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Review: A Man of Genius, by Janet Todd
Bitter Lemon, 2016. 347 pp. $25

The protagonist of this well-written, keenly observed, but occasionally tiresome novel is Ann St. Clair, a woman judged unusual for 1816–she’s independent. Ann earns a very modest living churning out Gothic novels, a supreme irony, given that she’s shy, shrinks from gory sights or bad smells, and swallows a hundred times more feelings than she expresses. Nevertheless, this shrinking violet enjoys her freedom to go where she will, with whom, and to manage her own affairs, even as she realizes the price she pays. With no husband, father, or suitor, Ann has no male protector and is therefore an outlier, something that strikes her most vividly when she visits her kindly cousin Sarah, married and a mother several times over. Sarah believes that a woman’s place is in the home, but she doesn’t criticize her (marginally) more worldly cousin.

Enter Robert James, an Irish-born writer who has attracted a coterie of men who hang on his every word. Robert has written nothing except a poetic fragment titled Attila, and he has a gift for cruel mimicry, yet this earns him the title of genius, a mantle he assumes as his due. Ann, who has drifted into this circle–one of two women the group tolerates, though just barely–is thrilled that the great man has noticed her. So starved is she for attention that she willingly becomes his lover, even though he cares not one whit about pleasing her and grows more and more abusive with passing months. Attila, indeed.

Gaspar van Wittel, View of the San Marco Basin, Venice, 1697, the original of which hangs in the Prado, Madrid (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Gaspar van Wittel, View of the San Marco Basin, Venice, 1697, the original of which hangs in the Prado, Madrid (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

If the subtitle were How to Create a Masochist, A Man of Genius would almost qualify as nonfiction. Ann’s mother has hated her from birth, literally slapping her for daring to open her mouth, while lionizing Gilbert, the father who died before the poor girl was born. So of course Ann finds the most criminally narcissistic man available, violent and sullen by turns, and attaches herself obsessively. In one of her more clear-sighted moments, she wonders:

What was it that made others come to Robert? She had not a tenth of such power; had she been turned into a man she would still not have had it. What gave some people influence to pull others toward them–even if they burnt them when close–while others, all well-meaning and eager, stood solitary?

We’ve all known someone like Robert, but, I hope, have had the sense to avoid them and, even more important, the self-respect to resist their gravitational pull. Since masochists believe they have no gravity–or, more precisely, that its laws benefit them only on sufferance–reading about such people drives me absolutely crazy. In fact, when I reached the rather too lengthy part when Robert spouts dull, pretentious drivel, and his friends lap it up, I realized that I’d tried reading A Man of Genius once before, and that this section had persuaded me to put the book aside.

But this time, I kept going and was rewarded. An ardent feminist, Todd has much to say about the peripheries in which women reside, either for safety’s sake or because men have displaced them from more comfortable, visible quarters. Yet she never pretends that by definition, women are superior, or men, evil, and she sketches out the limits of discourse and understanding between the sexes with a sure hand. The context is historical, yet you get the picture–not as much has changed as we might like to think. Also, though Todd dares literary cliché by having her characters move to Venice to try to escape themselves, she describes that city so masterfully that you forget you’ve read a dozen other novels about it. Further, the trip to Venice prompts Ann to delve into secrets from her past, which kicks the storytelling into a higher gear, and whose twists and reversals keep you guessing until the end.

Where A Man of Genius falls short, I think, is the dynamic between Ann and Robert. I like novels that render each emotional moment with care–one reason I stayed with this one–but too often here, the psychological currents swirl in tight circles. Robert never gives Ann a reason to think that he cares for her or enjoys her company, for which she blames herself. I’d have believed this part more readily–and skimmed less–had he doled out morsels that tantalized her, only to withhold them otherwise. That would have positioned Ann as coming back for more rather than holding onto nothing, and her self-blame would have been easier to swallow. It would have also made her initial attraction more plausible; other than her own pathology, I can’t figure out why she’d bother.

For all its flaws, though, A Man of Genius is a bold, painstakingly rendered portrait of what can happen between men and women.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.