Review: The Dark Lady by Michael Resnick
Michael Resnick’s “romance of the far future,” The Dark Lady, is an exploration of man’s attraction to the myth of glorious death. Told from the point of view of the alien “Leonardo,” the story examines heroism, self-sacrifice and the submission of artists to their art.
Leonardo himself is a a non-human male Bjornn, a kind of remittance-man from a species whose males are always sent away from the nest. His assignment to the service of art gallery owner Tai Chong (whom he refers to as “Great Lady”) is perfect for this creature who takes his species' obedience to females to the point of adulation.
While researching art for his Great Lady's gallery, Leonardo uncovers the recurring likeness of a single sad-eyed, dark-haired woman whose portrait has been rendered by artists across seven thousand years of human history. He is gradually drawn into obsession over her.
The Dark Lady of the title has been painted by dozens of relatively unknown artists. For many of them, it is the only such painting they have ever produced, often shortly after they have faced death. What do they all have in common, Leonardo wonders. Could this be some mythic war goddess? But not all the artists have been warriors. What draws men (always human, always male) to paint the portrait of this woman who never smiles?
Leonardo is not the only one obsessed with her. Malcolm Abercrombie, the “man who had it all,” is a bitter, self-absorbed collector who hates humans and non-humans with equal passion. His obsession is to complete his collection of portraits of the Dark Lady. On learning that Leonardo has a verifiable ability to find paintings not yet in his collection, Abercrombie hires the alien, and inadvertently feeds Leonardo’s growing interest.
Valentine Heath, the “man who stole it all,” contacts Leonardo to sell him a purloined portrait of the Lady. Between them, they decide to locate the actual woman who is the model. Although her first appearance in human art is certainly over 7,000 years old, she has been photographed and documented as a living woman, right up to the current day. They actually have her on their ship, when she vanishes in the midst of space!
Leonardo’s growing obsession with the woman is only increased when he begins to dream about her, and tries to sketch her image. Reuben Venzia, the “man who wanted it all,” also dreams of the Dark Lady, and the three males conspire to determine to whom the Dark Lady will appear next.
The poignant ending of the tale with the “man who got it all” is purely Resnick, and absolutely wonderful. Leonardo is just alien enough to carry the detachment his character needs to make the other men’s obsession plain—yet he is also male in a very basic way, and that, too, is why he comes to obsess over the Dark Lady.
Although some standard Resnick characters (the gunfighter, the remittance man, the high-rolling gambler, the elegant thief) make appearances in the story, they are not central. The Dark Lady’s attraction is no stronger for Resnick than for Leonardo, for she also stands for that obsession that lets artists (and writers) endure great privation, alienate friends and family, and cast all other efforts aside, in pursuit of their art.
And that, perhaps, is why Mona Lisa smiles.
- The French translation of this novel, la Belle ténébreuse, was the 2000 Prix Tour Eiffel Winner.
- William Shakespeare referred to a “Dark Lady” in a number of sonnets, and dedicated sonnets 127 to 154 to her.