One of the most poignant interpretations of The Odyssey I’ve ever encountered is that it is a story in objects: “A throne of polished stone, white and gleaming as though with oil,” “horn in a pure foil beaten out of the gold that Nestor gave him,” “clear lustral water in a bowl quivering with fresh-cut flowers, a basket of barley,” “five-tined forks,” “golden wine cup,” “painted car.” Written at the end of a golden age, the epic poem is rich in detail inspired by longing for an abundance the poet believes will never return.

I like to imagine Homer with his eyes closed meditating, tongue pressed between his lips, nursing a dull hope that if he can only just recall the exact arrangement of the flowers, the taste of the wine, and catalog it all he might call it back.

At the end of Sena Jeter Naslund’s Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette, I was left with a similar impression.

The reign of Louis XVI is synonymous with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, but most of the novel takes place before all of that in the court of Louis and Marie Antoinette at Versailles. Since the book is told from Marie Antoinette’s perspective, the extreme poverty of France at the dawn of the revolution is mostly invisible, appearing only occasionally like the child in rags who sneaks into the castle and hides behind the velvet curtains.

Instead of empty bellies and disease the novel begins filled with “all the jewels appropriate to attendance at the opera glinting around us like fairy lights” and “tulips and narcissus, pussy willow, and forsythia bending in a yellow arc–blossoms and fronds beautifully arranged wherever one looks.” As the monarchy in France declines, the lushness also declines until Marie Antoinette is alone in a small cell with a bed, a table, two chairs, and a stool. In the end, even the stool is taken away.

The book ends with an epilogue that describes the fates of the characters that were still alive at the time of Marie Antoinette’s death. My knowledge of French history is patchy between Napoleon I and the beginning of World War I, so I was intrigued to learn that Louis XVI’s two younger brothers both served as French monarchs after the revolution. I wondered how a country that eliminated its monarchy so violently could return to it in a single generation. Or, for that matter, why anyone would want to be king after seeing what happened to the last royal family.

My historical curiosity was quickly replaced by portraiture. Moving from monarch to monarch forward in time there was a diminishing. Democracy rose. Monarchy fell, and the fur and jewels in the costumes fell away into blue military starkness.

Abundance was published in 2006, the same year that Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was released. Both the book and the film drew on Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey as a major source, and they were similarly controversial. Marie Antoinette won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, but critics complained that the novel and the film chose style over substance.

Most of the reviews of Abundance end in 2007, just as the recession was beginning. I wonder if these works were released now what the reception would have been. Like the Google buses in San Francisco or would reading about Marie Antoinette’s gardens in winter inspire a longing for spring?

Photo Credit: Jenny Downing

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