Some years ago, I read and enjoyed Gore Vidal’s Julian, which tells the story of the young pagan who becomes Emperor in a post-Constantine, Christian world. Since then, I’ve been keen to try more of his historical fiction and this book was the first to come into my hands. I had high hopes for it, as I’ve always been fascinated by Richard the Lionheart – probably due to my childhood fondness for Robin Hood stories: Richard’s own record as an indifferent King of England certainly doesn’t do him any favours. Vidal focuses on a particular episode from Richard’s life: the King’s famous capture in Austria on his return from the Crusades, and the faithful (and probably fictional) quest of Richard’s troubadour Blondel, who sets out to find his master’s prison, armed only with his viol, his voice and a good deal of faith.
There isn’t really any more to say about the plot, which is minimal. We follow Blondel as he wanders through Austria’s meadows, villages, mountains and valleys, first with Richard and then without him. Everything happens in a strangely abstracted fashion, as if in a dream. This is a quest is for self-knowledge and self-definition as much as for Richard, who’s essentially a MacGuffin allowing Blondel to embark on philosophical digressions about loneliness and the nature of love. The whole thing takes place in territory halfway between the rational world of true history and the myths of folk-tales. Blondel encounters a dragon, a vampiric countess and an unexpectedly erudite giant, each of whom has a certain degree of fantasy about them; but he also meets werewolves who, while vicious, but are not the shape-changers of folklore. Sometimes rationalised and sometimes not, the story presents a strange brew of Mitteleuropean popular belief and apparently can’t quite decide what it wants us to do with it.
I was frequently reminded of Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, although I found that far more enjoyable as it’s essentially a glorious romp across the boundaries of possibility. Where the two books differ most is in their central characters. Baudolino is an appealing, open-hearted storyteller, while Blondel is peculiarly self-contained. His relationship with Richard is oddly muted. On the one hand, Blondel spends a good deal of time thinking about Richard’s eyes, but on the other he doesn’t seem particularly emotionally engaged by his king. I noted that he also spends a lot of time thinking about the various women he has known during the course of his life, as if Vidal is trying to preempt any concerns about the nature of the attachment between troubadour and king (the novel was first published in 1949). Unfortunately, though, the book ends up simply feeling stifled of any emotion at all, even towards the end when Blondel meets the young peasant Karl. What did Vidal mean us to understand from this? What can we understand from it now? And there, for me, is the rub.
I haven’t done enough reading about Vidal to know whether his work should be read in a particular way, or whether he deliberately set out to emphasise certain themes or styles. It seems that there should be something I’m missing, because the book felt ‘arranged’ in a way suggesting a desire for a specific stylistic effect. What struck me most, however, was how hard I had to work to care about it, quite different from my experience with Julian. Although it’s a slim volume at just over 200 pages, it seems to lose its way and on several occasions I had the impression that Vidal didn’t really care about the purpose of Blondel’s quest so much as his wanderings on the way. Indeed (spoilers ahead), the moment of the reunion between king and troubadour is so brief that it’s positively underwhelming. The story clearly isn’t about what it claims to be about. But what is it about? I’m baffled. Perhaps one of you clever people has a better idea.
Do feel free to give this a go if you’re a fan of Vidal or particularly interested in Richard the Lionheart, but it felt like hard work for little return. Please, of course, do weigh in in the comments if I’ve missed the point of its shimmering brilliance, and I’ll be grateful to you for explaining what I’ve overlooked. My next Vidal novel will be Creation, which should be more fun: it has a promisingly hefty appearance and deals with Ancient Persia in the 5th century BC, so obviously I’m looking forward to that. But I do also have another novel about Blondel somewhere on my shelves: Norah Lofts’s The Lute Player. Based on what I’ve read by Lofts so far, I have high expectations. While on the subject of Blondel, I remember that he’s also mentioned briefly in Lady of the Forest, vis-a-vis gossip about Richard’s sexual preferences. But surely such a romantic figure deserves more of a fictional presence than that? Are other novels about him floating around?