Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
The God of Spring
by Arabella Edge
Picador, 2005, 344 pp. RRP $32.95
Based on the few known facts of the life of the French painter Theodore Gericault, Arabella Edge’s wonderful novel is a telling of the imagined events leading to the painting of the famous ‘Raft of the Medusa’, which hangs in the Louvre. The novel begins in Montmartre in June 1818, not long after the days of ‘The Terror’ of the French Revolution, and takes us through to April 1819, when the painting is finally exhibited in London and Dublin, with a short final chapter set in 1823 when we encounter the painter, spent and weakened by cancer, facing his imminent death.
Hailed as promising from his early work as a twenty-one year old, (he was awarded a Gold Medal at the prestigious Salon), now at twenty-seven the artist is seeking a subject with which to unequivocally prove his talent. Supported financially by his unimpressed father, who would prefer his artistic son to join the family tobacco business, and his Uncle Caruel, Theodore has fallen in love with his uncle’s young wife, Alexandrine, six years his senior. Under the pretext of executing a commissioned portrait of Alexandrine, the pair conduct an affair while Gericault begins and abandons various studies of his lover.
Gericault learns that in 1916, the French frigate the Medusa, on its way to Senegal on the West African coast, was wrecked in shallow waters. The shipwreck was caused by arrogant but inexperienced fops who, with their families and social equals, commandeer the life vessels, having no regard for other passengers and crew. The masts were taken down and a carpenter ordered to construct a raft, which it was said would be towed behind the rowboats with its cargo of 150 men. But the raft, unseaworthy and makeshift, was cut adrift by the Captain and what followed was a terrible ordeal that led to madness, murder, suicide, and cannibalism – an ordeal which only fifteen of the 150 men survived. This is a story which at the time fascinated the French public and, in the hands of Arabella Edge, is in equal parts fascinating and repellent to the modern reader.
Two survivors, the ship’s surgeon, Sauvigny, and the seaman, Correard, are tracked down living in squalid conditions by a young newspaper office lackey, who, for a fee, introduces them to Gericault. The artist takes them to his home and lavishes them with food and wine while trying to wheedle out of them the details of what actually happened on the raft. Outraged at their treatment by those who would cover up the events that happened on the Medusa, Sauvigny and Correard tell of their betrayal and abandonment by the ship’s Captain. But they are reluctant to reveal much more and, seduced by the party lifestyle of Gericault’s neighbour, Horace Vernet – a painter who is much admired and frequently commissioned by the aristocracy of the day – they begin to spend all their time carousing with Vernet and his bohemian friends. Gericault, meanwhile, has become both inspired and obsessed with the story and is irritated by his successful neighbour’s interference with his house guests and, by extension, with his creative work.
Eventually Gericault meets another survivor, Thomas the Helmsman. Now scarred and dissolute by what he has seen and endured, Thomas tells Gericault the truth of what actually occurred on the raft – the cannibalism and murder Gericault’s house guests are loath to admit being party to. This knowledge gives the painter the impetus and perspective he needs to approach what will be his master work.
Meanwhile, Gericault’s lover, Alexandrine, becomes pregnant to him, and the artist is tormented by guilt over his abandonment of Alexandrine as well as his original betrayal his uncle’s trust. Cut off by his father, who has agreed to support both mother and child, Alexandrine retires to a convent, her child is given up, and Gericault is forbidden contact with either of them under pain of their financial support being withdrawn by his father.
The vagaries of intense love, infidelity and moral turpitude are examined in this storyline of the lovers’ relationship and its dissolution. But the bulk of the narrative concerns the actual painting.
There is much of interest in the depiction of the actual method of executing this painting – the difficulties of finding and storing pigments, of mortuary visits to obtain cadavers that can be used for preliminary sketches, of choosing which precise moment in the story to single out for depiction, and of the making of a tableau featuring a raft and models (including a very young Delacroix) for the artist to work from. In the subtext exists an examination of the nature of contemporary ‘fame’, as we witness the vastly talented Gericault’s struggles in devotion to his art and compare it with Horace Vernet’s easy life as he gives the aristocracy what they want – portraits that show them in a positive, but untruthful, light. Gericault’s life ends in sickness and despair, and on his deathbed he ruminates that ‘Not even so much as five good paintings justified his life’ (p.341). It is the reader’s privilege to know that it is Gericault’s work that will survive the test of time, while the ‘famous’ but unscrupulous (and secretly jealous) Vernet will vanish into the annals of history, but this does not make the central character’s despair any less poignant.
The morality of trying to force the shipwreck’s survivors to reveal the horrible events they lived through in the service of Gericault’s art is also examined: (‘ … he realised they were all burdened with their own eyewitness accounts, burning to tell the truth yet shamed by the outcome. Heroes or villains, survivors or victims – in which category, he asked himself, did he belong?’ – P.217), and this is a crux of the narrative. The artist puts much store in the literal truth, and is shocked when, in Dublin, he witnesses a vulgar theatrical depiction of the events following the shipwreck and ‘fought an impulse to jump onto the stage … explain his motives, the months of effort to transform catastrophe into art. He wanted to make them understand the true nature of what had happened on the raft’ (p.332).
My review copy of The God of Spring was accompanied by a colour reproduction of the actual painting, which I found myself referring to often while engrossed in the narrative. I felt it a shame it wasn’t included within the covers of the novel, (though a detail from it graces the cover), as contemplation of the actual painting whose genesis is depicted added much to my enjoyment of the novel. But this minor criticism is the only misgiving I had; overall I thoroughly enjoyed and was totally swept up in the world of this marvellous story and can’t wait to see what Edge produces next. Highly recommended to all who love art, are engaged in art-making, or who have an interest in moral and philosophical issues to do with the exploitation of life in art’s service.
About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, on TV and radio in Australia and the USA, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She holds a BA from Deakin University (Victoria) with major studies in Professional Writing & Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Some of Liz Hall Down’s publications include: Fit of Passion, (with Kim Downs), (Fit of Passion Collective, 1997), Girl With Green Hair, (Papyrus Publishing, 2000), People of the Wetlands, (Brisbane City Council, 1996), Mountains to Mangroves, and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle, (Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999), Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, (with B.R. Dionysius and Samuel Wagan Watson), (Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, 2000).