These fragments I have stored against my ruins’ – T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (near the end)
Still clear in my memory is the sense of freedom I felt as an eight-year-old when, in a class spelling bee, I went to the top of the line for remembering ‘Mississippi’ correctly, though deep down, I wondered whether it was fair. It stemmed from my peculiar fascination with maps and the patterns of those two ‘iss’ syllables, with open-mouthed ‘i’s’ at the end round those explosive ‘p’s – two of them! I imagined steamboats chugging up the ‘s’-laden river while across the Atlantic (though centuries earlier) a steady wind from the east glided majestic sailing boats up the Guadalquivir. This river has six vowels to four in the American one, so less hissing water and more vowel sounds blow the sails upstream to Seville.
The book I am trying to finish conjures up these fragments. It is brilliantly written in scraps of prose that I find hard to connect. It slips the reader right inside the incoherent seventeenth-century Spanish court of the indecisive King Felipe IV where Diego Velasquez, one of the greatest Spanish artists, was court painter. The words come from inside the head of the painter, usually at the start of a chapter, and then flitter out of some babbling courtiers as they circle the king, idle to the point of desperation. Court jesters, dwarf companions and mistresses were, it seems, the main ways to pass the time that weighed so heavily on them while Spain’s overseas empire, from America to northern Europe, was falling apart. Felipe loved the theatre above all else, except hunting, and plays by two of Spain’s most famous playwrights – Lope de Vega and Calderon de la Barca – were performed in the palace theatre. Does great art thrive on political and economic disasters?
The novel by Amy Sackville ‘Painter to the King’ disorientates. That may be its aim. It is about Velasquez and the dysfunctional court where he painted. I know Seville where Velasquez was born. I also know Madrid and the palace of Buen Retiro where he ended up painting a pathetic king and court, like Goya after him, but I kept falling asleep over this book. Beautifully honed phrases; an immense vocabulary and friendly authorial voice – why can’t I get into the story without struggling with the language that literally tries to convey the babble of the seventeenth-century court it portrays? Much remains incoherent, stranded in time. Velasquez’s painted silences are more eloquent.
Or perhaps there is no story, no protagonist to empathise with and that is the whole point of the book? It conveys you into a chaotic world that might bear too much resemblance to the year we are entering. I shall persist to the end and close the book with relief. But next time I am in London, I shall return to the National Gallery specially to visit Velasquez’s full-length portrait of Philip IV with the fleshy lips and full chin of the Hohenzollern-Hapsburg dynasty as well as his depiction of the hunt, one of Philip’s favourite pastimes, where Philip and his chief minister, Olivares, face the boar with courtiers as spectators. But, to cheer up a dark wintry day, I instead wish for a magic carpet to take me to the Prado museum in Madrid to enjoy the company of the two ‘court fools’, both dwarves, that Velasquez painted with such understanding: El Primo, the jester who was also employed in clerical work, and Sebastiàn de Morra, a court fool. They look as if they must be two of the few sane voices that Velasquez found amid the inconsequential babble at court.