Published by Peter Owen, 2007
Miranda Miller’s fifth novel, is a literary fantasy, a twenty-first century version of Faust. In 1923, in a West End restaurant, Jenny, a music hall chanteuse, signs a contract with Leo, her lover, a mysterious conjuror: she will look 25 forever in return for loving him.
To explain her failure to age, Jenny reinvents herself as her own daughter in wartime London and as her granddaughter in 1960s London. Leo also has many incarnations, as an RAF pilot, a drug dealer and a director of the Metaphysical Bank in High Street Kensington, where the contracts of the eternally young and rich are stored.
Jenny discovers that people always take her at her face value although her inner self changes. Leo also develops, as he slowly and painfully discovers his humanity. Eternal life becomes even more complicated when Jenny, in her eighties but still looking 25, gives birth to a daughter whose father may or may not be Leo.
The emotional trigger for this novel was my good fortune in surviving breast cancer. The idea of writing about a woman who lived forever seemed both defiant and entertaining. I have always been fascinated by mythology and fantasy and wanted to find a more imaginative way of writing. Earlier versions of this novel were turned down by almost every publisher in London.
It’s a wonderfully generous novel, several books rolled into one, and I would have been happy to stay with any of the strands or any of the places she taked us to – I was particularly struck by her recreation of Edwardian London and of the London of the modern homeless.it’s an epic narrative full of energy, with the wild and joyful inventiveness of an Angela Carter story.
A strange mixture here, but strangely beguiling- with echoes of J K Rowling and Angela Carter, and guest appearances by the likes of Max Beerbohm and Ezra Pound. We begin in Edwardian London. Jenny is a gutter-bred beauty making a living as a singer in the music halls when she meets the love of her life, the mysterious Leo. Through him, she sells her soul in exchange for eternal youth, and the two proceed to blaze a trail through the history of the 20th century. Great fun – utterly gripping if you just want the story, enormously clever if you appreciate erudition.
It is a peculiar thing that no one seems to value originality anymore. After Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, The Da Vinci Code, leapt to the top of the world’s best seller lists it spawned a rash of imitations – The New Da Vinci Code, Move Over Dan Brown were amongst the claims on novels in every bookshop in every town. So it was with extreme trepidation that I approached a novel that novelist and critic, Hilary Mantel, describes as “An epic narrative full of energy, with the wild and joyful inventiveness of an Angela Carter story.” Do I, I pondered, really want to read a book that is written in the style of…..? Keep that question in your head, I shall return to it later.
Loving Mephistopheles is the story of Jenny Mankowitz, a working class unfortunate of low morals and high expectations. In her desire to become a music hall star she meets Leopold M Bishop, professional tutor and agent. The 14 year old determines to seduce her teacher and thus embarks on an adventure of many lifetimes. Leo is not the stilted, awkward gentleman he at first appears. Captivated by the brash Jenny, he nonetheless exploits her youth and her body. Her talents as a music hall star are third rate, but her youthful appearance guarantees her many gentlemen admirers, and she is soon engaged in more private performances to boost her lover’s income. At 25, Jenny, fearful that her looks will soon fade, unwittingly enters a pact with the devilish Leo and sells her soul in return for eternal life. The only condition? That she will always love him
Leo; The Great Pantoffsky, fighter pilot, drug dealer, city banker; to name but a few. The man is older than Methuselah. His lovers have numbered Cleopatra, Oliver Cromwell and Sibyl – perhaps the original of the many sibyls of ancient myth. As a founder director of the BancaMetafisica, an ever-increasing band of immortals, Leo is above morals and human frailties.
Like Leo, Jenny is forced to constantly re-invent himself as the years pass. Assuming the identity of her imagined daughter and granddaughter, she constantly swerves between loving and loathing her Svengali. Living with him one minute, the next escaping his clutches and living alone in Italy. Yet it seems inevitable that they will always be together until the unthinkable happens. Jenny becomes pregnant.
Loving Mephistopheles is Miranda Miller’s fifth novel. If one watches her interview on YouTube you see a woman in her fifties with no nonsense bob and a feisty, intelligent outlook on life. Miller has lived in Rome, Japan, Libya and Saudi Arabia. In addition to the novels she has written a collection of short stories and a non-fiction work exploring the effect of homelessness on women. After suffering from breast cancer and bringing up a teenage daughter, she conceived the idea for Loving Mephistopheles. Nine years in the writing, she originally intended it to be a trilogy. Every publisher in Londonturned down the first incarnations of the novel before it was eventually accepted by Peter Owen.
Loosely based on Faust, Miller says she wanted to “Satirize the cult of youth” and explore the widening gap between rich and poor. She also felt compelled to write further about homelessness. Here we see a true writer who uses her passions to great effect. In her YouTube interview Miller comments that most publishers would rather publish the memoirs of a footballer or B list celebrity. Perhaps a slight hint of bitterness? But, of course, Miller has a point. We have become a nation of voyeurs. Reality TV has, it seems, replaced real life. Baudrillard’s simulacra theory is becoming ever more convincing in our twenty-first century world, to escape from reality many of us are engaging with a representation of reality.
So if we are yearning to escape for an hour or two, why not follow JasperFforde’s example and get Lost in a Good Book? In the early Jenny we can almost hear Wallace Simpson clearly annunciating “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Throw in Manhattansocialite, Nan Kempner, for good measure and stir in a healthy dollop of magic realism, time travel, horror, sci fiand eroticism and you have the recipe for an outstanding work of fiction.
For this is an outstanding work. One can see why Miller has been compared to Angela Carter; she has the same breadth of imagination, inventiveness and audacity. But there the comparisons should stop. Carter worked, at her best, as a writer of short stories. One only has to look at Nights at the Circus. One could definitely draw parallels, the story of stories within stories, but Miller manages to both captivate the reader and draw her to new imaginings whilst all the time keeping firmly within the bounds of the story. In Loving Mephistopheles there is not the danger that one will be lost in a sub story only to be brought up short and slightly dazed when it switches.
The third part of the novel, with its seemingly extreme change of genre, jars slightly. Yet, on reflection, it was possibly the only way Miller could have written to retain the sense of freshness and originality. The story drags us on, with ever increasing impetus, to inevitable disaster. I defy anyone to predict the ending. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.