Miles Harvey's Painter in a Savage Land.

Reading between the lines.
June 23 2008 8:10 AM

Why Implausibility Sells

The strange quest to write history in the absence of evidence.

(Continued from Page 1)

More than once Harvey compares Le Moyne's journey into unknown territory with his own "quest" in search of Le Moyne, and he keeps the reader guessing with a few too many suspense-creating clauses: "Their visit had lasted only three days. It would change the world." Harvey is a master of injecting suspense even into admissions of ignorance, which he turns into occasions for flamboyant prose and speculative improvisation, as in this "portrait" of the artist as a young man:

No portrait survives of the painter, then about 30 years old. We do not know whether he was slim or burly, tall or short, handsome or disfigured, his voice deep or nasal, his complexion olive or fair. We know only that he was thick-skinned, that some combination of good genes and good luck bestowed on him a genius for survival. We have no idea what a lover would have remembered about his touch or a fortuneteller would have discovered in his palm, yet we can guess that his hands were strong and nimble, skilled at crafting illustrations of infinitesimal detail yet also adept at handling a harquebus, the unwieldy predecessor to the musket. We cannot say whether he inherited dark eyes from the Gauls or blue from the Normans, but the more we learn about him, the more we are convinced that those eyes, whatever their color, took everything in and gave very little away.

Advertisement

Faced with so much uncertainty, Harvey does some legwork of his own, tracking down a possible relative of Le Moyne's who served as embroiderer to Mary Queen of Scots, and arguing that Le Moyne's art may be more closely tied to embroidery patterns than has been thought. Harvey fills out his own blank pages with accounts of the Florida congressman (and Ripley's Believe It or Not! contributor) who pushed through legislation to protect the supposed site of the original Fort Caroline, the archeologists who have tried in vain to find its foundations, and the successful bidder for a recently discovered book of Le Moyne's botanical images, who immediately razored them out, a la Bland, for quick sale.

Such space-filling ends up feeling strained and far-fetched, a bit like the unicorns and gold-filled mountains in maps of the terra incognita of the New World. Harvey aims to draw on our sense that truth is strange and bizarre things happen. And yet he ends up making it all seem contrived—rather than, as in life, fortuitous. To make all of this—well—embroidery seem worth the effort, Harvey does what he can to puff what he calls the "extraordinary career" of a relatively minor artist, reaching for words like stunning and sublime and uncanny to describe rather conventional work. Or what sounds like rather conventional work: Since little of it exists, it's actually rather hard to know just how to assess Le Moyne's work, which is why he is an ideal subject for an enterprise such as this.

Our recent literary history is notorious for uneasy trafficking along the badly policed borders of fact and fiction, with illicit memoirs and historical fiction that, like The Da Vinci Code, play fast and loose with the past. Harvey isn't remotely guilty of trying to pull a fabrication; he's all too upfront about what a fabrication it all is. Along the way he has, perhaps unwittingly, stumbled onto a genre of its own, the biography built of gaps: A.J.A. Symons' The Quest for Corvo is a masterpiece of this kind; another is poet Muriel Rukeyser's The Traces of Thomas Hariot, about an enigmatic intimate of Walter Raleigh (who happens to make a cameo appearance in Painter in a Strange Land).

The trick in such books is to preserve the gaps, letting the mystery open up until it's a metaphor for our troubled access to other lives, past and present. The appeal, when it's successful, is that it manages to make the most of the obduracy of fact and the artistry of fiction, creating a blend in which we're aware of the unpredictable mix of coincidence, unseen connections, and melodramatic juxtapositions that go into creating the messiness of life. Harvey's nervous attempt to fill the gaps defeats his purpose. Painter in a Savage Land ends up seeming dogged and contrived where it should be light and suggestive. By the end of the book, Harvey himself seems exhausted by the sheer effort of piecing together a plausible tale of Le Moyne's "long strange odyssey." "I confess," he writes, "that I've finally grown tired of him, too."

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Dec. 22 2014 3:01 PM Slate Voice: “Santa Should Not Be a White Man Anymore” Aisha Harris reads her piece on giving St. Nick a makeover.