We all know about Pushkin Press’s sterling work in recovering lost classics of European literature, but they also publish contemporary European fiction. The slightly creepy cover of Alain Elkann’s Envy (despite the French forename, he’s Italian) drew my attention – though it’s only when you turn to the back and see long curling hair growing from the wooden head that it really makes you shudder. (The image is of La Poupee by Hans Bellmer.) Does the book catch the brain as easily as it catches the eye?
Envy succeeds through clarity, brevity and a sort of disarming openness which makes it almost impossible not to read in one sitting. At 115 pages of large type, plenty of blank space, and an addictive just-one-more-chapter quality, this is no great task.
The narrator is a writer who, on his social and professional travels through Europe, finds a synchronicity in repeated references to the English artist Julian Sax. Everyone else seems to know Sax, and to know of his habit of acquiring women for just long enough to paint their portrait. Through these connections our writer feels both a sense of entitlement himself toward Sax, and a frustration at Sax’s distance. He determines to interview him and to propose a exhibition of the artist’s work in Venice. Naturally, the source of his obsession with Sax lies less in Sax’s qualities than in his assessment of his own:
Maybe because I’m always on the move and he’s always in the same place. Maybe because I fritter away my time and he’s focussed. Maybe because everything he does is over the top and I’m too cautious. … Maybe I envy him because I would have liked to have his destiny.
What’s more, his envy extends not only to Sax but to those who seem to have some influence with him. When Sidney Wallace, owner of a gallery which has exhibited Sax’s work, mentions in conversation that “he trusts me,” the narrator concludes: “In saying ‘he trusts me’ he revealed the pride of a man who had won the great privilege of deciding what should be done with the work of this extraordinary artist. His was the responsibility.”
Most of all he envies Sax “the security of a talent confirmed by critics, collectors and market prices all over the world.” When someone criticizes Sax – “he is a perverse man, an egotist” – his only response is “But he is a great artist.” What follows is an addictive spiral into obsession, which doesn’t stoop to tricksy narrative games: what’s refreshing is that the narrator is always aware of his own weaknesses, and the risks of what he is doing, but the story is no less gripping as a result. The conclusion, veering into metafictional territory, is deft and surprising.
Not incidentally, the book contains portraits of the people whose lives are affected by Sax, by the narrator, and by their remote interaction. There is an awareness of the modern curse of celebrity, and its effect on the ability of the celebrated to lead a normal life. When the narrator describes his marriage, we know that to risk this – either by his own actions or Sax’s – he must be truly in the grip of an obsession outside his control:
The delightful thing about marriage is that there’s no need to hurry. There is none of the stress of having to take leave of one another, of not knowing when you will see each other again. There is a tenderness, recreated every day, every night in bed and that is the basis of marriage. … Marriage is not about novelty, and even the most curious people don’t want novelty all the time. We grow fond of things that have been used, mended, resoled, repaired, because they have become truly ours.