I finished three books in the last few days, and because there are links between the three, I thought I’d do the reviews in one group, the better to explore those links. Two of the books, Illuminations and Ecstasy are by Mary Sharratt, and the third, The Testament of Mary is by Colm Tóibín. It was odd to be reading two books by the same author simultaneously, something I normally wouldn’t be doing before I began to listen to audiobooks.
The perfectly gorgeous cover of Ecstasy is almost the best thing about this book. It had been on my wishlist for a few months, so when it went on sale, I snatched it up. I’m a sucker for books about the fin de siecle, Vienna Secession, etc., and this fictional biography of Alma Mahler seemed exactly the sort of thing I’d gobble up like popcorn. Eh, not so much as it turns out. Though I’ve never subscribed to Alma as bitch-goddess, I felt that Sharratt went overboard trying turn her into a long-suffering near saint, who cleaves to her self-involved genius of a husband to the detriment of her own creative drives.
Alma was no saint. But I think I could have forgiven the attempts at rehabilitating Alma’s reputation if the narrative hadn’t been so wildly over-wrought, reading in some places like a really bad romance novel. Klimt’s kiss awakens her, losing her virginity to Mahler makes her a woman at last. (It’s actually unlikely that Mahler was the first. She probably took Alexander von Zemlinsky as a lover well before she met Mahler.) Sex is always a transcendent, earth-shattering experience in this novel, and I found myself muttering, “Oh God, not again!” every time Alma experiences another spiritual awakening.
The portrayal of young Alma very nearly made me stop reading. She comes across as an idiot teen. While this may be accurate, it’s not all that interesting. And even later, as an adult, her bouts of introspection which seem to make up the bulk of the narrative are annoying and repetitive. By the time she met Walter Gropius I was skimming the book, and while I found it odd that it effectively ended with Mahler’s death (implying, I thought, that the only truly interesting thing about her was her relationship with him) I have to say that I don’t think I could have tolerated fifty more years of transcendent sex, and hand-wringing about her music.
It’s a kind of miracle that I even began Illuminations, a fictionalized biography of Hildegard of Bingen, by Sharratt given how I was feeling about Ecstasy. But I had just finished a lecture about Hildegard and Bernard of Clairvaux, the two greatest Christian mystics of the 12th century, I was anxious to explore more about her.
Whether the subject was less conducive to such emotional excess, or because it was an audiobook where the narrator — who did a stellar job, btw — was able to soft-pedal the histrionics, I found this book much easier to like. I do wish I’d chosen an actual biography, but this one kept me reading, so it wasn’t a loss.
Hildegard’s life was strange even by 12th century standards. She was given at the age of eight as an oblate to Jutta von Sponheim, an anchorite at the monastery of Saint Disibod in Germany. Jutta and Hildegard were literally walled up in two small rooms for thirty years. On Jutta’s death, Hildegarde chose not to continue as an anchorite, a life she hadn’t chosen. Eventually she went on to found the Benedictine convent at Rupertsberg.
Again, I found Sharrat’s prose over-wrought, though not to the same extent as in Ecstasy. (At least there were no sex scenes!) but her invention of drama for the sake of drama bothered me. She portrays Jutta as having been raped by her own brother in an attempt to explain away Jutta’s masochistic piety. She comes perilously close to suggesting that Hildegard’s feelings for one of her fellow nuns, Richardis von Stade, had a sexual component. Now possibly both things are true, I don’t know, but, just as I felt Alma Mahler’s story was interesting enough without all the hand-wringing and spiritual sexuality, I think I’d rather have known more about the visions, about Hildegarde’s writings, and her music than Sharratt’s “psychological insights.”
All things considered, if I was going to recommend one of these books, it would be Illuminations.
But then we move to the sublime, with Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, a fictionalized account of the last years of the life of the Virgin. Mary now lives alone in Ephesus, being cared for by her son’s followers, none of which are ever named. She doesn’t like them — she calls them misfits, and they don’t like her, but she is useful to them because they hope she will fill in the gaps of their knowledge of Christ’s life.
But the thing is that she can’t or won’t do what they expect of her. What she could tell them isn’t always what she chooses to tell them, though she never lies, and there are things she still doesn’t wholly understand about her son’s life and death. She is not the saintly, long-suffering mother of our tradition, but an angry woman who refuses to be what they demand her to be. She refuses to tell them the things they want to hear and when they prompt her, she slaps them down. She is constantly at odds with her keepers, and that’s fine with her. In Tóibín’s hands Mary has become a tragic heroine, a fury, who will never accept that the death of her beloved child was “worth it.”
I broke down in tears at the end of this audiobook. Tóibín does in ninety-seven pages what Sharratt could not do in nearly three times that length, he gives us a richly imagined portrait of an extraordinary woman without a single extraneous word.
So there you are, three fictionalized biographies of remarkable women, saints and sinners. One is very much worth reading, one worth your time if you find the subject interesting, and one not so much even if you’re interested in Alma Mahler.