REVIEW: “The Vintner’s Luck” by Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 1998
CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge
Finished 2 Feb 2010
Judging by the polarity of the reviews on this novel, either you love it or you hate it. Fortunately for me, I was in the “love” camp. More than love – I adore this book. I’ve never read another quite like it.
I want to start out by saying that it is possibly best to come to it with no expectations (so if you think the premise sounds interesting, I recommend you go and read it before reading any reviews). I got a copy from the library with no synopsis whatsoever, so I went into it almost completely blind: all I knew was that it was about this guy and an angel who fall in love.
But Luck is so, so much more than that. So much more.
The year is 1808, the place Burgundy, France. Among the lush vines of his family’s vineyard, Jodeau, 18 years old and frustrated in love, is about to come face to face with a celestial being. But this is no sentimental “Touched by an Angel” seraph; as imagined by Elizabeth Knox in her wildly evocative and original novel, Xas is equipped with a glorious pair of wings (“pure sinew and bone under a cushion of feathers”) and an appetite for earthly pleasures–wine, books, gardening, conversation, and, eventually, carnal love.
The fateful meeting between man and angel occurs on June 27. After an evening during which Sobran spills all his troubles and Xas gently advises him, the angel promises to return on the same night next year to toast Sobran’s marriage. Thus begins a friendship that will last for 55 years, spanning marriages, wars, births, deaths, and even the vast distances between heaven, earth, and hell. In addition to the wonderfully flawed Sobran and his mysterious angel, Knox brilliantly limns secondary characters who are deeply sympathetic–from Sobran’s unstable wife, Celeste, and his troubled brother, Leon, to his dear friend and confidante, the Baroness Aurora. Love, murder, madness, and a singular theology that would make a believer out of the most hardened atheist all add up, in The Vintner’s Luck, to a novel that will break your heart yet leave you wishing for more.
You all know by now that I am such an avowed atheist, and I will tell you straight that this book made religion so beautiful to me I was almost tempted to convert. For example:
“If you destroyed it, it would go to Heaven.”
“So is Heaven full of laundry lists and lewd books? The sorts of things people burn.”
“Destroyed originals go to Heaven. You can find a copy of anything copied in Hell. Heaven is full of the membranes of lost manuscripts. They are like the skin a snake casts when it grows, transparent, in the shape of a snake and printed with airy scales. But these are indestructible and lovely, like a gold leaf…”
— The Vintner’s Luck, p.153
More than just the description of Heaven and Hell (what book-lover wouldn’t be tempted by the idea that all manuscripts go to heaven?), however, the novel itself was right up my alley.
To begin with, much of it reminded me of Plato’s Theory of Forms. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, essentially, Plato believed that on some other plane there exist perfect, non-material abstract copies of everything on Earth that are more real than the things we see around us. The way it was explained to me is that the Form of something is like its essence; a tree on Earth, for example, is less real than a tree in the world of Forms because it is only a reflection or echo of that perfect essence. You’re probably familiar with the allegorical Plato’s Cave, where a group of people are chained in a cave and come to believe that the shadows they see on the wall in front of them are the real things – well, basically the Theory of Forms states that what we see are those shadows, and that Forms are the things that make those shadows, the perfect tree and so on.
Basically, this concept is woven throughout the book. As you can see in the example above, Knox’s theology suggests that that Heaven is that world of Forms, and that “What God makes are copies and distillations. A soul is a distilled human. Earth and purgatory are distilleries.” (p.238). Later in the novel, Knox implies that Xas himself is an imperfect copy of Christ, created in advance by God to see what would happen if he (Christ) didn’t do his duty. The tragedy of this divine duplication, which Knox drives agonizingly home in the end of the novel, is that “in His world it is as though there are no particular things – or the particularity of each thing depends upon another” (p.239). Thus when a person dies, their soul is ‘distilled,’ and they are no longer themselves (the paradox of perfection is that it is inherently flawed because it lacks flaws and can therefore never be perfect), meaning that when Sobran dies, even though Xas could theoretically meet “him” in Heaven, he will never truly meet the “wonderfully flawed” Sobran again.
Naturally, the rich theological development was the highlight of the book for me. But I must also praise the prose and characterisation; the scenes were vividly rendered, the love stories were compelling and I felt like I knew the characters well by the end of the book. The way the wine was woven throughout as an extended metaphor was wonderful to see as well. It has a somewhat unique storyline, insofar as each chapter encompasses a year, so that at first it seems – mm, how can I put it? You find yourself floundering for the first few chapters because the usual sense of slow progression isn’t there. The novel goes over a lifetime, and the miraculous thing is, it really feels like it. You watch Sobran grow and change. New people come into his life; he has children; they have children. He grows. Although the novel is generally told from Sobran’s perspective (limited third person), at the end you realize that you the reader have more in common with Xas because you, too, are ‘immortal’ in the sense that you have watched Sobran’s entire life pass by.
It was heartbreaking and enthralling and is definitely (if it doesn’t sound too melodramatic) one of my Favourite Books of All Time. I was astonished (and a little proud, I confess) to find out that it was actually written by a New Zealander. There is a movie of it out which I will hopefully be able to get a copy of in the near future, and I will probably review that here too for the Books and Movies Challenge. It also qualifies for the GLBT and Year of the Historical Challenge as well. I’m glad, because in my opinion, the more people who are made aware of the existence of this wonderful book the better.
My favourite quote:
Xas sighed. “But I don’t want to talk about God. Why do I? Sometimes I feel God is all over me like a pollen and I go about pollinating things with God.”
Sobran opened his eyes and Xas smiled at him. Soban said, “I did think that you talked about God to persuade me you weren’t evil. But I’ve decided that, for you, everything is somehow to the glory of God, whether you like it or not.”
“I feel that, yes. My imagination was first formed in God’s glory. But I think God didn’t make the world, so I think my feelings are mistaken.”
This was the heresy for which Xas was thrown out of Heaven. Sobran was happy it had finally appeared. It was like a clearing. Sobran could almost see this clearing – a silent, sunny, green space into which not a thing was falling, not even the call of a cuckoo. Xas thought the world was like this, an empty clearing into which God had wandered.
— The Vintner’s Luck, p.100
Best read of the year so far. Definitely a modern classic!