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Diane Awerbuck

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Beauty in Vileness: A Review of Invisible Furies by Michiel Heyns

Paris has us, writes Diane Awerbuck about Michiel Heyns’ Invisible Furies

Has any city been more worshipped than Paris? It must stand for everything except what it is – tall buildings with poor plumbing; impressive art, mostly by foreigners; and tasty, overpriced food.

Appearance, as Michiel Heyns points out in his new book, Invisible Furies, is everything. To penetrate the world behind the façade and to know its secrets, animates a certain kind of traveller – and a certain kind of reader.

Into the apparently unwelcoming milieu steps Christopher Turner, who is presented with “the half-truth, the mixed motive, the hidden agenda, the possible other case”. His mission is to retrieve from Paris the son of his old friend, Daniel de Villiers. To curry favour with le père (the father), Turner hopes to return the young man to the family wine farm in Franschhoek.

Eric, le fils (the son), was an unreconstructed oaf in his previous incarnation, and Turner is curious to see what changes the French life has visited upon him. Turner is acquainted with the gilding effect of Paris. He last visited the city on a misbegotten student holiday 30 years before with his frenemy, Daniel who, for all his faults, “could and would be loved”.Their getaway was hijacked by Marie-Louise whomarried the desirable but brutish Daniel. Back in the present, Turner plays ambassador to their prodigal son, negotiating the tricky territory of personal desire and social duty.

Still a victim of his heart’s “invisible furies”, Turner finds the French Eric is a more perfect avatar: “The son is what the father could have been, if he’d followed the generous impulses of his nature rather than the promptings of his caution. In Eric I can see what I loved in Daniel, as I once knew him.”

That use of the past tense is significant. Turner’s position is untenable. In the course of his extended visit, he rejects his role as emissary – Eric is better off where he is. Turner is not thanked for his pains.

Heyns has long been infatuated with Henry James, who referred to many of his own shorter works as deriving motive “from some noted adventure, some felt embarrassment, some extreme predicament, of the artist enamoured of perfection, ridden by his idea or paying for his sincerity”.

These writer-hero characters are prone to confusing their fictions with the conflicting fictions of the “real” world. Heyns’s Turner is no exception – a man absurdly ill-equipped to deal with the Parisian present. Like the characters in fairy tales, he assumes that truth and beauty necessarily concur.

This conflation lands him in trouble as soon as he sets pied to terre and finds his first new friend is a man of surpassing ugliness, while the physically perfect are corrupt to the core. This gargoyle Zeevee is Turner’s ticket to the Parisian cool set, into which Eric has inveigled himself as a claqueur, a hottie hired to applaud in the front row at fashion shows (and other dramas) – one step up from a “taxi-boy” or prostitute.

By the end of the novel, Turner learns what Henry James could have told him at the get-go, that “hideousness grimaces at you from the bosom of loveliness, and beauty blooms before your eyes in the lap of vileness”.

The future of Paris belongs to the “rats” of Europe, like the Romanian rentboys who are “good-looking, before they lose their teeth”.

The tropes in this accomplished book work well because they are ageless. We’ll always have Paris. Or – as it does Heyns – Paris will always have us.

This review is brought to you by Books LIVE Wire. Books LIVE Wire books sponsored by Exclusive Books.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    June 19th, 2012 @14:14 #

    And "lilies that fester smell worse than weeds." What an intelligent review.


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