I mentioned in my post on Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman that I’d been asked to give a lecture in my professional capacity about the Chevalier d’Eon. I’m pleased to say that it went very well and feedback suggests that the Chevalier’s story exerts just as much fascination today as it did back in the 18th century. Since there’s a lot of misleading information about the Chevalier online, and since this remarkable story deserves to be known more widely, I decided to turn my lecture into a blog post. What follows is, therefore, considerably longer than my usual posts but is amply illustrated. The British Museum has almost sixty prints and other documents relating to the Chevalier’s life in London, many of which I reproduce here. So let’s delve in to a tale of espionage, secrecy, swashbuckling and remarkable self-fashioning.
Elan Mastai’s debut novel is a sharp, mind-scrambling book which asks us to imagine how one person could change the course of history. On 11 July 1965 in San Francisco, the visionary scientist Lionel Gottreider switches on a generator that utilises the force of the earth’s rotation to produce a limitless supply of clean and cheap energy, and transforms the world forever. Fifty years later, in 2016, Tom Barren bumbles his way through the sleek utopia that has been made possible by Gottreider’s brilliance, never imagining that he will be responsible for destroying the world as he knows it.
In the wake of My Grandmother sends her Regards and Apologises, I was keen to read more of Frederik Backman’s gently ironic stories. Luckily, my library also had Britt-Marie Was Here in stock. This takes place after My Grandmother and so, if you’ve read that, you’ll understand more of the backstory here. However, Britt-Marie also serves very easily as a standalone tale, a life-affirming story of an anxious, touchy middle-aged woman learning that she still has something to offer the world – and herself.
Johannes Urzidil was one of the most celebrated Czech writers of the 20th century. Although he spent his last twenty years as an emigre in the United States, he never made the switch to writing in English. His works continued to be published in Europe in German (one of his two mother tongues) and his works were infused with the sensibility of his homeland. Despite his importance in European literature, his works have only rarely been translated into English. Puskin Press have rectified this omission with a collection of Urzidil’s short stories, none of which have formerly been published in English, and translated now by David Burnett. Lively, moving and gently absurd, these stories focus on outsiders, people whose encounters with ordinary life and emotions leave them thwarted and unmasked as precisely the strange creatures that they are.
Sometimes you just have to binge-watch a series and I’ve been completely captivated by Westworld, which I discovered on Amazon a couple of weeks ago. For those who haven’t yet come across this phenomenon, it’s a TV series developed from a 1973 film written by Michael Crichton, who seems to have a bit of a thing about immersive theme parks that go wrong (remember his modest little film about dinosaurs?). Westworld presents us with a vast, sprawling park in which visitors can play out their Wild West fantasies of murder, adventure and sexual domination, interacting with an astonishingly advanced group of ‘hosts’, or robots programmed with particular characters and storylines. It’s epic, ambitious and astonishingly well-made, with a fantastic cast. A real must-see.
Everyone knows that circuses are magical places, but they can be dangerous too, subversive, circumventing the rules of society, propriety and even reality. One day, young Andy loses himself in the hall of mirrors in a carnival sideshow. When he emerges some hours later, he both is and is not himself: that is to say, his body is unchanged, but the thing inside him is no longer Andy; or, at least, not the boy he was before. That old Andy, or his essence, is trapped within the speckled glass of the mirror-maze, snatched or changed, call it what you will, and ready to be drawn out into the inner life of this fantastical place. Part fable, part fantasy, part horror-story, this novel is rooted in a strong concept but preserves its enigma too fiercely, to the point that the reader never quite comes to engage emotionally with its character or narrative.
In 1576, when Tahmasb Shah of the Safavid dynasty dies unexpectedly, there is no designated heir to the Iranian throne. Sensing the chance to consolidate their power, factions within the ruling class weigh up the contenders. Pari Khan Khanoom has all the qualities of a brilliant Shah – intelligence, political acuity, generosity and compassion – but one major flaw negates all the rest: she is a woman. And yet she is determined to play a role in the struggle for the succession. As Tahmasb’s beloved daughter and most trusted adviser, she has helped to direct the empire’s policy for fourteen years and resolves to carve out a place for herself under the new Shah. But which of her brothers will succeed in claiming the crown? Based on the true story of Tahmasb’s ambitious, fratricidal sons, Amirrezvani’s novel turns the spotlight on their remarkable sister, as remembered by her loyal vizier, the eunuch Javaher.
A Novel of Machiavelli and the Borgias
This is the long-awaited sequel to Sarah Dunant’s wonderful Blood and Beauty, which takes up the story of the Borgias once again in the final years of their dominance in Italy. At the beginning of 1502, it seems that nothing can stand in the way of the family’s influence, which creeps its way across Italy, subduing its rivals with a blend of charm and violence. Charm comes courtesy of Pope Alexander VI’s lovely daughter Lucrezia, who is making her way cross-country to be married to her third husband, Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara, and using her journey as a way to captivate the Papal States with her elegance, grace and sweetness. Violence, predictably, sits in the hands of her dangerous brother Cesare who prowls around the borders of their state, ears pricked for dissent or weakness. And, while this remarkable family strengthens their grip on Italy, a young diplomat in the Florentine Second Chancery follows their progress with quiet admiration.
A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade
When I reviewed The Chevalier back in June last year, I was interested in the life of the Chevalier d’Eon but didn’t know much beyond what I’d read on Wikipedia. Since then, life has played one of its serendipitous little jokes on me. I was recently asked to give a lecture on the Chevalier in my professional capacity, which means that I’ve spent the last month poring over books written both by and about him. My experience has emphasised exactly how inaccurate The Chevalier is (horribly!), but has also revealed the full complexity of this utterly fascinating life. And, if you want to get the facts, this book is the place to start.
I had high expectations for Colm Tóibín’s new novel. His Testament of Mary was so powerful, so raw in its evocation of a mother’s grief, that I thought his treatment of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon would be equally striking. And the opening line seemed to bear that promise out: ‘I have been acquainted,’ muses Clytemnestra, ‘with the smell of death’. Unfortunately, however, the book has a strangely detached quality, as if all the emotion of this shocking story has been cauterised out of the characters.