Wednesday, 19 November 2008

La Petite Danseuse de Degas (Michel Peyramaure)

--The blurb--
"Marie Von Goethem was born into a poor Belgian family. Her father was a tailor, her mother a laundress. The family arrived in Paris in 1861. Like her two sisters, Marie became a "petit rat" of the Opera - a poorly-paid member of the corps du ballet. Her participation in shows and her willingness to pose for artists alike allowed her to contribute visibly to the family income.
Her path soon crossed with the artist Degas, who used her as a model for one of his most original pieces. How did this meeting come to pass? What relationship was established between the painter and his fascination with bodies and forms that led him to create one of the most magnificent and most celebrated statues in the world?
The story ties itself up with various passions and dramas. Michel Peyramaure recounts all of the story's flavour, resuscitating the artistic universe of the second half on the 19th century and the beginnings of impressionism."
*blurb from; translation mine

--The review--
Born in 1922, Peyramaure has established a long and solid career of writing relaxing historical fiction, and has an impressive trail of work from which interested readers can choose. I do not often read historical fiction; however, the beauty of such fiction is that it can and does appeal to a wide user base: not only because we are all interested in different aspects of history (even if we are not historians) but also because of the generally open and accessible style of writing that comes with this genre. Peyramaure is arguably the best-known historical fiction writer in France, and he certainly seems to tick all the boxes. His research is tight, and while he addresses relevant historical issues, such as Degas' declining health and the true nature of his relationship with Marie van Goethem, his style also leaves the novel suitably open-ended so that the reading public can make up their own minds on aspects that even the 'real' historians don't know the answer to. While there is perhaps a slight bias in terms of the relationship's integrity, this is countered by the old argument of the reliability of the narrator, meaning that there is satisfactory room for exploration by the reader.

As an enthusiast of all things dance, I found that Peyramaure's vivid descriptions of the dimly-lit theatre and the ballerinas' movements and clothes did not fail to disapppoint. Equally, as a long-time lover of Degas' art, I found that the author treated both the art and the man himself with appropriate respect and realism in equal measure. It was illuminating to have provided as much of a glimpse as is possible into the life of the man behind the paintings, and 'flesh out' the artist's personality in the reader's mind, while still leaving enough gaps so that imagination can be used to fill in the rest.

Peyramaure is clearly a master of imagery: initially, as a resident of Paris, I was not sure about all the name-dropping of various famous Parisian locations. However, they quickly became integral to the story and a delight to read, becoming as much a part of the novel as the man and his projects.

Perhaps strangely, one is left with a feeling of nostalgia at the end of the novel: a reflection, it could be argued, on the degree of success of the portrayal of this part of Degas' life. There is also to an extent a feeling of sadness: you cannot help feeling the loss of the artist, despite knowing that it is coming. Despite Peyramaure's employment of the third person throughout the novel, there is a very intimate, first-person feel to it that lingers far longer than the reading of the book itself. As a haunting and taut introduction to Peyramaure's work, it is perhaps to be held up as proof that it is certainly worth investigating more of his oeuvre.

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