The following piece is from our August/September issue, which you can buy here.
A Vanishing History
Compass, Mathias Enard (trans. Charlotte Mandell), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, £14.99 (paperback)
Street of Thieves, Mathias Enard (trans. Charlotte Mandell), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015, £12.99 (paperback)
Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, Mathias Enard (trans. Charlotte Mandell), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018, £10.99 (paperback)
Zone, Mathias Enard (trans. Charlotte Mandell), Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2014, £14.99 (paperback)
‘To stroll through Istanbul’, writes the French author Mathias Enard in his Prix Goncourt winning 2015 novel Compass, ‘was a wrenching of beauty on the frontier – whether you regard Constantinople as the easternmost city in Europe or the westernmost city in Asia, as an end or a beginning, as a bridge or a border […] the place weighs on history as history itself weighs on humans’. Istanbul, meeting place between worlds, weighs as heavily on Enard’s work as home might on others: Dublin on James Joyce, New York on Susan Sontag, or Newark on Philip Roth.
The author and academic’s literary endeavour so far has been to explore the cross pollination, commonality and animosity between the two sides of the world. Their meeting points. In Street of Thieves, a young Moroccan called Lakhdar, employed to type texts by the ‘kilometre’, is given ‘One million three hundred thousand files’ of French war dead to transcribe. ‘It was strange to think that these ghosts of polius’, he says, ‘were making a posthumous trip to Morocco, to Tangier, in my computer’. The narrator of Zone, a war criminal turned spy – whose ancestors have between them been part of the French Resistance, fought for fascist Ustashi Croatia, and tortured Algerians – collects information on other war criminals from the Mediterranean to the Middle East. He thinks of himself as an ‘international informer’: even the position of spy – blending between two places, two camps – can be leached by Enard for its cosmopolitan significance. This man is on his way to Rome, where all roads lead. But all of Enard’s roads tend to lead to that other seat of empire which has many names, depending on where you sit in history: Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul.
Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, the most recent of Enard’s novels to be translated into English, involves a visit that Michelangelo Buonarroti may or may not have paid to the city in 1506. In Enard’s telling, the artist has been commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Bayezid II ‘to plan, draw and start work on a bridge between Constantinople and Pera, the northern district. A bridge to cross what is called the Golden Horn’. At the peak of his young power at 31, the artist has sculpted his David, but hasn’t yet become one of the three most famous artists from any age. He is attuned to the ‘austere temptations of posterity’, and spends half his internal time lashing out at Raphael and Bramante, the two other artistic titans of the Roman court who seem to have better relations with Pope Julius II. In fact the reason Michelangelo has accepted the Sultan’s commission, despite the political danger of defecting from the Pope’s service, is that Leonardo da Vinci has already failed to design a bridge across the Golden Horn. An opportunity to best him has arisen.
This short book, under 150 pages, has a share of political intrigue, of the espionage and violence that occupied the 500-page Zone. But it is primarily a vehicle for the Florentine artist’s sensations. Michelangelo wanders the city with the Ottoman poet Mesihi of Prishtina, who has fallen for him. He lists the things he sees, thinks about the city’s architecture. He becomes obsessed with an androgynous musician from Andalucia. It is, if anything, a historical flaneur novel that engages directly with Enard’s enduring preoccupations. ‘The city is balanced between east and west’, we are told, ‘as [Michelangelo] himself is between Bayezid and the Pope, between Mesihi’s tenderness and the burning memory of a dazzling singer’. The place ‘swayed between Ottomans, Greeks, Jews and Latins’, and has welcomed displaced Andalusian Muslims following the Catholic conquest of Grenada. (Diasporas are of great importance to the author.) Michelangelo’s possible stay in the Ottoman capital is excavated by Enard from fragments. From letters the artist sent to Rome claiming to be in Florence, and ones to Florence sent at the same time claiming to be far away. From invitations mentioned in contemporaneous biographies. From drawings and inventories on scraps of paper newly discovered in Istanbul. It is a fiction, but it could be true. Enard has given it the same authority he gives to all his imaginative projects that are then secreted back into history, such as the massive and wholly convincing but quixotic thesis of Franz Ritter, the musicologist protagonist in Compass, who seeks to prove that all Western and Eastern music is a result of a perpetual cultural exchange over the centuries.
Tell them of Battles occupies a strange place in the oeuvre. Of the nine novels Enard has written, this is the fourth to be translated into English by Charlotte Mandell. Used to the Sebaldian prose of his other big works already translated, those long mailable sentences (Zone was written in a single one) able to accrue seemingly limitless potted lives, stories and ephemera in their train, a reader might naturally think that this new publication is either an Ur-work, or else an austere new direction taken after them. But it was published in French in 2010, putting it somewhere between Zone (2008, tr.2014) and Compass (2015, tr.2017), which can currently be seen as the two poles of his achievement available to Anglophone readers. One is an encyclopaedia of conflict between east and west, the other an encyclopaedia of their artistic collaboration. But it doesn’t feel like a meeting place between those two poles. Tell Them of Battles instead seems like a border. Constructed from at times paragraph- length chapters, letters, litanies of materials and groceries or things seen, it is more redolent of aphoristic works like Bluets by Maggie Nelson or Now, Now, Louison by Jean Fremon, which swiftly conjures a crystalline fictional biography for the artist Louise Bourgeois. It is also hard, austere. In order to inhabit a different historical moment, and adapt himself to the realistic narrow prejudices of someone thinking 500 years ago, it is as though Enard has been obliged to shed the long, omnivorous sentences that speak for an openness of horizons. Cleanse himself of his modern, urbane eye. Even Francis Mirkovic, the narrator of Zone who once fought for the far right and slaughtered Serbs in Bosnia, has come to inhabit an inclusive mind. The Catholic Michelangelo of his day has a different type of curiosity.
An old argument: historical fiction, if a writer is serious about it, is very difficult. To make the past as engaging as the present, which is the natural home for writers of any age, there are many appeals writers have to make in order to square distant characters and their distant moralities with the modern world and modern reader. If characters who were fashionably modern a handful of decades ago can feel now as if they are lagging behind the discourse, what hope has a personage from 100, 200, 500 years ago of being comfortable reading company? And yet, getting at consciousness and convincing thought is the goal of all fiction. Henry James put the quandary well in a much-quoted letter of 1901:
You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do […]… You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman, – or rather fifty – whose own thinking was intensely-otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – & even then it’s all humbug.
I can think of a few recent authors who have managed it brilliantly: Hilary Mantel’s depictions of Thomas Cromwell, or Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which subverted eighteenth-century narrative conventions to explore race in colonial America. Often, though, it is hard to achieve the harsh otherness of the past and keep it urgent. As James said, it’s often ‘humbug’.
Enard’s Michelangelo believes in God physically, his faith being a looming presence. This Catholic character from half a millennium ago ‘is surprised he gets along so well with an infidel’, he thinks about Mesihi, and has to ‘overcome his fear and distaste for Muslim things’ when he enters the great mosque of the city. At one point the identity of Mohammed is explained to him. ‘The one Dante sends to the fifth circle of Hell, thinks Michelangelo, before resuming his contemplation of the building.’ This, perhaps, is how people might have thought once you strip modernity away. This is generous, you then realise. Lots of people still think this way today, and it has been a life’s work so far for Enard to debunk Islamophobia and bigotry in his books, and to unpick an idea of ‘an Orient’ which is propagated by art and by people. Dante and Mohammed are rich sources for the author. In Zone, published in French two years before Tell them of Battles, Francis Mirkovic remembers a church in Bologna where Italian police thought they’d foiled ‘one of the strangest Islamist attacks ever’. A plot to destroy an early fifteenth-century fresco depicting the hellish torture of Mohammed by Dante in his Inferno. This turns out to be prejudiced nonsense. The accused Islamists were simply tourists.
Tell Them of Battles uses the religious prejudice of the past both to validate Michelangelo as an authentic figure and to establish him as a signpost in Enard’s own wandering quest for a literary Orient, one free of patronising otherness. Franz Ritter is drawn to ‘non-places, utopias, ideological fantasies in which many who had wanted to travel had got lost’: places littered with ‘the bodies of artists, poets and travellers’. So is Enard. The Bosphorus is a ’beautiful place between two shores’ which Enard’s books seek to inhabit. The idea of a literary Orient is Enard’s destination. A place all books and all the stories ever told can meet: an ideal place worthy of his long sentences.
In Compass, Ritter contemplates the undocumented journey Franz Liszt made to Istanbul. ‘Stendhal syndrome or real mystical experience, I have no idea, but I imagined that Liszt the heavenly Gypsy had also been able to find there a release, a force, in these views and buildings; that perhaps a little of that light of the Orient he carried in him had been revived during his visit to Constantinople.’ But the important journey, the titular journey, in fact, is one which the narrator would like to imagine happening. The compass of the book is owned by Ritter: a replica of Beethoven’s own compass which the composer used to navigate Austrian forests on his walks. It points east rather than north, and the narrator sees this as evidence Beethoven was planning a trip in that direction. It is this trip that he didn’t take but might have taken which is the centre of Ritter’s interminable thesis. Had not the title been taken by Italo Calvino, any of Enard’s books could well have been called Invisible Cities. Especially Tell Them of Battles, which is about a work of art which was not created, and can’t be seen.
When Enard’s Michelangelo is taken to his new Istanbul workshop, there are designs and models for the bridge Leonardo da Vinci had attempted. He admits it is ‘so innovative that it is frightening’, but its brilliance has nothing to do with its surroundings. It is not harmonious with Istanbul and its architecture. For his own bridge, Michelangelo will put his eye-pleasing classicism into the service of reflecting the city’s temper. The book, almost an inverse novel, a proposal or notebook for a piece of art which is to be made, will catalogue the aesthetic influences that work on Michelangelo during his stay in Istanbul and show how he might have come to conceive of this bridge, which exists as a drawing found in the Ottoman archives. Since attributed to Michelangelo, the sketch can be seen at the back of the book. The bridge’s vaults and pillars seem to evoke the four arches supporting the dome of Santa Sofia, or at least the experience of it relayed when Michelangelo first enters that church turned mosque: ‘the impression of lightness despite the mass, such a contrast between the outer austerity and the elevation, the levitation almost, of the inner space’. It evokes, too, Bayezid II’s library, a ‘simple space whose majesty, instead of crushing the visitor, places him at the centre of the arrangement, flatters him, exhausts and reassures him’. Working backwards, Enard reconstructs for us the ancient city out of a sketch, and makes a lost Michelangelo out of the ancient sites he knows so well.
As well as showing us how Michelangelo came to conceive of his bridge, Enard shows us how a hypothetical trip to the Orient could have influenced his greatest existing work to come: the frescos he will make ‘three years from now’ on the Sistine Ceiling; how the two shores on the Bosphorus can be seen in the ‘Two extended fingers that don’t touch each other’ between God and Adam. ‘In painting as in architecture, the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti will owe much to Istanbul.’ Then, ‘twenty years later, drawing a dome for the Basilica of St Peter in Rome, he would think again of the cupola of that Santa Sophia’.
The book is an esoteric description of one single synthesis of East meets West. The sense of a plot, the story of his friendship and relationship with Mesihi the poet, his desire for the singer who is hired to kill him, even the character of the sculptor himself – his coldness and determination – are structural ornamentation unless they too are shown to shape his work. The stuff of this novel could be one of the many stories Enard’s narrators tell us in their 500 page onslaughts of knowledge. Where those embedded stories are quickly unfurled over a few pages or even lines, this one is unpacked, given air, more of a shape, less to compete with. This may well endear the book to readers daunted by Enard’s other available books: 500 pages narrated in a single sentence, 600 pages narrated over the course of a single night’s insomnia by an academic. As a reading public, the British seem often to have ‘had enough of experts’, so to speak, and the French author’s books have the tendency to become the ‘vast works of erudition’ that Franz Ritter laments aren’t being written anymore in the universities. Either way, for better and worse, Tell Them of Battles can’t occupy the same place as the larger works, as it doesn’t ultimately become the work of art it describes. Tell them of Battles isn’t the bridge itself, but remains the model or even the beautiful finished sketch for a bridge that isn’t built. But this sketch was always the intention.
There are many for whom the lost documents of inspiration for great works have come to have more significance than the surviving juggernauts of achievement. Some would rather, whether out of rebelliousness or genuine appreciation for the literary ruin as artifact, have the lost early working notebooks that accompanied Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov than the massive end product itself. And there is something more satisfying in reading the notebooks of Henry James, and watching his ideas for short stories heap up, than in reading many of those stories in completion. Tell Them of Battles may be little more than a fragment between the war-like David of Enard’s Zone, or the Sistine Ceiling of his Compass. But today the fragment is allowed to be just as beautiful as the masterpieces either side of it. And as a slice of a vanished past, thought into from a 500-year distance, it is very successful. It could be made important, too. Part of me would love to see a host of such sketches, fragments, describing potential works of art conceived of centuries ago.