In a hyper-literary style redolent of Nabokov, Roman Payne tells the picaresque tale of two Mediterranean wanderers: heroic Saul, the son of Solarus, and Saskia, the lovely-eyed gypsy girl. The novel unfolds in such exotic places as Italy, Greece, Spain and France, so I can certainly see it appealing to those in the Anglo-American world suffering from European wanderlust, dreaming of the pagan beaches of Hydra or the enchanting, ethereal frescoes found in Tuscany. And to this very point, I would not characterize Payne's work as 'The Great American Novel' in the mold of Roth, DeLillo, or McCarthy, but rather as 'The Great European Novel' descended from say Cervantes or Boccaccio.
Mr. Payne has boldly broken ranks with his American contemporaries in many ways. Payne left America at the age of 18 to immerse himself in the aesthetic pleasures and the high culture of Paris. I would posit that the sensibility of Paris and France in general has influenced the Paterian style of prose that Payne deftly deploys. One encounters poetic passages such as this one quite often in the novel.
His hands flew and fluttered, trembling lightly like dragonflies that hover near a flower, but never quite land, nor do they go off, so did the servant's hands hover around his body without settling anywhere, nor going off anywhere. (The Wanderess, 59)
Towards the end of the work the reader once again chances upon Payne's redux of the oft forgotten, yet glorious extended Homeric simile.
As water is born high-up on a mountain spring, secreted from a hidden place within the rocks so as to tumble down in streams and waterfalls, to gather below together once again in the ocean, so were Saskia's tears born high-up on her perfect face, secreted from a hidden place within her eyes, so as to topple down in streams upon her cheeks, to topple from her chin... Then the tears gather whole to form oceans of hope in the cups of her hands. (The Wanderess, 271)
These two vignettes were chosen at random, but there are many more in this vein sprinkled throughout the novel. Jonathan Franzen, the lionized American, once commented, 'Many buyers of serious fiction seem rather ardently to prefer lyrical, tremblingly earnest, faux-literary stuff.' I differ with Franzen here, as I see the literary landscape demanding a minimalist, prosaic, spare style of prose (more Chekhov than Nabokov), instead of the rosy-fingered prose style, worthy of Bel Canto Italian Opera, that Payne employs; regardless, one can only imagine the aesthetic disagreements that would emerge, were Payne and Franzen ever to interact with one another.
The Wanderess is slightly perfumed with Fin de siecle decadence, but this seems to be consonant with Payne's professed descent from Romantic Orientalism; he often adverts to opium, absinthe and various other excesses of that age. When confronted with these allusions, I found myself dreaming of Lawrence of Arabia, Ingres' painting Odalisque with Slave and an obscure line from the Greek Poet Cavafy's oeuvre: 'I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.' A devout New England WASP moralist could quibble with Payne here on moral grounds, but I have always believed that a work of Art has no obligation to serve accepted moral codes, and instead should be judged solely by its aesthetic merits, or lack thereof.
Payne's use of an atemporal literary topos is another distinguishing factor of The Wanderess. Where many of his contemporaries are so intent on being of their times, Payne endeavors to be of all times. He does not date the text throughout and seems to enjoy playing a game with the reader as to the epoch of the work by mentioning various archaic currencies such as the louis d'or. I rather relish this idea of dancing over one's age as opposed to engaging in a curmudgeonly iconoclasm that is so often expressed by those sharing Payne's sensibilities and sentiments.
One other literary device that I enjoyed within this work is Payne's use of the footnote to describe such esoteric ideas as the Aristotelian ideal of Eudaimonia, the Grecian concept of Aristeia as well as English translations of French, Spanish and Italian dialogue. The footnotes allow Payne to express himself as an Artist without having to compromise his prose, yet it is helpful to the casual reader who is not fluent in these foreign languages, nor conversant with ancient Hellenic culture. The reader can revel in Payne's heightened verbal majesty and his mastery of narrative without getting bogged down in 'googling' various allusions and references. In closing, I thoroughly adored my two readings of the novel. I believe The Wanderess to not only be a triumph of literature, but part of the burgeoning counter-culture of Aestheticism that is steadily developing in the 21st century.
-Pietros Maneos di Bramabella, The Poet-Farmer