24 AUGUST 1985, Page 25

Restoration but little comedy

Francis King

STONE VIRGIN by Barry Unsworth

Hamish Hamilton, £8.95

Though tempting, it would a critical cliché, and also not wholly accurate, to say that this remarkable novel is like a series of Chinese boxes contained one within another. An apter simile would be of some murky, labyrinthine Venetian palazzo (the setting is Venice) in which rooms, now claustrophobic and now cavernous, keep leading into each other, with no interven- tion of corridors, in such a deceptively wayward fashion that one is never sure whether one has not returned yet again to one already visited. As one explores the building, with a mingling of apprehension and delight, one constantly comes on a statue, five centuries old, of a Madonna of the Annunciation, her right hand to her left breast and her left hand resting over a thigh in a gesture that, teasingly, could be one either of salacious invitation or prim rejection.

It is this statue that, in the sections set in the present, Simon Raikes, a failed sculp- tor turned expert in conservation, arrives in Venice to restore. As he patiently works first with a spray and then with a quartz cutter to cure the stone of its malattia del tempo, the leprosy caused by atmospheric pollution from the factories of Mestre, he first becomes obsessed with the figure then suffers a series of hallucinations, often concerned with the face of a woman under water, which eventually drive him to con- sult an eminent Italian neurologist. After a series of tests this neurologist diagnoses epilepsy and prescribes phenobarbitone — as he would no doubt have done if some saint of the past had consulted him about his visions.

In another chamber of this novel, the author assembles the story of how, way back in 1432, this same statue was carved by an unknown Piedmontese sculptor of genius, resident in Venice, for an order of secret gnostics called I Supplicanti. The model was a noted whore. In the course of the laborious carving, sculptor and model fell in love and began a frenzied love- affair. The whore's rich and powerful protector, learning of this, had his minions drown her and then arranged that the sculptor should be accused of the murder, convicted and executed.

In yet another chamber of the novel, a Casanova-like figure, writing his porno- graphic memoirs to solace his barren old age and to earn himself some money, tells the tale of how, in the prime of his lustful manhood, he went to work as librarian to a rich old merchant, fell in love with the wife sold to the merchant by her indigent family, and began with her an affair quite as passionate as that, three centuries be- fore, between the sculptor and his model. By then, the statue of the Madonna had come to rest in the old merchant's garden, once the cloisters of the church of the gnostics, and it was before it that the two lovers enacted their illicit rites of love.

The Madonna, finally riding high on a church when Raikes arrives to restore her, also links up in uncanny fashion with a young and beautiful Italian woman, mar- ried to an epileptic Polish sculptor, with whom Raikes falls in love as soon as he sees her. As, with infinite care, he removes the accretions of centuries from the face of the statue, what seems increasingly to be revealed to him is the face of this modern woman. In the final episodes, the murder far back in the past finds a startling, albeit distorted, echo in another murder, in which the modern girl is closely involved.

It is with remarkable virtuosity that Unsworth plaits all these separate threads, some old and some new, into a complex narrative. My only criticism — other read- ers, better able to achieve a willing suspen- sion of disbelief may feel differently — is that the supernatural elements (one mur- der so reminiscent of another, one charac- ter seeming to be a reincarnation of another in the past, Raikes's visions, the unearthly light with which the sculpture glows) strained my credulity. Yet not dissimilar supernatural happenings in Daphne du Maurier's Venetian conte, Don't Look Now or L. P. Hartley's Vene- tian short stories have never done so.

In fact, it was not of these two writers but of Laurence Durrell that Unsworth most often reminded me in this novel. The rococo elaborations of the plot, with sexual passion leading first to betrayal and then to grisly murder, are typical of Durrell; gnos- ticism has also figured in Durrell's latest novel sequence; and reminiscent of Durrell at his best is Unsworth's superlative evoca- tion of a Venice of murky calle, of boats gliding down stagnant canals, of dawn breaking over long stretches of opalescent water, of secret, heavily scented gardens, and of the extraordinary beauty of palaces even when they have mouldered into slums. Here is a master stylist.

Fascinating too is all that Unsworth tells the reader about the art of restoration. Whether he himself has ever been a restor- er, I can only guess; but he gives the impression that he might well have been. While Raikes is restoring the Madonna, other English restorers are working on some gigantic works of Tintoretto; and their self-regarding activities provide an otherwise serious book with some scenes of derisive comedy.

Venice is a city in which the present often seems to be no more than a contami- nating accretion on the past. What better locale, then, for a novel about the interac- tion of present and past on each other? Venice is also a city in which, more than in most, one is continually aware of human mortality. What better locale, then, for a novel concerned with a fever to live and love at constant odds with a nagging apprehension of death? Unsworth's little jewel has its perfect setting.