In my last post I mentioned the museum bookclub I've just started running. I was hooked into it via the adult education classes I teach: I was booked to lead a course in contemporary fiction in the spring but, for new job related reasons, was unable to commit to it. With a heavy heart I passed it along to a colleague. Knowing how disappointed I was, my friend at the department suggested I might like a little bookish job at the local Yorkshire Museum. They were looking for a freelancer to lead bookclub discussions in partnership with their education and learning officer. Although she had initiated the club and picked the books, she didn't feel confident enough to take on the literary side of the event. Her part was going to be to choose artefacts and objects from the museum's collections related to each book to handle after the discussion. I liked the idea of the interplay between literature, history and material culture, and jumped at the opportunity.
We had our first session a couple of weeks ago now and it was a great success. Our first book was a little unusual: The Emperor's Babe: a novel by Bernadine Evaristo. Ever heard of it? No, me neither. It was first published in 2001, and seems to have garnered a good deal of praise at the time, although it was never on my radar. In many ways it was a bold choice for a fledgling group: it's in verse, for a start, and intensely dirty and scatalogical for a second. I fear it may have put less intrepid people off, but those who did read it and come to discuss it had been utterly converted by the final page. Several actually professed love for it.
The story belongs to Zuleika, the child of Sudanese immigrants living in Londinium in the early 3rd century. Married off to the fat, middle-aged and pathetic Lucius Aurelius Felix at the tender age of eleven, she has been kept caged in his villa for the last seven years: listless, childless and only allowed out on special occasions. Into this bland, flat landscape comes Emperor Septimus Severus, on his way to vanquish Hibernia and extend his Empire just that little bit further. The pair spot each other at the theatre: the eighteen year old ex-child bride and the aging warrior connect and, in Felix's absence, begin a short doomed love affair.
The rest is all sex and death in irregularly rhyming couplets.
I'll admit that I wasn't sure when I picked it up. The cover is just awful, and I'm not the world's keenest reader of poetry. But the first few lines struck me immediately:
Who do you love? Who do you love,
when the man you married goes off
for months on end, quelling rebellions
at the frontiers, or playing hot-shot senator in Rome;
his flashy villa on the Palatine Hull, home
to another woman, I hear,
one who has borne him offspring.
I was won over. That opening gambit of a question, the tone of which is multiple and impossible to pin down: is Zuleika earnest? Puzzled? Interrogatory? Aggressive? The caustic sadness of her childlessness, her loneliness, is palpable yet lightened by Evaristo's linguistic touch. There is the humour too, and the playfulness, right from the beginning. Throughout Zuleika's voice combines pidgin Latin, the Queen's English and what she calls her 'plebby Creole', the language of a childhood on Londinium's streets. Gibbon's Rise and Fall of Rome meets Heat magazine. Her intelligence, circumscribed in every other way, finds its outlet in her clever funny first-person poetics.
...I have the deepest
fondness for my husband, of course,
sort of, though he spills over me like dough
and I'm tempted to call Cook mid coitus
to come trim his sides so that he fits me.
Then it's puff and Ciao, baby!
Solitudoh, solitudee, solitudargh!
But the funny has a sharp, steely edge to it. Early reviewers called Zuleika 'sassy', 'sexy' and 'feisty', but I think not. Poetry is a weapon to her, a tool of redress and retribution. When her father asks her what she has been up to towards the end of the book, she testifies:
Dammit! Words were forming like rusty nails
in my mouth, coating my tongue,
scraping my gums. I spat them out at Dad:
'I've been writing poetry'.
Not surprising that she is bitter. This is a woman whose body and soul has always belonged to someone else - her father, her neighbours, her husband, her lover. Aged ten she fends off advances from off-duty soldiers in the streets:
they were everywhere, watching lumps
on our chests, to see if our hips grew away
from our waists, always picking me out,
plucking at me in the market,
Is our little aubergine ready?
Just a year later her father considers she is 'ready' and she is married off, subjected to a marital rape by a man over three times her age for whom she is nothing but a fashionable accessory: a black wife is the new white dontcha know. Even her affair with Severus, while briefly satisfying, is about lust not love, and her powerlessness is part of their sexual dynamic; in the end it will inevitably kill her.
No surprise either that The Emperor's Babe makes constant and overt connections between women's bodies and the consumption of food. Zuleika is a consumable. She understands this early on in her marriage to Felix, when she describes preparing herself for an evening engagement with him:
After I have been oiled and scraped,
with all the finesse of a chef priming a skinned
pig for marinating, after I have been rubbed
and squeezed with all the finesse
of an expert baker and my body sizzles
like frying bacon, the girls dress me.
Later in the novel Severus takes her to a gladiatorial entertainment, which opens with an amuse bouche to enliven the palate: pregnant slaves 'fighting' lions. As the women are reduced to cuts of meat in front of a cheering crowd Zuleika wets herself out of fear, excitement and self-loathing:
...it was the girl
who so long ago had been stillborn
inside the woman, my throat sore,
my eyes burnt, I screamed so hard
my stomach hurt, I rocked,
I hugged myself, the pitchfork entered
and turned, warm pee burst down my legs.
Women = meat; Zuleika = meat. Which is not to say that she is entirely chewed up by life. The sex she has with Severus is mind-blowingly erotic - possibly the best sex I've read in a novel - and allows her a small taste of freedom, even if that freedom is gained by throwing herself at the power of his mercy. And in the end her poetry is a testament. Yes, of her despair and her tragic, wasted, wanting life; but also of her linguistic skills, her powers of observation and understanding, her sense of humour and her capacity for experience.
The book group all agreed that The Emperor's Babe was an unanticipated pleasure. None of the participants had read a novel in verse before, and all of them said they definitely would in the future. Which I think must be a win, for Bernadine Evaristo and for a sidelined form. It has definitely enticed me to consider embarking on some of those long epic and narrative poems that I've avoided in favour of the short and pithy ones that look manageable on the page.
After the book discussion, we handled several artefacts dating from 3rd century Roman Britain and the reign of Septimus Severus, including the bangles of a Roman woman of African descent discovered in York, a ceramic head-pot depicting Severus' maniacal son Caracalla and several items of jewellery. It seemed utterly fitting that we should have done this in concert with reading Evaristo's book: she wrote the book after a residency at the Museum of London, in response to the Roman galleries there. Material culture fed into the writing; material culture fed into the reading.
Next month we'll be discussing Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier.