Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I love Paris...

Henry James is certainly not what I'd call light summer reading. But after enjoying Michiel Heyns's latest novel, Invisible Furies, I've been tempted to wade against my usual summer laziness and dip into The Ambassadors again.

As anyone who has followed Heyns's late-blooming literary career should know, he is quite the master when it comes to the work of The Master. He published his debut novel, The Children's Day, in 2002, shortly before retiring as a professor of literature at the University of Stellenbosch, and has since been making up for lost time, as it were, publishing no less than six acclaimed novels in the past decade and 'fast becoming one of South Africa's most respected novelists', according to The Sunday Independent. This year he has already received two important local literary prizes for his previous novel, Lost Ground, and seems to be finally gaining the recognition he deserves.

But to get back to James: Michiel Heyns's second novel, The Typewriter's Tale (2005), is a fictionalised biography of a period in James's life, seen through the eyes of a typist to whom The Master dictates the long, winding, complicated and often ironic sentences that make his novels rather difficult to read - not ideal for 'beach reading' - a hundred years later. But Heyns's own highly developed sense of irony turns this subject with the potential weight of a chainball into something light enough to float, never too serious or inaccessible. Henry James made, well, not exactly easy - no one would want to do that to James - but delightfuly digestible.

And now Heyns has done it again, although this time he returns to James in a more oblique way, by using The Ambasssadors - which was apparently James's favourite among his own novels - as the frame on which he weaves his modern-day take on 'dear old Paris', where 'everything, everybody shows'. (Quoting James, not Heyns.)

'You've all of you here so much visual sense,' remarks Strether, the protagonist of The Ambassadors (a mild and middle-aged American who is sent to Paris to lure his wealthy fiancĂ©e's prodigal son back home), before adding: 'There are moments when it strikes one that you haven't any other.'      

This same 'visual sense' almost overwhelms Heyns's protagonist, Christopher Turner (a mild and middle-aged South African sent to Paris to lure his wealthy best friend's prodigal son back home), who is enchanted by the Beautiful People he meets and starts questioning his own staid life and tired loyalties. Heyns cleverly places most of his Parisian characters in the fashion world - models, designers, make-up artists, agents and claqueurs (young men who are paid to look good and applaud at fashion shows) - an environment ruled by appearances even more, if that seems possible, than the rest of Paris.

You don't have to have read The Ambassadors to appreciate Heyns's  novel, but it does add to the pleasure if you can connect the dots between the story lines and the characters of the two novels. Some even share the same name, like Gloriani who is an admired artist in The Ambassadors and an admired fashion designer in Invisible Furies, and who rather reminded me of the real-life designer Armani - although of course the author might have had someone completely different in mind. As for the outrageously brash Alessandra Giovanelli with the dead designer brother, well, you don't have to be a fashion slave to remark the resemblance with a certain Donatella Versace...

But if all these fashion references make you fear a concoction as light and fluffily French as choux pastry, then you obviously haven't seen Master Heyns work his magic yet. Au contraire, Invisible Furies is actually quite a serious meditation on  beauty, superficiality and the way the eye can deceive, as well as an exploration of a theme dear to the author's heart: the tension between the homeland and the wide world out there. In Lost Ground the protagonist returns to the small Karoo dorp of his youth after living abroad for most of his life, while in Invisible Furies Christopher Turner returns to the great city of Paris for the first time in thirty years after spending all of his life in South Africa. Heyns manages all this while retaining his light and ironic touch, so that the book never becomes too heavy to read on the beach - or better still, on a park bench in Paris, if you're lucky enough to visit Paris this summer.

Because, maybe above all else, the book is an ode of love to an eternally beautiful city. If you love Paris - and who doesn't, come on, honestly? - you'll probably find the book as hard to resist as the city. Bon voyage, if you're travelling in that way. And happy reading, even if you're not.  

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