Monday, November 17, 2008

"Caravaggio's Angel"

Ruth Brandon is a historian, biographer and novelist. Her 2008 books are: Other People's Daughters (in America, Governess, the Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres), which is about governesses, a social history told through seven short lives; and Caravaggio's Angel, an art-historical thriller which is the first of a series featuring a new heroine, the canny and ambitious Reggie Lee.

She applied the Page 69 Test to Caravaggio's Angel and reported the following:
I wanted to write a crime story about a picture because pictures are both aesthetic objects surrounded by arty folk full of expertise and pretentiousness, and at the same time hard currency - which obviously creates all sorts of tensions. I also wanted to write about France, where I spend a lot of time – particularly about the way echoes of World War 2 are still inescapable, especially in the country, where everyone knows everyone else’s history.

I chose Caravaggio because his use of optics and predilection for beautiful young male models offered possibilities for all sorts of art-historical fun. The picture at the centre of the story, St Cecilia and the Angel, is invented, but it’s a composite of stuff from several existing Caravaggios.

On page 69 my heroine, Reggie Lee, who is curating a Caravaggio exhibition, is talking to the old French chatelaine, Juliette, who turns out to own a copy of the picture, and whose life story is the backbone of the book and the key to many of its puzzles. Reggie is a tough modern woman, determined to make her professional mark, but she and Juliette strike up an instant friendship, and the top of the page is about this sympathy, as Juliette remembers her naughty youth among the Surrealists and Reggie talks about her own Parisian grandmother. But then the focus shifts to the picture itself:

Caught in the double beam of natural sunlight and Caravaggio’s ineffable incandescence, the Angel seemed on the very point of movement. Most angels are androgynous creatures, but this one was unmistakably male and unequivocally sexy, with his beautiful black wings, shining brown curls, bruised lips and hooded brown eyes.‘What a beautiful young man,’ I said. ‘You know the painting of Bacchus? The one with the boy holding the glass of wine? I think this may be the same boy, a few years further on.’

Art and politics are deeply entwined, not just in my story, but in the world. It’s an explosive mix, and it’s at the core of Caravaggio’s Angel.
Read more about the book and author at Ruth Brandon's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue