The Disciple by Michael Mallon

Reviewed by Annabel

A novel about the increasingly toxic relationship between an old art historian and his young acolyte set in Florence was always going to be a book I wanted to read. Its premise recalled a rather fine literary thriller by Andrew Wilson, The Lying Tongue, set in Venice, in which the relationship between and an aged author and his young secretary turned very dark indeed and I wondered whether to expect anything similar from this book…

Given the Florentine setting I was, of course, also hoping to revisit my own four days of Madonna-fatigue seeing all the art on public offer in the city; (I did manage to be first in to the wonderful Botticelli room in the Uffizi though which more than made up for too many Madonnas). This book gave all that and more, giving the reader access into areas that the public can’t usually go like the Vasari Corridor, the 16th century enclosed private passageway between Palazzos on the north and south banks of the river Arno going over the top of the Ponte Vecchio.

The descriptions of Florence however, although welcome, are incidental to this claustrophobic novel, giving brief breaths of fresh air from the concentrated life of its two main characters. That’s where any similarity to the aforementioned Wilson’s novel begins and ends too.

It’s the early 80s, and John Forde, a 24-year-old American arrives in Florence, having secured a grant for the summer to travel around Italy art centres for his dissertation. Forde has long been obsessed by an ageing English art historian, Sir Christopher Noble-Nolan (I shall abbreviate to Sir CNN from now on), and doesn’t hesitate to search him out.

Ever since he had come across the name – that, to him, magical-sounding name: Christopher Noble-Nolan – when idling round the art and archaeology library on a lonely Friday night during his freshman year at the University of Chicago in 1977, John had convinced himself of a mystical union with the illustrious scholar. In the years that had elapsed since, he made himself obsessively familiar with every aspect (professional and personal) of Sir Christopher’s life.

Having wangled an invitation to meet his idol at home in the grand apartment where he lives near the Pitti Palace, Forde discovers that Sir CNN’s secretary has recently moved onto other things, and that the old man’s documents and books are a mess, he suggests that he could do the job, and by the end of the summer, not only has John not travelled any further, but he is installed in a spare bedroom and working for the old man. He’s also in love.

The church of San Miniato al Monte, oft mentioned in this novel, which overlooks Florence from the hill to the south of the city, © A.Gaskell

It’s some time before he realises he hasn’t gone travelling around Italy’s art treasures, but, in spite of a little professional rivalry directed towards his predecessor, Forde is settled and happy with Sir CNN. He makes the big decision to cut his ties to the USA and graduate school, and to become truly Sir CNN’s disciple.

As we spend the next decade with John and Sir CNN, we see how love, largely unrequited in the physical sense, and devotion can thwart ambition and mutate into a kind of hatred, as John is groomed in Sir CNN’s way of doing things, introduced to all his aged friends, and has to look after the ailing scholar’s infinite needs.

Seen through Forde’s eyes, the world in which he, coming from working class stock, has landed, is initially intoxicating. I loved the author’s choice of everyman name for his narrator.  If Sir CNN is well off and doesn’t worry about money; his friends are absolutely dripping in it, be it old or new. Most of them are absolutely ghastly, but they have to be cultivated. Although Sir CNN is closeted, they accept John as his companion; ‘twas ever thus, and they love and need to have their egos stroked, even though some are prone to outbursts betraying old racist roots occasionally. The atmosphere around the dinner table becomes increasingly cloying.

Sir CNN, as a foremost art historian, is a total snob in his subject, dismissing his contemporaries’ publications in long, meticulously crafted, and nit-picking reviews for elite journals. A total aesthete, his self-interest and casual disregard for anyone and anything that fails to come up to his high expectations has become second nature to him.

Mallon’s writing is intense and very literary, matching that of the scholarly world his book describes in his vocabulary. Words such as ‘salvific’–leading to salivation, ‘lucubration’–a learned or pedantic piece of writing, and ‘concinnity’–the skilful and harmonious arrangement or fitting together of the different parts of something, were all words I looked up, but are entirely appropriate to the narrative. They didn’t make it any more difficult to read but did convey that academic atmosphere grounded in the classics, Latin and Greek.

The author is obviously an expert in the field he is describing, the text is erudite and full of scholarly detail, told in carefully chosen language. There are lighter moments, such as some of the dinner parties and the time that John introduces Sir CNN to the possibilities of classical music on CD.

I read somewhere else that this novel is autobiographical in nature, published as the author turned sixty-years-old. Indeed, it wasn’t difficult to discover that there is truth in this, but I won’t spoil that here. Indeed, knowing this heightened the experience of reading the novel for me. The author’s note at the close though enigmatically states:

I am not he; he is not I.
He is not he; she is not she.
They are they.

The Disciple wasn’t the novel I had expected from the blurb. The Disciple is slow burning, immersing us deeply in Sir CNN’s world of elite academia, monied patronage, and not forgetting marmalade cake with afternoon tea. The progression of John’s feelings turning from love to hate is almost tortuous, certainly claustrophobic. It is the brooding intensity of John’s love and obsession for Sir Christopher that dominates though, and although Forde is responsible for making his own bed, so to speak, the reader does have sympathy for his predicament. This book may be scholarly, but it also succeeded in drawing me into this world and keeping me there for its duration, truly a novel to savour.

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Annabel is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny, and is itching to revisit Florence after reading this novel.

Michael Mallon, The Disciple (Zuleika, 2021). 978-1916197718, 432pp., hardback.

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