Which form of art is the finest?
In the delirious and vitalizing novel Catherine Lescault, alternative incarnations of Honoré de Balzac’s classic characters from The Unknown Masterpiece enact romances of lunacy and obsession to dramatize their search for the reality of artistic creation. The novelists Frenhofer and Porbus, the painter and muse Gillette, the troubadour Nicolas, and the sculptor Houdon all strive to discover the secret of imbuing art with life, despite the voices of academic critics and students, peers and rivals, relatives and loved ones, and their own withering internal frailties. Some disciples may achieve the dream of allowing the ideal courtesan subject, Catherine Lescault herself, to breathe and live and love, while other artists’ fixations lead into monomaniacal madness with unspeakably tragic consequences.
Which interpretation will ultimately triumph: sculpture, paint, music, dance, acts on the stage, or words on the page?
Illustrations by Rocío De Juan Bayarri
Idlewild’s novel is a fantastic exploration of the creative process and the horror of creation, heavily rooted in Honoré de Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece.” Balzac’s characters move through the novel as spirits and paintings, each a different incarnation in a mirrored world. In the opening epistolaries, Mary Frenhofer hopes that the “rarified air” of an inherited country home will help her husband recover from depression and finish his masterpiece, a book years in the making; she doesn’t know that the house is marred by a torturous history of artists going mad and muses dying within. “The house of fiction has many rooms,” Dr. Frenhofer observes. “But in this house a room is missing.” The novel takes a sharp turn into the unreal when Dr. Frenhofer is proven to be right; a portrait of the dead artist Porbus is found in a hidden room, and from it he walks like a specter. In a mirror universe, Porbus’s muse Gillette is the ingénue painter seeking to perfect her masterpiece, and Mary’s letters are found documents. Gillette is Pygmalion, and Porbus is entirely her creation. Idlewild’s novel becomes a palimpsest in itself; pieces of Balzac’s original narrative are obscured and repurposed, until the novel itself imitates Balzac’s fictional painting of Catherine Lescault. Idlewild’s exploration of the nature of art is a bewildering, beautiful novel full of intriguing characters. (BookLife)