“I, Iago,” by Nicole Galland. William Morrow Paperbacks, April 24, 2012. 400 pp. $14.99.
With a good dose of bawdiness and humor, as well as lively adventure and romance, Nicole Galland’s latest novel, “I, Iago” is a fun read for all lovers of historical fiction — Shakespeare fans or not.
In her third novel, Ms. Galland manages to turn a classic villain into a hero — no small feat considering that Iago is arguably Shakespeare’s most despicable character and the epitome of treachery. However, Ms. Galland explores the character’s background and delves deep into his psyche to show us how an impossibly righteous man becomes the scheming liar who holds a less-than-enviable place in world literature.
A prequel of sorts, “I, Iago” presents the back story of the man who sets in motion the catastrophic events that make “Othello” one of the greatest tragedies of all times. In the first half of the book, Ms. Galland introduces the reader to the protagonist, the son of a wealthy Venetian merchant, following him from boyhood to his rise in the ranks of the military.
Told from Iago’s point of view, the reader is introduced to a society built on vanity and hypocrisy. Morals are skewed to the point where married wives are encouraged to flirt with other men in order to obtain favors for their husbands and a father is just as receptive to giving over his daughter as a mistress as a bride. By including these and other examples of customs of the day, Ms. Galland does a wonderful job of weaving details of Venetian life into her story from the very first scene in the book.
The opening incident centers around a passing craze in superficial Venetian society. Pedigreed hens are prized like racehorses, housed in mini mansions, and their eggs are deemed as precious as gold. Women disfigure themselves by wearing layers of corrosive lead-based cosmetics and eight-inch high shoes. Hosts try to outdo each other by providing circus-like entertainment at a never-ending stream of parties, and flattery and fawning are the order of the day.
The landscape of Venice and other settings are meticulously detailed. Ms. Galland travelled throughout Italy and elsewhere while researching her previous novel, “Crossed,” about the Crusades. For “I, Iago” she relied on memory, refreshed by Google earth images.
“Once I saw something in the satellite photo I would remember it and could put myself down on the ground in a way I couldn’t have done if I hadn’t been there and couldn’t have done from memory alone either,” Ms. Galland said. The author is obsessive about authenticity and her detailed descriptions really help transport the reader to Renaissance Europe.
Into a world of affectation and greed, the hero, who, in the first sentence is identified by his nickname, “honest Iago,” tries to make his way but quickly finds that his bluntness and lack of gentility win him no favor with his family or society at large. Iago eventually earns respect for his military skills and bold manners, but his newfound confidence eventually turns to power-fueled madness, setting off the fatal chain of events on the final pages.
The author draws equally insightful portraits of the drama’s other major players. Iago’s wife Emilia is a strong-willed woman in a society of vain social climbers. Desdemona is a shy naif, whose passion for Othello emboldens her to defy her father. Ms. Galland casts Roderigo as Iago’s childhood friend, a spineless, yet ambitious merchant with a weakness for unattainable women. Cassio is a foppish, debauched sycophant.
Like Iago, Othello undergoes a metamorphosis over the course of the narrative from a dignified model of self-possession to a single-minded, raging murderer.
Ms. Galland helps illuminate a bit of a Shakesperean mystery by showing us how Othello, a dark-skinned foreigner, could have been able to attain a position as one of the most powerful men in race- and class-conscious Venice.
In the second half of the book we witness the unfolding of the tragic events, which, happening in quick succession in the finale of the play, have famously left audiences stunned by the conclusion of the drama. Ms. Galland has remained faithful to all of the tragedy’s action and, though the ending is no surprise to readers, increased familiarity with the characters serves to amplify the final horrors.
Ms. Galland was inspired in her choice of subject while directing a production of “Othello” for the Vineyard Playhouse’s Shakespeare for the Masses series of staged readings. After spending a good deal of time coaching the actor playing Iago, she found herself still puzzling over the character well after the performances.
While walking in the woods with her dog one day she had an epiphany about Iago’s motivation but realized that her idea couldn’t translate to an actor’s performance. “I wasn’t thinking like a director,” she said. “I was thinking like a novelist. Luckily, I am a novelist.”
Ms. Galland finished the first draft of “I, Iago” in the fall of 2010 and a year later she was wed to the actor, Billy Meleady, who helped spark her interest in the character. It’s not often that an author can say that she is literally married to her work but, somehow it makes perfect sense for an author as dedicated to thorough research and as enthusiastic about her subjects as Ms. Galland.
Author’s Talk with Nicole Galland, 5 pm, Tuesday, April 24, West Tisbury Library. Refreshments. Free. 508-693-3366.