fell on it and devoured it in a very few days. It had exactly what I needed – narrative, pace, richly imagined worlds, art and madness and scary fairies. Yes, it’s flawed – the dialogue is weak, the characters lack depth and their behaviour is sometimes driven by the needs of the plot rather than psychology, the ending is not great – but I did not care. (Although I am still puzzling over why Juda says that her kind cannot create when both Evienne and Val patently do.) Having finished it I feel all energised and cheery and am loving The Storyteller, which I’ll write about soon.
With the exception of the prologue, Mortal Love is told from the perspectives of three Americans, one in the nineteenth century, the other two in the present day. When Radborne Comstock’s father dies, he throws up his medical studies and sets off for London to be an artist and to find inspiration; there he sees a mysterious woman on a bridge and subsequently is hired by a Doctor Learmont to be companion to the artist Jacobus Candell (modelled on Richard Dadd) in an isolated Cornwall lunatic asylum. Here he finds Evienne Upstone, apparent lunatic and painter, accomplished deranger of others. Comstock’s grandson Valentine grows up in the remote family home and also has a vision of a lovely woman, but his artistic aspirations are cut short by ridicule and violence. Daniel Rowlands is a journalist who has taken a sabbatical in London to write a book on Tristan and Iseult; at a friend’s dinner party he falls under the spell of the strange and beautiful Larkin who, it seems, is also Evienne.
(Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia, oil on canvas, 1864–68, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum; this is surely how Evienne/Larkin would look if she popped out of your flowerbed)
What I particularly enjoyed about this book is exemplified in the excerpt at the beginning of this post. The prose can be precise yet rich, intensely imagined visually – as one would expect a painter to perceive the world – and sensual too, because the madness which possesses the artists is of the body as well as the mind, no Cartesian division here. It does a very good job of describing the numinous without becoming vague or silly; it creates the atmosphere which I liked so much I was willing to forgive the book its flaws. I also found the woman intriguing. She is a muse who wants to be a painter, a femme fatale who is also an innocent. As the except shows, there is something passive and vulnerable about her (those limp hands hanging at her sides, the way that she is subject to Radborne’s eroticising gaze), yet she is also ‘pressing’ herself upon him here, using him as it transpires. She’s not a victim but she’s not feisty; she’s damaged but powerful. She seems to die and be reborn in fire, and her memory of her sexual conquests is wiped clean as soon as they are ended. She affects only artists (I include writers and musicians in this term), inspiring them to great work but perhaps costing them their sanity (although it is they who destroy themselves with longing). Her opposite seems to be Russell Learmont, the ‘gatekeeper with his foot in the gate’, who is similarly long-lived and collects art brut. For him, art is paramount and the making of it justifies any cruelty. Once he too was burned by Evienne/Larkin, and now he is given to bouts of self-harm and keeps a pair of shears in a back pocket.
Mortal Love works not through character but through the alignment of events and through the accretion of mythic emblems. Things which are introduced quite casually much later come to be significant. I suspect that if you were more knowledgeable about folk-lore than I am, you would get a lot more from it; I felt there were meanings wriggling beneath the surface I couldn’t identify. But I liked that, and the way things were not neatly resolved. The novel is a meditation on the fine line between creativity and insanity, on what it feels like to long to capture something but never quite attain it, sex and fairies as a metaphor for art. It’s fun! It will make you curious about Richard Dadd and the Mabinogion and medieval legends. And you’ll never look at an acorn in the same way again.
(I first posted this in a hurry and didn’t even read it through, then spent the night cursing myself for a poor post; I have therefore edited it a bit and hope it’s improved, sorry if you read the original crappier version.)