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Book Review

Speculating in Passion and Finance in 17th Century Holland

TULIP FEVER A Novel by Deborah Moggach. Delacorte Press. $21.95, 282 pages

April 17, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The English novelist George Eliot delighted in Dutch paintings for their "rare, precious quality of truthfulness" in portraying the lives of ordinary people. The fictional connoisseur Charles Swann of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" loved the delicate and elusive qualities of Vermeer. And the paintings of 17th century Dutch artists have manifestly also exerted their fascination on British novelist Deborah Moggach.

Set in Amsterdam in 1636, "Tulip Fever" is something of a departure for Moggach, whose previous novels have generally dealt with current hot-button issues such as custody battles, child abuse or surrogate motherhood. But in 17th century Amsterdam, Moggach has found a world that seems, in some ways, a distant mirror of our own age, and, in other ways, a simpler, braver, more innocent and optimistic ancestor. Having reclaimed their land from the sea, cultivated it faithfully and established a peaceful, tolerant republic where Mennonite, Catholic, Protestant and Jew can worship freely, the Dutch have good reason to feel that providence has rewarded them.

Moggach's prose deftly evokes 17th century Amsterdam's vibrant atmosphere--and a hint of the trouble that can arise from too much energy and optimism: "Trade is booming; the arts are flourishing. Fashionable men and women stroll along its streets, and the canals mirror the handsome houses in which they live. . . . The city sees itself in its own water like a woman gazing into a looking glass. Can we not forgive vanity in one so beautiful?"

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Hanging in the cozy houses of the provident burghers are "paintings mirroring the lives that are lived there." These scrupulously rendered images of particular moments in real but unknown lives--a woman reading a letter, a man lifting a goblet--will leave future generations wondering about the stories behind them. "Tulip Fever" purports to tell one such story.

Cornelius is a merchant who lost his first wife and their children. Now 61, he has married again, this time to a woman of 24 willing to offer her youth and beauty in return for Cornelius' willingness to rescue her and her family from poverty. It strikes both as a fair trade. Cornelius is a decent and good man: He allows his young wife, Sophia, to continue worshiping as a Catholic although he is a Protestant. He also appreciates art and hires an up-and-coming artist named Jan to paint a portrait of him and his new wife.

Although grateful to her husband, Sophia is less than thrilled by the sexual aspect of their marriage. Before long, she and the painter are overwhelmed by their mutual attraction.

Cornelius and Sophia employ a maid, Maria, who is carrying on an affair with Willem, a fishmonger. Willem dreams of getting enough money to be able to marry Maria. Jan, less realistically, dreams of getting enough money to run off with Sophia to live in the Dutch East Indies. Both men believe the quickest way to get rich is by speculating on the tulip market.

As Moggach reminds us, Holland in the 1630s was in the grip of "tulip fever." This was a time when new varieties of the bulb skyrocketed in value: Tulip futures were bought and sold, often on credit, with more and more people (the 17th century equivalent of day traders) getting in on the act. In a nicely pointed irony, Moggach has Jan, the artist, trade one of his still lifes for a tulip bulb: "Strange isn't it?" remarks the tulip breeder. "[F]lowers are transient but a painting lasts forever. . . . Yet one bulb of that tulip is three times more precious, in financial terms, than your painting of it."

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This is an artful novel in every sense of the word. The plot is as neatly and intricately constructed as a timepiece. Concepts and themes are clearly delineated and elegantly played off one other: the fever of sexual passion, the fever of market speculation; Sophia's adultery, Maria's fornication; the beauty of lived experience, the more enduring beauty of art; faith that leads to doubt, sin that leads back to faith. There is nothing extraneous, nothing lax. Yet this well-designed novel speaks poignantly of the uncertainties, losses and sorrows that menace even the best-ordered lives.

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