I didn’t know what to expect from this book, which was just as well as I probably wouldn’t have considered reading it if I had, and that would have been a pity. Despite having to read it too quickly – see yesterday’s post – by the time I’d finished it I discovered that I had actually enjoyed it very much. It was the title that made me pick it up in the first place as I find gargoyles fascinating in their ugliness.
The first part of this book is ugly too, with its all too convincing descriptions of the horrors of burning and its treatment. I won’t go into detail – there’s enough of that in the book. At first I thought the car crash was illusionary, that the unnamed victim was playing a computer game, but no it was real.
I was in a car crash when I was seventeen, nothing like this one fortunately but that has made me more aware of the horrors that this particular crash involved and I remember even now the slow-motion yet immediate impact of the experience of going through the windscreen. This describes it well:
There was a brief moment of weightlessness: a balancing point between air and earth, dirt and heaven. How strange, I thought, how like the moment between sleeping and falling when everything is beautifully surreal and nothing is corporeal. How like floating towards completion. But as often happens in the time between existing in the world and fading into dreams, this moment over the edge ended with the ruthless jerk back to awareness.
And back to reality and pain.
But what follows after left me wondering. Just what was going on with Marianne Engels, the beautiful, wild and clearly unhinged sculptress who takes the burns victim, once a beautiful young man and a porn-star but now a hideous distortion of his former self , home with her to live. Is Marianne a manic-depressive schizophrenic or is she really 700 years old having formerly lived as a nun in medieval Germany when the two of them were lovers?
I was really taken with the references to Dante’s Inferno. Marianne claims that she produced the first translation of Dante’s poem into German soon after it was written. Dante’s epic allegorical poem describes his descent into Hell where sinners recieve their just rewards. The poem begins with an exciting episode at the gates to the underworld in a dark, confusing wood, symbolising doubt, sin and the sterility of the soul. Dante, the narrator, has lost the path and is guided by Virgil through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. So The Gargoyle too starts with the car crash on a mountain side within a dark wood and the narrator is plunged into his own inferno. By the end of the book he is in the City of Dis the lower part of Hell, with winged monsters, and the Circle of Deceivers. Or is he; is he delusional, hallucinating as a result of morphine withdrawal?
Then there are the gargoyles themselves, screaming out to Marianne to be released from the stones that imprisons them. Gargoyles are the grotesque figures on the roofs of buildings designed to convey water through a spout in their mouths, or to ward off evil spirits, or even to portray evil forces. Marianne is possessed by them; as she seeks to free them from the stone she barely stops to eat or sleep for days on end in a frenzy of work.
There are so many topics within this book – too numerous to go into any detail here – and I did find them just a bit wearisome by the end. The stories Marianne tells cover many legends and fantasy tales, from Viking raids to Japanese feuds, from Victorian England to medieval German mercenaries and monasteries.
As a result of reading this book I’ve already started to read The Descent Into Hell, Dorothy L Sayers translation of Dante’s Inferno. This is a small easily manageable book and then I really must finish reading the much longer book – Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which I began last year.
A Final Thought, which does contain a spoiler:
Whilst reading this book I kept wondering whether the narrator was manipulating Marianne to his own advantage. She is wealthy and mentally sick. He is cynical, by his own account a liar and deceiver of women, and he doesn’t believe the stories Marianne tells him. I think he did love her but I also think he knew she had left him everything in her will and he did nothing when she went into the sea knowing she was not coming back . He doesn’t say he didn’t know about her will just that
They questioned me at length but the investigation showed that I had no knowledge of the will, and the teenagers who drank beer on the beach testified that it was not uncommon for “the burnt guy” and “the tattooed chick with the weird hair” to come late at night. She often went swimming, they confirmed regardless of the weather. On that particular night, I had done nothing but sit on the beach while the dog ran round in circles.
How convenient for him!