AR: Where did your inspiration for Alatiel stem from?
“'Alatiel'...that seems familiar to me, as if it were from a book I read many years ago.”
“She has no name, Daniele,” Julian said, “so I chose one for her. I have invented her, you might say.”'
(The Poison of a Smile, Ch. 1)
SJ: I took the name Alatiel from the Italian masterpiece The Decameron, a collection of tales written around the time of the Great Dying, the plague which devastated Europe. Boccaccio wrote that Alatiel was a courtesan, the lover of a thousand men, who 'reinvented' herself as a virgin bride fit for a king. A literary historian wrote of her:
'Alatiel passes from one man to another - including two Genoese shipowners, the prince of Achaea, the duke of Athens, the prince of Constantinople, the Turkish emir of Smyrna, and a Cypriot merchant - the strange power of her beauty driving each to murder or other acts of malfeasance in order to possess her.'
So, because of her shifting identity, because of her apparent capacity for malice, Alatiel seemed both an apt name for my character and, of course, homage to a fine story. There are, naturally, other aspects which connect her to The Poison of a Smile's belle dame sans merci: Alatiel is described as 'strangely silent' during a time in captivity, unable or unwilling to tell her captors of her background; in my novel, she is mute. She is considered an 'object, a possession' by the men she seduces; this connects to her treatment by the artists in Poison. And of course, her 'strange beauty' goads my male characters into acts of evil or even suicide; those who refuse her 'inspiration' are destroyed anyway.
Alatiel is every sainted whore, every woman-child they dared to imagine. The artist Salvador Dali wrote that: 'To look is to invent'; what more salient symbol for the artistic male's warped idealisation of women, the obsessive need to weaves myths around those they love and hate, is there than Alatiel? As I wrote: 'Alatiel is the mirror in which they saw themselves. She would be whatever her admirers wanted her to be...'
She is ageless, like Pater's vampiric Mona Lisa, because she is forever born anew in the minds of men, a man-made Athena, as it were; she is chameleon-like because she reflects the fairweather fidelity of men. She is not, despite her actions, evil. Alatiel is at best a blank canvas, or more relevantly, a pale reflection of the contradictory and self-torturing male desire for what is elevated and what is base. Alatiel is a mannequin that comes to life – Pygmalion's Galatea, Hoffmann's Olimpia made flesh. Alatiel, in her many guises, is all her enemies ever dreamt of...
AR: Why The Poison of a Smile?
'Soon, the Widow Paradine began to lament her son's passing and we allowed ourselves the luxury of a most delicious smile.'
(The Poison of a Smile, Ch. 4)
SJ: Many of Poison's chapter titles were inspired by the work of the surrealist René Magritte. I love the chosen titles of his paintings...I find them enigmatic and interesting. Sometimes I've used these titles directly – The Scars of Memory, The Light-breaker, The Enchanted Domain, The Treachery of Images, for example – and, on occasion, I've invented my own or combined Magritte's titles: The Poison of a Smile is one such combination.
The book's title suggests deception, a lure to snare the unwary, a contradiction and a fractured persona; all these things are the soul of The Poison of a Smile.
AR: Paintings seem to have almost mystical significance in this novel. Why do you think they are so powerful?
'A curious bedroom - to an outsider - but this was his true home. Pencil sketches, studies of his own or imagined hands of impossible Mannerist grace, were scatttered across his dressing table. A drawing of Helena Graham, or rather, her head and shoulders only, hung next to a striking image of the crucified Christ.'
(The Poison of a Smile, Ch. 5)
SJ: Although art and artists are easy enough subjects to write about – and my themes are hardly new in fiction, it must be admitted – I had to write this book. I could have chosen a more commercially-attractive subject, for sure, but I'm deeply interested by what I view as the flawed thinking of many male artists and their patrons active during the Victorian era. Some of these men, and their misdeeds, fascinate me. An example: the artist Dante Gabriel Rosssetti buried his finest poems with the wife who (almost certainly) killed herself because of his infidelities. Some time later, in need of money, he had her body exhumed and then published the poems to great fanfare and commercial success. This disconnect between Rossetti's supposedly broken heart and the 'desecration' of his wife's tomb for personal gain is as incredible to me as I'm sure it would be to most people. But then, artists are rarely 'most people'.
Not surprisingly, Rossetti suffered a mental breakdown before too long – he even claimed that 'his' Elizabeth haunted him, in her typically quiet but impressive manner. Rossetti, poet and painter (as is my character Daniele Navarro), slowly fell apart, as it were.
The renowned art critic John Ruskin fell in love at the age at the age of fifty with Rose La Touche, a rather ethereal girl of seventeen years; but really, he lost his heart to her when she was just ten. Ruskin began to lose his mind after Rose's early death. A biographer wrote: 'He convinced himself that the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio had included portraits of Rose in his paintings of the life of Saint Ursula. He took solace in Spiritualism, trying to contact Rose's spirit.' So perhaps one can see why I felt impelled me to write a rather Gothic take on these events and others; it was irresistible to me, it was almost ready-made...
The kind of art I've written about in Poison is of two kinds: one, the illusory Trompe L'oeil type, and more importantly, what I might describe as 'Still Life with Humans', for the want of a more technical term. This very male trait is, I feel, evident in everything from the penchant for pornographic magazines to the highest eschelons of the arts – a passion for the voyeuristic scrutiny of women in static states, whether it be in photo 'captures' (a loaded word, for certain), sleep or even death. Examples are perhaps too numerous to list, but I posit that there is a connection between, say, a Nineteenth-century Felix Trutat painting and the monochrome 'necrophilia' that constitutes so much of Helmut Newton's photography. And these are only recent examples...a common bond unites these images, no matter which period they issue from – their value for men lies in their manipulation, in the white-hot forge of imagination.
Consider the imagery of the medieval Snow White tale – the mirror, the crystal coffin – it speaks of the soulless world of men, display and vanity, secretive and public appearance. Alexander Pushkin changed the story's dwarves into knights, and so the connection with the Grail legends was established. And of course, even these are all symbol and surface – their intellectual and spiritual depth are merely the myth-making of men. Thus, as ever, a distance is placed between the strange creatures these men 'invent' and obsess over, and the flesh and blood women who truly exist. One sees this physical and mental distancing in Dante's obsession with Beatrice Portinari – the two may never have even spoken yet the poet cast her as his saviour, his guide through his fictionalised Heaven. It's incredibly strange, I think, but typical of his type.
The creators of these tales, these artworks, lose sight of women as people. Male sexual desire is more complex and subtle than The Sun would have one believe...
AR: And yet your villains are primarily female...
'I dreamt: of her unclean kisses, the dull friction of her dry lips upon my body. In the absence of affection, the desire for my possession alone inspired her hateful love-making.'
(The Poison of a Smile, Ch. 4)
SJ: This is true. I find that women are far more interesting than men, generally speaking, and far more complex. If they have a flair for evil...all the better. The brilliant serial killer belongs only in fiction – he has no counterpart in real life. Even that loathsome pseudo-intellectual, the Moors Murderer Ian Brady, writes appallingly on the mindset of a killer (his The Gates of Janus is quite dreadfully drab); more saliently, he can't hide his self-hatred and moral torment. The very 'best' villains are quite without these wholly human problems, but then, the most wicked lack a suitable stage – fiction allows them the freedom of the arena. There is no male authority here, no bearded gods or Freudian father figures in disguise; the Maenads have overthrown Dionysus and fashioned his madness anew...
AR: Arguably, the magnetism of your writing lies in the use of poetic language and imagery. Which authors have you found most stylistically influential?
'The fragments lying upon his writing desk were testament to a style that had become an obsession, one which harkened back to his Waterford childhood or perhaps the ancestral memories of his people. All of them related how the Leanan Sidhe, Mistress of Death, fired his vision and promised him riches, fame, the glory of the world.'
(The Poison of a Smile, Ch. 5)
SJ: Oscar Wilde, primarily. Even in recorded conversation, let alone his literary output, he had the sublime habit of selecting the best word for every occasion. Oscar himself described this love of language as 'setting the gem in its rightful place.' The Wilde reader will find that even in his most dated work, the man could turn lead into gold, the dullest of dialogues into a series of striking images or simple yet profound wisdom, as in the purest of philosophies. The wit he was celebrated for was, I think, more likely a happy meeting of original thinking and spontaneity - once, he was asked for his opinion on the correct arrangement of Japanese fans; Oscar replied: “Why arrange them at all? Why not let them occur?” I know of no other man who would think or speak in this way.
AR: Finally, have you any other books planned?
'“They are not my words, dear brother, nor are they my thoughts; I was simply telling you the tale.”'
(The Poison of a Smile, Ch. 3)
SJ: Depending on the success (or otherwise) of The Poison of a Smile, plans for a sequel and prequel are in the works; Alatiel, and the Salazars – alive, dead or undead – will not rest in peace; neither will their enemies.
Other planned titles include The Man of Sorrows, and a ghost story, The Treachery of Images.
Steven Jensen can be found at Shadows & Illusions:
And The Journal:
Alexandra Riley is the author of Victoria Sponge, which is available to read on Authonomy: http://www.authonomy.com/ViewBook.aspx?bookid=15028