August 28, 2013

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior (#71b)

The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior by Paul Strathern

What I said when I got it:

I've been really interested by the concept of this one since it first arrived: basically, Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia all knew each other, and at a certain point they all travelled together. This non-fiction book examines that moment in time and what it meant to each man's career. Now it's out in a paperback, there's really no excuse to put off having a look.

What I say now:

I was reading this at basically exactly the same time as the enclave in the Vatican was choosing the new pope (yes, that's how far behind I am with my book reviews), and the timing was perfect. Reading about how Cesare's power-hungry father Rodrigo shamelessly bought the papacy and used its power in a grab for real estate made the rituals and solemnity of the modern Vatican seem absolutely ridiculous. I can't imagine anybody learning about the sordid history of middle ages Catholicism and remaining devout (sorry, Dad).

That aside, this was a fascinating peek into an era of history which is hugely important (in so many ways, Renaissance Italy shaped the history and culture of Europe, and thus had effects still being felt today), yet about which I knew very little. The book rotates chapters, focusing in turn on da Vinci, the brilliant artist and engineer who designed increasingly elaborate instruments of war; and Machiavelli, the young diplomat who would become the most radical political thinker of his age; and Borgia, tyrant and murderer, rampaging through Italy trying to claim a Kingdom with the sword.

Luckily for Strathern, Machiavelli kept meticulous journals, and his notebooks lay out exactly how the men met, and how they reacted to each other. Borgia loaned da Vinci from his Florentine masters to aid him militarily; Machiavelli was sent by the same men to divert Borgia's attentions away from defenceless Florence; the two Florentines (da Vinci nearing the end of his career, Machiavelli at the beginning of his) met in Borgia's train and struck up a brief friendship.

Strathern charts their time together during Borgia's campaign, and how their meeting affected each of their subsequent careers, in particular the effect that the charismatic (yet psychotic) Borgia had on the other two. Da Vinci, horrified by the realities of war, stopped designing weapons. Machiavelli, inspired by Borgia's ruthlessness, applied that ruthlessness to the world of politics, writing his famous tract The Prince using Borgia as an inspiration. Strathern's writing is clear and succinct, and doesn't have the grinding density of some non-fiction.

But despite Strathern's best efforts, it's da Vinci who makes problems for his book, remaining stubbornly a mystery: the man himself didn't keep any journals of his own, and the scraps of thought left in his notebooks are more likely to be shopping lists or reminders of chores than anything else. Whenever he and Machiavelli are apart, Strathern is left in the field of conjecture, prefacing a lot of his statements with phrases like 'da Vinci must have felt ...' or 'da Vinci surely saw ...' or 'da Vinci certainly would have been aware of ...' It lends those portions of the book an insubstantial air, which is unfortunate. That's a pretty small quibble, though, in a thoroughly researched and extremely readable history.

Cheers, JC.

August 27, 2013

'Emilia, Perhaps' --- short story

As promised, to serve as my penance for being the slackest blogger in the world, here's an old short story that I find really embarrassing. Back when I was in a writing group, one month our theme was given as 'Romance'. And this is what I came up with. I never posted it back then because it's (probably) the schmaltziest thing I've ever written---it's got an amnesia plotline for fuck's sake. What was I thinking?!? 

Emilia, Perhaps

He opened the door, allowing the corridor’s weak light to slice into the darkened room. The woman in the bed could not see it, but she lifted her head all the same.

‘Doctor Cuthbertson?’
How did you know it was me?’

‘You always hesitate rather charmingly on the threshold. The rest of them simply come barging in as they please.’ Julian, his hand still on the porcelain doorknob, swallowed nervously. After a moment’s wait, she beckoned him in. ‘You may enter, sir. You have my permission.’ He thought he could sense a smile in her voice. With her head completely swathed in bandages, he was having to rely on his ears to a greater degree than he was accustomed. But then, of course, so was she.

When the door closed behind him, the darkness of her room was absolute. He pulled a box of matches from his pocket and lit a candle.

‘So it is night, then,’ she said. ‘I have trouble keeping track. Sometimes, when nobody comes in to check on me for a time, I can’t even tell if I have slept or not. Sleep and waking have more in common than they used to.’

‘I’m sure.’ He carried the candle across to the windows and made sure that the heavy black-out curtains were fastened securely.

‘One certainly couldn’t tell the time from the temperature. It is so stuffy in here!’

‘It gets more stuffy at night, because we have to keep the curtains closed.’ He took a deep breath, and asked the question that he dreaded so much: ‘Has any more of your memory returned?’

Every time he asked, the brief moment of silence before she began her reply stretched wide, transforming into an eternity of hope and regret, of love found and love lost.

‘Yes,’ she said, and his shoulders slumped. ‘I believe, as a girl, I used to ride. I had a white pony, a mare. I plaited her mane. Her name was … was … Sylvia, or Sybil … or Susannah.’ She threw up her hands. ‘The name won’t come. Yet. But I can see her. She was beautiful.’

‘Where do you see her? There may be elements in the background that will provide us with a clue to your origins.’ He did his best to regulate his voice, to give all his words a professional veneer, no matter how much his heart was breaking.

‘It is a country house, a very large one. There are servants. A humbly dressed man hands me the reins and touches his cap as he does so. It is all horribly opulent.’

‘Ah! You are wealthy, then.’

‘My accent ought to have told you that long ago.’

He smiled. ‘You might have been an actress.’

‘What a scandalous suggestion! Can you really think so poorly of me as that?’

‘I have no frame of reference. I could think anything of you. That is the problem.’

She sighed in frustration. ‘Well … tell me what you do think.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘I am sick of being nobody,’ she cried. ‘Tell me my story, even if it is a fiction. I am sick of being a blank canvas. Paint a picture with words and fill me in. Even a made-up life is better than no life at all. Please, doctor. I beg you.’

Julian was taken aback by her request. He poured himself a glass of water from the jug next to her bed to give himself time to think. For, of course, inventing this mystery woman’s past had occupied every moment of his waking hours since he had first heard her remarkable voice. He saw, now, that those imaginings had been the rehearsal for this shining moment.

Her hand lay upturned upon the coverlet, as though she was inviting him to take it in his own. He did not.

He thought of all the names he had imagined for her and tried to decide which would suit her best. ‘Your name,’ he began softly, ‘is Emilia.’ She gasped with joy and clapped her hands together.

‘Emilia,’ she repeated, and her voice was beaming. He smiled.

‘Everyone in your family calls you Ducky, however, because as a girl your greatest joy was to explore the ponds and streams and fountains on your father’s estate. You had a pet frog named Gerald, and your nanny despaired of keeping your skirts free of grass and mud for even a single hour. You must have had more baths than any other child in England.

‘Your father was a stern man with a red beard. In your earliest years you were fascinated by his watch and chain. He was loving but distant, trusting your nanny—and later, your governess—more than he trusted himself. He loved you very much but didn’t know how to show it.

‘You were an only child, and your mother died giving birth to you. There was a portrait of her on the mantle in the sitting room. You would sneak in sometimes and look at it for hours at a time, trying to puzzle out just which emotion was being conveyed by the flakes of blue paint that were her eyes.

‘You had a white pony, a mare, named Sylvia. You plaited her mane. When you grew too long in the leg for her, your father bought you a beautiful chestnut horse with snow-white legs. He liked to watch you ride, calling advice and encouragement from outside the yard. It was the thing that brought you closest.

‘You had no friends, but you weren’t lonely. You read voraciously, and imagined a thousand adventures more spectacular than those of Mr Carroll or Mr Barrie. You charged around the estate as you pleased.

‘As you entered your teenage years, you learned how to sit, and how to serve tea. You learned French and German, how to play the harp and sing, and how to paint. Though you submitted to your lessons, you realised in your heart of hearts that it was all quite ridiculous.

‘When you first began to get your womanly discharge, nobody had enlightened you to expect it. You were mortified. You tried to steal down to the laundry and wash your own sheets. It was the scullery maid, Rhona, with her red face and red hands, who found you out and kindly explained the facts of life to you. She became your greatest friend, until—

‘Your father had invested heavily in stocks, and the depression was not kind to him. Rhona was let go, along with all the rest of the servants. Your father was forced to sell off your horses, and let the great house. “I am so sorry, Ducky,” he said, and it was the only time you ever heard his voice catch.

‘His friends in government secured him a paid diplomatic post, as ambassador to Tanganyika. The two of you repaired to the consul house in Dar Es Salaam, and you spent the remainder of the time before the war in Africa.

‘The fauna of East Africa, the lions and zebras and hippopotami, made the change in circumstances delightful to you. Even the snakes were something to be exclaimed over, rather than feared. You once saw a giraffe giving birth, and you rank it as the most wondrous, beautiful thing you have ever seen.

‘You had a sharp wit, and a keen eye for the ridiculous. Your pith had never sat well with the stuffy ladies of English drawing rooms, but the wilder sort who forged a path at the very edges of the Empire were delighted by you. For the first time in your life, you tasted popularity, though your father made damn sure it didn’t go to your head.

‘And that wasn’t all: by now you were beautiful. Your negro maid Hebe marvelled at your hair every morning as she brushed it. Your attendance at a soiree given amongst the colonials would swell the attendance as young men drove in from all across the territory for a glimpse of you. You remained happily modest and unassuming, but also had the strength of mind to resist the overtures of countless men. You were determined to fall in love, but—a romantic at heart—you did not believe in picking the best of a bad bunch. The right man must be out there, you reasoned, and you would find him eventually.

‘Even as far from Europe as that, the coming war began to loom over all. At the outbreak, your father sent you back to England on the steamer, to live with your Aunt Dulcie. Changing boats at Suez, you made it as far as Alexandria. Your boat’s arrival coincided with a German air-raid. A bomb hit the boat.

‘You thought you must be dead. The noise was immense, the pain unbearable. You were flung, burning, into the water. But still you lived.

‘Only one person escaped from that wreckage, only one person made it to the Alexandria Hospital still breathing. You.

‘When you finally woke, after three weeks in a coma, you had no recollection of who you were. Exploring with your hands you discovered that both your legs were broken and your entire head was wrapped in bandages. When the nurses discovered you moving, they ran for a doctor.

‘And here, in the most unfelicitous of circumstances, you found the man you had waited so long for. At first the callow young doctor was nervous, reticent and shy. You spoke warmly and put him at ease. His voice grew stronger, more confident, and kept you company in your cage of darkness.

‘You fell in love with him.

‘But at the back of your mind was a lingering doubt. You might love him, but how could he love you in return? Your famous beauty was surely no more, and what could you offer instead? A life of pushing a wheelchair, of changing bandages? Whenever he left your bedside, you imagined it was for the last time, and cried.

‘What you couldn’t know was the effect that your voice had on him. He had always been frightened in society, terrified of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. So for most of his life, he had stayed silent. When he did speak, it was with a stutter. It was only with you that he could be the man he always knew he was inside. You brought him out of his shell.

‘Every moment he was apart from you was spent in thinking of you. Nothing else occupied his mind. He spent hours at night, lying awake and imagining your past, piecing together in his fevered brain just who it was that he was falling head over heels in love with.

‘At last, the moment came. He arrived in your room in dead of night. You recognised him before he opened his mouth, because of the charming way he hesitated on the threshold. Sick of being nobody, you implored him to fill you up with a story, with your story. As he did so, you began to weep with joy.’

She was weeping, though she had done her best to hide it. Wet patches had appeared on her bandage, right above her eyes.

Julian continued: ‘He took your hand …’ Her fingers had lain on the sheet through his recitation, inviting him to grasp them, but until this moment he had held back. When they touched, he felt delirious with pleasure. It was some moments before he could continue. ‘And … and he lowered his lips to kiss it.’ He did so. ‘And he told you that he loved you, and would love you always.’

‘Julian,’ she whispered. ‘You have seen me without these bandages, haven’t you?’


‘And was I horrible to look at?’

Internally, he debated the merits of a lie, but he could not do it.

Under her dressings, she smiled sadly. ‘Do not fret: your silence is all the answer I need. And yet … somehow ... you love me regardless?’

‘Yes. Good God, yes. Of course.’

It was the most perfect moment in either of their lives.


Behind the Alexandria Hospital is a small cemetery reserved for Englishmen and women, and other Christians. When she was buried there two weeks later, having died of an infection, he insisted that her tombstone read Emilia Cuthbertson.

He never married, and never forgot her.

Story notes:
  • There is NO FRIGGIN' WAY that a giraffe giving birth would be pleasant to look at.
  • Looking back, the gender politics of this weirds me out: the man is literally proscribing the woman's life (and, even more troublingly, her personality) to her. 'Emilia' has no agency whatsoever, and isn't even allowed to discover her own past. I know she asks Julian to tell the story, but still. Given it's set in WWII, surely the more obvious thing would be to have a wounded soldier in a hospital, being tended by a nurse. The fact that didn't occur to me until two years later is a bit strange.
  • As dorky as it is, I quite like the structure of it, where Julian's story catches up to the beginning of my story, re-casting the earlier events in the light of his undying love.
  • Easter Eggs: 'Cuthbertson' is the name of a now-retired footballer who played for my favourite team; the negro maid Hebe is lifted straight from the Hornblower books; the business about a girl not being told about her period and not understanding when it happens for the first time is borrowed wholesale from Michel Faber's brilliant 'The Crimson Petal and the White'; Tanganyika as a setting is a deliberate homage to Roald Dahl's 'Going Solo'.
  • When we did the group reading, everyone in the room gasped in shock when I killed 'Emilia'. It was a brilliant moment: the looks on their faces were priceless. Even in a romance, happy endings are for suckers.

Cheers, JC.