An Act of Love
Lindsay Clarke praises the remarkable work of an underrated novelist. A Gift for the Magus by Linda Proud. Godstow Press, 2012. ISBN: 9781907651038
Since the monetary values of the corporate world began to dominate the mainstream publishing houses, several fine novelists who are neither celebrities nor mass-market best-sellers have found it increasingly difficult either to get their work into print at all or for their books to receive much attention from the media. Fortunately a number of small independent publishers have found courage to do something about this unsatisfactory state of affairs. As both co-founder of Godstow Press and an excellent novelist, whose work has lacked the advantage of widespread publicity, Linda Proud is a significant figure in this development, and her strong, beautifully presented new novel demonstrates precisely why it matters.
A Gift for the Magus is a prequel to her Botticelli Trilogy of novels and this review wants to draw to all four books the serious attention they deserve. Mostly set in Renaissance Florence, the Trilogy follows the fortunes of a young scribe, Tommaso de’ Maffei, in his encounters with the friends and enemies of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the artists and thinkers who lent his court such glittering distinction. True to both the spirit and the dramatic history of the Quattrocentro, these engaging narratives offer convincing portraits of such luminaries as Botticelli, Simonetta Vespucci, Poliziano, Leonardo da Vinci, Pico della Mirandola, Savonarola, Erasmus and the English Platonists and, behind them all, the intriguingly elusive figure of Marsilio Ficino, whose wisdom and scholarship inspired one of the most important evolutions of European culture. Yet all these formidable characters and themes are imagined with the confidence, fidelity and good humour of an author so deeply engrossed in her material that the novels almost read as an artistically satisfying act of channelling. One might equally well say as an act of love.
A great painting by Botticelli inspired each volume of the trilogy (Primavera, Pallas and the Centaur and The Birth of Venus), and each of them sticks to the known facts of history, supplemented by the vigorous activity of what the author calls the ‘rational imagination’, which is both highly intuitive and capable of deeply compassionate understanding. By the end of the third volume Lorenzo is dead and the glory of Florence has been scourged by Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities; but Tommaso has recovered what he had lost – the courage to love – and his story affirms that the “divine world is here, now, but we clothe it in temporality, in desire, in misery, and know it not.”
One might have thought the demanding task completed there, but Linda Proud’s questing imagination was drawn deep into her fascination with the morally complex character of Fra Filippo Lippi, and a compelling new novel, A Gift for the Magus, emerged. Set earlier than the trilogy, it tells the story of an artist who combined an angelic vision and the skill of a master craftsman with a talent for procrastination and for frequently falling in and out of trouble. While offering masterful depictions of the worldly-wise Cosimo de’ Medici and the saintly Fra Angelico, the novel’s main concern is to interrogate the true nature of goodness through a humane appraisal of a man whose appetite for life rendered him incapable of fidelity to his monastic vows. Like the books of the Trilogy it’s a terrific read.
Novels that offer a beguiling narrative while exploring the ambiguities of experience, the rich symbology of great art and the claims of the spiritual intellect are rare these days. Linda Proud’s historical novels stand up well beside those of Mary Renault, Zoé Oldenbourg and Marguerite Yourcenar. They deserve much wider public attention than they have been afforded.