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May 12, 2009

Book Notes - Elizabeth Lowry ("The Bellini Madonna")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.

Elizabeth Lowry's debut novel The Bellini Madonna is filled with bold characters and exacting prose, a mystery novel that encompasses much more in its pages than the search for a missing Old Masters painting.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"Lowry has composed her novel with tremendous care, daring to set puzzles for the reader that, once solved, form a portrait of lonely people with a talent for "self-sabotage". A mystery story, a love story and a comedy of errors set in that most familiar of locations - a ruinous country house - The Bellini Madonna is a compelling debut that entertains and unsettles in equal measure."

In her own words, here is Elizabeth Lowry's Book Notes essay for her novel, The Bellini Madonna:

The Bellini Madonna is a story about art, sex and lies. Thomas Lynch was once a brilliant young art historian. Today he is a disgraced, middle-aged art historian, overly fond of the bottle, chemical uppers, and of his fresh young students. But everything will change now that he is on the trail of a lost masterpiece, a legendary Madonna by the Italian master Giovanni Bellini. His obsessive search at last brings him to Mawle, a run-down English country house owned by the Roper family.

After insinuating himself into the house, Lynch becomes the pawn in an elaborate game of sexual cat-and-mouse with the young chatelaine of Mawle, Anna Roper. He discovers a lost diary by Anna’s great-grandfather that might provide the key to the painting’s location, if only Lynch can manage to beat his hosts in the search. Where can the Madonna be hidden? And what possible role might the enigmatic Anna have to play in solving the mystery of its whereabouts? Weakened by love and alcohol, Lynch is about to confess himself beaten, when a surprise revelation promises to place everything he has ever wanted in his grasp…

The Bellini Madonna is set in 2004, but it moves from the twenty-first century through to the fifteenth and back again. Lynch himself is fifty when the starts to tell his story, whereas Anna is in her thirties – so they evoke very different musical associations and decades for me. I’ve tried to put together a play list that bridges the generation gap:

Madonna, Like a Virgin (1984)

'I made it through the wilderness

Somehow I made it through

Didn’t know how lost I was

Until I found you

I was beat incomplete

I’d been had, I was sad and blue

But you made me feel

Yeah, you made me feel

Shiny and new’

Well, we just had to start with this one. Classic 1980s pop from around the time that Anna would have been a teenager. Since then Anna has lurched from love affair to love affair, believing each time that the man of the moment will be the answer to all her problems. She is stuck at Mawle on her own, desperate to net a guy and have a conventional family – but though each new relationship seems to promise salvation, it always fails to deliver. Like the great Madonna Ciccone herself, Anna is a blend of innocence and sluttishness (but without the balls of platinum). Lynch is both touched and excited by her vulnerability: ‘Now that I think about it, she always had this faintly whorish quality, this geishalike instinct to accommodate any fool who made a claim on her attention, her affections, her body.’ And, talking of virgins:

Luciano Pavarotti singing Schubert’s Ave Maria

So many artists have covered this one, but Pavarotti’s (and he’s made several recordings over the years too) must be the definitive interpretation: an anguished supplication, a plea for reassurance, a cry of love addressed to the ideal mother. Lynch is a lapsed Catholic who originally hails from Ireland, where he did his boyhood stint as an altar server in the 1950s and early 60s. Until Lynch meets Anna, his long-dead mother has been the focus of all his love and his yearning. She is his own private Madonna figure: ‘Imagine me in St. John’s, an altar boy of eight with an aureole of rusty curls, skirted and surpliced in red and white like a tiny strawberry, skimming with my paten from tongue to eager tongue during communion as the organ flourishes its uplifting major chords…’ Well, Schubert’s are probably the chords that organ is playing. ‘I look up, across the bowed heads, the sea of creaking pews and collapsed shopping bags, and find the face of my mother, with its lips opening and closing silently, far off and in shadow.’ But Anna is about to replace her. While we’re on the subject of mothers and sons…

Henryk Górecki, Symphony No 3 (1976)

We always hear about Christ’s agony on the cross, but in The Bellini Madonna I was interested in exploring Mary’s perspective. How on earth did she carry on once her son had been executed in this barbaric way? What did she feel? Did she really believe that it was all worth it? The lost painting which Lynch is looking for is unique in the history of Renaissance art because it is a psychological portrait of the Madonna herself. ‘“In the past,” Bellini murmured, “I have painted the Virgin in the prescribed way. Now that I am old myself I can only see her as she was when her son had at last left her, the great work of her life, the work of her imagination, behind her, but with the weary days of her earthly life still to be lived.”’ In the missing picture Mary is a bitter woman, emptied out by her terrible sacrifice. She knows that the price she’s paid has been too high. This is the terrible human truth of Bellini’s Madonna, stripped of its religious gilding, and no piece of music I can think of expresses the agonised lament of a mother who has lost her son harrowingly as Symphony No 3 by the Polish composer Górecki. There are three movements, all of which address the theme of motherhood and loss. The first is based on a fifteenth-century Polish lament by Mary for Jesus. I defy you to listen to it without being moved to tears.

Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)

‘Mama I just killed a man,

Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he’s dead

Mama, life had just begun,

But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away’

The ultimate song of hedonistic defiance, gloriously coupled with self-loathing and regret. It’s also a heartfelt apology to mom. When the story begins, Lynch is painfully aware of the extent to which he’s failed to live up to his early promise. The booze, the pills, the affairs with students, have done for him. After he’s sacked from his college, he hopes that the discovery of the Madonna will redeem him: ‘Where had it all gone so repellently, embarrassingly wrong? Didn’t my genuine passion for beauty – for goodness! – in spite of the trivially awful things I had done, entitle me to something more than the tinpot martyrdom that had been conferred on me?’ I’ve always admired the way that Bohemian Rhapsody so elegantly confronts the self-destructive impulse.

Sam Cooke, Wonderful World (Don’t Know Much) (1960)

‘Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took
But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be’

Soul pioneer Sam Cooke’s lilting love song has been covered by Herman’s Hermits, Richard Marx, Art Garfunkel, Otis Redding, and many others, and no wonder: it remains the classic expression of romantic optimism, not least because it makes being in love sound so easy. One of the things that Lynch is drawn to in Anna is that she, like his mother, is apparently artless and quite uneducated. But only apparently – his mother ‘had an insensibility, an innocence, just like you. When I was a boy I assumed she was a pushover. Now I’m not so sure.’ In fact they both turn out to be pretty tough cookies. Lynch’s mother made sure that he was free to choose the life he wanted – the life which he’s so badly messed up since – and it’s ‘gormless’ (Lynch’s word) Anna who finally helps solve the mystery of the missing Madonna. In the course of the story he has to revise his patronising assumptions about them both. He also learns to shed his intellectual arrogance and to love without preconceptions. In fact, he realizes that he ‘don’t know much’.

Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (2006)

‘He left no time to regret

Kept his dick wet
With his same old safe bet
Me and my head high
And my tears dry
Get on without my guy
You went back to what you knew
So far removed from all that we went through

And I tread a troubled track
My odds are stacked

I'll go back to black’

When Lynch first comes to Mawle, Anna is unhappily involved with the groundsman, a local boy called Harry who beds her but isn’t about to make her any long-term promises. As she puts it in her disingenuous way, ‘he comes and goes.’ Lynch’s jealousy provokes the crisis that finally drives Harry away, and Anna into Lynch’s arms. Amy Winehouse’s brutal breakup song is Motown with a contemporary twist, full of gritty pathos and resignation. It’s especially appropriate here as Anna, to Lynch’s dismay, is usually dressed in lumpish black leggings – what he calls her ‘widow’s weeds’. Poor Anna keeps on going back to black.

Billy Idol, White Wedding (1982)

‘Hey little sister what have you done?

Hey little sister who’s the only one?

Hey little sister who’s your superman?

Hey little sister who’s the one you want?

Hey little sister shot gun!



It's a nice day to start again.

It’s a nice day for a white wedding.

It’s a nice day to start again.’

When I was a teenager in the 80s I loved this angry, stomping chant about a shotgun wedding and a girl who is about to make a big, big mistake. Near the end of the novel, Anna makes a desperate bid for Lynch by proposing marriage. She can deliver the painting to him, but this is her asking price: ‘“We could get married,” she urged quietly. “I could marry you. And then everything I have would be yours too, the picture included. It would be just as much yours as mine!”’ She has her reasons for this final wild gamble, not least that she’s desperate to break the deadlock of her life at Mawle. But does – dare – Lynch accept?

The Verve, The Drugs Don’t Work (1997)

‘All this talk of getting old

It’s getting me down my love

Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown

This time I’m comin’ down


And I hope you’re thinking of me

As you lay down on your side

Now the drugs don’t work

They just make you worse

But I know I'll see your face again’

Interestingly, the lyrics of the original demo of this plangent number by The Verve differ from the eventual album track, with the main line running ‘They just make me worse’. This is the version I prefer. It’s a song about surrendering one’s illusions, and it’s also a song about yearning. Lynch finally gives up all the chemical props and the self deceptions that have sustained him in his life so far. ‘In my dreams I am always with you, walking across the grass at Mawle. Isn’t that strange? Your face is not as I saw it last, the face of a woman about to be buried alive, but naked and serene.’ Anna has completely replaced the Madonna as the object of his obsession, but it may be too late.

Claudio Villa, Buongiorno Tristezza (1955)

‘Buongiorno tristezza...
Oggi ho imparato che cosa è il rimpianto, 
l’amaro rimpianto, l’eterno rimpianto.’

‘Hello, sadness...
Today I learned what regret is:
Bitter regret, eternal regret.’

Lynch hears this haunting song by the great Italian tenor Claudio Villa being played on the radio in Chapter One, just before he begins to tell his story. It’s the only piece of music whose words are actually quoted in the book, and it takes us full circle. Says it all, really.

Elizabeth Lowry and The Bellini Madonna links:

Guardian review
The Independent review
The Spectator review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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