Sunday, January 31, 2010

Child of the Twilight - Inspiration


When I was studying French in my final year at high school, I read a story by Prosper Merimee that really captivated me.
It was the story of a wedding in the Pyrenees. The bridegroom is a bit of a peasant, and the bride is more socially elevated. A few days before the wedding an archaeological dig brings up an ancient statue of Venus. It is a huge statue, black with silvery sinister eyes. While the community decides what to do with her, she stands beside the local pelota court.
(On the morning of the wedding the bridegroom and his yob friends play pelota. As a joke the bridegroom deposits the wedding ring that he will later put on his bride’s finger onto the ring finger of the statue of Venus while he plays pelota. At the end of the game, when he goes to recover the ring, he discovers that the hand appears to have contracted so that it is impossible to get the ring off. So at the wedding he uses a cheap little ring he got at a brothel.
The wedding is riotous and the bridegroom and his friends get very drunk. The bride goes upstairs to bed alone. As she lies in the marriage bed by herself, she hears the heavy footsteps. It must be her husband. He heaves himself into the bed and lies there as if in a stupor. The modest bride is afraid and lies very still. Then soon there is a second set of heavy footsteps and another figure lurches into the bed.
The first one was in fact the statue; the second is the husband. The statue believes she is married to the husband, and she claims him, holding him in such a fast embrace that she crushes him to death. She then steps out of the bed and returns to her place beside the pelota court.)
I was deeply affected by many aspects of the story, in particular by the idea of the ancient black statue of the goddess of love and of her profound malice and sense of justice.
At the same time I was studying the history of western art, and I came across many representations of Venus, some seen in her ancient black manifestation, some seen as a pure white beauty.
At some point I made the connection – perhaps first unconsciously – between Venus and the construction of the ideal goddess-woman, the Virgin Mary. The images of Mary that were most familiar to me were the sweet pink and blue and white images of Lourdes and Fatima, that is nineteenth century versions. I was also familiar with the pretty Mary in western painting.
But then I began to discover the manifestations of Mary in places such as Montserrat (Barcelona), and the ancient black image connected with the figure in the Merimee story. (Montserrat is not really far geographically from the Pyrenees.) I set off on a quest for the Black Madonna, discovering statues such as the one at Montserrat. This ‘quest’ was conducted by reading, but also by visiting places in Spain, France and Italy where there are Black Virgins. I learned that the blackness of the statues is often overlooked and even suppressed in a general desire to gloss over what are seen as the hidden and negative aspects of the ‘mother’ (and therefore of the ideal mother, Mary). I found many of the black statues to be amazingly beautiful and attractive. And there is a vast cult following of them, with powerful connections and superstitions. The one at Montserrat is one of the most well-known in the world. It is located on top of an almost inaccessible and very dangerous mountain ridge. Spanish couples make the journey up to her to have their union blessed. She is visited by couples who wish for a child (this sounds like a fairytale). Montserrat is generally a place of pilgrimage and miracle.
The black statues were important in the history of the troubadours, and there are songs and prayers that attest to this link. I became interested in the language of the troubadours, a secret, punning, rhyming language known as the green language or the language of the birds. It is not written down anywhere, but remains elusive yet real.
Since I am not interested in writing ‘historical’ fiction, the inspiration that was gathering from these several strands needed to find its expression in a contemporary story with some links to ancient matters.
In 1994 I read a short newspaper article in The Age reporting the theft of an old statue of baby Jesus from a church in Rome. I had seen the statue in the sixties, but had not paid a lot of attention to it really. It is believed to be responsible for miracles, particularly those concerned with birth (and also with wealth). Suddenly all the strands began to come together. The statue was in a Franciscan church in the heart of Rome, and there is a connection between St Francis and the green language, which he probably spoke.
One of the strongest human bonds is the bond between the mother and the child. This fascinates me (I am not alone here). There is a thread running through my writing that foregrounds and examines this bond. Mary with Jesus is a key image of the bond, in western Christian society. My interest in everyday mothers and babies intersected with my interest in Black Madonnas. (I think the first appearance of a Black Virgin in my fiction is in an old story called ‘Kay Petman’s Coloured Pencils – collected in The Essential Bird – HarperCollins).

Modern attitudes to conception and birth are different in some respects from what they were when I was in my early twenties. With the development of medical technologies and of legal technicalities, it is possible for women to conceive or not conceive, to conceive with their own eggs or with the eggs of others. Artificial insemination is quite ordinary. Assisted reproductive technologies are constantly evolving and are being used by huge numbers of people. The miracle of birth intersects with the miracle of technology. It occurred to me to put these methods up against the technology of the virgin birth of Christ, inspired by the miraculous wooden statue that had been stolen in Rome in 1994. (So far it has never been found. For the sake of the novel, it would be cool if it could be discovered in February 2010 – we shall see. )
The question arose as to what kind of character would be across all this. As I was considering the question, I was working as a teacher with a number of teenage girls who were the product of IVF and who were only too happy to discuss this matter openly with each other or anyone else who happened to be around. No big deal.
And so developed the narrator who is nineteen at the time of the telling, and who is an American IVF baby. Her character developed from there – she is the only child of a busy high profile international couple based in LA who provide her with every material thing including a nanny-companion and pets, but who apparently treat her more as one of their worldly achievements than as a little girl. She develops a cold and unsentimental attitude to most things, and spends much of her time reading the classics and writing novels. She is named, as many children now are, after a place, in this case Sydney, Australia. It is in fact where she was conceived, but I can’t remember whether this fact is still in the book or not. The family (on the mother’s side at least) comes from an old fashioned Catholic tradition, hence an interest in things religious, and a number of highly religious connections and relatives. Sydney doesn’t think she is unrelated to the ‘parents’. Everyone else seems to be either related internationally or else acquainted internationally. She is conscious that she has, in a sense, no discoverable identity. Her maternal ‘grandfather’ is a wrier of science fiction, and he loves Sydney very much, and thinks she is incredibly special and different. He calls her his ‘child of the twilight of time’.
So the plot is an intersection between the issues of modern fertility and conception and the ancient matters of faith and miracles located in such objects as the baby Jesus statue in Rome and the black statues of Mary.
One of the characters, Diana, is an Australian woman living in Barcelona, dedicated to completing a vast book by her late husband on the subject of the Black Virgin. Diana originated in Tasmania, and the novel ends (2007) in the place of her birth in the early 1950s. It is there that she discovers a painting of a Black Virgin in the little old rural church. Although she had seen this picture frequently in her early life, she had never made the connection between it and her late husband’s project. This is just an example of the ubiquity of the Black Virgin, under the nose as it were, but unrecognised. Diana and one of her friends have made an effort to trace the stolen statue of the baby Jesus. They still have hopes, but so far have had no real success.
Some of the characters are devout believers in prayer and miracles. Sydney is a narrator who tries to remain impartial and practical, reporting the facts and leaving the interpretation up to the other characters and the reader.
Sydney takes upon herself the role of that narrator of the lives of Diana and her niece Corazon who is young and fertile. One train of thought concerns the lost statue; the other concerns the romantic life of Corazon.
I can sum it all up by saying the story concerns the theft of a miraculous statue from a church in Rome, and follows the connections between the people who want to conceal its
whereabouts, and those who want to find it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Child of the Twilight - Book Group Questions

• Twilight is the dangerous time when nothing is quite as it seems. In what sense is Sydney a ‘child of the twilight’?

• The theft of the statue represents a serious interference to the order of things. Throughout the novel the idea of ‘interference’ looms large: Sydney’s conception, Diana’s manipulations, Barnaby’s work as a surgeon, to name a few instances. These are worldly interferences. However there is also a more mystical side to interference in the form of prayers offered and prayers answered. When is interference a good thing?

• How significant are our biological origins in shaping our identities?

• In Rosita’s imagination the ‘wellbeing of mankind was being held together with prayer’. Does the novel portray tragedy and disaster as a result of a stitch being dropped in the embroidery of the Divine Heart prayers?

• In her own art, Cora refers to Jan Van Eyck’s Marriage of the Arnolfini but in quite startling ways. What does this say about her and her attitudes to marriage and fertility?

• Do you think that the school staff – in particular the headmistress, Dr Silver reacted appropriately to Cora Mean’s accident in the art room?

• What roles do Furta Sacra (holy theft) and miracles play in the Child of the Twilight? How do these ideas affect the way the characters see our world?

• ‘Fiction is the perfect place to put the facts,’ says Sydney. What are the advantages for her telling her story as fiction rather than fact?

• The novel uses a number of symbols of fertility – in particular the Black Madonna. What does the Black Madonna represent to Sydney? To Diana?

• What do you think Sydney believes was most influential in creating her life – science or her mother’s prayers?

• How reliable is Sydney as narrator?

• Rufus’ father is involved in the MOSE project in Venice. What is the symbolic significance of this project in the lives of Cora and Rufus?

• The characters are described by their attributes – Corazon the Fertile, Diana the Manipulator, Cosimo the Trickster. This gives the narrative a quality of fable or mystery play. How effective is this technique in a novel of today?

• Assisted Reproductive Technology, with its acronym ART provides the impetus or the germ of the novel, and there is a great deal of ‘art’ in the usual sense also. How do these to two interpretations of ‘art’ function together?

• How do you think Roland’s life was shaped by the violent death of his twin sister?

• The old painting of the indigenous Madonna in the church in Tasmania has previously escaped Diana’s notice. What is the significance of her realisation of its existence?
• Both Sydney and Cosimo can never know their genetic origins. In what ways does this fact affect their lives and their outlook?

• Sydney has a cold, practical and unromantic attitude to reproduction, describing herself as being simply genetic material. Do you find this sad?

• What is your opinion of Sydney’s morality with regard to reading Edith’s diary and extracting its secrets?

• Eleena was killed during a cricket match. What are the roles of games and accident and destiny in the novel?

• Why do you think Sydney’s imaginary friends are native Americans?

• The narrative criss-crosses the globe. Even Rosita the Spinster finally makes it from Australia to Europe, and it seems that there have been English Vinnecombes in rural Tasmania. What is the significance of these migrations?

• What is the significance of Barnaby’s work as an eye surgeon?

• What is the significance of Avila’s business ‘Marriages Performed at Sea’?

• A miracle is something that can not be explained except by divine intervention. What is your response to ‘miracles”?
• How important is it to know where your genetic material comes from?

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Woman of Seville

My review of A Woman of Seville by Sallie Muirden in The Age 09/01/2010
Sallie Muirden’s novel Revelations of a Spanish Infanta sprang from the author’s passionate interest in Diego Velaquez, in particular his painting of the ‘Maids of Honour’. Now she returns to the early life of Velazquez, the young apprentice.
A Woman of Spain opens with Diego and his master Pacheco high up in the tower of the cathedral peering down on life through a telescope. The cathedral in Seville was built on the ruins of the Moorish mosque, and the tower of the mosque, the Giralda, became the tower of the cathedral. The Inquisition is still very active, so there is a sense of real danger. The position of young Morisco boys, separated from their parents who have been expelled from the country, is under threat. Pacheco has come here to spy for the Inquisitor. As the men look down, they establish the bustling pageant of 17th century life in the city, taking the reader smoothly from one key character to another. Diego observes that the telescope can be used for good or evil, of which there seem to be equal measure in Seville, a ‘sinful city’. An abiding colour and tone are established for the story in the image of ‘purple figs splitting out of their skins’.
This is historical fiction rendered in poetic image and careful language, and structured with regard for one of the key metaphors of the text, that of balance. This image is embodied in the ‘ladder-man’ who manifests himself to the beautiful Paula, a courtesan, mistress of a bishop, and an artist’s model. In the manner of such writers as Jeannette Winterson, Muirden incorporates the character of the ladder-man into the realistic historical narrative with wit and grace. The ladder-man moves across the rooftops of Seville with ease, taking Paula on excursions with him, instructing her in the necessary art of balance. Because he is mute he communicates in writing. ‘He has the look of a shepherd about him, wearing a rustic shift, his ladder a kind of crook.’ He is then a type of Christ, and from childhood Paula has wished to be personally loved by Christ. The ladder-man’s name, which is not revealed until late in the story, is Aurelio which means ‘golden’, characterizing him as precious, a fact that is clear from the beginning.
The novel’s structure balances and swings, chapter by chapter, between the first person point of view of Diego and that of Paula. One narrative thread concerns Paula’s sitting for the figure of Mary Magdalene with Christ in ‘The Penitent Woman’. The artist is a visiting Flemish painter (fictional) whose name, Harmen Weddesteeg, is derived from the name Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn who was born in Weddesteeg. Hence the great painters Rembrandt and Velasquez are embedded in the fabric of Paula’s story. More or less everyone is seeking love of some kind, the text enlivened by colourful scenes of lust and sensuality. Not for nothing was the split fig introduced in the first pages.
It is not only love they seek, however, but also freedom. And the most poignant of these seekers are the Morisco boys who are captive at the cathedral, valued for their beautiful voices. They want nothing more that to escape and find their way to their exiled beloved families, some of whom have been lost anyway in ‘boat tragedies’. There are disturbing resonances here with the desperation and tragedy of 20th century and present day conflicts, migrations and expulsions.
The history and the fantasy in this novel keep coming up against the deep and terrible cruelty of which the human heart is capable. Perhaps the sad thing is that the true balance Paula seeks with her ethereal ladder-man is located in the realm of fantasy. Velazquez plans a vast canvas ‘a scene of weeping Moors flooding down cathedral hill, their battered baggage strewn along the gutters and a blind Christian beggar caught up in the surge’. In a postscript to the novel the reader learns that Velasquez did execute such a work, but that it was destroyed by a fire a hundred years after it was completed. Thus the narrative plaits and weaves the moving dramas of fantasy and reality as they swing back and forth before the reader’s gaze.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Writing Workshop

On Monday January 11 at the Victorian Writers' Centre I will give a masterclass on writing novels. This will run for just one day, so designing the day's activities is a very interesting exercise in itself. I plan to make the people work quite hard, the main idea being to inspire them to design a detailed presentation for a novel they hope to write. Lots of discussion and Q&A, as well as written exercises. And it will be nice to be able to show them my new book which will be published on the first of February.

Link to info about the workshop
And about the new book