Francesco in Tableaux Vivant

Salvationby By Valerie MartinAlfred A. Knopf. 268p $24. ISBN

In novels such as Mary Reilly and Italian Fever, Valerie Martin made her reputation, balancing historical locations and characters with the social detail that we expect from comedies of manners. She has excelled in tracing how undercurrents of emotion become visible, flirting with the Gothic tradition without abandoning literary realism. Now this well-established novelist has turned her attention to one of the best known and beloved of saints, Francis of Assisi. A reader might wonder why Martin, who has been justly compared with Jane Austen and Edgar Allen Poe, would be drawn to a saint who renounced earthly possessions and desires to wed himself to Lady Poverty.

Martin answers the question of her interest in St. Francis early in this majestic and unconventional biography. She begins her narrative with a conversion—her encounter with the story of St. Francis’s life in the Italian frescoes of Sasseta and Gozzoli. She is transfixed by the “otherworldly” quality of these paintings, their ability to portray the “ordinary and magical.” Although not a Catholic or “particularly religious,” Martin recognizes the appeal of spirituality that “offers egress from a prison” of mortality.

In her earlier novels, Martin focused on marginal characters, such as Mary Reilly, servant to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. What attracts her to St. Francis is his embrace of marginality, which fuels his irony. Martin’s St. Francis is a devout trickster figure who delights in contradiction and in confounding expectations. What happens to this iconoclast when his order grows and is subsumed into the medieval Catholic Church provides the biography’s major conflict. It is a credit to Martin that she makes this perennial issue fresh and compelling.

Although it contains endnotes and a bibliography, Salvation never pretends to be a historical account of St. Francis’s life. Nor is it hagiography. Medieval art provides the closest equivalent to Martin’s work here; she writes as though she is painting frescoes of St. Francis’s life, working beside Giotto and Sassetta. She emphasizes dramatic events and the interaction of selected characters, but always from an exterior point of view, preserving the essential mysteries of St. Francis’s life story. Although her emphasis on mysteries without solutions may disappoint some readers, it conveys the appeal of religious figures to our imaginations. The life of St. Francis attracts Martin (among many others) precisely because it defies reason, cause and effect and the self-serving edicts of consumer capitalism. Its mystery resides in the essential joy of St. Francis, his laughter ringing behind every scene of physical suffering and decay.

Martin revitalizes the story of St. Francis’s life by reversing its order. The narrative begins with the dead body of St. Francis and ends with his youthful encounter with a leper on the road. Images, characters and symbols are repeated throughout, lending a coherence based on intensity of personal vision rather than cause and effect. The biography creates a series of tableaux similar to the famous painted sequences of St. Francis’s life, a risky strategy if the major events of his life were not so well known. Here, readers encounter the tableaux out of sequence and must provide their own connections: the burial of his body, his death, his stigmata, his participation in the Fifth Crusade, his support of St. Clare, his growing group of followers, his materialistic youth and his recognition of his vocation. This is a dramatic, anti-historical way to structure a biography, but it is effective because it makes us active participants in the act of writing a biography.

Salvation offers one original insight into St. Francis’s continuing interest: he has the strength that comes from confronting one’s own deepest fears and befriending them. Late in the biography, we finally meet the young Francis, long before he will become a saint. As a wealthy young man, Francis fears death, as embodied by the gruesome figures of the lepers in a nearby lazaretto. The last scene in the biography refers to Martin’s initial insight that true liberation has nothing to do with physical comfort or the accumulation of wealth...but rather with a willingness to turn away from the mundane business of daily life...seeking instead an extraordinary course that will result in a coherent and meaningful confrontation with one’s own death. Death then becomes not a trap set somewhere in the obscure forest of the future...but the vanishing point of every day, which provides perspective, orders the chaos of experience and is the proper object and goal of life.

Martin ends her biography as she began it, with a meditation on death. Francis, not yet a saint, gets down from his horse and kisses the leper’s misshapen hand. Suddenly, both men are “caught in a whirlwind. Their clothes whip about; their hair stands on end; they hold onto each other for dear life.” We see the opposites all collapse here as Francis’s story commences: by choosing to fail, Francis becomes a success; by accepting death, he gains his life as a saint; by ending her biography with the beginning of Francis’s life, Martin reacts to Francis’s reordering of values, sharing in his joy, power and laughter.

Martin’s biography will interest anyone who enjoys inhabiting another world, the contradictory and foreign medieval world of pageantry and leprosy, great beauty and great pain. While some familiarity with medieval art might help readers visualize this book’s dramatic tableaux, it is not necessary to follow its narrative. Instead, after finishing Salvation, you will view medieval paintings from the inside out, as though you’ve personally experienced the events they chronicle. Martin’s great achievement here is that she has captured the inspirational quality of medieval frescoes in a story accessible to contemporary readers.

This biography will remain memorable because of the electric sense of contact and communication between the medieval saint and the postmodern writer that also jolts the reader:

Like most tourists, when I sought out the paintings illustrating the life of San Francesco, I just wanted to see the art; the story was identical. But that story, so powerful and triumphant, seemed to reach out from the walls and ceilings and grasp me by the shoulders. At Assisi, Montefalco, Florence, Rome, Arezzo, the ragged, barefoot beggar cried out to me: This is what I made of my life! Now go out and change your own!

By retelling St. Francis’s story in Salvation, Martin has answered his challenge and passed it on to us, her readers, to do likewise.

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