Barry Unsworth | Critical Review by Katha Pollitt

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Barry Unsworth.
This section contains 985 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Katha Pollitt

Critical Review by Katha Pollitt

SOURCE: "A Sexual Rectangle," in New York Times Book Review, April 6, 1986, p. 27.

In the following review, Pollitt considers Unsworth's figure of the Madonna in Stone Virgin more interesting than his depiction of his human characters.

Just when I thought I couldn't stand to read another semiautobiographical novel about a failing marriage, a blocked writer or a young man on drugs and the make, along comes the British novelist Barry Unsworth (Mooncranker's Gift) with a book that makes me think of that old Monty Python line "And now for something completely different." Stone Virgin is certainly that. Set in Venice in three different centuries, it's the only novel I can think of besides The Picture of Dorian Gray whose central figure and most interesting character is a work of art—a late Gothic statue of the Virgin of the Annunciation that seems to glow, may have supernatural powers and is definitely associated with murder, treachery, vengeance and high erotic doings down through the ages. There are problems with having a statue upstage the human characters, and I'll get to them in a bit, but give Mr. Unsworth credit: one couldn't be farther from the Upper West Side.

The main line of the story, set in 1972, gives us the British art restorer Simon Raikes, who has come to Venice to clean a sadly corroded Madonna as part of an international effort to rescue Venetian art treasures from the ravages of acid rain and air pollution. Raikes becomes obsessed with tracking down the statue's lost history: who was its sculptor, and what happened to him? Why was it installed in a church only in 1743, and where was it before? More to the point, why is Raikes, a rather tepid and tweedy sort of fellow, suddenly tormented by sexual desire and hallucinatory visions? In pursuit of the answers to all these questions, Raikes becomes involved with Lattimer, a sinister collector of artistic and sexual trophies, and Chiara, elusive wife of the gloomy sculptor Litsov.

If Raikes soon finds himself enmeshed in a rectangular drama of adultery, art theft and possibly murder, it comes as no surprise. Flashbacks set in 1432 show us the Madonna's creator, Girolamo, framed for the murder of the beautiful prostitute who served as his model. "Interludes" dated 1793 present Ziani, an aged aristocratic rake in whose salacious memoirs the Madonna, demoted to garden statue, plays a starring role. Both these men end up badly, and so, almost, does Raikes.

Mr. Unsworth has lavished a great deal of ingenuity—not to mention historical research—on his plot, carefully placing motifs and settings and incidents that echo back and forth in time. Yet I have to say that rarely have I read a novel with so little suspense. Part of the problem is that since we already know the Madonna's story through the flashbacks, it's boring to watch poor Raikes piece it together all over again from documents. And part of the problem is the prose. Mr. Unsworth offers touching desperation in the Girolamo chapters and elegant pastiche in the Ziani ones ("The airs of the past came to him, warm with malice, spiced with lechery, scented with self-congratulation"). But he also writes too many sentences like "Time and the world stood still for Raikes" and "Was this the burning creature of the night?"

Mostly, though, the problem is the characters. Lattimer is too creepy, Chiara too wise, Litsov too solemn and Raikes too flat to make us want to believe their rather improbable story. Never mind whether Raikes's visions are epileptic symptoms or psychic tremors from the Madonna's past. What I really wanted to know was what on earth Chiara, the pagan goddess of love and sex, sees in a morose young man who has never been in love and abandoned his sculpting ambitions out of cowardice. The minor characters are national stereotypes—the Italians dangerous and passionate, the English hyperrational and cool and furtively kinky. It would be fun to see the stereotypes reversed for a change—are there no fierce, licentious Englishmen, no shy, cerebral Italians? But that would require a writer with more of a sense of humor than the author cares to display here. Mr. Unsworth, moreover, is in the grip of a large idea. Men, he is out to demonstrate, see women not as complex human beings but as sex objects, to be worshiped as Madonnas if unattainable and despised as Jezebels if won. This is perhaps not as large an idea as he thinks, but virtually every character and every situation in Stone Virgin is set up to bear it out. Girolamo and Ziani are destroyed because they think their mistresses are playthings; Raikes almost loses Chiara because he confuses her sexual autonomy with a propensity for murder. Litsov possesses his wife through his sculpture; Lattimer collects pornographic souvenirs; all of Raikes's male colleagues are obsessed with the beautiful breasts of Miss Greenaway, the boiler-suited Titian expert. "It is you who are interested in fetishes, not us," Chiara tells Raikes, just in case we've missed the point; "you, all these dirty little boys who cannot grow up."

Against such a human backdrop, the Madonna looms steadily larger. Posed for by a prostitute and commissioned by an order of flagellant monks. Girolamo's statue embodies both sides of men's attitudes toward women, yet her strange luminosity, her otherworldly smile and her semierotic pose lift her beyond categories. I felt sorrier about the "badger stripe" of pollution across her face than about the travails of all the humans put together, and I held my breath when Raikes lifts his cleaning tool for the last, supremely dangerous touches, as I did for none of the murders, couplings and betrayals, past or present. Mr. Unsworth's people may lack reality, but if I ever visit Venice, I fully expect to see Girolamo's Madonna smiling down at me from a church front. And if I don't, I'll be disappointed indeed.

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This section contains 985 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Katha Pollitt
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