Header overlay

The Only Thing that Matters

Share this

Thirty years ago, when I was in a state of nervous over-excitement about the publication of my first novel, my editor gave me a copy of Theresa de Kerpely’s Arabesque to read. Her husband had published it in the UK and they both considered it remarkable. Now, it’s always tricky when someone presses a book into your hand with a speaking look and a muttered ‘amazing . . . unputdownable’ because of the very real danger that you will either founder on page one or soldier on to the end in the face of a nigh irresistible urge to de-limescale the taps instead. It’s analogous to the moment when your lifelong best friend declares her love for the patently obnoxious bloke you’ve been warning her about – you are left wondering if you ever really knew her at all.

Thank heavens that in this case my editor’s intuition was spot-on. I was bewitched by Arabesque then, and it has remained not just one of my Desert Island Books, but a strong contender for the one I’d rush into the encroaching waves to save.

If pressed, I’d call Arabesque a romantic novel, though I doubt its author would have appreciated the label. Romantic fiction has an image problem, in spite of a proud literary pedigree that takes in almost all the great Victorian novelists. At its most stereotypical it can lapse into silliness, and make the reader feel silly too.

Not so here. Theresa’s is a novel which could never be described in that faux girlie way as one you’d curl up with ‘like a big box of chocolates’. Scotch, strega, a good Shiraz, maybe – something that commands respect, a strong head and a discerning palate.

When I first read it I was probably as unreceptive to another person’s fiction as it’s possible to be. I had just emerged from the thrilling and exhausting business of writing my own big novel, a condition much like being in love – poor appetite, adrenalin in overdrive, general dazed euphoria – and asi

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

Thirty years ago, when I was in a state of nervous over-excitement about the publication of my first novel, my editor gave me a copy of Theresa de Kerpely’s Arabesque to read. Her husband had published it in the UK and they both considered it remarkable. Now, it’s always tricky when someone presses a book into your hand with a speaking look and a muttered ‘amazing . . . unputdownable’ because of the very real danger that you will either founder on page one or soldier on to the end in the face of a nigh irresistible urge to de-limescale the taps instead. It’s analogous to the moment when your lifelong best friend declares her love for the patently obnoxious bloke you’ve been warning her about – you are left wondering if you ever really knew her at all.

Thank heavens that in this case my editor’s intuition was spot-on. I was bewitched by Arabesque then, and it has remained not just one of my Desert Island Books, but a strong contender for the one I’d rush into the encroaching waves to save. If pressed, I’d call Arabesque a romantic novel, though I doubt its author would have appreciated the label. Romantic fiction has an image problem, in spite of a proud literary pedigree that takes in almost all the great Victorian novelists. At its most stereotypical it can lapse into silliness, and make the reader feel silly too. Not so here. Theresa’s is a novel which could never be described in that faux girlie way as one you’d curl up with ‘like a big box of chocolates’. Scotch, strega, a good Shiraz, maybe – something that commands respect, a strong head and a discerning palate. When I first read it I was probably as unreceptive to another person’s fiction as it’s possible to be. I had just emerged from the thrilling and exhausting business of writing my own big novel, a condition much like being in love – poor appetite, adrenalin in overdrive, general dazed euphoria – and aside from children’s bedtime stories and the features pages of the newspaper, I was scarcely reading. The book itself was dourly secretive in appearance: a dark red cloth cover, no flashy dust-jacket with publishing fanfares or gushing endorsements from fellow-writers. This contributed to the exhilarating sense of discovering for myself this story of a young woman caught in a web of (often transgressive) relationships in Eastern Europe between the wars. The opening line with its echoes of Jane Eyre – ‘I had never experienced cold of the kind that set in that day . . .’ – caught me, and a willing prisoner I remained. I began almost at once to create a kind of myth around the author. She was very old, I believed, when she wrote Arabesque, and died not long after, so it was a labour of love, her only novel, the story that had to be told – her swansong. Theresa de Kerpely certainly came to writing relatively late in life, but she was a consummate professional who wrote several novels as well as an exhaustive (and, if I’m truthful, rather exhausting) autobiography, and applied herself assiduously to the business of becoming the best writer she could be in the wholehearted manner of her much-loved adopted country, America. In her later years she even taught creative writing. So much for the solitary, elegiac swansong. I first opened her autobiography Of Love and Wars about five years ago, and I still haven’t read every word. Admittedly it’s a thumping great volume, the fruit of preternaturally detailed recall aided by a rich imagination, but that wasn’t the reason for my falling-off. The problem was that the more I read the more I feared that if I met Theresa I might not immediately warm to her. She appears ardent, interesting and single-minded, but she has the vices of her virtues and can also seem selfish and a little humourless. From the way she describes herself you’d be forgiven for imagining a suitably Brontëesque figure, small, poor and plain, but the last is certainly not true: the jacket photograph shows a fragile, porcelain-skinned beauty with upswept hair and a romantic off-the-shoulder gown (it’s definitely a ‘gown’). She reveals herself – to this reader anyway – as a woman with a strong sense of self and of her own destiny. In short, impressive, but a little intimidating. And yet, and yet . . . that same authorial voice works triumphantly in Arabesque. Theresa was herself a diplomatic wife in the period and places she describes, and her command of her material combines with the narrative authority of a born storyteller. To outline the plot of any novel is always to do it an injustice. But I must try, if only because I long to convey the strange, dark glamour of her book. Joanna – the Theresa character – is the young wife of Julian Crest, a handsome, volatile and dangerously left-leaning member of the diplomatic corps in Eastern Europe (mainly Hungary and Romania) between the wars. The model for Julian is certainly Theresa’s own first husband, a man fatally damaged by his experience in the trenches. It’s clear from very early on in the story that whatever their difficulties, the Crests’ is a marriage not confined to true minds, and they snatch every opportunity for congress, including on deck behind the lifeboats on a stormy Channel crossing with Joanna’s dead mother in the hold. Their sexual chemistry creates a kind of force field; both are the sort of people who attract others – footsy beneath the table, hands under skirts, covert and not-so-covert touchings-up, and dancing of the vertical-sex variety. This being the Twenties and Thirties everyone can dance, and to a high standard; people do not hesitate to tango, something you rarely see these days, Strictly Come Dancing notwithstanding (having had lessons I can appreciate why). Each of the ten sections is named for the people it chronicles and is almost a complete novella, with Joanna and Julian at its centre. Everyone has a secret, and in revealing the secrets the action moves backward and forward like an elaborate dance. The characterization is pitch-perfect: ‘Old Brown’, the career diplomat with something in his past that will forever impede his progress; Sybil, the social-climbing, sexually ambivalent English wife of a wealthy Romanian; siblings Lucrece and Nicolai, beautiful, androgynous and mysterious; Fricka, the calm, intelligent governess who changes the family’s life; Joanna and Julian themselves, their marriage increasingly in turmoil; and the poet Keres, based on the Hungarian musician with whom Theresa herself fell deeply in love. Theresa nails the difference between the troubled passion of a ruined marriage and the emotional haven of a true soul-mate. The first meeting between Joanna and Keres, on Budapest’s snowbound chain bridge, is described by Keres himself, so we are granted a fresh perspective on the woman narrator – her odd beauty, her vulnerability and her mesmeric allure. Theresa revels, too, in the description of settings: numinous churches, squalid flats, opulent theatres, elegant apartments, decadent bedrooms, eerie mountain retreats in the forest-hung fastnesses of the Carpathians where, as one character remarks, one can readily accept the idea of werewolves and vampires. Here is Joanna’s introduction to Old Brown’s house:

We stopped before a massive door in the garden wall. With the air of a man about to reveal some glittering treasure he unlocked it, threw it open and revealed a luxuriant garden completely enclosed by the wall and by the arcaded façade of the house, which suggested a cloister, and gave me the feeling of being nefariously introduced to a monastery. But the atmosphere was more like that of a Turkish potentate’s harem; flooded with the last golden light of the day and the almost palpable perfume of roses.

But at heart this is a story about people; about the different faces and façades of love, and love’s sluttish sister, lust. At the very end of the book there is a declaration, a sort of mission statement spoken by Joanna/Theresa:

When my mother was dying she tried to tell me something. Her lips formed the word love but she couldn’t go on. That was sixteen years ago and I knew so little about loving that I could only guess at what she wanted to say. But now I think I know. I think she wanted to make me understand that love is the only thing that matters.

I adore Theresa’s brio – the more surprising for the underlying composure and coolness that make you believe in her as a diplomat’s wife – and the exquisitely conjured whiff of corruption that rises like incense off the page. Arabesque is a story that almost uniquely I have read over and over again, and it has never failed to feed my imagination and fire my inspiration. A truly fabulous book.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © Sarah Harrison 2010


About the contributor

Sarah Harrison is the author of over twenty books, including How to Write a Blockbuster. A pantomime aficionado, she is learning the piano in order to write her own songs, and is proud to be considered a romantic novelist.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.