Behind its grand and oblique title, derived rather surprisingly from Kipling, Mathias Enard’s new book is a fictional account, no more than novella length, of a visit by Michelangelo to Constantinople in 1506. Sultan Bayezid II had already commissioned a design for a bridge over the Golden Horn from Leonardo da Vinci, and rejected it. Now Michelangelo, far from immune to rivalrous feelings, was being offered the chance to eclipse him. If ever there was a time that he might be tempted to make such a barely thinkable journey, it was now. He was 31, famous for the David and the Pietà, but his dealings with the pope were deadlocked. If Europe’s ultimate patron was being difficult, perhaps a more obliging one could be found elsewhere.
In his author’s note, Enard cannily stops short of asserting the factuality of the excursion he has invented, but refers to a sketch attributed to Michelangelo that recently surfaced in the Ottoman archives (Project for a Bridge for the Golden Horn), not evidence of physical presence even if authentic, and also to ‘the inventory of possessions abandoned in his room’ in Constantinople, which would certainly substantiate the story. It’s a sharp little swerve towards the status of non-fiction. A similar sleight operates when Enard describes Michelangelo landing in the city: ‘No one knows the name of the Greek dragoman waiting for him, so we’ll call him Manuel; we do, however, know the name of the merchant accompanying him: Giovanni di Francesco Maringhi, a Florentine who has been living in Istanbul for five years now.’ A classic piece of misdirection, drawing scrupulous attention to the authorial liberty taken early in the sentence so that the later invention can slip smoothly by.
There’s a first person in the book, used to open proceedings and reintroduced at intervals, an unidentified voice addressing Michelangelo in seductive tones: ‘Your fear and confusion propel you into our arms; you want to nestle in there, but your tough body keeps clinging to its certainties; it pushes desire away, refuses to surrender.’ His ambition makes him rigid, and he rejects what he sees as weakness, though it’s also everything he wants – sensuality, tenderness, peace. The struggle leaves him ‘lost in an infinite twilight, one foot in day and the other in night’.
In the more straightforwardly narrative sections, the book makes use of various effects of slippage, mannerisms perhaps, though a case could be made for describing them as devices or strategies. Michelangelo’s name is often suppressed in favour of periphrastic formulas such as ‘the Florentine artist’ or ‘the sculptor’. It may be that such formulas are less awkward in French than they are in English, where they seem to betray a misplaced qualm about repeating a name – or the awkwardness may be the point. Name and epithet soon start to delaminate, peeling away from each other: ‘Michelangelo the genius trembled when the loose fabric and tense muscles came so close to him.’ The word ‘genius’ has strong links to the period of the book’s setting (do we apply it to creators before Michelangelo and Leonardo?) and suggests a faculty able to irradiate every aspect of an individual’s experience. How is Michelangelo a genius at the moment when he is overwhelmed, as anyone might be, by the beauty of a singer? (Admittedly he goes on to make obsessive sketches of the ankles and calves in question.) The term ‘genius’ has a restricted historical but also geographical and cultural currency: what would a Turkish genius of the period be like? Mesihi of Prishtina, the real poet who is Michelangelo’s designated escort in Enard’s fiction, and who becomes sexually obsessed with him, gets his share of honorifics – ‘the Vizier’s favourite poet’, for instance, but is not claimed as a genius.
By the time reference is made to ‘the sober Michelangelo’ it seems clear that some sort of language game is being played, since Michelangelo, normally abstemious from fear of losing control, has just passed out from excess of alcohol. This isn’t irony: the words mark the beginning of a narrative section (‘The sober Michelangelo dozed off’) and irony would be out of place. It’s more that the adjective has become a Homeric one, freed of the obligation to mark a particular instance rather than an essential characteristic. He ‘never’ drinks, after all. That hasn’t changed, even when he does it again a few pages later.
There’s slippage in the narrative’s knowledgeability, too. An impersonal narrator supplies information lacking to Michelangelo because of his unfamiliarity with the language (‘A lute, a mandola and a viol that Michelangelo does not know are called oud, saz and kaman’) or his boundedness in time – he’s described as ‘future painter of genius and immense architect’. Reporting on Michelangelo’s reactions to Leonardo’s scheme for the bridge, the narrator gives not a single response but a cluster of them, an opinion cloud: ‘Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing is ingenious. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing is so innovative that it is frightening. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing is devoid of interest because he is thinking neither of the sultan, nor of the city, nor of the fortress.’ When Michelangelo knots a piece of cloth round his head like a turban, as artists do to protect themselves from marble dust or spatters of paint, the narrator can only speculate about what has prompted him: ‘Did he do this because he was thinking of the sculptures on the tomb of Julius II, out of simple habit, or to ward off the effects of migraine?’ Never mind that earlier in the same paragraph Michelangelo’s mental workings were more directly accessible, so that his splashing his face with water, despite a famous aversion to washing, could be ventriloquised without ambiguity with the thought ‘just this once won’t hurt.’
The narrator passes on contradictory versions of Michelangelo, sometimes only a few pages apart, without seeming to register the discrepancy. On page 71 he is keen to see an execution – someone who saw Savonarola die at the stake isn’t frightened by blood or violence done to the body. Four pages later Enard recounts at length Michelangelo’s nightmare of being tortured and burned at the stake, until he wakes up in a sweat just before his ashes are thrown in the Arno. It seems that he has a recurring dream about Savonarola, and sometimes ‘the preacher’s death catches up with him.’
The strangest aspect of the book’s handling of point of view is the presentation of the seductive singer and dancer (and wine-pourer – the roles overlap) whose calves and ankles Michelangelo observed so intently. Michelangelo is intoxicated by the ambiguity of this boyish girl or feminine man, but the narrative voice has already committed itself, in the same paragraph that so authoritatively supplied the correct names for musical instruments, with the words ‘a young woman dressed as a man’, though admitting a moment later that it would be hard to swear to the gender. The French text makes the same declaration (‘une jeune femme habillée en homme’) and expresses the same reservation, but continues to pay lip service (‘la danseuse ou le danseur’, ‘celui ou celle’) to the ambiguity it has already dismissed, and Charlotte Mandell’s translation follows suit (‘the man or woman’, ‘he or she’).
A taste for sexual ambiguity is hardly attested to in Michelangelo’s character – if his female figures have a paradoxical element it’s manliness rather than boyishness. Obscuring a character’s gender in writing calls for fancy footwork, but the steps are different in different languages. The telltales in English are possessive pronouns, which betray the gender of the owner rather than neutrally designating the gender of the object as they do in French. The translation withholds such cues in the scene where the singer-dancer first appears, referring to ‘the gentleness of the features, the ivory teeth between coral lips, the expression of fragile hands placed on knees’. Soon afterwards, though, when Michelangelo is looking back on the evening, the dancer has become unambiguously male (‘he couldn’t remember his name’) – the translation, though not the original, falling in with Michelangelo’s customary object-choice.
In a later scene, Mandell reverses this decision, so that now the performer’s female identity is beyond question: ‘She sang for him, this shadow, and now here she is next to him.’ Admittedly, since Enard gave the game away at the very beginning, the sustaining of ambiguity is only moderately important. It isn’t the whole point of the book, as it is in Anne Garréta’s gender-refusing Sphinx, where the translator doesn’t have the option of letting the masks slip. Even so, it must be part of Enard’s intention that Michelangelo’s thrilled uncertainty, however unlikely in terms of biography, should persist until later in the text – his careful word choice confirms it. In the original, ‘this shadow’, ‘cette ombre’, can unobtrusively be the feminine subject of the sentence, continuing to cloak the gender of the person lying down next to Michelangelo, who can fixate freely on this ‘moving form perfect, other, undefined’. It turns out that this is the person whose voice has addressed Michelangelo at intervals from the first page of the book.
There’s also an instability about the use of mixed tenses, not just the standard slide from the past to the present as a way of conveying immediacy, most effective when it’s not even noticed, but a stop-start alternation as hard to ignore as an inexperienced driver’s grinding of the gearbox: ‘The servant pulls up another stool … Mesihi rose when he saw Michelangelo approaching and greeted him gracefully.’ Enard wasn’t an inexperienced writer even when the French original appeared in 2010, though it is his more recent success with Boussole, Goncourt Prize-winner in 2015 – translated as Compass – that has smoothed the way to this earlier book’s appearance in English. It’s normal practice to take emphasis away from the move from present to past, whose effect is likely to be a loss of tension, by making it coincide with the beginning of a section or paragraph, at least of a sentence, but Enard doesn’t shy away from drawing attention to such bumpy transitions (‘Michelangelo receives a letter which had come’).
Taken with the other quirks of the book, these little jerks at first seem to form part of its mildly destabilising agenda, disrupting the impossible smoothness of fictional reconstruction, but they’re largely the translator’s contribution. There’s nothing controversial about translating the French perfect tense as a past historic (the French and English tenses aren’t neatly equivalent), but the past historic doesn’t marry well with the present tense. The awkwardness becomes faintly comic in one particular passage, with Mesihi calling on the sober Michelangelo when both are presumably hungover: ‘Elegantly dressed, with a brilliant smile and a towering silhouette, the poet took care to add a little make-up to his eyes, probably to hide the effects of debauchery and lack of sleep.’ It’s an odd sort of cover-up that is performed, as the tense insists, under the eyes of the person who’s supposed to be deceived by it – the sentence cries out for a pluperfect. There’s the same smudge in Enard’s original, but it’s less noticeable thanks to the softer focus of the French perfect tense.
Enard takes his title from Kipling’s Life’s Handicap, not from one of the stories in the book but from its preface, which reports a conversation between Kipling and ‘Gobind the one-eyed’, an ancient holy man waiting for death in a monastery called the Chubara of Dhunni Bhagat. Gobind has told stories in his time, and is astonished that Kipling can make a living by writing them down. Will people pay for such things? His surprise is understandable. An oral storyteller like Gobind is a monetised Scheherazade, who must build up the drama and then break off, refusing to continue the tale until he is paid. But though he acknowledges differences between Kipling’s circumstances and his own, Gobind maintains that ‘God has made very many heads, but there is only one heart in all the world among your people or my people. They are children in the matter of tales.’ He sees no reason to modify a winning formula: ‘Since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike.’
For about half its modest length, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants passes muster as a Borgesian thought experiment, describing the deep impression made on Michelangelo by something that never happened:
His gaze is transformed by the city and otherness: scenes, colours, forms will permeate his work for the rest of his life. The cupola of St Peter is inspired by Santa Sophia and Bayezid’s mosque; the library of the Medicis is inspired by the sultan’s, which he visits with Manuel; the statues in the chapel of the Medicis and even the Moses for Julius II bear the imprint of attitudes and characters he met here, in Constantinople.
But then soupier material starts to pile up and the title, referring as it does to the elements necessary for concocting a potboiler, comes to look like a confession hiding in plain sight. There’s certainly ‘love and suchlike’: the first night he shares with the singer fills Michelangelo with dazzling energy, and, naturally, inspiration follows: ‘Michelangelo has a vision of his bridge, floating in the morning sun, so real that he has tears in his eyes.’
Even before Enard starts incorporating some fairly feeble thriller elements (conspiracies and deadly daggers), his central romantic triangle, with Michelangelo obsessed by a nameless woman while aware that Mesihi is consumed by desire for him, seems perverse, if anything less defensible than the confident nonsense of the cover copy on Irving Stone’s 1961 novel about Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy: ‘His loves: the frail and lovely daughter of Lorenzo de Medici; the ardent mistress of Marco Aldovrandi; and his last love – his greatest love – the beautiful, unhappy Vittoria Colonna.’
Michelangelo returns to Italy, haunted by ‘the memory of a love he was unable to give before it was too late’. Mesihi’s later life calls for an extra helping of cliché and pat irony:
The destitute poet, drunk and without a protector, killed himself even before the famous ceiling where God gives life to an Adam whose face so resembles that of the Turkish poet was finished … Two extended fingers that don’t touch each other.
This doesn’t seem much like a vision transformed by otherness. A novel that seemed to take aim squarely at the head, with its art-historical reflections, instabilities of manner and tweaks of the cultural record, lowers its sights to the heart, perhaps too confident in assuming, with Kipling’s Gobind, that this is an easier target.