Friday, 19 October 2018

The Bellini Madonna - Elizabeth Lowry

*Updated Post

A year ago Elizabeth Lowry’s second novel, Dark Water, was published to critical acclaim and long listed for two awards. The book still remains for me a powerful reminder that true literature is not dead but alive, well and gently pulsing as more and more people dive into the depths of this book and immerse themselves in its wonderful prose and themes.

10 years prior to that Elizabeth’s debut novel was published. With a fine art bias and another flawed narrator it possesses some similar themes to Dark Water. After I finished Dark Water I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Reading it was every bit as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be. It didn’t read like a ten year old dated tome, rather, like a fine wine, it had matured to perfection. 

Thanks to the foresight and literary acumen of those good folk at riverrun this novel, The Bellini Madonna, is republished today. I racked my brains to recall a similar scenario and I couldn’t. It made me ponder the significance of such an event and what it might mean to an author. So I put some questions to Elizabeth concerning the nature of republication and her feelings now about the book. 

1. The Bellini Madonna was first published in 2008. riverrun are republishing which seems to me to be an astute move given the critical success of Dark Water. But it’s by no means commonplace. To be republished over ten years later is something of an accolade I would think? So, many congratulations! But how does the appearance of a new edition feel compared to the feeling you had when the book was first published, especially as it was your debut novel?

I’m delighted and immensely grateful to see the book reborn in such a handsome new edition (the cover design is by Helen Crawford-White of, who also did the paperback for Dark Water) but a little embarrassed, too, to tell the truth, as I feel The Bellini Madonna reads very much like what it is – a first novel. Back then of course I thought it was a work of genius. Now I’m not so sure. 

2. I read The Bellini Madonna after I read Dark Water. I was amazed at the ten year gap because it felt very fresh and vibrant. But did you have to do any rewriting or rethinking for the 'new' edition? And how involved were you in the republication process, if at all? 

I made just one change to the reissued text. After the novel was first published someone pointed out that there was a horticultural howler in the final paragraph. I’d written, ‘At dusk the foxgloves close their sleepy throats’, but apparently foxgloves are night-blooming flowers, so this now reads ‘At dusk the foxgloves open their sleepy throats’. A good example of the pitfalls of writing about things of which you know nothing.

3. Although The Bellini Madonna is very different from Dark Water I thought there were recurrent themes certainly in terms of identity and personality. Given the ten year gap between the novels I would guess such themes continue to absorb you? Was the experience of writing Dark Water a natural progression from writing The Bellini Madonna as you continue to delve into these ideas? And of course I'm wondering if your next book will continue to explore similar themes?

Life is a sense-making business and we all have personal themes which we revisit. Maybe people who write stories do this more consciously than most. I seem to go back to questions of identity, as you say; of power and conformity, journeys, and the puzzle of how words (or representations of things) relate to truth. The process of writing is just one of teasing out a slowly clarifying strand of thought and if we’re lucky and work hard at it, the hope is that we’ll eventually look back and see all those beads threaded on one continuous string.

4. I remember you telling me once that as a writer you have to let a book 'go'. And I imagine that's possible to do particularly as you become consumed by the next book you write. But with a republication, over ten years later, do old thoughts resurface and redefine your feelings for the book to draw it back to you?

They don’t in my case. It really is a question of following the thread to the next bead. 

5. There have been a number of art themed novels recently. I'm thinking of Barbara Bourland's Fake Like Me, Tom Rachman’s The Italian Painter, Maria Hummel’s Still Lives, Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory with its PRB references and Paul Tudor Owen's The Weighing of the Heart'. It seems an almost perfect time to republish! Was this intentional? Or is this one of life's delightful synchronicities, strange forces at work that decided the time was right?!

Strange forces at work, definitely.

6. And now, it's time for a horrible question for which I apologise… but only a bit! If you were writing The Bellini Madonna now is there anything you would do differently? 

I’d probably do the whole thing differently. But the novel was written by who I was then, with the tools I had available to me at the time. As a writer you’re simply trying to improve, and to make the next book a little better than the last.

I’d like to thank Elizabeth, busy at work on her third novel, for taking the time to answer these questions with her usual modesty and honesty. 


My original thoughts on reading the novel last year.

I know that riverrun books intend to reissue this first novel from Elizabeth Lowry in the wake of the success of Dark Water. I presumptuously asked their senior publicist if I could go to the top of the list for a proof copy when they became available. Reader, I couldn’t wait! So I bought a copy. And I was nervous. I have placed Ms. Lowry on a literary pedestal because I am simply bewitched by her writing and I simply couldn’t have borne it if the novel hadn’t satisfied me even half as much as Dark Water. Hard to believe that this novel is ten years old but, like the paint on some of the fine art works that feature in the story, the words remain fresh and vibrant as if the ink was still wet on the page.And I apologise now if this turns into more of an essay than a review but, hey, it’s my damn blog and I’ll do what I want!

Inevitable, because in some ways it’s subliminal, but as a reader I think you do forge comparisons between a writer’s works. And whilst Dark Water and The Bellini Madonna appear to be very different books I found some recurring themes. But I will confess that I had read some reviews of this book immediately after I read Dark Water because I was desperate to find out more about this incredible novelist and I had hoped to find an extensive body of previous work that I could devour! I suppose that within the context of how many books I have waiting to be read and reviewed it is fortunate that Ms. Lowry has only produced this one, previous novel! Her writing is substantial, this is no frivolous beach read. You read the book and let it read you too. From what I researched I knew that comparisons had been offered with Nabokov, Henry James and Donna Tartt. That’s not a road I’m keen to travel down here other than to conjecture how much such lofty comparisons help or hinder an author. It must be complimentary but does that place a writer under pressure for subsequent work? And doesn’t the writing of any reader reflect their influences in some way? For me, anyway, she has a voice and style all of her own. 

I apologise in advance if I am offering spoilers. It isn’t something I routinely do. In my defence this book is ten years old and many will have read it. The Bellini Madonna is a complex novel. On the surface it is a mystery story concerning one, rather unpleasant, middle aged man’s search for an elusive work of art. Dismissed from his position for sexual transgressions Thomas Joseph Lynch becomes obsessed with his search for a missing painting, an hitherto undiscovered painting by Bellini. A search that takes him to Italy and to an old English house, Mawle, inhabited by Anna and a child, Vicky.  But it’s not a ‘big house’ story and it’s not a conventional mystery story. Like Dark Water it’s a search. But a search that goes beyond the material. The art theme is a sustained metaphor that guides us toward considerations of perception;  ourselves and everything around us, beauty, love, and that all consuming, impenetrable business of being a human!!  If I may quote - ‘This is a world, I now believe, of shifting surfaces, behind which the human heart staggers about like a blind thing, knocking itself senseless.’ And - ‘If I have learned nothing else from all of this, it is that our intentions are not painted in lasting pigments, and that no instance of human suffering is unique.’ And I am reminded of Hiram Carver from Dark Water, If we don’t believe in the suffering of others, how can we believe in our own?’

Central to the narrative is the discovery in the old house, Mawle, of a diary that Thomas Lynch believes will guide him to the missing Bellini Madonna. The diary of James Roper last known owner of the picture.  But let us consider Thomas Lynch. And whilst for the majority of the novel the reader is almost invited to despise him for, not least, his lascivious intent towards Anna, the redemption comes as a shock toward the end of the book when we realise that Lynch is doing the unthinkable and acknowledging his flaws and dysfunctions. ‘I stood at the edge of myself, looking into the cloven heart, not of Thomas Joseph Lynch, connoisseur and aesthete, but of a repulsive stranger. ….. I was a selfish, badly ageing man….’. But he’s a complicated man and as his history unfolds alongside the diary entries  of James Roper we get the sense of history repeating itself, it’s as if Roper and Lynch are the same person. In the notes he makes whilst reading the diary at one point he refers to Roper as ‘I’ shocking himself even  ‘did I really write I? `It’s as if in both cases ultimately predator becomes victim. It’s as if the two men’s stories unfold in parallel allowing Lynch to head towards his enlightenment. And if Dorian Gray has a deteriorating portrait in his attic James Roper’s portrait seems to have changed when Lynch takes another look in the latter stages of the book as if he were looking at a mirror and seeing the real person before him. And once done he seems to reject art. He ponders whether his encounter with emotion has destroyed his sense of the aesthetic. 

I saw a pattern - Lynch’s relations with his mother who quotes Browning and wears attar of roses, dying when he was eighteen. He seeks an elusive picture of a Madonna, only a Madonna without Jesus, without her son, a mother without a son, he, a son without a mother. And Roper, owning the Madonna painting, time spent in the company of Browning, designing a rose garden for his wife who has a son and that son becomes a son without a mother. It’s all so skilfully woven together. Is Lynch’s search for the Madonna a subconscious search for his own mother? His search for the only real love he ever knew? Is art a substitute for real life? But we are told, ‘Art records only the accidents of life never the process.’

If you revere Robert Browning prepare yourself because Ms. Lowry’s depiction of him here is not always complimentary, although it is Lynch’s opinion we are hearing ‘ a sly boots practised in ambiguous  flatteries.’ , ’socially promiscuous prick’ had me chuckling because I have never thought of Browning that way. It gets worse! ‘Language! What piss! A book is just a book. A flower is just a flower. I am so weary of words.’ I loved it! The book is also wickedly funny elsewhere and on several occasions I was laughing out loud! I hope I was meant to! - ‘Indeed Edie. But few derive as much comfort from a cornice as you do.’ 

Cementing it all together is the sublime prose of Elizabeth Lowry. She is a sorceress of words and the spell she weaves has me reading huge chunks aloud for the immense pleasure of hearing the words and ideas resonate around me. It’s elegant, rich language. And she is so quotable! It’s a long while since I stopped so often whilst reading a book to marvel at the aphorisms twinkling throughout the pages of this story. These for example.

‘It’s the historian’s job to dream something real into being.’

‘The elegiac is constantly being scuppered by the absurd.’

‘Love doesn’t have to be perfect to be real you know.’

i’m seriously erring on the side of fangirl here so I’ll try and level things up with a touch of objectivity. For there were times when I felt confused between times frames and locations. But then again I wonder whether the uneven pacing mirrored the narrator’s uneven state of mind?

Some novelists tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. They tell them very well. We read them, enjoy them, revere them. Tell our friends about them. But some novelists do more. They go beyond ‘mere’ story telling and offer insights and philosophies, demand their reader think and ponder the metaphysical. When I reviewed Dark Water I suggested that it wasn’t just a book, it was literature. I’ll say the same here……

And from the sublime to the absurdly ridiculous I found myself thinking of that sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo’ and Officer Crabtree finding his ‘bust’ clue about The Fallen Madonna with the ’Bog Beebies’ !! And if you haven’t the faintest idea what I’m talking about, it is maybe because I am old and you are not!

And now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to plan a trip the National Gallery to see some Bellinis………

(And I did go to that wonderful exhibition!)

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