Book review: A Terrace in Rome

A Terrace in Rome.A Terrace in Rome by Pascal Quignard.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

This is a strangely compelling little book. It’s about disfigurement, love, lust, pornography and the finer points of mezzotint and etching. It’s a slim collection of fragments describing a leathery life, which eventually chokes to death far from its origin.

There’s also a lot of dicks described within.

Written by Prix Goncourt-winner Quignard, A Terrace in Rome is a biographical sketch. That the person it’s covering – 17th century engraver Geoffroy Meaume – doesn’t actually exist is of little concern. The figure is inserted into a breathing world that’s at so full of concrete details (period-specific details of artistic technique, salons held by particular viola-de-gamba players, attempts to limit itinerant travellers by burning their transport) that his fictional status is neither here nor there.

As in most portraiture, the effect’s the thing. What of the person is conveyed?

In the case of Meaume, we’re presented with a picture of love. Love for the common, for that which polite company would not [publicly] look twice upon: shitting peasants, shafts of sunlight on the lower classes, and representations of unbridled fucking.

But love – well, lust? – isn’t just Meaume’s inspiration. It’s the weight around his neck, as his leathery visage is the result of an acid attack from the jealous beau of a moneyed daughter. (Rightly jealous, as the artist’s carnal ministrations are detailed quite precisely: if you’ve ever wondered how cracking a boner survives translation from French to English, this is the book for you.)

Ahem, where was I? Right, so the book presents fragments of reminiscence of love, past and current, as experienced by a man on the outside of society due to the interests of his work, the appearance of his face and his need to avoid death from angry spouses. Moving from place to place – including the beautiful terrace of the title – the itinerant life is described in the form of an endless, piecemeal quest. Work is sought, bonds are sought, but Meaume finds it almost impossible to hold on to anything except for his talent.

This is the first Quignard I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. The author – also a translator – is something of a polymath, and there’s a quiet assurance in his writing; the knowledge that he can convey the finer points of technique without boring the reader, and the knowledge that his eye for the sublime in landscape and the ridiculous in humanity is keen.

A Terrace in Rome was a strange, sexual delight, and a curious book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in slightly strange literature. You’ll learn more about the printing process (and loss) in this slight tome than you’d imagine from its cover.

(My Goodreads profile is here.)

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