Tag Archives: 16th century

Mona Lisa: Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1937)

Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s playful novella Mona Lisa from Pushkin Press capitalizes on the mystery of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting by focusing on the facts and then cleverly blurring the details. The result is a delightful little tale centered on the alluring Mona Lisa smile, obsession, and the human desire to build a narrative around any mystery.

Mona Lisa

It’s the dawn of the 16th century, and we’re in the middle of the Second Italian War. King Louis XII sends one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille to Milan where he is supposed to raise an army, go to Naples and offer relief to the French governors who are fighting the Spanish.  There’s a big speech, full of pompous grandiosity from King Louis XII which boils down to the fact that the only thing Louis de la Trémoille is getting from the king is his blessing. The king stares “for a while into the indeterminate middle distance past the Marshal with the vacant expression of one who at all costs refuses to talk of money.” The Marshal is supposed to finance the campaign somehow:

“I trust that you will also take the opportunity of recouping the cost of this campaign. Be sure therefore that you levy from the territories for whose sake we are making such sacrifices all necessary and fitting reparations, be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things. For this is my express wish and command. And so,” concluded the King, “goodbye and may god go with you!”

So Trémoille leaves for Italy with just a “few inconsequential counts and minor noblemen.” The First Italian War was a very lucrative affair, but the Second Italian War isn’t a booty-filled operation, and poor Trémoille  “was barely able to send to Paris anything of note.” He has to “content himself with fleecing the smaller towns” and decided to “concentrate on the purchase of objects of art.” This is how Da Vinci enters the picture.

Da Vinci is portrayed as a distracted genius, far more sophisticated and intelligent than Trémoille. While trying to catch a fly inside Da Vinci’s workshop, one of Trémoille’s entourage, a certain Monsieur de Bougainville, discovers the painting we know as the Mona Lisa. He falls in love with the woman depicted in the portrait and is determined to track her down….

The book plays into the mythology that’s grown around the painting, and at the same time, the narrative creates mystery and mythology of its own. Bougainville, dangerously obsessed and determined to discover the identity of the woman known as La Gioconda, takes Leonardo da Vinci’s words and builds a whole story around the woman who posed for the portrait. Da Vinci is frustratingly vague about his model:

“Oh,” Leonardo said, raising his eyebrows, “I knew her only fleetingly, and the picture of the woman before you is neither her nor anyone else. The truth us, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves.”

This is a very light, bubbly read, and although there are some very serious consequences to Bougainville’s obsession, the story never deviates from its comic stance. De Vinci seems mystified by the French soldiers, their desire for booty, and Bougainville’s determination to create a palatable narrative regarding the model for his painting. The novella is written in such a way that readers connect with the rather bemused and distracted Da Vinci. Why is this Frenchman so determined to ‘save’ the woman who may or who may not have been the model for painting? After all, according to Da Vinci, the portrait is of an idealized woman. What is all this fuss about?

Review copy

Translated by Ignat Avsey


Filed under Fiction, Lernet-Holenia Alexander

The Hated Son by Balzac

Given the sheer volume of Balzac’s work, it stands to reason that there’s a variance in quality. I discovered the same sort of swing in quality in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, so I shouldn’t be too surprised to be disappointed in Balzac’s novella The Hated Son which was far too sentimental for my tastes. And that’s not mentioning the drama which drags this story into soap opera territory. How can I forget lines like this:

Die, then, both of you!” he cried. “You, vile abortion, the proof of my shame–and you,” he said to Gabrielle, “miserable strumpet with the viper tongue, who has poisoned my house.”

Balzac’s story is built around an interesting idea–the suspicion of illegitimacy, which is still an issue these days, but back in 1591 when the eldest son was supposed to inherit the castle, title and lands, legitimacy was central to the continuance of the so-called ‘great line.’ And this brings me to Comte d’Herouville and his poor little wife Jeanne, who when the story begins, goes into labour when her pregnancy is only of 7 months duration. Perhaps if this were a love match, there would be no problem, or just a few scurrilous rumours that could do no damage, but the Comte knew that Jeanne loved another when the marriage was arranged, and then the Comte isn’t a nice man:

Implacable as the war then going on between the Church and Calvinism, the Count’s forehead was threatening even while he slept. Many furrows, produced by the emotions of a warrior life, gave it a vague resemblance to the vermiculated stone which we see in the buildings of that period; his hair, like the whitish lichen of old oaks, gray before its time, surrounded without grace a cruel brow, where religious intolerance showed its passionate brutality. The shape of the aquiline nose, which resembled the beak of a bird of prey, the black and crinkled lids of the yellow eyes, the prominent bones of a hollow face, the rigidity of the wrinkles, the disdain expressed in the lower lip, were all expressive of ambition, despotism, and power, the more to be feared because the narrowness of the skull betrayed an almost total absence of intelligence, and a mere brute courage devoid of generosity. The face was horribly disfigured by a large transversal scar which had the appearance of a second mouth on the right cheek.

Balzac is treading into phrenology territory in his description of the Comte, and one of the other tidbits we pick up about the Comte is that on top of everything else, he’s none too clean.

The fifty-year-old Comte at one point loved a woman known as La Belle Romaine (I couldn’t stop thinking of lettuce), but we are told about his “successes in gallantry” (translation: score): “he owed them to the terror inspired by his cruelty.” A loaded statement. How can gallantry and cruelty go in the same sentence when discussing the Comte’s success in love? I’m guessing that the Comte was a brute and took what he wanted, and for the purposes of the story, that includes Jeanne who is coerced into marriage by the Comte’s promise to save Jeanne’s lover, a Huguenot if she agrees to wed the Comte.  And so in this manner, Jeanne, one of richest heiresses in France became the bride of a man she loathes.

So the marriage begins badly and only becomes worse. A terrified Jeanne, who has already received a warning from her husband that she’d better not give birth before the 9-month mark, gives birth to a puny male child 7 months after her wedding day. A “bonesetter” named Beauvouloir is called to the Comtesse’s bedchamber. He’s a strange character–part opportunist, not exactly what you would call a ‘good’ man by  any means and yet Balzac calls him “the least bad man in Normandy” which doesn’t say a lot for the local population.

The baby’s name is Etienne, and the rest of the story concerns his fate. To add a plot twist, Beauvouloir is in love with Gertrude, the bastard child of the Comte d’Herouville and his abandoned mistress La Belle Romaine. Gertrude grew up in a convent and it’s there that Beauvouloir met her and fell in love. This coincidence eventually constructs the story’s central dilemma.

Balzac’s great observations on human nature seem to be missing here, and instead the unsubtle story relies on drama and hysterics. With victimhood branded on her forehead, Jeanne isn’t a particularly interesting character. This would have been a lot more interesting story if she’d possessed some guile and was capable of manipulating the Comte on some level, but the Comte and his wife, are unfortunately, created in bold shades of black and white. The most curious character here is Beauvouloir, and yet Balzac doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with this man. There are hints of devious self-serving decisions, and yet Balzac leaves this largely unexplored.

Translated by Katherine Wormeley


Filed under Balzac, Fiction