REVIEW: A Sportful Malice

A Sportful MaliceA Sportful Malice

Michiel Heyns

Jonathan Ball

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

It is possible to rampage into a book by a favoured author without heeding any of the clues he or she has put on the reader’s path. Thus I found myself, a third of a way into Heyns’ new book, increasingly irritated and then, mercifully, puzzled, by the narrator.

Mercifully, because if my slow-arising suspicions had not been stimulated, I might not have wrung half the fun I eventually did from this, his seventh novel. Heyns is too controlled and too practised a writer to present a character like Michael Marcucci without also poking fun at him.

Michael’s is the prissiest and most pompous voice I’ve encountered in a novel in a long time. He writes letters to his partner in Joburg from England and Italy, where he has gone to wrap up research on his studies.

Michael, whose father was Italian and mother South African, is interested in how writers have “appropriated” Tuscany for themselves by writing about it. He has the cynic and scholar’s distance to this appropriation, which in turn causes him to be blind to how he appropriates, and is appropriated by, this place about which so much has been written by Anglo-Saxon writers.

Michael is an insufferable snob. But clever snobs can be very funny, and Michael’s bitchiness provides the reader with moments of great mirth. His letters expose him as clever and witty, but also as vain and superficial, concerned largely with appearances.

Indeed, how things appear (as opposed to how they really are) is a motif that runs through this “comedy of revenge”, as the (observant) reader is alerted just under the title. The author’s intertextual references abound. The idea of a comedy of revenge calls to mind Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and the novel deploys – successfully – some of the hammed-up elements of farce.

Farce develops its humour from the foolishness of unintelligent people and Michael – for all that he is a scholarly smarty pants – is monstrously foolish. While he is cuttingly observant about other’s foibles, and sharp in his observation of art, literature and the beauty that surrounds him in Tuscany, he is blind to his own faults.

An almost tragic self-awareness, coupled with comical lack of self-insight, creates the axis for the action.

In Tuscany, having inadvertently acquired a hulking yob of a “friend” on the flight from Stansted airport to Florence, Michael stays in a house owned by a geriatric couple of British artists. Augustus appears to be an absent-minded old man, and his caustic partner Sophronia, a witch from deepest Belgravia. Both are cast in rich chiaroscuro. Being hosted by the couple provides Michael with plenty of material to write home about.

Before arriving in the Tuscan village of Gianocini, Michael has used his time in England and in Florence to indulge his appreciation of art, visiting an exhibition of Caravaggio paintings in London, and various exhibitions in Florence.

Art’s function in the novel opens two main intellectual paths for Heyns to draw the reader along.

In the first place, it provides an arena for discussions about representative versus conceptual art, the latter being anathema to Augustus and Sophronia, who emphasise technique above all else when it comes to art.

(In one of the most amusing episodes in the book, Michael has an extended conversation with an art dealer, a conversation that pulls out every possible stop on the pretentious language employed by those who consider themselves aficionados.)

In the second place, the preoccupation with classical art rubs up against the thoroughly modern topic of social media.

Caravaggio, whose painting of David with the head of Goliath is shown on the front cover, was a painter who inserted his own image into many of his paintings. Notably, in the picture represented on the back cover of the novel, his face is the one that adorns Goliath’s severed head.

The artist therefore presents himself to the world, very much as people now present images of themselves on social media for public consumption.

Can the artist be the art?

A young artist who has piqued Michael’s sexual interest has been mentored by Augustus and Sophronia. While thoroughly schooled in classical technique, Paolo has developed an interest in conceptual art, but knows that his mentors’ disdain would put him at a dangerous disadvantage were he to tell them. And yet he finds the idea of presenting himself as Michaelangelo’s David – naked in public in the famous sculpture’s fey pose – beguiling.

In much the same way, Michael has represented himself – and presented a concept of himself – on Facebook.

Narcissism is not new and, for all its apparent sophistication in some instances, it remains a foolish and un-endearing trait.

Michael’s interaction with the characters he meets in Gianocini is what this story is built around, but for all its intellectual preoccupations, it reveals itself as unpretentiously plain, even slapstick in places.

But slapstick, in the hands of this master storyteller, is delightful and invigorating.

I thoroughly, happily, greedily enjoyed this farce.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in May 2014

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