My Sovereign Love
Sensitive, light and lyrical
In the historical novella My Sovereign Love, Thomas Lieske takes the reader back to the court of Philip II of Spain, halfway through the sixteenth century. Turbulent times, in which wars between Spain, France, and England are settled by strategic marriages. But Lieske’s narrator, Marnix de Veer, a native of The Hague, is not much interested in politics, as he clearly tells us more than once. He is interested in mathematics and instruments of measurement, in mechanics and in buildings. It is because of his expertise in these areas that Philip – here consistently referred to by his Spanish name, Felipe – takes him into his service.
De Veer is 21 at the time, just the same age as his employer. De Veer’s account starts fifty years further on. Felipe is lying on his deathbed in the Escorial, the palace that was built under the supervision of his faithful servant. He is suffering hellish pain, which is relieved somewhat by means of ingeniously hinged hoisting systems, conceived and designed by the same faithful servant. No shortage of devotion, you would think. All the more interesting that the first chapter ends with the lamentation: ‘…How terribly I have hated that man.’ In the chapters that follow we witness the growth and development of a complicated relationship between the master and his servant. A relationship that is by definition based on power and a loyalty that is taken for granted but, because of the effects of time and mutual respect, flowers into friendship bordering on love. The fidelity of the servant is tested, though, when he sees the lady-in-waiting he loves, Isabel Osorio, carried off under his very eyes by his sovereign, who claims her for himself.
My Sovereign Love is an engrossing novella that transcends time and historical anecdote as a result of Lieske’s directly personal style of narration. We see the king through the eyes of Marnix de Veer, join him in his growing loyalty and at the same time in his rage, so much so that ultimately the question becomes to what extent he is a ‘trustworthy’ narrator. He is only human, as is evident from the aggression he takes out on an aged and helpless passerby. At other unexpected moments, too, his suppressed rancour rears its head, and even fifty years on we may ask whether his need for revenge has ever really vanished.
Within the framework of a novella, Lieske gracefully and accurately touches on obscure urges and conflicting emotions, using the voluptuous narrative style that has come to characterize him (‘An odour like that of a huge, obese working-class woman hangs over the land…’). The tale his sixteenth-century protagonist tells is crystal clear on the one hand, as complicated as a densely-packed psychological novel on the other. So much so that after reading the book one sees even the title, My Sovereign Love, in a profoundly different light. Whom does that sovereign love refer to? And can that love be called sovereign at all? As the narrator summarizes soberly: ‘For me he continued to be the man who shared my life, no matter how strange that may sound.’