A hundred years before the Titanic became the world's largest seafaring metaphor, another shipwreck captured and horrified the public imagination. The Medusa disaster of 1816 boasted the same elements of hubris, avoidability and incompetence, but its details are even more gruesome and outrageous.
In the early days of France's restored monarchy, four French ships set sail for Senegal. The largest, the Medusa, carried about 400 people, including the colony's new governor and his family. The captain, a royalist who had never commanded a ship, had earned his position as a political favor, a fact that strained relations with his crew and would become central to the eventual scandal. The journey was not considered dangerous, but despite repeated warnings from experienced officers, the Medusa ran aground about four miles off the African coast.
It's easy to criticize in hindsight, but in this case it was easy to criticize at the time, too. The captain instructed his men to build an enormous raft, which he promised to tow behind the lifeboats so that everyone could abandon ship together. About 140 of the "unimportant" people were forced onto this precarious structure, but almost immediately the raft proved too heavy to tug through the water, so the lines were cut, and it was set adrift on the open sea.
Dozens of passengers were quickly swept over the sides and drowned. Panic pitted the men against each other with clubs and swords. Constantly wet and burned by the sun, their skin rotted away. They drank their own urine. Sharks attacked. Madness set in. The stronger men killed the weaker ones for food. They roasted human flesh or dried it in strips of jerky. When finally rescued, 12 days later, only 15 people were left.
Fearing public outrage, the government tried to suppress the story or spin away the captain's incompetence with a French version of "You're doing a heck of a job!" But one of the survivors published a sensational account that quickly became a bestseller throughout Europe.
Today, if you know anything about the Medusa, you probably know Théodore Géricault's lurid and rousing painting, a spectacular canvas, 16 by 23 feet, which he created just three years after the disaster. In her second novel, The God of Spring, British author Arabella Edge tells the engrossing story of how Géricault produced this painting, one of the most famous of the 19th century. Though she stays close to the survivor's testimonies and other contemporary histories, Edge wears her scholarship graciously; she has trimmed the record, streamlined the complex political context and taken a few liberties with the chronology to produce a gripping novel of artistic obsession.
Her Géricault is a passionate young man, wealthy and startlingly handsome, casting about for a new subject to paint. His friends are content with court portraits, but he yearns to do something more. Unfortunately, he also yearns to sleep with his uncle's wife, which he does frequently and with abandon. But when he hears of the Medusa, the story takes possession of his imagination to the exclusion of all else. (Even sex with his aunt starts to seem like a chore.) He tracks down survivors, brings them to his house to recuperate and forces them -- despite their increasing reluctance -- to tell him exactly what happened. Then he builds a replica of the raft and buys cadavers and body parts from the morgue to recreate the scene.
Through most of the novel, the narrative moves back and forth between Géricault's studio and the survivors' reminiscences. Given the ghastly nature of those 12 days on the sea, it's remarkable that her story of how a painting was created can compete. But it does, superbly, because Edge conveys the broiling passion of Géricault's mind so well, whether he's pressing his aunt against the wall while his uncle enjoys dessert in the next room or creeping through a sanitarium to sketch the faces of dying patients: "He must calibrate in the most precise detail," Edge writes, "how long it took for flesh to wither from the bone." She lets us follow Géricault as he struggles to piece together conflicting testimonies from survivors who have their own reasons for shaping the story -- and his painting -- in particular ways. Along with Géricault, we keep falling through testimonies we thought were definitive only to find new levels of horror concealed beneath. "You must understand," one of the survivors pleads with him, "we had drifted off the edge of the known world of judges, laws and tribunals. . . . Only the ocean bore witness."
Reaching the truth of the Medusa becomes a consuming obsession, an ordeal in itself, driving Géricault to fits of madness and obscenity not so unlike what those sorry passengers on the raft experienced. "It did not matter how much it might cost or how much time it might take, he wanted this tale." Even the mechanics of painting come across as thrilling. Edge takes us to the chemist where Géricault buys those rich, dark colors. We see the painstaking effort to place his models (living and dead) just right. And she's particularly illuminating on the process of choosing a single moment -- from an infinite number -- to immortalize on canvas.
The Géricault she shows us knows from the start he doesn't want to paint propaganda, but he eventually realizes that he doesn't want to paint heroes either, or even history. He wants to transcend the details of this particular disaster to capture some awesome truth about the plight of the human condition. So does Edge. This is art history on fire. ·
By Arabella Edge
Simon & Schuster. 340 pp. $24