Book review: Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey

Last week I read Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey. The book is a fictional rendition of Florentine life between the years 1501 and 1505, the time during which Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti were both in Florence, each working on creating the respective masterpiece that would later immortalize them for future generations.

As backdrop to the tumultuous lives of these two artists, history provides us with some of the most eventful years in Italy’s colorful past: the ascension of Pope Alexander VI, better known as the Borgia Pope, and consequently the ravaging of the Italian city-state system by the Spanish Pope’s son, Cesare Borgia, leading the Papal armies. The interplay between the Medici family, the French invasions of Italy and the near constant conflict between Pisa and Florence also comes into play here, but the much stronger underlying spirit of the book is one of pride, honor and love.
As an Art History student during my undergrad years, I briefly met these artists, learned about the zeitgeist that surrounded their genius and of course, the art itself. But coming to this book more than a decade later, purely with an eye on reading art-historic fiction, I was both surprised and delighted at the depth of perception it brings to the reader and how much of it is based in truth. The book not only lets us in on the machinations of sixteenth century patronage and politics, but also on the perceptions of art, art-making and society during a time when gender and class distinction dictated every aspect of a person’s life and education.
Storey’s Da Vinci is undoubtedly the genius we know him to be, but he is also a man of complex emotions, dreams and of great pride. In Oil and Marble, Da Vinci’s beauty and arrogance hides his own insecurities. He knows his allure, his power over people (by way of reasoning) and over art (by way of science), but he carries within him a kind of darkness that only comes to the fore in his most private moments. In contrast, Michelangelo’s character is portrayed as one of constant and very public turmoil. He lives and dreams at a pace unreachable by philosophers and scientists because he fears, above sickness, or starvation, or even death, that he will be forgotten. He does not, like Da Vinci, know his power, but he nevertheless believes steadfastly that it is within him to reach greatness. If only he would be given a chance, if only he can do so before he dies of hunger.
Both artists believe in possibility. For Michelangelo, the Duccio stone holds uncountable possibilities, despite its many flaws. He is at odds with the stone; if it would just speak to him, would allow him to see what is at its heart, then perhaps he can find what lies within the marble. The greatest possibility Michelangelo sees, however, is not the beauty of the art, or the amount of comfort the payment from its completion will provide him. He sees a future far beyond his own lifetime and he rushes toward it with unerring clarity. In contrast, Da Vinci sees, perhaps, too much possibility. He claims to leave his art unfinished because, by doing so, it will forever contain the possibility of greatness. Da Vinci, too, looks well into the future. Will the humans of the future achieve flight? Will they uncover the secrets he is forced to leave undiscovered because of time? And what about the arrogant young stonecutter? Will he perhaps make something more worthy of Florence than the Master from Vinci?

What struck me as most unusual was how biased my own opinion of these artists had been prior to reading Oil and Marble. Perhaps I had preconceptions because I had studied these artists somewhat at university, or maybe it was in spite of my prior experience of them, but I had always had this idea that Leonardo Da Vinci had come by his education and knowledge because of his privilege. This privilege, I now understand, only existed in name. Leonardo did not have a formal education on account of his being the illegitimate son of the notary Piero from Vinci. Though home-schooled in basic reading, writing and arithmetic, Leonardo couldn’t read or write properly until well into adulthood, when he had chosen to study letters by writing and rewriting words and sentences until he was fluent in their use. Even his signature, not an artist’s rounded lettering, but a child’s scribble, attests to his lack of skill in this regard. Yet, today, he is known equally as a writer, mathematician and scientist as for his art.
There is also another, perhaps much more important aspect to the bias I noticed while reading Oil and Marble, and that is the preconceived one-dimensionality of an artist’s sexual orientation.
It is a well documented fact that Leonardo Da Vinci had many male partners, specifically his long-time student and partner Salai, to whom he left the Mona Lisa upon his death, as well as Francesco Melzi, who shared his final years and inherited all of his notebooks. Based on his personal history it is reasonable to assume that Da Vinci was homo-sexual, and this is also what we are predominantly taught. Because there is sufficient evidence for Da Vinci’s homo-sexuality, it is easy for art historians to underplay and even overlook the sexuality in his works, especially his paintings, or to make sweeping statements about his experiences of and attitude towards sex, sexuality and gender. But in Oil and Marble, Storey achieves an intricate balance between what we know of the man’s sexual exploits and the interpretation of the artist’s very unique ability to imbue sensuality onto his female subjects, specifically Lisa Gherardini (del Giocondo). Storey suggests a side to Da Vinci that most historians wholly ignore: that through his careful study and constant questioning of the human condition, he not only learns to understand the suppressed intelligence inherent in his female sitters, but he comes to love them on a level that surpasses sex or sexuality.
The book culminates in the completion of each of these artists’ most iconic works, but it also leaves us with a new beginning for each of them. For Michelangelo, it is the beginning of a career, the beginning of acceptance by his family and friends, the beginning of a life underpinned by taking responsibility for himself. For Da Vinci, it is the beginning of a more personal journey, one of acceptance, understanding and humility.
In the afterword to Oil and Marble, Stephanie Storey says the book was twenty years in the making. As her first novel it set an impossible standard. Her prose is uncomplicated, well-researched and beautifully written. Her settings are colorful and tactile. Her characters are well-rounded, unique human beings who experience the entire spectrum of emotion while inspiring an equally broad range of emotion from the reader. But beyond her ability to write interesting characters and strong plot, Stephanie Storey understands that for the reader of art-historical fiction, there is the added expectation of well-written art. Art that comes to life on the page. Art that is tangible, vibrant and evocative. Stephanie Storey writes this kind of art.
There is a reason why, while reviewing a book that is essentially about art, I haven’t written a single thing about the art contained within Oil and Marble’s pages. This sacred task I trust to the writer.

Bobby: Man’s best friend as you’ve never seen him before

 

Also available for Kindle at Amazon

I was introduced to Elizabeth Pienaar at the NB Books Authors’ Party earlier this year. A small, beautiful blonde woman with an open face and infectious smile. She was easy to talk to, even easier to listen to, as she is smart, well informed and a good conversationalist. That was my first impression, before we started talking shop.

What are you working on/getting published?

A new book, about to be released, she said. A Young Adult book called Bobby.

Young Adult? I had read only the week before that a multitude of American authors are suddenly finding themselves ranked as YA writers without ever having intended their work for that market. Did you write it as such? I asked.

She hadn’t, but it had become labelled during the publishing process. Labelled for teens, so it could be sold to teens.

What’s it about?

It’s about a dog, told from the dog’s perspective.

Pretty much the perfect elevator pitch, I thought. She hadn’t even needed two minutes. One sentence had me hooked.

Fast Forward two months.

In a charming bookstore in the heart of Melville, the lights are on tonight. Laughter flows out of the two entrances to Love Books at the Bamboo Centre on Rustenburg Road. Leopard’s Leap wine glows in every glass. Beautiful food disrupts happy conversation. In the midst of it all is Elizabeth, taking it all in. They are all here for her, but what they really came for is the book. A book, based on true events, inspired by the life of one creature that many would count insignificant. A dog. An animal so easily taken for granted, overlooked, forgotten. For the lucky few who understand, an animal which should never be taken for granted, overlooked or underestimated.

Elizabeth understands.

She speaks with mirth about her method as a writer, about discipline and belief. She speaks about Bobby, the real Bobby, with great love, from heartfelt remembrance. She looks with reverence to the couple who gave Bobby his final home. Arthur and Ingrid. They are among the attendees.

When she reads from her book, my signed copy burns me through its brown paper bag. I could have bought it a few weeks ago on Kindle, but then I wouldn’t be reading the real thing. Then I wouldn’t be able to hold the paper copy in my hands with the same anticipation, the same first-read jitters.

The cover is beautifully simple. A girl and a dark-coloured Alsatian with hazelnut eyes. A book that every dog-lover would pick up. A book that everyone else might pass by, not knowing what they missed.

 

“People coming, people coming to look!” Elizabeth Pienaar – Bobby

 

I met Bobby on page one. I’d heard about him, read snippets about him, but until I met him I couldn’t have understood the immensity of his presence. Bobby embodies every look, every wag of the tail, every yelp, or bark or whimper of every dog who ever lived. Bobby is the book you read to your children so they can understand the importance of being kind to animals. It’s the book you give to someone who’s been unfortunate enough to have to deal with the loss of a beloved companion. It’s the book that was written expressly to remind us that dogs are not pets, or protectors or mere companions. Dogs are family. And if you treat them right, they’ll love you more than is humanly possible.

Bobby tells the story of a dog who loses his human to death. Afterwards he is repeatedly abandoned by his caretakers until he ends up in a care facility, awaiting adoption or death. Along with so many of his kind waiting for someone to notice them, there is no knowing which of the two will come first.

On the other side of the special barrier, a young girl finds it hard to overcome her grief after losing her dog to Cancer.

Elizabeth Pienaar understands the human condition. She understands what grief is, that everybody deals with it in their own way and that it often defines who we become. In Bobby we have to deal with a new form of grief, a new understanding of our own reactions to the grief of others, whether they are human or not.

This book is not just for teenagers. Young Adult is not an apt label. It should have been labelled more distinctly. It should have been labelled “For humans”. It should be sold in pet stores, at shelters, by breeders and vets. Anyone with a beating heart should get a copy of Bobby. And since you’re going to the bookstore anyway, why not grab one for your friend, sibling, parent, grandparent or boss?

Get Elizabeth Pienaar’s fantastic debut novel (R120) at your local bookstore or buy it from Amazon via Kindle. Also available in Afrikaans as Bobbie. To learn more about the author, visit her website at: elizabethpienaar.com

Rewriting your prose for literary types (and rendering it incomprehensible)

The Book of Hard Words by David Bramwell

The Book of Hard Words by David Bramwell

I am affectionate toward books about words, which is how I came to read The book of hard words by David Bramwell. What comes next is what it inspired me to do.

This is the original flash fiction piece, written with it specifically in mind that I want to rewrite using only “hard words” from The book of hard words.

His neighbour’s unruly behaviour made him feel particularly bloodthirsty. The memories of his death and reincarnation returned once more.
Perhaps just one bite, he thought.
Biting her could be beneficial to him. He was one of a kind, a revolutionary of his time, because he was the only one of his kind who didn’t have the predisposition to kill his own offspring.
The more he thought about her slender digits, the more lustful he became.
She obviously feared speaking.
He carried her into his underground chamber. He hadn’t been there since the early part of the century, shortly after his rebirth, and the place was covered in spider webs and dust.
It had once been his winter retreat, but he had long since given up the practice. After his transformation it became unnecessary.
Tying her to a chair, he intended to pour her blood into a cup. That was, after all, the humane way of feeding.
He bent over her, ready to cut her delicate skin.
‘Wait,’ she insisted. ‘I can tell you many things about yourself. I am a palm reader.’
‘Is this a trick?’ he asked. ‘Or are you really a visionary?’
‘I’m not cool enough in the face of danger to be lying.’
He stuck out an overly cold hand towards her.
‘Hmm…,’ she murmured. ‘You have an unnatural vibe about you. Very mysterious.’ ‘Do you feel anxious during the full moon?’
He sighed audibly. ‘I’m not a werewolf, if that’s what you’re suggesting.’

How to use hard words in daily life.

How to use hard words in daily life.

This is the rewrite using hard words from the book.

His neighbour’s obstreperousness made him feel particularly sanguisugent. The memories of his metempsychosis returned once more.
Perhaps just one bite, he thought.
Biting her could be beneficial to him. He was sui generis, a sansculotte of his time, because he was the only one of his race who wasn’t prolicidal.
The more he thought about her leptodactylous beauty, the more concupiscent he became.
She was obviously lalophobic.
He carried her into his hypogeum. He hadn’t been there since the early part of the century, shortly after his rebirth, and the place was covered in spider webs and dust.
It had once been his hibernacle, but he had long since given up the practice. After his transformation it became unnecessary.
Tying her to a chair, he intended to extravasate her blood into a cup. That was, after all, the humane way of feeding.
He bent over her, ready to cut her delicate skin.
‘Wait,’ she insisted. ‘I can tell you many things about yourself. I practice dermatoglyphics.’
‘Is this a trick?’ he asked. ‘Or are you really theophanic?’
‘I’m not sangfroid enough to be lying.’
He stuck out an acrohypothermic hand towards her.
‘Hmm…,’ she murmured. ‘You have a preternatural aura about you. Very mysterious.’ ‘Do you feel anxious during the plenilune?’
He sighed audibly. ‘I’m not a lycanthrope, if that’s what you’re suggesting.’