The various covers of The Vintner’s Luck. Image by Tina Tiller.
The various covers of The Vintner’s Luck. Image by Tina Tiller.

BooksNovember 26, 2023

The enduring magic of The Vintner’s Luck

The various covers of The Vintner’s Luck. Image by Tina Tiller.
The various covers of The Vintner’s Luck. Image by Tina Tiller.

Elizabeth Knox and The Spinoff books editor Claire Mabey reflect on what makes Knox’s novel The Vintner’s Luck – published 25 years ago this month – such a hit.

Imagine having a fever dream of an angel and then having the strength of faith to commit that vision to novel form. Not faith as in religion (though sometimes it’s hard to extricate creative vision from the religious kind) but faith as in the imagination. The Vintner’s Luck is one of the greatest works of imaginative faith in Aotearoa’s literary history. I first read it in my early 20s and for months afterward wrote terrible poetry about fallen angels, and strange, found feathers. I still daydream, regularly, of Knox’s Hell: a shadowy place piled with books and where Xas, the angel of the story, gardens darkly.

The Vintner’s Luck, Knox’s fourth novel, was published in New Zealand in 1998 by Victoria University Press (now, Te Herenga Waka University Press). By Christmas of that year, Fergus Barrowman (Knox’s publisher) recalls, they’d sold 16,000 copies (a huge figure in Aotearoa books), and then another 10,ooo by the time the novel won the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 1999.

Vintner’s also became the first of Knox’s books to be published outside of New Zealand. “The first international rights sale by Elizabeth’s agent to dream US publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux had happened in October 1997,” says Barrowman, “(coincidentally while I was in Frankfurt, so I had the pleasure of meeting FSG Publisher Jonathan Galassi and the rest of the team, and being invited to the fabled FSG party,) and UK rights went to Chatto & Windus soon after.”

Since then, The Vintner’s Luck has been translated into many languages and has been reissued in a number of print editions, most recently as a VUP classic, and as an ebook. Cumulative sales in Aotearoa are now over a 60,000. There is a sequel, too, The Angel’s Cut, published in 2009, which follows the angel Xas in 1930s Hollywood. Fans have long awaited the third instalment (including poet, Bill Manhire: “Come on Elizabeth, where’s volume three?”), though Knox’s tour-de-force fantasy, The Absolute Book, has kept us company in the meantime.

Vintner’s is an unusual book. It’s a fantasy most realistic: it lingers in your mind as a place where angels happen and are, more importantly, explicable. Set in France, between 1808 and 1863, Vintner’s is the story of Sobran, a winemaker, and his friend-lover, the lowly angel Xas, who is well-read, who gardens, and who is branded with the sign of a treaty between Heaven and Hell, a mysterious experiment between Satan and God that enables Xas to travel and indulge his curiosity in people. It is a story of sex, love, failure, interest, uncertainty, and regeneration.

It is an intensely visceral, and sexy, tale. Knox builds detail from the gritty minutiae of nature both human and otherwise. Sobran’s life is punctuated by sexual exploration, youthful fumbling and experienced mastery; the complications of flesh and blood; various desires; births; murders; wines; existential panic; war; children and tragedy. Each chapter marks another year, another vintage, and another heady, sometimes dissatisfying, reunion between man and angel. The annual leaps are a bold marking of the inevitable passing of earthly time: Sobran’s existence is a blink in the eye of an eternal angel, though a rich one, and an education of sorts.

What astonishes me, on a re-read, is the beauty of Knox’s craft. The sentences are exhilarating: they feel like they are of Sobran and Xas’s world rather than designed to build it for them. Knox’s imagination is precise, mechanical, scientific. Take Xas’s wings: Knox makes them move, shows how they behave in three-dimensional space, and the shapes they make under sheets, in the air, the various ways that they propel the angel. Xas is animalistic as much as he is human at a slant, and magical in the way that the mystical Christian imagination allows for. At one point he rests on his wings so he can caress Sobran with both hands. On another he rubs a wing against a tree, “rubbing its feathers up the wrong way, so that they seemed to grip the trunk like flat fingers.” 

Even more astonishing is the fabric of theology behind the story. Knox journey’s us into concepts of Heaven and Hell, Satan and God: an intellectual exercise that only an extremely skilled writer can pull off. When The Vintner’s Luck was released in the US, the New York Times said Xas was “one of the best angels since William Blake’s”. He still is. 

Elizabeth Knox

Over the years I’ve written and talked about how The Vintner’s Luck came to me, the dream, the transcription of the dream, the moment of thinking “what is inside this story that would make it a novel”, the French setting determined entirely by my decision to use wine terms as chapter titles. The whole Given, Considered, Haphazard of the novel’s origins.

Also I’ve been asked to talk about the novel’s reception, how it changed my life, sent me places, built our kitchen extension, all matters material and stories public.

What I haven’t talked about are the magical and, in the end, more consequential things.

I’d been working part-time in the Career Services, and otherwise spending my most of my days with my 3-to-4-year-old, and writing. Jack was very good entertaining himself and when I look back, or rather listen, my memory offers me a dual channel soundtrack of the voice in my head, the voice of the book – because that’s how it works for me – and Jack’s voice, his disputing dinosaurs or Maximals vs Predacons. I’d put down my pencil to go make lunch, or to watch Gargoyles with him. Or I’d to take him for a walk on the proviso that he was allowed to talk my ear off. 

From left to right: Elizabeth and Jack, taken at the time Knox was finishing the novel; the original cover; Elizabeth and Jack on the holiday in Golden Bay.

At the end of 1996 I was offered the writer in residence at Victoria for the following year, and spent December and January trying to clear the decks for the work I meant to do during that residency. We were going on holiday in early February, to Golden Bay. It was my first time there in seven years (one of the few breaks in visiting a place I’ve returned to all my life). I was determined to have nothing left to do but be in Golden Bay, so decided to type up the whole handwritten manuscript of Vintner. My desk and computer were at the wrong height. I didn’t have a copy holder, my chair was unsuitable, and I ended up with a repetitive strain injury. Then I drove our car with its stick shift from Picton to Golden Bay and ended up in the little community hospital being buzzed with ultrasound and bound up in a soft foam sling. I have photos of us clamming in Wainui inlet at dusk, me in the sling, and Jack carrying the bucket for me.

This is where the magic in my experience of my novel – having written it – begins. Jack was four. He went to sleep early. The place we were staying was the big basement of a house near the end of Peninsula Road, Tata Beach (it is still for rent on Air B&B). It was all one big room. Fergus and I were in a king bed, Jack on the bottom of a bunk set draped in blankets, so that we could keep a light on while he went to sleep. I’d wanted to type up Vintner because Fergus had asked me to read it to him.

That’s what we did, me propped up in a complicated arrangement of pillows, the good reading lamp looking over my shoulder, Fergus with the one pillow I could spare, and his face in the dark. Because his face was in the dark I thought he’d fall asleep. But, as I read over several nights, I found I was reading longer. “Aren’t you sleepy?” I’d say and he’d say, “No. You can’t stop there!”

The house was back from the beach and next to the inlet. We’d hear oystercatcher calls and pūkeko squabbling out in the dark, and then, when it was getting light and I was still reading, the bubbling noise of the quail family making the most of the garden before the new kittens from the house above were let loose for the day.

This was the perfect time I had with the book that changed my life. A private time – but I’ve learned that those great private times are better than the skill or virtue of memory at tying together whole chapters of a life. So – the smell of the bread in the bread maker our hosts gave us to use. Clamming at dusk. Reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. Watching Jack play with the kittens. A call from a friend to say that another friend was in hospital with pregnancy complications. Pain, and a sense of sunny imminence, with a whole year of writing ahead of me, and this book up my sleeve.

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox ($30, Te Herenga Waka University Press) can be purchased from Te Herenga Waka University Press, and from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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