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The Vintner's Luck

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Overview

One summer night in 1808, Sobran Jodeau sets out to drown his love sorrows in his family's vineyard when he stumbles on an angel. 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 a far more mysterious character. Compelling and erotic, The Vintner's Luck explores a decidedly unorthodox love story as Sobran eventually comes to love and be loved by both Xas and the young Countess de ...

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Overview

One summer night in 1808, Sobran Jodeau sets out to drown his love sorrows in his family's vineyard when he stumbles on an angel. 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 a far more mysterious character. Compelling and erotic, The Vintner's Luck explores a decidedly unorthodox love story as Sobran eventually comes to love and be loved by both Xas and the young Countess de Valday, his friend and employer at the neighboring chateau.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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 sesnual pleasure, New Zealand writer Knox's imaginative, imagistic tale soars."—Entertainment Weekly

"Rich prose and an original plot...a delightful, thought-provoking read."—Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post

"Strangely compelling...multilayered and challanging...[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."—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Megan Harlan
Daringly [explores] the spiritual worth of sensual pleasure...
Entertainment Weekly
Eve Claxton
The Vintner's Luck offers some fine and unusual writing. Each chapter of the novel is given the name of a wine and a vintage. It's a sweet conceit. . . Since the story is deliberately unfocused, The Vintner's Luck can at times be perplexing. It's frequently downright unbelievable. -- Time Out New York
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This imaginative story of the lifelong love between a man and an angel is the first of Knox's five books to appear outside her native New Zealand. In Burgundy one midsummer night in 1808, Sobran Jodeau, then 18, climbs to the ridge of his father's lands with two freshly bottled wines to lament his love troubles. Stumbling drunkenly, he is caught by the angel Xas, who smells of snow and describes himself "of the lowest of the nine orders. Unmentioned in Scripture and Apocrypha." They share the bottles, and Xas promises that this night next year he will toast Sobran's marriage--leading Sobran to believe Xas is his protector and guide. Sobran marries the woman whose family strain of insanity his father fears, marches with the Grand Army to Moscow, inherits his father's vineyards and begins to prosper under his angelic "luck." However, Xas proves far different from a guardian angel, and as years pass (the meetings on midsummer eve continue, with some exceptions, to 1863) their attachment shifts, severs then mends, as Xas's complicated relationship with God and Lucifer gradually unfolds. Each year's meeting constitutes one chapter, titled with the name of a wine, from 1808, Vin Bourro (new wine), to 1863, Vinifie (to turn into wine). This by-annum structure makes possible a number of intriguing plot turns but prohibits a smooth narrative flow. Most intriguing are the glimpses we get of Hell, which Xas reveals is entered through a salt dome in Turkey, and Heaven, accessible through the lake of an Antarctic volcano. In Hell there is one copy of everything ever written, but in Heaven angels are the only copies God tolerates--copies of man, who is in turn the copy of a woman. And Heaven, we learn in a clever epilogue dated 1997, looks like the Titanic. While this conception of an alternate universe is the novel's significant achievement, Knox's failure to convey a fully realized narrative voice (except in the portions where the characters write letters to each other) may leave the reader feeling impressed but not totally enthusiastic.
Richard Bernstein
...[E]rotically charged intrigue....[a] sophisticated, supernaturally tinged mystery....Ms. Knox remains stylistically in command throughout, and she remains master of the historical circumstances...her evocation of rural life in Burgundy never losing its authentic feel. -- The New York Times
Megan Harlan
Daringly [explores] the spiritual worth of sensual pleasure... -- Entertainment Weekly
Nina Auerbach
Xas is one of the best angels since William Blake's....Knox cannot endow her human characters...with the pride and poignancy of her angels. Her original, often astonishingly vivid novel would have been better still if its earth were as credible as its heaven and hell. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
This American debut by a veteran New Zealand novelist is a wonderfully imaginative tale, set in the 19th-century French countryside, of the long enduring, loving relationship between a man and an angel. The former is 18-year-old Sobran Jodeau, scion of a family of winemakers, who while drunk and unhappy in love encounters Xas, the celestial being who will thereafter visit him annuallyn until the angel's intimacy with his human lover propels him headlong into Sobran's complicated family and romantic life. The story is arguably overplotted (especially in later sequences that detail Xas's masquerade as tutor to Sobran's children or that explore the unconventional triangle formed by man, angel, and the younger noblewoman who eventually becomes Sobran's mistress). But a ferocious display of inventive power redeems and enlivens even the bookns more extravagant convolutions. Knox's flexible, image-driven sentences effortlessly evoke the lush plenitude of Clos Jodeau and environs, as well as Xas's ineffable strangeness (sleeping in Sobran's bed, "He looked comical, like a young man sharing his bed with two large dogs, the humps his wings made under the covers"). "Fallen angel" Xas, rejected by both God and Lucifer for his intellectual curiosity as much as for his dalliance with a mortal, is a formidable creation. And Knox equals it with her searching portrayal of Sobran: an intelligent, perceptive man who passes through astonishment at the visitation that becomes the love of his life, through furious despair when he learns of Xas's fallen state and fears he has committed blasphemy, to a resigned old age in which he knows he can neither keep nor relinquish the vessel of grace (if indeed itbe such) granted to him decades before. A one-of-a-kind novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312264109
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 8/5/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 455,154
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Knox is the author of five books, but The Vintner's Luck is her first novel to be published outside of her native New Zealand. She lives with her family in Wellington.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

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 baptize 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 black 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 bottleneck and the cork and slowly eased it free. He took a swig of the friand, tasted fruit and freshness, a flavor 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, Leon, had their letters. The wine's now pure chemical power poured from Sobran's gut into his blood. His balls began to ache again as his prick started to press, stupidly, for its chances. Sobran ignored it — he was miserable, overripe, well past any easy relief.

    Celeste was the daughter of a poor widow. She worked for Sobran's mother's aunt, fetched between the kitchen and the parlor, was quicker than the crippled maid, yet was "dear": "Run upstairs, dear ..." Celeste kept the old lady company, sat with her hands just so, idle and attentive, while Aunt Agnes 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 Celeste'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, Leon, looked at him with distaste and envy; their mother shrugged, sighed, seemed to give him tip. Then Sobran told his father he meant to marry Celeste — 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 Celeste'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 gray faces, queasiness and little contrition, Celeste 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 Celeste, to mount a marital assault, but to surrender himself. And, wanting, he ached all over, as a shoot must ache before it breaks from the soil. When Celeste spoke to him after the service there was ice in her mouth. And when, in his great-aunt's parlor, 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 toward 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 Chateau Vully on the banks of the river Saone. 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 Chateau Vully. The wine of Clos Jodeau was distinctive and interesting, and lasted rather better than the chateau's.

    On the ridge that divided the slopes grew a row of four 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 Agnes's door before his family, only to go around the back to look in the door to the kitchen, where he knew Celeste had taken refuge. The door stood open. She was stooped over a sieve and pail as the cook poured soured milk into a cheesecloth to catch the curds. Celeste 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 onto 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, like a flock of startled rooks, who, intact, will return to roost. 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 mold. The air smelled sweet, of fresh and fermenting cherries and, oddly strong here, far from the well, a smell of cool fresh water. The moonlight was so bright that the landscape had color 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 eye 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.

    He looked up.

    The angel's youth and beauty were like 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 anymore. 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 black grasshoppers, and a dog bark down the valley at the house of Baptiste Kalmann, his friend. He recognized the dog's voice — Baptiste's favorite, the loyal Aimee.

    Sobran told the angel about his love troubles, spoke briefly and economically, as though he had paid for the privilege of a hearing. He told of his love, his parent's prohibition, and Celeste'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 color 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 apologized.

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

    Sobran looked puzzled, and the angel explained. "In Szechwan, China, they bury eggs in ash — for a long while — then eat them, ash-colored 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 appetizing, 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 a 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 Celeste 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 Sobran momentarily expected to see the small green flames he often caught in the eyes of the farm cats.

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

    The angel stood abruptly, like a soldier surprised by an officer and 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 like a snake, 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, like 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 few black-tipped fawn feathers sprinkled down over the northern slope of the vineyard.

The following day Sobran collected those feathers and tied two with dark yarn to the top side 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 Celeste. He dipped, watched the ink penetrate the feather's long chamber of air, wrote Celeste'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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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2002

    The vintner's Luck is all ours!

    This multilayered tale of love, loss and redemption engages and challenges the reader on so many levels. Set in Napoleonic Burgundy, The Vintner's Luck traces the fifty year relationship between a young man and an angel who falls to earth. The annual return of the angel provides a framework for a carefully paced exploration of good and evil, love and loyalty, confused sexuality, and family and social morality. Knox creates a world in which the Devil's work is beautiful and seductive, where power is vulnerable, where human relationships can be empty and dangerous and the love between the mortal and the divine is hopelessly doomed to tragic loss. Nothing is what is seems to be, and the viner's luck is perhaps the greatest irony. Is it luck or curse to know and love? All this and the joy of the vine and fruitfulness make for passionate and sensual immersion in the tale. The wine is sweet and heady, with a complex aftertaste. The luck is all ours!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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