There must be a long tradition of literature inspired by (real) paintings or photographs or other artworks. Two examples from among many others, I guess: W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Musée des Beaux-Arts’ was inspired by Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus, and Richard Powers’ novel Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance was inspired by the eponymous photograph by August Sander.
The nice thing, I guess, about this type of book is that it can ‘breathe some life’ into these pictures (if they need that at all), make them more directly accessible in a sense. It can tell the story either of the characters in the painting, or the people behind the artwork. In either case, a good story can always go a long way.
Like her earlier novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, inspired by Vermeer’s famous painting of the same title, Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) fits in this tradition. It too is inspired by an artwork, a collection of six tapestries drawn in Paris and produced in Flanders in the late fifteenth century and currently hanging in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Chevalier tells the story behind these tapestries through different characters and narrators, from the nobleman who commissioned them and his wife and daughter to the painter who drew them and the weaver who produced them, moving between different settings in Paris and Brussels, weaving (well, yes) her own tale into the tapestries and unfurling the different threads that connect these different characters together.
The trouble is that the story she weaves is so weak, so unreal that, instead of breathing life into these beautiful tapestries, it banalizes them, trivializes them, and thereby fails to stand on its own two feet. It’s good to know or to imagine that there are real people behind these works, that these tapestries were not always in museums behind glass cases but that they were made in the real world by real people with real desires and real problems, to imagine, for instance, as Chevalier does on the opening page, the painter going to ‘the nearest tavern for a drink and a laught and a grope’ to restore his spirits. But the trouble is that Chevalier fails on two accounts. She fails to make the characters convincing as human beings with real feelings. And she fails to give any sense of the absolute beauty of these tapestries and the fact that these poor mortals actually managed to create something so wonderful. If the fiction isn’t stronger than the original, I’ll stick to the original.