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Friday, June 16, 2017

Literary Muses and Review of MUSE by Mary Novik

According to the Ancient Greeks, artistic inspiration came from one of the Muses, three female deities who gave men the power to create.   The poet Hesiod expanded the number of muses to nine: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania. 

Of course, there have been real-life people who have served as muses for writers.  I found some interesting articles about such literary muses. 

There is some overlap in these three articles, but I was surprised that none of them mentioned Laura de Noves who had such a great influence on the poetry of Francesco Petrarch.  Laura de Noves (1310–1348) was the wife of Count Hugues de Sade (an ancestor of Marquis de Sade).  She is probably the Laura that Petrarch wrote about extensively though she has never been positively identified as such.  Petrarch saw her for the first time in Avignon on Good Friday in 1327 at mass in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon.  After this first encounter with Laura, Petrarch spent the next three years in Avignon singing his purely platonic love and haunting Laura in church and on her walks.  Petrarch then left Avignon but returned in 1337 and bought a small estate at Vaucluse to be near his dear Laura. Here, for the next three years, he wrote numerous sonnets in her praise.  Laura died in 1348; years later, Petrarch wrote a religious allegory in which Laura is idealized.

There is a novel, Muse by Mary Novik, which claims to be “the story of the charismatic woman who was the inspiration behind Petrarch's sublime love poetry.”  Here’s my review of that book:
2 Stars
The protagonist of this novel is Solange LeBlanc who, according to the publisher’s description, is “the charismatic woman who was the inspiration for Petrarch’s sublime love poetry.” Set in 14th century Avignon, this book, contrary to this description, is not the story of Laura de Sade who was Petrarch’s muse, the one without whom Petrarch claims his poems “’have no substance.’” Instead, the book is the story of Solange who is his lover but, in terms of Petrarch’s poetry, could best be described as his editor. The novel details several rises and falls in the fortunes of a woman who is viewed at various times as a prophet, harlot, witch, and saint.

My major problem with the book is the character of Solange. I wanted to feel sympathy for her because she is certainly used and then discarded by men, but she does nothing to help her situation. She does stupid things (cheating on Pope Clement VI) and then seems amazed when there are negative repercussions for her behaviour. Her relationship with Petrarch also makes no sense. Over and over and over again, he mistreats her horribly, in private and in public, yet she still goes back to him? He even tells her, “’I can never give you everything you want from me’” and says that he loves her but only “’With my flesh, but not my soul. That belongs to Madonna Laura.’” Nonetheless Solange keeps going back to him and she justifies her actions by saying, “He will change the face of literature forever. Much can be forgiven a man of such greatness.” She also states, “I have learnt that it is possible to love and hate the same man,” yet none of this hate is evident. Instead, she reserves her hatred for Laura who really does nothing and who, because of her marital status and social position, has virtually no contact with Petrarch.

The pacing of the novel is uneven. Sometimes, years are dismissed in a few pages; at other times, tedious details are given. For example, several times, parades of people are mentioned: “Advancing were Clement’s nephews, Nicolas de Besse and Guillaume de La Jugie, followed by the men who had married into the family, then the uncles, cousins, officers, and Limousin nobles.” And “I was pulling on my azure robe when in came Hugues Roger with the surgeon de Chauliac . . . After them arrived Captain Aigrefeuille of the pointed stars, with the jailer Renaud de Pons. Five or six other men, all vital to palace operations, entered the room.” And “the rank and file of papal functionaries marched past, followed by squires and knights in battle armour, then the city marshall, the camerlengo, and the grand penitentiary . . .” And “We were met by sixteen cardinals, plus counts, bishops, damoiseaux, captains, chevaliers, down the line to ecuyers . . . ” These lists serve little purpose except to indicate that the author did considerable research for the book. That research is commendable, but sometimes information is needlessly repeated. Twice we are told that prostitutes had to wear “crimson ribbons” and four times it is mentioned that people believed that the soul entered the body on the eightieth day.

There are events that are unbelievable. Women become pregnant almost on demand. Solange twice arranges to conceive, each time after having intercourse only once. Laura manages to do the same as well. One minute Solange learns that the pope is finished with her and the next minute, when she returns to her room, she finds her maids “already pawing my garments”? One day Solange has difficulty having any physical contact with Angiere but shortly afterwards Solange wants someone else to assist Angiere as she gives birth, “someone else to attend her, someone who did not love her as I did.” The juxtaposition of Solange’s arrival at Clairefontaine and Mother Agnes’s illness seems coincidental.

Despite my hopes, this book was disappointing.

Note: I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.