The Vintner's Luck, by Elizabeth Knox

The Vintner's Luck, by Elizabeth Knox (Fiction & Literature)

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One summer evening in 1808, Sobran Jodeau stumbles through his family's vineyard in Burgundy, filled with wine and love sorrows. As Sobran sways in a drunken swoon, an angel appears out of nowhere to catch him.Once he gets over his shock, Sobran decides that Xas, the male angel, is his guardian sent to counsel him on everything from marriage to wine production. But Xas turns out to be far more mysterious than angelic. Compelling and erotic, The Vintner's Luck is a decidedly unorthodox love story, one that presents angels as fierce and beautiful as Milton's, and a vision of Heaven, Hell, and the vineyards in between that is unforgettable.

The Vintner’s Luck is a huge bestseller in New Zealand. It has sold over 50 000 copies in New Zealand and over 100 000 copies worldwide.

The Vintner’s Luck was published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Picador US, and in the UK by Chatto & Windus and Vintage. It has been published in German, Dutch, Norwegian, Spanish and Hebrew. It won the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 1999 The Montana NZ Book Awards, where it also received the Readers' Choice and Booksellers' Choice awards.

It was longlisted for the 1999 Orange Prize for fiction (UK) The Vintner’s Luck won the 2001 Tasmania Pacific Region Prize, and is the basis of a film directed by Niki Caro.

Praise for The Vintner's Luck

Like a fine wine, this novel reveals its quality and charm in layers, providing richer rewards and delights the further one moves through it. After the initial rapture of experiencing good traditional storytelling peppered with great prose, it is the hidden depths that make this a rich and satisfying experience, one to savour again and again.
Michael Larsen NZ HERALD

It is a startling firework of a novel, probably the most sustained work of imagination to come from a New Zealand author in a book set elsewhere.

In winemaking terms, this is a novel of rare quality, a Grand Cru of ample length and great complexity, intensely human in character but with strong celestial overtones. Potent and reflective, it is a book to be savoured, leaving a memory of wings, a lingering scent of fresh snow.

Blood, grit, dust, salt, sand, feathers - characters in The Vintner's Luck are covered in all of these, but the reader flies on the wings of Knox's prose into heaven, out of hell, to emerge enriched on earth in 1997 at the chateau Vully l'Ange du Cru Jodeau.
Catharina van Bohemen EVENING POST

Beautifully written, The Vintner's Luck possesses a complex boutique of conceits and and ideas but it is the simplicity of Elizabeth Knox's writing that in the end draws out the savour of human experience and compassion

This is a gorgeous novel: as fine, rich, satiny and unpredictable as the vintages it describes... From our unquenched thirst to wrestle accommodation between the human and the divine is born this textured, beautifully written exploration of the inexplicable, into which is woven an all-too-human chronicle of burning desire, violence, murderousness, bitter jealously, curiosity, sexual deviation, shame and a fidelity of a sort. Ambitious and unconventional,The Vintner's Luck could easily have crashed. Instead, it soars.

Original, often astonishingly vivid...Xas is one of the best angels since William Blake's. Nina Auerbach THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

Daringly exploring the spiritual worth of sensual pleasure, New Zealand writer Knox's imaginative, imagistic tale soars.

"Rich prose and an original plot...a delightful, thought-provoking read."

Strangely compelling...multilayered and challenging..[The Vintner's Luck] is not your typical angel story. David Tedhams THE WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD

Elizabeth Knox spreads her odd and original gossamer over many things....[Her] imagination resembles one of those Burgundy slopes, mysteriously sunned and fed, that produces a vintage unlike any other.

From: The Vintner's Luck, by Elizabeth Knox

1808 Vin bourru (new wine)

A week after midsummer, when the festival fires were cold, and decent people were in bed an hour after sunset, not lying dry-mouthed in dark rooms at midday, a young man named Sobran Jodeau stole two of the freshly bottled wines to baptise the first real sorrow of his life. Though the festival was past, everything was singing, frogs making chamber music in the cistern near the house, and dark grasshoppers among the vines. Sobran stepped out of his path to crush one insect, watched its shiny limbs flicker then finally contract, and sat by the corpse as it stilled. The young man glanced at his shadow on the ground. It was substantial. With the moon just off full and the soil sandy, all shadows were sharp and faithful.

Sobran slid the blade of his knife between the bottle neck and cork, and slowly eased it free. He took a swig of the friand, tasted fruit and freshness, a flavour that turned briefly and looked back over its shoulder at the summer before last, but didn’t pause, even to shade its eyes. The wine turned thus for the first few mouthfuls, then seemed simply ‘a beverage’, as Father Lesy would say, the spinsterish priest from whom Sobran and his brother, Léon, had their letters. The wine’s now pure chemical power poured from Sobran’s gut into his blood. He felt miserable, over-ripe, well past any easy relief.

Céleste was the daughter of a poor widow. She worked for Sobran’s mother’s aunt, fetched between the kitchen and parlour, was quicker than the crippled maid, yet was ‘dear’: ‘Run upstairs, dear …’. Céleste kept the old lady company, sat with her hands just so, idle and attentive, while Aunt Agnès talked and wound yarn. At sixteen Sobran might have been ready to fall in love with her – now, at eighteen, it seemed his body had rushed between them. When he looked at Céleste’s mouth, her shawled breasts, the pink fingertips of her hand curled over the top of the embroidery frame as she sat stitching a hunting-scene fire-screen, Sobran’s prick would puff up like a loaf left to prove, and curve in his breeches as tense as a bent bow. Like his friend, Baptiste, Sobran began to go unconfessed for months. His brother Léon looked at him with distaste and envy, their mother shrugged, sighed, seemed to give him up. Then Sobran told his father he meant to marry Céleste – and his father refused him permission.

The elder Jodeau was angry with his wife’s family. Why, he wanted to know, hadn’t his son been told? The girl didn’t exactly set snares, but she was fully conscious of her charms. Sobran was informed that Céleste’s father had died mad – was quite mad for years, never spoke, but would bark like a dog. Then at midsummer an uncle, in his cups, put a tender arm around Sobran’s shoulder and said don’t – don’t go near her, he could see how it was, but that cunt was more a pit than most, a pit with slippery sides. ‘Mark my words.’

At the service after midsummer, in a church full of grey faces, queasiness, and little contrition, Céleste had looked at Sobran, and seemed to know he knew – not that he’d either asked or promised anything – but her stare was full of scorn, and seemed to say, ‘Some lover you are.’ Sobran had wanted to weep, and wanted, suddenly, not to overcome Céleste, to mount a marital assault, but to surrender himself. And, wanting, he ached all over. When Céleste spoke to him after the service there was ice in her mouth. And when, in his greataunt’s parlour, she handed him a glass of Malaga, she seemed to curse him with her toast – ‘Your health’ – as though it was his health that stood between them.

Sobran got up off the ground and began to climb towards the ridge. The vineyard, Clos Jodeau, comprised two slopes of a hill that lay in the crooked arm of a road which led through the village of Aluze and on past Château Vully on the banks of the river Saône. At the river the road met with a greater road, which ran north to Beaune. When the two slopes of Clos Jodeau were harvested, the grapes of the slope that turned a little to the south were pressed at Jodeau, and the wine stored in the family’s small cellar. The remainder of the harvested grapes were sold to Château Vully. The wine of Clos Jodeau was distinctive and interesting, and lasted rather better than the château’s.

On the ridge that divided the slopes grew a row of five cherry trees. It was for these that Sobran made, for their shelter, and an outlook. Inside his shirt and sitting on his belt, the second bottle bumped against his ribs. He watched his feet; and the moon behind, over the house, pushed his crumbling shadow up the slope before him.

Last Sunday he had left Aunt Agnès’s door before his family, only to go around the back to look in the door to the kitchen, where he knew Céleste had taken refuge. The door stood open. She was stooped over a sieve and pail as the cook poured soured milk into a cheese cloth to catch the curds. Céleste gathered the corners of the cloth and lifted it, dripping whey. She wrung it over the bucket. Then she saw Sobran, gave the cloth another twist and came to the door with the fresh cheese dripping on the flags and on to her apron. Her hands, slick with whey and speckled with grainy curds, didn’t pause – as she looked and spoke one hand gripped and the other twisted. She told him he must find himself a wife. In her eyes he saw fury that thickened their black, her irises so dark the whites seemed to stand up around them like, in an old pan, enamel around spots worn through to iron. His desire took flight, fled but didn’t disperse. Sobran knew then that he wanted forgiveness and compassion – her forgiveness and compassion, and that nothing else would do.

Sobran paused to drink, drank the bottle off and dropped it. He was at the cherry trees; the rolling bottle scattered some fallen fruit, some sunken and furred with dusty white mould. The air smelled sweet, of fresh and fermenting cherries and, oddly strong here, far from the well, a scent of cool fresh water. The moonlight was so bright that the landscape had colour still.

Someone had set a statue down on the ridge. Sobran blinked and swayed. For a second he saw what he knew – gilt, paint and varnish, the sculpted labial eyes of a church statue. Then he swooned while still walking forward, and the angel stood quickly to catch him.

Sobran fell against a warm, firm pillow of muscle. He lay braced by a wing, pure sinew and bone under a cushion of feathers, complicated and accommodating against his side, hip, leg, the pinions split around his ankle. The angel was breathing steadily, and smelled of snow. Sobran’s terror was so great that he was calm, a serenity like that a missionary priest had reported having felt when he found himself briefly in the jaws of a lion. There was an interval of warm silence; then Sobran saw that the moon was higher and felt that his pulse and the angel’s were walking apace.

Sobran looked up.

The angel’s youth and beauty were a mask, superficial, and all that Sobran could see. And there was a mask on the mask, of watchful patience. The angel had waited some time to be looked at, after all. Its expression was open and full of curiosity. ‘You slept for a while,’ the angel said, then added, ‘No, not a faint – you were properly asleep.’

Sobran wasn’t afraid any more. This angel had been sent to him, obviously, not for comfort, but counsel, surely. Yet if Sobran confided nothing, and received no advice, the way he felt – enfolded, weak, warm in an embrace itself as invigorating as the air immediately over a wild sea – that alone seemed sufficient for now and for ever.

‘I can sit,’ Sobran said, and the angel set him upright. He felt the callused palms and soft wings brace, then release him. Then very slowly, as though knowing it might frighten, the angel raised his wings up and forward – they weren’t as white as his skin, or the creamy silk he wore – and settled himself, the wings crossed before him on the ground, so that only his shoulders, head and neck were visible. When the angel released him, the world came back: Sobran heard the grasshoppers, and a dog bark down the valley at the house of Baptiste Kalmann, his friend. He recognised the dog’s voice – Baptiste’s favourite, the loyal Aimée.

Sobran told the angel about his love troubles, spoke briefly and economically, as though he paid for the privilege of a hearing. He told of his love, his parent’s prohibition, and Céleste’s father’s madness. He said nothing offensive, nothing about his body.

The angel was thoughtful. He looked off into the shadow at the base of a vine where, following his gaze, Sobran saw the second bottle lay. He stretched for it, wiped the grit from its sides and offered it to the angel, who took it, covered the cork with his palm and, with no apparent use of force, drew it forth. The angel tilted the bottle to his mouth and tasted. Sobran watched the throat move, and light catch or come into a mark on the angel’s side, on his ribs, right under his raised arm – a twisted shape – a scar or tattoo like two interlocked words, one of which flushed briefly with a colour like light through the flank of a raised wave.

‘A young wine,’ the angel said. ‘Reserve a bottle and we can drink it together when it’s old.’ He handed the bottle back. When Sobran put it to his mouth he felt the bottle neck, warm and wet. Again he tasted the wine’s quick backward look, its spice – flirtation and not love.

‘Was he mad, her father?’ the angel asked.

Sobran licked his fingers, touched his own brow and made a hot stove hiss, as his grandmother had used to. ‘Barked like a dog.’

‘At the moon, or at people he didn’t like?’

Sobran blinked, then laughed and the angel laughed with him – a dry, pretty laugh. ‘I’d look into that further if I were you,’ the angel said.

‘This business of tainted blood,’ Sobran said. ‘There are so many stories of gulled brides and bridegrooms. Men or women who watch their own good corrupt and ail in their children.’ He offered the wine again. The angel held up a refusing hand.

‘It’s too young, I know,’ Sobran apologised.

‘Do you suppose I live only on thousand-year eggs?’

Sobran looked puzzled, and the angel explained. ‘In Szechuan, China, they bury eggs in ash – for a long while – then eat them, ash-coloured eggs.’

‘A thousand years?’

The angel laughed. ‘Do you think people could lay by, or wait so long to consume, or even remember where they had stored, anything, after a thousand years, whether appetising, precious, or lethal?’

The young man blushed, thinking that the angel was hinting at the Host, the thousand-year blessing which hadn’t passed Sobran’s lips for five Sundays now. ‘Forgive me,’ Sobran said.

‘The wine?’

‘I haven’t received communion for five weeks.’

The angel said, flatly, ‘Oh.’ He thought a little, then got up, wrapped one arm about the trunk of the cherry tree and, with his other hand, hauled down a limb. The branch stooped till its leaves brushed Sobran’s hair. The man picked some fruit, three on one stem, and the angel let the limb up again gently, his strength direct and dexterous. He sat, resettled his wings.

Sobran ate, his tongue separating the stones from sweet flesh and rolling them clean.

The angel said, ‘You don’t really know what Céleste knows, or what she thinks. You should just let her talk to you. Speak plainly, then simply listen. If the laws by which I have to live were numbered, that would be my first.’

A small crack opened in Sobran’s self-absorption, his infantile certainty that the night was there to nourish and the angel to guide and comfort him. He said, ‘Your first law would be our first commandment.’

‘All angels love God,’ the angel said, ‘and have no other. He is our north. Adrift on the dark waters still we face Him. He made us – but He is love, not law.’ The angel drew breath to say something further, but stopped, breath caught and lips parted. The wind got up and brushed the cherry trees, turned some of the angel’s top feathers up to show paler down. The angel’s eyes moved and changed, so that for a moment, Sobran expected to see the small green flames he often caught in the eyes of the farm cats.

Baptiste’s Aimée was barking again, as if at a persistent prowling fox. Sobran thought of foxes, then that God was listening, that His ear was inclined to the hillside.

The angel stood abruptly – a soldier surprised by an officer, jumping up to give a salute. Sobran flinched as another gust pressed the trees. The angel said, ‘On this night next year I will toast your marriage.’ Then the wind rose up in a whirling column, semi-solid with leaves, twigs and dust. The whirlwind reared, snakelike, and swallowed the angel so that Sobran saw the figure turning, face wrapped in his black hair and white clothes wrung hard against his body. The angel’s wings snapped open, a slack sail suddenly fully fed, then angel and whirlwind were a league away and above, a dark blur in the clear sky. The wind dropped. Leaves, earth, twigs, and a few black-tipped, fawn feathers sprinkled down over the northern slope of the vineyard.


The following day Sobran collected those feathers, and tied two by dark yarn to the topside of the rafters above his bed. The third, eighteen inches long, he put to use as a quill. Although it wouldn’t trim down, it made a fine enough line. At the kitchen table, surrounded by his family, but in secret, since all but his brother were unlettered, Sobran wrote to Céleste. He dipped, watched the ink penetrate the feather’s long chamber of air, wrote Céleste’s name, then of his clumsiness and their consequent misunderstanding. He paused to wonder at his spelling, and ran the plume through his mouth, tasting fresh snow, which made his mouth tender as he dipped once more and wrote to beg a meeting.

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