Title: Gertrude and Claudius
Author: John Updike.
Genre: Literature, fiction, romance, historical fiction.
Publication Date: February 8th, 2000.
Summary: In this “prequel” to Hamlet, John Updike makes a case for the royal couple that Shakespeare only hinted at, crafting a passionate romance that preceded the tragedy. Gertrude and Claudius are seen afresh against a background of fond intentions and family dysfunction, on a stage darkened by the ominous shadow of a sullen, erratic, disaffected prince.
My rating: 9/10.
♥ “This is sin,” she told her partner in it.
♥ The wine was thick and sweet, and under its influence, drinking first from opposite sides and then from the same of the heavy-stemmed cup, they could not help rubbing against each other, and fell to the bed, where, removing no clothes, they groped for sensitive flesh while exchanging reechy kisses, their mouths sour with wine, tainted with cheese, but for all that sweet, deeply so; it was as if two great angelic funnels were pouring through their joined lips the long-dammed contents of their souls, all the wounds in need of healing, all the comforts until now unbestowed. They became in their clothes sweaty and pink. His hands thought her loins, her breasts through the embroidered bliaut, with its welts of thread, that sheathed her from neck to heels. A ridge of dew appeared on Geruthe’s upper lip, which bore a transparent down he had never noticed before; her hand sought below his belted velvet tunic the baubly stalk his gift reminded her fingers of. But for all this compulsive ardor, these swathed caresses and stifled groans, the hissing and broken murmurs, the spiritual undertaking was too great to be consummated today. The weight of fatality was too heavy for their mere flesh.
♥ She felt this would happen but once, this unfolding of herself, and so she was luxuriously attentive to it, as if she were both storyteller and heroine, physician and invalid. In their hours of stolen intimacy, Fengon disclosed to her in the white mirror of his own body, furred and pronged, a self laid up within her inner crevices and for forty-seven years merely latent, asleep. All her unclean places came alive, and came clean. Did she not carry in her veins the warrior blood of Rodericke and of his father, Hother, the vanquisher of Guimon, who had betrayed Gevare and whose live body Hother burned in revenge? Protest had been lurking in her, and recklessness, and treachery, and these emerged in the sweat and contention of adulterous coupling.
She and Fengon seized what mattresses there were, at times too impatient for the convenience of the mock court they had establishe in Corambis’s lodge: a grassy bramble not a league beyond Elsinore’s moat, or a stone niche in a little-used gallery where hiked skirts and lowered breeches created sufficient access for their souls’ emissaries, those lower parts so rich in angelic sensation. She would have lain down in warm mud for him, even the mud of the pigsty, to enter the exaltation she found in his brute love. He was not always gentle nor always rough; he maintained the small surprises of the seducer’s art, which yet she had to feel arose involuntarily in him, to impart movement to the great element of herself beyond the control of her will.
Unlike Horvendile, Fengon was at home in the pit of the flesh. His soul did not dart looks about for an exit to some safer, more public chamber, lit by social chatter and churchly candles. When done, the King was anxious to skulk off to his own closet; a nature-hating piety learned in Jutland unmanned him. Love’s gratifications, violent and uncaring when part of his pirate raids, bordered in his mind on the Devil’s domains. Whereas Fengon was content to loiter in a twinned concupiscence, telling Geruthe over and over, with his tongue and eyes and rethickened horn, all the truth about herself that she could not. He uncovered in her not just the warrior but the slave. Had he bid her lie down in pigshit she would have squeezed her buttocks together in the clench and rejoiced to be thus befouled. At night, reliving the afternoon’s embraces, she would lick her pillow in hunger to be with her lover again - her redeemer from lawful life’s deadening emptiness, her own self turned inside out and given a man’s bearish, boyish form. Her father’s court had held no more eager slut than she.
♥ “Sela was a warrior, a rover, to equal a man. She deserved a man’s death.”
The phrase piqued Gerutha. “Is a woman’s death less than a man’s, I wonder? I think death for both is exactly as big as it must be, like the moon when it blackens the sun, to eclipse life completely, even to the last breath, which perhaps will be a sigh over opportunities wasted and happiness missed. Sela was a rover, but no woman wants to be a mere piece of furniture, to be bartered for and then sat upon.”
♥ But marriage to Horwendil, with a queendom all but certain with it, was no such slavery, surely. What did women want? There had been that in Ona which he had never reached, save in the instant when their bodies clasped and found release in a brainless rhythm of thrust and counterthrust, her pelvis as active in the business as his - a passion as if to be sacrificed, to be consumed in this act of, after all, capture. Then, in the next instant, their sweats still wet on the bedclothes and their breathing fluttering back into their chests like two homing doves, she would begin to recede. Or was it he receding, the capture achieved and he the lighter for it? They had been like a pair of conspiring cutthroats met in the dark and, their furtive transaction accomplished, swiftly and unceremoniously parted by a mutual hatred. No, not hatred, for a kindly afterwash would hold them side by side a while, beneath the embroidered canopy, behind the linen bed curtains doubled in thickness so their struggling shadows would not show through, within the tall stone room patrolled by cold drafts and churlish servants, as their sweated bodies dried, and he and she would engage in a drowsy fumbling conversation, his eyelids still retaining visions of her naked beauty above him, below him, upside down beside him, her abundance of untamed raven hair between parted white thighs having tickled his lips. They would talk, many a time, of their growing daughter, the radiant fruit of one such clipping - the child’s piecemeal assumption of mobility and speech, the dropping away of treasured mispronunciations and lisped coinages as she gathered to herself more correct language and adult manners.
♥ Amused at himself for slipping back into paganism, Rorik lay a dry hot hand on her softer, moister one and said, “The priests your good husband consults never tire of reminding us that we each bear a cross, in imitation of Christ. Or did Christ pick up a cross in imitation of us?
♥ As long as the dying live, the living do not spare them.
♥ “Children are indeed a comfort. Their needs supplant ours, and our being feels justified in their care. We hide behind them, in a sense; our coming deaths are lost in the clutter of family matters.”
♥ O the days, the days in their all but unnoticed beauty and variety - days of hurtling sun and shade like the dapples of an exhilarated beast, days of steady strong cold and a blood-red dusk, tawny autumn days smelling of hay and grapes, spring days tasting of salty wave-froth and of hearth-smoke blown down from the chimney pots, misty days of sifted sunshine and gentle fitful rain that glistened and purred on the windowsill like a silvery cat, days of luxurious tall clouds that brought thunder east from Jutland, days when the shoreline of Skåne lay vivid as a purple hem upon the Sund’s rippling breadth, days of high ribbed skies like an angel’s carcass, December days of howling sideways snow, March days of hail from the north like an angry knocking at the door, June days when greenness smothered every vista, days without qualities, days with a hole in the middle, days that never knew their own mind and ended in insomnia, days of travel, days of ceremony when she and Horwendil were fixed in place like figures beaten in brass or else overanimated like actors, dancing through sheets of candlelight and forests of food, wash days when amid laughter and lye she slaved with the red-handed wenches in thrall to Elsinore, sick days when she floated in a fever and received a parade of soft-spoken visitors one of whom might be faceless Death taking her to join Rorik and Marlgar and Ona, Ona who had died when younger than she, and then days of tender recovery, days when beech trees were in long red bud and the willows yellow, days when a serving-girl dropped a stillborn child, days when Horwendil was absent, days when she ate too much, days when she light-headedly fasted, days that began with the Sund glazed like a lake of mercury beneath a pearly dawn, days when wind whipped spray from wild waves like flares of white fire, menstrual days, saints’ days - the days passed, and Gerutha felt them stealing away with her life, all the whole that she moved through such activities and engagements as befitted a Scandinavian queen, helpmate to a handsome blond king who with the years grew ever more admirable and remote, as if enlarging as he receded from her.
♥ Her heart, her hands were fluttering; she felt her life threatened with a large meaning, larger than any since she had been a little princess begging the crumbs of Rodericke’s love amid the tumble and alarums of his bawdy court. When you are small, the meanings are large; if in later life you lose childhood’s background of assured forgiveness and everlasting rescue, a swerving sense of largeness now and then nevertheless returns.
♥ “...Monasteries are built upon the remotest crags and islets, to escape the world’s temptations, and yet for some monks the isolation and privation of such places is not enough, and they corrupt one another with frequent sodomy. Holy men are admired in proportion to the cruelty they inflict upon themselves. They condemn their bodies to sleeplessness, to standing upright for days on end; they jubilantly starve their sinful bellies; they mount pillars and live atop them for decades. They show more care for the worms that live in their wounds than for their own tormented flesh. In their mania for purity they live in holes, like St. Joannikos, or dwell in swamps as food for mosquitoes, like St. Makarios. There are hesychasts, who sincerely expect the divine light to come pouring forth from their navels.”
♥ With those curving arms he lifted up the clinging tunic, and the chemise, its ties undone, came off with it. Geruthe pressed her rosy ripeness into the abrasions of Fengon’s rough clothes. His riding shirt had leather shoulders to cushion mail. She inhaled the rain-drenched dead-animal smell. “Protect me,” she whispered, adhering tight against him as if for concealment, her lips seeking the gap in his bristling wet beard.
Afterwards, she toyed with the long bronze pins, skewers for her hair, and held one to his naje chest as he lay beside her in the bed. With the point of the other she dimpled the white skin between her heavy breasts. “We could make an end now,” she suggested, her eyes, widened and softened by love, sly with the possibility.
Fengon in his limp state considered her offer. Such a further and ultimate relaxation would conveniently crown his triumph. Gently he lifted the skewers from her grip, pinched the flesh beneath her chin, and weighed a warm breast in his palm. “I fear we have too much of our fathers in our natures,” he said, “to give the world so easy a victory.”