My recent run of absorbing reads has continued over the past week with a couple of crackers. First up was Paul Strathern's The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior (Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia respectively). Anyone who's read my fiction knows my fascination for Renaissance intrigues, but this was the first book devoted to Renaissance Italy I'd read. Unsurprisingly, it resonated with me on many levels. As an exemplar of the charismatic villain, Borgia is hard to beat, his treacheries so extravagant that they would scarcely be credible in fiction. In one memorable episode, he feigned a reconciliation with several enemies, laughing and joking with them as they rode into his stronghold of Sinigaglia; whereupon he immediately ordered them siezed and shortly thereafter garrotted. Unappealing conduct, by any standards, but among contemporary audiences his cunning drew considerable approval. To be Borgia's friend was every bit as dangerous as to be his enemy.
Machiavelli, as a Florentine diplomat, came to know Borgia well. Although their interests were often opposed, Machiavelli came to have an admiration for his statecraft; his portrait of the ideal ruler in The Prince owed a great deal to Borgia.
As a change of pace I turned next to Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had reservations about such an hugely-hyped book. I need not have worried, finishing it in two sittings. Despite the occasional stylistic irritation, the story and the characters were so compelling that it's easy to understand its international appeal. Without descending to spoilers, the "cold case" plot structure is immensely effective, and unlike many such novels it is not marred by a weak ending. I can't wait to read the next two.
I'm now reading AS Byatt's The Children's Book. So far I'm enjoying this too. I admire the unobtrusively skilfull way Byatt manages a large cast without confusing the reader. There won't be many critics drawing a parallel between Byatt and Jack Vance, so this is my claim to originality for today. The distant omniscience of the prose and the dreamily impractical Fabian milieu both have a strong Vancean colour, and the startling puppet show Cinderella will strongly recall Holkerwoyd's puppet theatre in Emphyrio.When we consider that Byatt's novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it's a testament to Vance's skill that his work is not embarrassed by the comparison. (Here, to finish, is an extract from Vance's puppet scene, in which the seven-year old hero Ghyl approaches the puppet-master in the interval).
The intermission was to be ten minutes; Ghyl slipped from his seat, went to examine the stage at closer vantage. To the side hung a canvas flap; Ghyl pulled it open, looked into a side-room, where a small man in brown velvet sat sipping a cup of tea. Ghyl glanced over his shoulder[ …] Ghyl ducked under the canvas, stood hesitantly, prepared to leap back should the man in brown velvet come to seize him, for somehow Ghyl had come to suspect that the puppets were stolen children, whipped until they acted and danced with exact precision: an idea investing the performance with a horrid fascination. But the man in brown velvet, apart from a civil nod, seemed uninterested in capturing Ghyl.
Emboldened, Ghyl came a few steps forward. “Are you the puppet-master?”
“That I am, lad: Holkerwoyd the puppet-master, enjoying a brief respite from my labors.” The man was rather old and gnarled. He did not appear the sort who would torment and whip children.
With added confidence Ghyl—not knowing precisely what he meant—asked: “You’re…real?”
Holkerwoyd did not seem to find the question unreasonable. “I’m as real as necessary, lad, at least to myself. There have been some who have found me, shall we say, evanescent, even evaporative.”
Ghyl nodded dubiously. “That story about Lord Bodbozzle—I’m not so sure I liked it.”
“Eh?” Holkerwoyd blew his cheeks. “And why not?”
“It wasn’t true.”
“Aha then. In what particular?”
Ghyl searched his vocabulary to express what was hardly so much as an intuition. He said, rather lamely, “A man can’t fight ten Garrion. Everyone knows that.”
“Well, well, well,” said Holkerwoyd, talking aside. “The lad has a literal mind.” Back to Ghyl: “But don’t you wish it were so? Is it not our duty to provide gay tales? When you grow up and learn how much you owe the city, you’ll find ample dullness.”
Ghyl nodded wisely. “I expected the puppets to be smaller. And much more beautiful.”
“Ah, the captious one. The dissatisfaction. Well then! When you are larger, they will seem smaller.”
“They are not stolen children?”
Holkerwoyd’s eyebrows puffed like the tail of a startled cat. “So this is your idea? How could I train children to gambols and artless antics, when they are such skeptics, such fastidious critics, such absolutists?”