April 27, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Hermione Eyre's Viper Winean ambitious and dazzling postmodern historical novel, an auspicious debut.
BookPage wrote of the book:
"Hermione Eyre’s brilliant debut, Viper Wine, explores the perils of achieving beauty at all costs, set against a backdrop of the political and social upheaval of 17th-century London...Eyre’s stylish flair and sense of invention is truly impressive. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Viper Wine is a historic fantasy reminding us of the limitless reaches of the imagination."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Part of the fun of writing a novel is that you can do anything you like – for example, make time permeable. My novel Viper Wine is, on the surface, a straight historical novel set in the 1630s, and based on real events: the unexplained death of the 32-year-old noblewoman and famous beauty Venetia Digby, who was popularly believed to have died from drinking Viper Wine, a fashionable beauty potion.
I took this richly suggestive story and ran with it. As Venetia starts to look younger, strange things begin to happen in the novel. Her husband the alchemist Sir Kenelm Digby is haunted by the future. He catches moonbeams in his alchemical laboratory while humming David Bowie; sent by the King to plunder warships in the Mediterranean, he brings home dubloons, a marble statue of Venus, and a radio mast, which he raises as an unusual obelisk in the graceful gardens of his home. Viper Wine first comforts, then afflicts Venetia with its potent mixture of pregnant mares' urine (an ingredient used in HRT today), baked adders and opium.
Today, women are sold ever more extravagant beauty treatments, from bee venom to Botox. When they don't work they are merely extortionate; when they do work they are at first, wonderful, then they become terrifying. The quest for artificial youth leads, inevitably, to a loss of identity. Venetia begins to look younger, but less like herself.
The opium in Viper Wine gives her a heightened sensibility, and the book itself is something of a trip into the 1630s. I was inspired by Derek Jarman films like Caravaggio, with its rock n roll soundtrack, and Sofia Coppola's Marie-Antoinette, as well as TS Eliot's "Burnt Norton." In our minds, stocked with history and memory, time is elastic. It is only our bodies that let us down.
1) Rameau's rondeau 'Les Sauvages' from Les Indes Galantes
A total floor-filler. You can't hear this and not want to dance. It was composed in 1735, about 100 years after the action of Viper Wine, but it sounds so fresh and carnal, it helped me as I was writing the chapter about the Queen's Twelfth Night Masque, a spectacular court entertainment that culminates in a mad fancy dress ball.
2) Joy Division, "Love Will Tear Us Apart"
In the Masque scene, I imagined Kenelm dancing to this song: "Kenelm stamped with the music. The song made him feel like a link in the endless chain of human longing, and as he flicked the sweat off his blonde quiff, he danced with every sinew of his body, the music animating him like a spirit-wound clockwork man." The track, to me, has a timeless quality – its bittersweet key and simple, repetitive rondeau structure reminds me of a jig or folk tune. I can imagine it working well on period instruments.
3) Schubert Piano Trio no. 2. II – Andante
This may be familiar from Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and more recently Tom Hooper's John Adams mini-series. To me it represents the power historical fiction can have to take you to a different place, separate to our own world, sealed off, ruled by its own pace and propriety. For me Barry Lyndon is Kubrick's masterwork. I particularly love the way that for all its 18th century authenticity, the atmosphere is redolent of the 1970s, when the film was made.
4) Mark Mothersbaugh – "Ping Island/ Lightning Strike Rescue Op"
This is from the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic by Wes Anderson, whose fertile invention is a constant inspiration. I listened to this a lot when I was writing the chapter in which Sir Kenelm Digby sails down the Thames in a prototype submarine. I get a buzz out of it every time. It isn't so inappropriate a theme tune for an English Renaissance experiment in natural philosophy (they didn't yet use the word ‘science') because the heroism required to sail under the Thames would have been immense. And the capes and tights and heraldic symbols of the day easily convert into superhero costumes…
5) David Bowie – "Starman"
Alchemy adumbrates modern theory in instinctual, lyrical ways, and I inevitably thought of David Bowie when, holed up in the British Library, I read that the alchemists believed we were "star-men", made of stars and returning to the stars. Carbon, in other words. Alchemy was influenced by Eastern beliefs about the circularity of time, so for Kenelm all things are happening simultaneously. Enter the Space Oddity himself. Only a song as great as this could endure being catapulted into 1632.
6) Theme on a Variation by Thomas Tallis, Ralph Vaughan Williams
Thomas Tallis composed this melody for a psalter in 1567. It is a tune my characters might actually have known – especially because they were Catholic, and Tallis was "unreformed" by the Reformation. Ralph Vaughan Williams' setting is deeply moving, with a tranquility and resolve that feels to me very English.
7) Bach's The Art of Fugue – Contrapunctus 1 (and onwards…)
I listened to this night and day while I was finishing Viper Wine. It is inexhaustible, in its melancholic poise, its complex argument and counter-argument. It fitted the mood when I was writing about the destruction of the English civil war, the extinction of everything the Digbys knew, and, particularly, the iconoclasm which wrecked what was left of pre-Reformation England. It was the last thing Bach wrote, and it's all the more moving because it's unfinished. It just stops.
Hermione Eyre and Viper Wine links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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