It can't be denied: Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette made me want to eat cake and drink champagne. More than usual, I mean. It also gave me a new appreciation for Antoinette herself -- not necessarily as an historical person, or even as a character embodied by Kirsten Dunst, but as a mythic figure of cloistered girlhood, decadence, and desire.
Coppola's 2006 film used Antonia Fraser's biography as a source, and I imagine Kathryn Davis's episodic 2003 novel, Versailles, largely narrated by the beyond-the-grave soul of Marie Antoinette, did as well. I haven't read Fraser, but it's a fair assumption: the film and the novel are so similar in their presentation of the dreamy, wry, and ultimately doomed girl queen. Antoinette who loved to eat, dress, and gamble and whose inner and outer lives are equally filled with the rooms of Versailles. (Not to mention that Fraser's subtitle "The Journey" is echoed in Davis's opening line: "My soul is going on a trip.")
Unlike Coppola, though, Davis actually dares to show us the fallen queen --
the jaded queen in prison -- and for me, this was the novel's most appealing section:
"Outside, it was the rage for women to tie red ribbons around their necks, a la victime, and for men to shave their throats. Making fashion out of fear, I guess, the idea being that if you got there first, Death would have to look elsewhere.
"Meanwhile yet one more escape plan was under way, involving yet more costumes, forged passports, a boat to Normandy, etc. etc. My little boy would be hidden in a basket of dirty laundry, the ever-watchful Tisons dispatched with drugged snuff. Of course it came to nothing, but since I expected nothing I wasn't disappointed."
There are so many other startling lines and passages, mixing poetry with prose, bleakness with wit, directness with sublime indirectness -- too many to document here. But all right, here are a few, on the theory that typing out Davis's sentences might help improve my own. Certainly, they kept me reading eagerly even when this rather elliptical dreamscape challenged my desire for a more conventionally realist book...
"You can make yourself remember almost anything, as long as it isn't too boring."
On Sex with Louis XVI
"Of course, he had no practice. Just as, pamphleteers to the contrary, I had no basis of comparison. Antoinette and Louis, as inept in bed as on the throne, though goodness knows we tried...
"But did I feel stirred? Yes, I admit, I did, a little. It was like the way I'd sometimes feel when I was sitting for my portrait, an almost unendurable sense of my self, of the surfaces of Antoinette, her eyes trying not to blink, her lips growing more and more pursed and dry, her tongue dying to lick them. And then just when I'd think I couldn't bear to sit there like that one minute longer, I'd suddenly find myself on the outside looking in, a traveler in a carriage passing an apparently deserted house at nightfall. The windows dark, no hint of movement, yet somewhere deep inside, in the deepest, darkest corner of the cellar, there would be a little sleeping animal who would prick up its ears."
On Royal Families
"It's a miracle, really, that any of the royal children went on to become King. But maybe there's no version of childhood that could adequately prepare you for that particular future."
"Everything perfect except, no surprise, my husband, who'd come out wearing shoes that didn't match.
"I was in agony, I admit it. As if the shoes were a moral failing."
On Escaping Your Fate
"I thought it was like an ant trying to climb out of a teacup. All those painstaking small steps up a steep smooth wall, across the tiny, hand-painted forget-me-nots and rosebuds and the next thing you know you're back where you started. Back in the Tuileries, back in the mess at the bottom of the cup, and the people of Paris are out of their minds with joy. They're organizing street fairs, sending up hot-air balloons. They're hanging thousands and thousands of lanterns in the Tuileries Gardens, as if the idea of hanging lanterns from trees was something they'd only just come up with, and not something I'd been doing at Versailles for years."
When you think about the people of Paris and what they were going through, it's pretty difficult to sympathize with the Antoinette of history. But what a person Davis makes her in this novel. What a flawed and towering self.
author of The Violet Hour, reader, prodigious eater of ice cream