Thursday 25 August 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: Girl in the Afternoon, Serena Burdick (2016)

Dripping with sensuality, dancing with tragedy and ripe with secrets, Serena Burdick’s debut novel, Girl in the Afternoon (2016), brings to life Belle Epoque Paris through the eyes of Aimee, an aspiring painter from a wealthy but dysfunctional family. Aimee is a protégé of Edouard Manet and, at eighteen, has already suffered from losing the man she loves (her stepbrother Henri) and suffering the ultimate betrayal at the hands of her coquettish and unpredictable mother, Colette.

 Aimee’s tale is a deeply personal one, but one set against periods of tumultuous change in France, politically and in the world of art. Studios and exhibitions provide the canvas for our story, while painting and modelling come to stand for the subjects of love and loss. But the novel isn’t just about Aimee. Burdick deftly gives us access to a variety of viewpoints — most effectively, for me, that of the often ignored yet deeply perceptive grandmother, Madame Savaray. The ending is as happy as this web of conflicting desires and perspectives can allow — that is to say not straightforwardly happy at all.

Girl in the Afternoon is subtitled ‘A Novel of Paris’ and it is in capturing France — the city, the countryside and the people — that is most successful. The transition to England in the latter half of the novel is a little jarring and I was pleased when we returned the more vivid setting. The frame narrative, while brief, wasn’t as emotionally affecting as the core story, although I understood the impulse to bookend the messiness of human life, emotions and relationships.

Serena Burdick
What impressed me most about Girl in the Afternoon was its avoidance of cliché and ability to surprise, even though the reader may initially feel in a position to observe what the characters cannot. Burdick has written a love story that isn’t a romance, an homage to the Impressionists and a portrait of parenthood that encompasses the difficulties of nineteenth-century childbirth, the pain of uncertain paternity and the ability of men and women to parent children who aren’t theirs at all.

Do you have any suggestions for what the Secret Victorianist should read next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know — here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Monday 8 August 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: Hotel de Dream, Edmund White (2007)

Edmund White sets himself a difficult challenge in his 2007 Hotel de Dream: A New York novel — can he dream up and recreate nineteenth-century American literary icon Stephen Crane’s debated lost novel, the tale of a male prostitute, a supposed companion piece to his Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)?

Evidence for the novel comes from a testimonial from James Gibbons Huneker (a literary critic and Crane’s friend). He describes witnessing a chance encounter between Crane and a ‘painted’ kid and how the author interviewed him for information, before beginning a novel including ‘the best passage of prose [he] ever wrote’.

Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
It’s a lofty claim to live up to. In White’s text the fabled novel is entitled ‘The Painted Boy’ and tells the story of Elliott, a syphilic newsboy who earns his living from providing special favours to his customers, and Theodore Koch, a married middle-aged banker, who destroys his life for his love of the boy.

It’s a master class in literary mimicry, taking on an admired forebear’s style, but White also interweaves the narrative with a frame story, a slow moving look at Crane’s final weeks and days with his ‘wife’ Cora in England and then Germany as he dies of tuberculosis aged only 28 and dictates this controversial novel to her.

Edmund White (1940 - )
While Crane and Cora are rendered well, with depth and originality, White seems more invested in Elliott’s story (the portion of the novel which is, after all, actually set in New York). Once ‘The Painted Boy’ picks up in pace, Hotel de Dream is a faster and more satisfying read, while our interest is held in early pages more by the cameos of other literary greats, like an (unflattering appearance) of Henry James.

Both stories revolve around love, death, poverty and public image but exploring the homosexual underworld of 1890s New York is especially fascinating. Elliott moves among fellow sex workers and transsexuals, is loved by middle class men and a mafia boss, is abused by his father, his brothers, his friends. In Theodore White is careful to create not a victim of repressed sexuality but a slave to the eclipsing power of an overwhelming love. It is the specificity of the tale and the recognisable humanity of its telling that makes it relatable.

Do you have any suggestions for what the Secret Victorianist should read next as part of my Neo-VictorianVoices series? Let me know — here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.