Serenity is the mood that pervades La Demande (The request) by Michèle Desbordes. Set in 16th-century France, it tells of an unexpected encounter between a maidservant and an unnamed Italian painter – possibly Leonardo da Vinci, who was summoned to France by François I and died near Amboise. Ms Desbordes’s painter has also left his country and knows he will die during his last exile. Bidden by the French king to bring him “the certainty of beauty”, the painter is given a servant and a mansion on the banks of the Loire. There is a Jamesian tension in this relationship made of silent looks and hushed secrets. His detached gaze has the light melancholy of someone who has accepted death and is still curious, yet aware of his ebbing creative talents. Her enigmatic smile hovers between resignation and contentment ; in the maid’s endless repetition of household chores are vested all the hardships of a humble life. The narrative culminates in her asking to continue serving him after she dies, by offering her body for his anatomic sketches.
Ms Desbordes paints with words. Like the painter of her story, she renders “the invisible” on paper. Her suggestive and poetic writing captures the dense silence of two characters in the autumn of their lives, trying to love and learning to die. And time, punctuated only by the slow change of the seasons, becomes almost palpable : what the servant offers to the artist is time regained.
Ms Desbordes has received great critical acclaim and her novel was second favourite on the shortlist for the 1999 Livre Inter prize. “Read the book and spread the word”, urged a Le Monde columnist, Patrick Kechichian.