Amy Sackville's novel tells how Velázquez achieved his portraits, became painter to Philip IV & his bizarre court - you can hear her at Marlborough LitFest
Diego Velázquez' searching gaze - just his right eye - peers out from the dust jacket of Amy Sackville's Painter to the King - King Philip IV of Spain.
On the back of the jacket is fellow author Sarah (The EssexSerpent) Perry's opinion of this ground-breaking historical novel: "...not only the finest novel of its kind that I have ever read, but one of the finest historical novels of recent years."
That is one of many rave reviews of Amy Sackville's third novel. I can certainly vouch for it being a mesmerising read - sometimes challenging, but always intriguing, fulfilling and intelligently informative. And look out for the secret meaning of Velázquez' famous painting known as the Rokeby Venus - his only surviving nude study.
Before she comes to speak at LitFest, marlborough.news put some questions to Amy Sackville about her Painter to the King and today's way with novels.
What first inspired you to explore the relationship between Velázquez and Philip IV?
I was interested in the role of the court painter in this period - as a figure who is at the centre of everything and yet always, at the same time, on the periphery, an observer - and as a person who has access to every level of the court.
Velázquez’ paintings were in my mind from the start, because he is unusually interested in those different levels - his paintings of ordinary courtiers, and of jesters and fools, are as attentive and extraordinary as those of the royal family.
I had intended to invent a painter, and a court, using him as a model perhaps - but when I saw the paintings themselves for the first time, I wanted to work with them. And when I found out more about his particular relationship with the king - and with the court - I was persuaded I should make this my subject.
Why did you choose a modern-day narrator searching for Velázquez - are you the narrator?
I wanted to resist the pretence that I know what it was like, that I have some kind of access to the ‘reality’ of that time. I wanted to acknowledge the artifice, and the construction of it.
The Baroque aesthetic is obsessed with surfaces, and with breaking the frame of a narrative - you see this in Velázquez’ painitngs, and in the literature of the time - so it seemed in keeping with the period I was describing.
The first person narrator who occasionally interjects is what you might call an author-cipher. The experiences she describes are certainly versions of my own experience.
But the question of narration and narrators is a very complicated one! I will say that the narrative voice is deliberately slippery - between perspectives, between styles, between times.
Your use of everyday every day, even slangy language seems to have put some people off, why did you decide to use it?
It’s a stylistic choice. It’s about the possibility of historical veracity, and what is meant by that.
To me, that kind of tonal fluidity, and the possibility of making deliberately anachronistic jokes and allusions, paradoxically felt more in keeping with the period - although perhaps out of keeping with what some readers might expect or hope for from a historical novel. It isn’t going to please everyone, I can see that.
You have also chosen to use an impressionistic, almost stream of consciousness flow of thoughts. Was this to mimic or parallel the brush strokes that eventually make a complete painting?
Yes, exactly - I was interested in finding ways to make writing do something similar to painting, in terms of the way the perspective works and in other stylistic ways - so I tried to make the prose gestural, sometimes meticulous, sometimes sketchy, sometimes fluid, sometimes under- or overworked.
Was the style chosen to allow you to see through the painter's eyes - and so examine what Velázquez saw in the King?
I was very interested in the painter as observer, as someone who really looks at the world and other people, and lets his subjects speak. His paintings are so tremendously compassionate and searching, and that is something to aspire to.
Finally, you teach creative writing - in my student time the glib exam question was "The novel is dead - discuss"! Do your students believe it is still alive?
I don’t think anyone gives that idea much credence. The clue’s in the name - the novel as a form is always open to reinvention, it’s elastic and porous and responsive, and that’s why I love it.
There are so many exciting directions that the novel is taking just now, I think it’s more alive than ever, and as far as I can see, there is still a huge appetite for new writing. But I don’t work in sales, I’m just a reader.
Amy Sackville will be at St Mary's Church Hall on Saturday, September 29 at 3pm. Painter to the King is published by Granta.
LitFest tickets are available: in person at The White Horse Bookshop, Marlborough High Street (cash or cheque only & from 9am). By phone to Pound Arts - 01249 701628 or 01249 712618 (from 10am). And online at Pound Arts