Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

by Mathias Énard


Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

The title, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, comes from a sentence by Kipling, suggesting the style and subject of this novel about travel and the creative process. In the early 1500s, the Turkish Sultan commissioned Michelangelo to design a bridge to cross Constantinople's Golden Horn. It must have been a daunting project. Though Michelangelo had gained fame for his David, he was still young, and a sculptor and painter, not an architect. He was a devout Christian invited to design a work in a Muslim city. And Leonardo da Vinci's previous design for this same bridge had been rejected. 

We know of this episode in Michelangelo's career only from a handful of fragmentary sources: two documents mentioning the Sultan's invitation, letters from Michelangelo to his brother, Michelangelo's drawings of the Hagia Sophia mosque, da Vinci's drawing of his bridge design, and Michelangelo's drawing of his own bridge design. 

Énard takes his cue from the nature of the sources, constructing his novel in fragmentary chapters the length of a paragraph, a page or two, several pages at most. He dashes off vivid sketches of settings that, to Michelangelo, are exotic and glorious ("Eighteen pillars of the most beautiful marble, serpentine tiles and porphyry inlays, four perfect arches that bear a vertiginous dome"); of flavor and scent ("the beef with dates, the stewed eggplant, the fowl with carob molasses"); of an androgynous dancer's thoughts ("I liked the way you observed me when I sang. The precision of your eyes, the delicacy of their desire."); and above all of the creative process, which involves so much looking, absorbing, waiting, seesawing between confidence and fear of failure ("And, more than anything, he loved drawing, the black wound of the ink, that caress scraping the grain of the paper.")

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a beautiful and haunting novel. (2010 in the original French, English translation 2018 by Charlotte Mandell; 144 pages including a Note on the history behind the novel)

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Other novels about Michelangelo:

Michelangelo the Florentine by Sidney Alexander (1957), first in a trilogy of biographical novels about Michelangelo. More info

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, (1961), a biographical novel about Michelangelo. More info

Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey (2016), about the rivalry between the young Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, as they were creating their masterpieces, the David and the Mona Lisa. More info


Nonfiction about Michelangelo:

Michelangelo: His Epic Life by Martin Gayford (2015). More info

Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces, by Miles J. Unger (2014). More info

Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and his Times by William E. Wallace (2009). More info


Online:

Michelangelo at Wikipedia

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