Against the lush backdrop of 1890s Leipzig, two unhappy lovers destroy each other in spectacular fashion. An emotional train wreck that you can't look away from.
Maurice Guest, an aspiring pianist and dissatisfied teacher, leaves his job in England to study music in Leipzig, Germany. It's the 1890s, and Leipzig is a cultural centre, with ambitious students, musicians and artists swirling around its vibrant conservatoriums and teeming streets. In the midst of this heady environment, bursting with dynamic personalities and outsize egos, Maurice catches a glimpse of Louise Dufrayer, an Australian woman several years his senior. She is not your classic beauty, but nonetheless he becomes obsessed with her. His friend, Madeleine Wade, a struggling student with a practical outlook, knows Louise's backstory and warns him to keep a wide berth. Louise has been carrying on an affair with the brilliant violinist, Schilsky. Schilsky is a complete cad, utterly immoral, and when he dumps Louise and bolts, Maurice begs her to allow him to pick up the pieces.
The two enter into a relationship which is doomed from the start. Louise, with her refined taste in men and music, suffers in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. Maurice has his faults too, chiefly an obsessive nature divorced from reality. The two lovers try in their own way to make a go of things, but a sea of personal grievances and dire secrets bubble away underneath, constantly threatening to blow everything up.
Maurice Guest was Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson's first novel, published in 1908. Perhaps its most striking aspect is its modernity. Her frank detailing of the sex lives of Leipzig's cultural elite – the bed hopping, exploitation, sadism and other shennanigans – reads like Freudian case studies. Take away the nineteenth century frocks and furniture and the story could easily take place today. Richardson is a master psychologist and she expertly plays her wide cast of complex characters, elucidating in addictive prose the many troubling layers that make up the human condition. That this drama is sustained so wonderfully for over 600 pages, its interest never flagging, is a testament to Richardson's great powers as a novelist.
With its strong hints of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, Maurice Guest is first class stuff. Surely one of the best novels written by an Australian.
Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson. Published by Text. $12.95
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books