by Rupert Thomson.
Granta, 312 pp., £14.99, March 2013, 978 1 84708 163 6
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Where Jim Crace’s Harvest refused all the conventions of the historical novel, Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy seems to run eagerly towards them, and yet the effect once again is of a genre being unpicked and rewoven.* A superabundance of signposts, it turns out, can be as disorienting as their absolute absence.

Exposition of period and person is almost caricaturally lucid in Secrecy, with ‘The year was 1701’ the book’s second sentence, and the narrator (of what is in fact a frame rather than the story proper) addressing herself helpfully on the second page: ‘at least I’d lived. Fifty-six, though … And the plain, shapeless robes of an abbess – me, Marguerite-Louise of Orléans! Who would have thought it?’ The rather novelettish flavour disappears as the narrative takes hold. A mysterious visitor tells this unusual Reverend Mother his life story, and is similarly scrupulous about chronology (‘Late afternoon. April the eighteenth, 1691’). There’s a lot of emphasis on exactness: ‘I remembered a bright spring morning in 1675,’ for instance, or ‘a letter of invitation from Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany’ – the numeration of the duke seems particularly unnatural since he still held the title in 1701. This is just the sort of over-eleboration that arouses suspicion in statements to the police.

The visitor is Gaetano Zummo, artificer of morbid tableaux in wax, a real person, originally from Sicily, who lived from 1656 to 1701 (and so is justifiably unwell-seeming when he appears at the beginning of the book). The museum of La Specola in Florence is proud possessor of a group of Zummo’s teatrini, and it’s his time in the city that is Thomson’s subject in Secrecy.

There are advantages to be gained, when writing about a historical figure, from changing the name (if nothing else), cutting the direct link to biography so as to gain imaginative space, in the form of freedom for readers as well as for the writer. That was Peter Ackroyd’s procedure in Hawksmoor (1985), with the baroque architect made over as Nicholas Dyer and a 20th-century policeman somehow assuming the discarded name. Ackroyd has also represented historical figures such as Wilde and Chatterton directly, as well as revisiting the name-substitution tactic at least once. Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Obermann in The Fall of Troy (2006) is not (Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius) Schliemann, but it’s Schliemann that he’s not – Schliemann and no one else. That’s enough to create a little cordon of protected space round the book. A.S. Byatt models characters less directly, avoiding actual portraiture of historical individuals. Olive Wellwood in The Children’s Book (2009) is a transformation of E. Nesbit that includes plenty of other material, the personage melted down and recast, richly alloyed.

Byatt and Ackroyd began making this kind of formal decision before the arrival of the internet, but instant access to information strengthens the case for such defensive strategies. It takes only a mouse-moment to move from ignorance to an unrooted expertise. There’s a lesser allocation of breathing space to projects that both plunder the real and depart from it. It becomes all too easy to collapse a fictional narrative into a piece of failed history, turning it into a travesty of something it never claimed to be. Thomson mentions La Specola and a number of other institutions in his acknowledgments but hasn’t killed his book with too much conscientious research, as happened with Romola, another venture into Florentine history.

The historical Zummo was born into a noble family, according to some sources (noble need not, of course, mean prosperous), though there’s also a suggestion that his mother was a slave. He studied for the priesthood and is referred to as an abbot (abate). In the novel his background is modest, though some mystery surrounds his parentage, and any attunement to religion has been filtered out. The effect is to make him not just self-taught – as he was known to be – but self-made, and to turn him into an unconsoled scrutiniser of mortality, a sort of outsider artist. It’s true that one of his teatrini depicting the effects of syphilis is mentioned with admiring disgust in Sade’s Juliette, though when Thomson’s Zummo refers to ‘my plague pieces’ there’s a hint of the Young British Artist in the slickness of the phrase.

Zummo’s unusually unflinching and anatomically accurate three-dimensional work could be placed just as easily, though less romantically, in the tradition of the vanitas, a genre with a long history and conventional religious meaning but one that found particularly intense expression in the era of baroque. That’s hardly relevant, though, since this isn’t art history any more than it is biography. The artist’s life and his work are the pegs chosen by the novelist on which to hang a picture of his own. What kind of picture?

In Thomson’s version of events, Cosimo commissions Zummo to make him an idealised naked female figure of wax. He wants something extraordinary but doesn’t specify any details (in The Great British Bake-Off this would be a Showstopper Challenge). Though the subject is more wholesome than the work that made his name, Zummo detects a subtle perversity in the grand duke’s interest, and decides to inscribe his own commentary in the finished sculpture in some hidden way. There’s some overlap of theme here with Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract, set in 1694, the year before Zummo left Florence. Perhaps Zummo is another overconfident artist out of his depth in a murderous high society riddled with secrets.

Secrecy’s portrait of Florence is managed by way of glints and touches rather than any sort of panorama. Even a distant view of the city, actually an exquisite non-glimpse, has the feeling of a miniaturised model: ‘Since we were high up, I would have expected to see Florence in the distance – the thin, oddly knuckled tower of the Signoria, or Santa Maria del Fiore’s liver-coloured dome – but the day had grown smokier, and all the hollows and rumples in the land were hazy, veiled in mist.’ This toy-like quality of the past is hard to get away from. The past seems a toy because it can be played with, modelled and mentally revolved. Besides, there were fewer people then, and everything was smaller, everything but the churches. Historical shrinkage is something that films routinely contradict with exaggerations of scale (witness the preposterous battle scene early in Gladiator), but literature has other options to explore. The troubling pleasures of hindsight can’t be filtered out altogether, only played up or played down.

There are dabs of local colour in Secrecy, even an occasional touch of the guidebook: ‘In front of him was a plate of pig’s-blood fritters known as roventini,’ say, or ‘I ordered wine. She didn’t have any wine, she said with a sour face. All she had was acquerello, a drink made from water and the dregs of crushed grapes.’ Presumably it isn’t the innkeeper providing the footnote about acquerello, which is there for the reader, or possibly for the benefit of Marguerite-Louise of Orléans, the book’s internal audience, since as a cousin of Louis Quatorze she would hardly have been exposed to such rotgut (or to pig’s-blood fritters). She would have known the historical background, though, passed on for our instruction by obliging conversationalists: ‘Ever since Savonarola had made an enemy of the Medici family, he went on, the Dominican order had been out of favour in Florence’ or ‘It was three years since Ferdinando’s wedding to Violante, the Bavarian princess, he told me.’

Ventriloquising the language of the past has become standard novelistic practice, with Byatt and Ackroyd showing particular mastery. Yet a consistent linguistic surface doesn’t make the contradictions go away, just serves to mask them. You could say that pastiche is a sort of bad faith. By this argument, pastiche soothes its consumers by providing new wine in old bottles when it’s more honest to make a virtue of inauthenticity, abandon the heritage packaging and serve up the past as if from a supermarket wine-box, a plump silvered bladder in a house of cardboard.

It’s possible to combine both approaches. Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe (1994), for example, takes its subject seriously (she was a homespun mystic, to put it politely, who in the 1430s wrote the first autobiography in English), making recurrent efforts to re-create her world: ‘She sat with clerks, priests and squires, and ate chicken broth thickened with pounded almonds and flavoured with cloves, coriander and thyme.’ It also rubs her up the wrong way by inserting episodes about the narrator’s difficulties with a lover of higher social class and economic status, in cheeky parallel with Margery’s obsession for Christ, whom she doesn’t so much worship as stalk through the courts of Heaven: ‘I’m Margery following a god through a rainy city. The rapture is mine, mine the attempt to talk herself into existence.’

There’s no postmodernism in Secrecy, and no attempt at pastiche – but then what would an approximation in English to a 17th-century Italian style be like? Not close to Congreve or Galileo. In his dialogue, where some sort of period feel is customary, even in downmarket versions of the historical novel (which this certainly is not), Thomson is comfortable with anachronisms such as ‘homosexual’, and breezy formulas like ‘Walk with me’ or ‘Thank you for the lift.’ Was any sort of ‘switching off’ possible before the invention of electric light? What would it have meant to say ‘I flashed forwards’ two centuries before the invention of film?

Secrecy has a large cast list and plenty of plot, with further mysteries of parentage, court politics and a furtive romance, though most romance had to be furtive, with a code of morals fiercely enforced by the Office of Public Decency. There’s even a secret passage, though it’s used in rather less dramatic circumstances than thriller plotting would dictate. The Draughtsman’s Contract generated considerable tension of an oppressive, formalised sort, but Greenaway took advantage of his restricted time scheme. Gaetano Zummo spent five years in Florence, and even when events are moving to some sort of crisis the book’s pace is leisurely, with relaxed markers of time (‘November became December,’ ‘I didn’t hear from Faustina until the third week of January,’ ‘towards the end of February, I went to visit Cuif’) slowing the narrative down.

There are strong and urgent details but also odd blanks, with the net effect being a take-it-or-leave-it approach to plausibility. One wonderful touch is the description of a letter Zummo receives: ‘I saw that it was discoloured – yellow in some places, brown in others – and that there were several diagonal slashes in the paper, all signs that it had been heated and then fumigated as a precaution against the spreading of disease.’ It’s the difficulty of communication that is the hardest thing to keep in mind about the past. No wonder that Zummo’s lover, mindful of the dangers of their relationship, sends messages of a cryptic kind: ‘In the middle of March I received a small packet filled with pomegranate seeds, her way of signalling that she was back.’ Another time she leaves him a package of cut hair, to indicate that she is living in disguise as a boy. Yet some of the time the two of them seem to communicate as easily as teenagers with mobile phones: ‘We arranged to meet on a Sunday outside the Porta al Prato.’ Presumably they exchange letters (‘I sat at my desk and wrote to Faustina, asking her to meet me by the column in the Mercato Vecchio, as usual’) but whom they can trust to deliver them isn’t explained. The machinery of communication is taken for granted, so we can flash forwards to ‘I came as soon as I could … Have you been waiting long?’

To point out the faint unreality of a historical novel seems pretty much to dispose of it, but there is more than one way to be convinced by a piece of writing and Secrecy fits the description of literature proposed by Witold Gombrowicz in A Kind of Testament. It wriggles away like an eel. ‘What would become of the eel if you caught it? You’d eat it. Literature and the eel live as long as they succeed in wriggling away.’ What happens in the book is dreamlike but visualised with great precision.

Zummo recounts a number of his dreams, and they are hardly less cogent than his waking life. Everything in them is consistent, nothing impossible. It’s just that the events didn’t happen, like this account of being poisoned:

He took out a glass vial and removed the stopper. I asked him how much he had been paid. Twenty-five scudi? Fifty? Once again, he ignored me. Stooping over me, he cradled my head and held a spoon to my lips. His fingers smelled of sex, as if he had been pleasuring a woman. That was a bit much, I thought. Surely he could have waited until afterwards. All the same, I drank the poison down. And, almost straight away, a vicious cramp, as though I had swallowed a hand that was twisting my insides.

The dream carries on through the moment of death, which is registered as ‘a kind of click. A soft jolt. Like being in a carriage when it runs over a rotten branch.’ The lifelike dream, which ought to undermine the dreamlike life, somehow keeps it in balance.

None of this would work if the figurative language wasn’t so resourceful, though never too lush. Sometimes the effects are full-on Gothic (‘My horse’s eyes were rolling like balls in a bucket’), but Thomson likes to give precedence to a subtler frisson: ‘Somewhere out there in the dark was a figure on horseback, a huge, hunched figure with a gash for a mouth, the black flames of his cloak flickering behind him, and I felt the urgency of the situation, and the hopelessness, and a panic twisted through me, fast and incomplete, like a lizard that has lost its tail.’ The element of terror here seems dutiful, the writer’s loyalty all to the beauty of the lizard image. The figure comes through a gap in a hedge later on, ‘a swirl of mist or smoke drifting off him, as if he were a gun that had just been fired’.

The Sicilian earthquake of 1693 makes Zummo’s mother homeless, and eventually she comes to him in Florence. Her account of the earthquake, as relayed by Zummo, is of a piece with the style of the rest of the book:

She ran out on to Via Dione. There was no moon. In the darkness people’s screams were silver. She couldn’t explain what she meant by that. A neighbour knelt in the middle of the street. He was crushed by falling masonry. The bell rang in the steeple opposite, even though there was no one pulling on the rope. She watched a woman run past with a birdcage, its tiny wire door flapping, nothing inside.

Even in the absence of earthquakes, Secrecy offers up vivid unnerving vignettes that float free of the human drama:

The moon that hung above the Grand Duke’s granary was red and swollen, almost close enough to touch; it looked as if it might burst at any moment, soaking the streets of Santo Spirito in blood. On Porta Rossa, I came across two men locked in such a struggle that they had become a single, staggering beast. Edging past, I saw an arm break loose and land a fierce blow. The creature, having harmed itself, let out a bellow. A nearby puddle shivered.

The story is set in the era of baroque but the novel isn’t itself baroque (as Hawksmoor could claim to be). In terms of its aesthetics, mannerism would be a better fit. The rich interplay of textures fights the three-dimensional modelling of its figures and the intensely inventive imagery isn’t there to serve the story: it’s the story that provides a liquid surface on which Rupert Thomson can float the exquisite toy boats of his language.

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