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Alain Elkann: Envy

Alain Elkann has, in the last thirty years, published over twenty books spanning essays, biography, and fiction. Envy (2006) is the first, as far as I’m aware, of his works to be translated into English and given that much of its action takes place in London, it may well have made itself a prime candidate for introducing him to an English speaking audience. That it’s central concern, as implied by the title, is a universal one probably helped too. And being published in the’ Pushkin Modern range ensures the container is as good as the content.

Envy tells the story of Giacomo Longhi, an Italian writer, who, having heard much about him, wishes to interview the great English artist, Julian Sax. It’s not that easy, though, as Sax isn’t the sort who likes granting interviews and there’s a wall of people – friends, relatives, other artists – who all know him, promise to ask him about the interview, invariably coming back with apologies.

Julien Sax (“a seductive man with a disturbing gaze”) is seen as the world’s greatest living artist and details about him emerge from all manner of associated people. He is “the grandson of Ludwig Sax, the most important scientist of the last century!” and, as one person notes:

“He has an ambiguous relationship with money and with women. He is very reserved and arrogant too, in a certain sense. But he is undoubtedly an extraordinary artist.”

When people get on to the subject of Sax, they linger long on the details of his life:

His turbulent past, moments of great debauchery, his vast brood of illegitimate children, his rebellious side, and his arrogance, were all subjects that triggered endless anecdotes.

These aren’t merely details, but clues, for Elkann is describing, in all but name, Lucien Freud. But the novel is not so much about Sax as it is about Longhi’s perception of the man and it’s this that produces the more interesting sections of self-analysis as he tries to understand why he envies the artist:

I am interested only in Sax because I realise I envy him, I envy the security of a talent confirmed by critics, collectors and market prices all over the world. The great, recognised artist is perhaps the only man who does what he wants, lives as he wants, while his life becomes a legend. Perhaps I haven’t really admitted this even to myself, but I’d like my life to be a legend too.

Throughout the novel Longhi has, on discovering where he dines, plenty of opportunities to introduce himself to Sax but is too hesitant. In his eyes, the artist is “a part of an extinct race, that of the great personalities” and this may go some way to explaining his timidity. At one point he spies a woman interviewing him and resolves only to sit at the next table and listen in.

In discussing how he’s unable to get Sax out of his head, a friend suggests that he write a novel about him. And in a piece of dialogue, Elkann uses this opportunity to show the reader why his novel uses thinly veiled characters rather than explicitly name them:

“Are you sure that this obsession of yours doesn’t hide a desire to write a book about him?”
“No, as long as he’s alive that’s impossible.”
“Why?”
“Because I would have to tell the whole truth.”
“But people write novels because they are imaginary stories, you can tell the truth in them.”

Thus Envy becomes the planning of a story – a crime novel, with Sax as victim. Essentially it’s a retaliation against the fear that, like many women before her, his wife will submit to the artist, become his lover, only to be discarded.

Through his work, he can dominate any woman: the most sophisticated, the most cultured, or the coarsest, who on seeing herself portrayed reacts with either love or hate, but in both cases feels mastered and flattered. Literature today no longer has that power.

Surely autobiographical in nature, Envy is an interesting treatment of its subject matter and provides a strong grounding for many of its ideas. While there’s the sense that more could have been said, especially on the subject of art and of being an artist, the conclusion is satisfying – to Longhi’s novel, and to Elkann’s. Literature’s power may be waning, but it’s still a force to be reckoned with.

March 21, 2008

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