Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 4, 2021

Pietà, by Michael Fitzgerald

After a run of disappointing books, none of which made it much past the first 50 pages which represent ‘a fair go’, it was a delight to settle into reading Michael Fitzgerald’s new novel Pietà.  (Readers may remember that I have previously reviewed his debut The Pacific Room from 2017.)  Quite apart from the exquisite writing, Pietà appeals to my love of art and travel, and it became one of those books that I didn’t want to finish, reminding me of that joke that’s going around about readers being vulnerable to melancholy because what they love is always doomed to end.  That’s how I feel this morning, cheered only by the prospect of another art-themed novel from Transit Lounge: Night Blue by Angela O’Keefe which features Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.

There could not be a greater artistic contrast than Blue Poles and Michelangelo’s Pietà.  There are actually three sculptures by the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo called Pietà: one in Florence, one in Milan, and the one that haunts this novel, the one in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Alas, there is a connection between Australia and this Pietà that we would rather not have.  In 1972, a young Hungarian-born Australian geologist called Laszlo Toth vandalised the sculpture, and it is this event that is woven into the novel.

In 1999 with the possibility of an apocalyptic Y2K disaster looming, a troubled young woman called Lucy takes work as an au-pair in Saint-Cloud, a wealthy commune in the western suburbs of Paris.  She is hired to look after baby Felix, whose mother is about to travel to Central Australia for six months to continue her research into the life and work of the Aboriginal artist Kumanjayi. (Six months!  I’m not very motherly, but I could not have borne to be away from my infant for six weeks, much less six months.)

But Lucy also has a task to undertake on behalf of her own mother, who has recently died.  She has a small package, carefully wrapped, which is to be delivered to the post-box in the Vatican.  The reader knows that these events are all connected because interleaved within the novel there are ‘newspaper reports’ about the vandalism written by a journalist .

However, to fulfil her mother’s last wish, first Lucy has to get from London to Europe, and so she takes work in Paris, armed only with knowledge from a mothercraft manual.  At Saint-Cloud, she overcomes her fears of inadequacy and becomes devoted to little Felix.  (She also indulges small flirtations with autonomy such as surreptitiously substituting a vegan alternative to his cows-milk formula.)  There are two attractive men in her Parisian life to tease the reader: Jean-Claude, the father of Felix, and Sébastien, a friend of theirs, a restorer of marble.  When Mathilde departs, and Lucy misses her friendship, life at Saint-Cloud becomes more intimate but also more claustrophobic.

Lucy’s homesickness is exacerbated by the Australian connections in her new life. She is disorientated when she wakes one morning to hear Mathilde singing ‘Kookaburra sits on the Old Gum Tree’ to Felix, and in her absence as the months go by, Mathilde’s postcards from Australia intensify Lucy’s longing to be home. Her experience of mothering Felix brings scattered memories of her own mother, Jude, and of the sometimes fraught relationship they had.  Her mother was briefly a nun, and retained the habit of silences from that time.  Though Lucy has her diary, excerpts from which filter into the novel and into her dreams and dreamy waking moments, the silences remain.

It was as if they were incompatible or out of sync, tuned to different frequencies, necessary irritants to each other. Even when Lucy was four months old her mother was complaining to a doctor that she was the source of a mysterious skin condition.  ‘Is it possible for a mother to be allergic to her daughter?’ her mother had asked.  And at twenty one, when Jude was dying, Lucy still felt the disavowal of that owlish stare.,  Then a sudden, inexplicable rush of love. (p.77)

Whitecaps dancing across the surface of the lake at Versailles remind Lucy of Lake Burley Griffin and a visit to Malmaison, the chateau of the Empress Josephine, brings sensual memories to the fore because Josephine—to ameliorate her loneliness in Napoléon’s absence—had planted an ‘Australian’ garden, using specimens brought to France by the explorer Nicolas Baudin.  In Josephine’s time there were kangaroos, emus and black swans among unruly gum trees, and the paintings of the park as it was bring a ‘pang for home’ to Lucy.  But the scents she was expecting are swamped by the scent of Sébastien’s cologne…

Pietà traverses Lucy’s journey to explore themes about art and the way we perceive it.  A key question is whether a damaged artwork should be restored.  Is it still itself when broken bits of marble are replaced by cleverly recreated pieces of polymer?  And today, in the era of mass cultural tourism, have we lost sight of Michelangelo’s purpose, which was at the service of religion?

The Vatican responds to the new ideology that we should not intervene if an object has been damaged by an act of violence:

…it is hard to imagine and grasp the concept that these works could be left mutilated, because they would not serve their purpose anymore — their purpose being, of course, for prayer and respect for religion. (p.230)

It is, as the journalist reporting on this issue, says:

…a philosophical conundrum that Michelangelo could not possibly have imagined when he created the work five centuries ago. (p.230)

But in our age of iconoclasm, it’s something to think about.

You can read a brief summary about the Australian connection at Malmaison at the NGV website.

Author: Michael Fitzgerald
Title: Pietà
Cover design: Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760743, pbk., 251 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Image credit: Pietà by Michelangelo – Image: Michelangelo’s Pieta 5450.jpg, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3667082

 


Responses

  1. This sounds a very rich read, I was really surprised to see its only 251 pages. So many big themes! Perfect for some armchair travelling too, until we can be out and about again…

    Like

    • Yes, I could feel myself transported to Paris on every page!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting concept. There have been some high profile stories of botched attempts at ‘restoration’ of sacred artworks in recent years. I’m ok with restoration if it’s done sympathetically; every church and cathedral in England has been damaged or ruined and restored at some point – not always successfully, it’s true: the Victorians don’t have a good track record here. Even Thomas Hardy got involved – though he wasn’t one of the vandals.

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    • I’m ok with it too, especially in the case of vandalised works. Because to leave them damaged is to let the vandals have a win.
      It’s amazing to see the restored buildings in Russia where you’d think the soviets would have turned their attention to other things, but no, after the war they restored thousands of palaces and churches that were trashed by the Nazis in retreat.

      Like

  3. Sounds really interesting, Lisa, particularly as I have a kind of side-interest in iconoclasm and the study of it. Glad you found a book that worked – I am struggling to get past the first 20 pages of anything at the moment…

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    • That’s interesting… I didn’t realise that iconoclasm was a ‘thing’, if you know what I mean. I just associated it with random acts like the Soviets knocking down cathedrals and artists urinating on pictures of Christ to get attention.
      Was/is it a movement of some kind?

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  4. I will never understand why men write books with female protagonists – though of course the short answer is most readers don’t care. Otherwise, this sounds like an interesting work. I really enjoy discussions of what is art, and restorations are good. Even if they are not ‘original’ they are at least a reminder of the original. One question: why is malmaison not ‘sick house’?

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  5. Hmm. It might not be that readers ‘don’t care’, it might be that they don’t share your views about identity politics.
    Jennifer Mills, for example, wrote a very fine book called Gone about the way a male prisoner was cast loose with no supports. As an example of an empathetic portrait of an underclass mostly ignored in fiction as in life, it is magnificent.
    Re Malmaison, I don’t know. Adjectives usually go after the noun, but that would make it ‘bad house’ not ‘sick house’. ‘Sick’ is ‘malade’.
    Maybe its origins come from ‘malaise’ which might be how Josephine felt about being deserted all the time.

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  6. Your review belies a 251-page book. It sounds so dense and complex. It also sounds interesting!

    I remember that vandalism. I like the idea of its being woven into a novel.

    Unlike Bill, I am not concerned about its being written by a man!

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    • I remember it too. It was long before I’d had the chance to go to Europe, and I was furious, because even though travel was a long way off the horizon then I thought it meant I would never get to see the undamaged statue.
      (And in a way I was right, because you can only see it through a glass shield. You can’t get up close to see the genius of the marble though then again, we can now see it online so I should not complain.)
      I was distraught that it might start copycat vandalism on other precious artworks.

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      • Hmm … no avatar with that comment! Will we get it this time.

        I think it’s really sad how bad behaviour is gradually spoiling so many things for us – like the shield around this statue. I’ve forgotten what triggered it but Mr Gums and I were only talking recently about this.

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        • I remember thinking that when they brought in bans on bringing alcohol to events like the football. All those people who wanted to bring a nice bottle of wine at an affordable price could then only have horrid cheap wine in a plastic cup.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve been in much the same predicament, a run of disappointing books which each I gave a fair go.

    Like

    • It’s awful, isn’t it? You put down the first one in dismay, and pick up the next thinking, oh well, this one will be good… and then it dawns on you that it’s just not your kind of book after all, and when the third one turns out the same way, then you start to feel anxious that you might never find the right kind of book again.
      Two of these three were just random choices from the library but one of them was recommended so I was even more disappointed by that.
      But now, o joy! from Pieta I went on to read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (not yet reviewed) and now I’m reading Love Objects, Emily Maguire’s new novel.
      So I’m all good again!

      Liked by 1 person


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