The Painter’s Lover, reviewed by Zoran Minderovic

Nanny and Child, by Eva Gonzalès

At first glance, this enigmatic and fascinating novel (Le Fifre, Écriture, 2015), beautifully translated into English by Annie Heminway and Ellen Sowchek, seems quite conventional, even banal—another tale of illicit love. Indeed, are not all narratives about passionate love merely repetitions, ad nauseam, poorly or ably executed, of the archetypal and universal story that is exemplified by the myth of Tristan and Isolde? Nevertheless, once the reader becomes aware of the novel’s place in the mythopoetic context of Western literature, a striking irregularity, so to speak, appears: here we find no femme fatale, such as Goethe’s Charlotte in The Sorrows of Young Werther, or the female vampire of paranoid folklore. No, Eva Gonzalès, who was first Édouard Manet’s disciple and then his lover, is, above all, a magnificent artist who happens to be spellbound by passionate love—embodied by her teacher. It is, in fact Manet, who, as homme fatal, leads us to the vampire legend. The reader is reminded of Wilhelm, the dead horseman of Gottfried August Bürger’s poem Lenore (masterfully translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti), an emblematic representation of vampirism in Western literature. And it should be noted that while the journey of Lenore, who follows her lover, does not last more than one night, the passion of Eva, who dedicates herself to Manet, is a lifelong fascination.

Indolence, by Eva Gonzalès

Eduardo Manet’s novel is certainly not a fantastic tale, despite subtle hints, from one of Eva’s Spanish relatives, who sees the womanizing Manet through phobic and superstitious eyes, suggesting a diabolical presence. There are no vampires or other demonic beings or phenomena in Eduardo Manet’s book, with the exception, perhaps, of France’s diabolically reactionary political and economic elite. Instead, the novelist conjures up brilliant scenes of artistic life, forming a rich palimpsest of Parisian events, spectacles, and personalities. Paris, despite Napoleon III’s megalomania and disastrous policies, is Europe’s capital, true centre of the world and the wellspring of the century’s greatest artistic movement: Impressionism. And inside that centre, akin to a sun surrounded by planets, epigones, and satellites, is Manet, the towering genius, the “father of modern painting,” a demi-god, perhaps even a god. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a woman who is herself an immensely gifted artist, an extraordinary painter, would succumb to the supernatural magnetism of a genius (in the context of a Romantic mythology which modern readers unknowingly espouse), who, in the manner of a master alchemist, holds the keys to artistic creation. Is it possible to imagine a passion greater than a love culminating in a paroxysm of creativity? Yet, regardless of any opinions expressed by writers of cover copy, The Painter’s Lover is not a love story. In fact, there is no such thing. The great revelation in A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes is that a lover’s discourse does not exist: “On the one hand, this is saying nothing; on the other, it is saying too much: impossible to adjust. My expressive needs oscillate between the mild little haiku summarizing a huge situation, and a great flood of banalities. I am both too big and too weak for writing: I am alongside it, for writing is always dense, violent, indifferent to the infantile ego which solicits it. Love has of course a complicity with my language (which maintains it), but it cannot be lodged in my writing.” Consequently, instead of constructing a lover’s discourse, the author describes the life of Eva, whose obsessive devotion is met with her idol’s cold indifference. In fact, the reader cannot tell whether Eva, the novel’s enigmatic protagonist, suffers from a demonic obsession, or whether, to paraphrase Barthes, she is her own demon. At any rate, Eva and Manet, seem to exist in a separate reality, having been transported into “a kind of transcendental state outside ordinary human experience, “ according to Denis de Rougemont’s analysis of the Tristan myth in Love in the Western World, “into an ineffable absolute irreconcilable with the world, but that they feel to be more real the world.

For Manet, what is more convincing than this world of empty, abstract, and sterile conventions is his power as a seducer, a power which every woman, artist of genius or insignificant individual, must blindly accept. Furthermore, an object of sexual conquest is also an object in a literal sense. A woman’s metamorphosis from someone to anyone, from anyone to object, and, finally, from object to mere image, is brilliantly condensed by the author in a lapidary fragment: “The pupil had become mistress. And the love relationship was in constant flux. With time, Eva had become increasingly smitten by Édouard. With time, Édouard had become accustomed to looking at Eva as he had become accustomed to looking at Berthe Morisot, Victorine Meurend . . . or roses, violets and still lifes. As beautiful pictures to paint.” Jeanne Gonzalès, the narrator, Eva’s younger sister and alter ego—and a talented painter in her own right—keeps away from the professional and emotional rivalries surrounding Manet. In this novel, she represents an alternative to a narcissistic artist’s life. And it is in Jeanne’s poignant soliloquy that the reader finds the book’s fundamental theme: ars longa vita brevis. Devoted, unlike Eva, only to her art, not to an artist, Jeanne understands the paradoxical grandeur of art transcending an individual’s existence, and identifies the mystery behind this paradox: 

The years were flying by, as they say, faster and faster. And we were all caught up in them. Sometimes I felt like I was living inside a windmill whose blades never moved at the same speed. One day turning slowly, another day spinning out of control.

For an artist, this meditation leads to only one conclusion: “One constant: solid and concrete: work.”

Cover, The Painter's Lover by Edoardo Manet

And last, but certainly not least: the translation of this novel into English by Annie Heminway and Ellen Sowchek is a lucid and suggestive text that remains faithful to the original. Among the numerous examples of the translators’ prowess I would like to focus on Jeanne’s meditation about time, where the mechanical image, in the original, of being trapped in the gears (engrenage) of the passing years is elliptically replaced by ”And we were all caught up them.” A beautiful and expressive ellipsis.

This extraordinary novel is a must-read for anyone who loves painting, art in general, spiritual greatness, and, to quote Walter Benjamin, “Paris as the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Eduardo Manet, a renowned Cuban-born French writer, playwright, and the grandson of Eva Gonzalès and Édouard Manet, shows how a novelist’s artistry can bestow immortality on a historical figure. In addition to being a magnificent work of imagination, this novel is a stirring literary narrative inspired by historical truth, a testimony saving a great artist from oblivion.

© Copyright 2015, Zoran Minderovic

A writer, translator, researcher, and editor (member of PEN Canada and the Editors’ Association of Canada), Zoran Minderovic has translated Elaine Pagels, Cynthia Ozick, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Julia Kristeva, and Félix Ravaisson into Serbian. His writings include three books of experimental prose.

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