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the invention of truth

13 june 2017

In The Invention of Truth, Marta Morazzoni tells two stories in alternating short chapters. In one, a needlewoman travels from medieval Amiens to work on what will become the Bayeux Tapestry. In another, the aging John Ruskin makes his final visit to Amiens, many centuries later.

I admit this doesn't sound like the greatest hook for a novella. Nor is The Invention of Truth a page-turner in terms of plot, though one is somewhat intrigued to learn what part the unnamed woman of Amiens will play in the evolution of the Tapestry, and whether Ruskin will get out the end of the novel alive. But Morazzoni's book is a delicate meditation on the appeal of art, an appeal that connects far-apart eras and cultures: an appeal that allows her to write the book in late-20th-century Milan and me to read it, via M.J. Fitzgerald's translation, in early 21st-century Texas.

The Invention of Truth is very much a "told" novel, which means that it might not have gotten out of a creative-writing workshop alive. The two wings of Morazzoni's novella require some very precise scene-setting, and equally precise evocation of worlds very different from ours. And it's all the better to have a common narratorial voice guiding us, self-consciously, through the process of imagining that difference. Both the medieval world and Ruskin's nineteenth century are societies divided crucially into servants and the served. Privilege is crucial, and no cause for anxiety on the part of the privileged.

Yet art, which would seem one of the most elaborate manifestations of privilege, depends on a lowering of the social barriers in the interest of craftsmanship. Ruskin is served and protected by his valet George, a gentleman's gentleman so subordinate to his master that he's submitted to having his name changed from John so as not to be confused with him. Yet George is also Ruskin's photographer and collaborator – someone who, as Ruskin ages, becomes indispensable to his work.

The unnamed needlewoman we follow in the other half of the book serves a queen. (The queen is also unnamed, because, crucially, we don't exactly know which queen commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry: Anonymous in this case was a whole lot of women, and their anonymity knows no class distinctions.) The queen, in fact, has called 300 needlewomen into her service, as well as unnamed draughtsmen and weavers. The conception is hers, and so is much of the embroidery itself; but she could never have lived long enough to execute the 70-meter masterpiece on her own.

What do the stories have to do with each other? Well, they've just gotten me thinking about class, service, and art, so I suppose the book has done its cultural work. The reader continually expects that some revelation will take place, some connection, based in Amiens, between the woman of the distant past and the aesthete of the not quite so distant past. But such an explicit link would be facile. Ruskin instead passes through 1870s Amiens never suspecting the existence of the long-ago needlewoman who lived there. The are connected not by anything fortuitous or physical. They're just both possessed with the desire to reflect the world, and its art, in yet more art.

Morazzoni, Marta. The Invention of Truth. [L'invenzione della verità, 1988.] Translated by M.J. Fitzgerald. New York: Knopf [Random House], 1993. PQ 4873 .O663I5813