The God of Spring has been on my TBR for ages… I bought it because I was so impressed by Arabella Edge’s first novel The Company, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and won the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in the Southeast Asia/South Pacific region. The God of Spring has turned out to be even better than I expected and I am cross with myself for leaving it so long to get round to reading it.
The novel, set in Restoration Paris in 1818, is the story of a great painting, The Raft of the Medusa, but it is also a study in character. Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) was – in real life and in this novel – a young man taking advantage of his uncle in more ways than one. His father wanted him to go into the family business, but he fancied himself as an artist and charmed his uncle into becoming his benefactor so that he could live a congenial life in a mansion, buy the very best in artist’s equipment and supplies, mooch about in Rome despising the work of neoclassicist artists, and cuckold his uncle into the bargain. When the novel opens Théodore is obsessed by his torrid affair with his aunt Alexandrine and suffers only desultory pangs of guilt over it; he is also supercilious towards his frivolous neighbour Horace who is cheerfully painting exactly the sort of insipid paintings that the restored court desires. Théodore – having won at the age of only 21 a Gold Medal at the Salon for his painting The Charging Chasseur, – feels pressured to paint something equally impressive because he feels it is his destiny … but inspiration, alas, has deserted him.
However, by chance he hears the story of the shipwreck of the frigate ‘Medusa’ and when he seeks out the two surviving witnesses to the catastrophe he realises he has found his subject. From a third person narrative revealing Théodore’s attitudes and motives, the story reverts to the near past through the third person narrative of Savigny, the ship’s doctor. The reader learns the details of this celebrated shipwreck and the loss of 150 souls, abandoned on a makeshift raft off the coast of West Africa when the Medusa sank. Savigny, who initially documented the emerging social conflict on board out of idle interest, not only reveals the incompetence, stupidity and venal irresponsibility which led to the loss of the ‘Medusa’, but also the perfidy which led to those on the raft being cast off to fend for themselves. This part of the novel is utterly unputdownable.
Alongside this compelling drama and the emerging realisation that there is more to be told about how the surviving fifteen clung to life is the delineation of an intriguing character. Théodore moves from one obsession (Alexandrine) to the other (telling the truth of the shipwreck in his art), and as he undertakes the heroic endeavour of capturing this catastrophe in paint, he learns about himself. He realises that his desire to break off his amorous obsession is partly because he wants an intellectual partner and he wants the companionability of a wife. He comes to understand that by hosting the survivors at his home he has imprisoned them in their victimhood. He discovers that he has underestimated Horace, and his attitude to Alexandrine alters entirely, in an unexpected way. He also learns that there is a price to be paid for learning the truth of events.
As The Raft of the Medusa takes shape, Théodore also becomes the artist he wants to be. Some of the details of his research make grim reading, but the description of how this artist created numerous studies for his painting and made decisions about colour, texture and style is fascinating. Especially interesting was the process by which he decided which moment of the drama he would convey: the betrayal of abandonment; perfidy aboard the raft; the loss of all hope; or the moment of rescue at last?
Ultimately, Théodore learns that it is not celebrity that he craves, but rather the satisfaction that there are some who actually understand what he was trying to convey in his painting. There is a striking irony that the one person who interprets the work as it should be interpreted, is one complicit in betrayal himself:
‘You have made a shipwreck which isn’t for you. This catastrophe is not ours. And you have compelled me to participate in an experience which is not to my liking’. (p. 315)
The God of Spring is just the kind of historical fiction I like.
Author: Arabella Edge
Title: The God of Spring, a novel
Publisher: Picador, 2005
Source: personal library.