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Art Novels:The Fictionist’s Revenge

a n d r e w l a m b i rt h l o o k s at c h r i s t m a s r e a d i n g f o r a rt l o v e r s

atrick McGrath is a writer of stature, passions, seasoned with art’s prime terri-
a master of what has been called the tory – ways of looking at the world. As
gothic, which effectively means he is McGrath observes of Vera: ‘Painters love
prepared to examine the darker side of ideas, said Jack, they will give their heart
human nature – not only the loss of love without a qualm to a man who can get an
but also the loss of sanity. He explores the idea airborne and then move it around like
habits and perversities of his characters a kite in the wind’. For once, a novel about
with compassion as well as with daunting an artist (and his artist wife) which
precision, and has evolved a style which is convinces.
pure pleasure to read. Port Mungo (Blooms- With The Apothecary’s House (Macmillan,
bury, ppb, d7.99, $13.00, 241 pp., ISBN 0- hb, d12.99, $18.17, 534 pp., ISBN 1-4050-
7475-7415-4) is about a painter, Jack 4657-0), Adrian Mathews has written a
Rathbone, whose life is told by his adoring thriller set in Amsterdam, dealing with
but observant sister, Gin. It is packed with looted art (very topical) and a revised
telling evocations, whether of states of dating for the discovery of photography.
mind, or the state of Jack’s art. (McGrath For a book concerned at least superficially
has a nice line in descriptions of individual with art, it has little sympathy or under-
paintings as well as styles and the daily standing of it. At one point the central
actuality of the studio.) Early on, Gin says character says ‘You know why I became an
that ‘Jack once told me he believed art to art historian, Jojo? Because I wanted to be (hb, d12.99, $12.00, 344 pp. ISBN 0-330-
be primarily a vehicle for the externaliza- bored shitless’. This is the kind of world in 41847-5) by Arabella Edge is set in Paris
tion of psychic injury’, and the novel which you are expected to know what in 1818 and is a vivid account of the
explores this, centring on Jack’s extreme domestic typology is, but not who Jan shipwreck of the Medusa, the tragedy that
behaviour and the painting of grief. The Steen was. Obviously not a book for art gave birth to Gericault’s great master-
book deals with truth and its variants, with lovers, then. It is full of intensely dislike- piece, The Raft of the Medusa. Edge is
what people want to believe: the same able characters who are further disfigured brilliant at recounting the dramatic tale
story cunningly told from different view- by a writing style which rejoices in of the ship’s fatal trip to Senegal, and
points, that age-old strategy of revelatory dreadful puns and slick-dick badinage. the cowardly behaviour of the criminally
narrative. Illiterate-friendly (or ‘palsy-walsy’ to quote incompetent captain, who abandoned
The rich reflective prose circles round a phrase) and deeply annoying, it never- passengers and crew to their fate. It is a
its lush subject (Port Mungo is ‘a once- theless draws the reader onward to its story to make even the slow-blooded
prosperous river town now gone to seed, unsatisfactory ending. Best avoided unless indignant, and it is well told, interspersed
wilting and steaming among the man- you favour mysteries with a touch of with Gericault’s more intimate problems
grove swamps of the Gulf of Honduras’), surveillance paranoia. with the unwanted pregnancy of his
as it shifts focus between England and the ‘I like boring things’, said Andy mistress, Alexandrine, the young wife of
Americas, ending up in New York. On Warhol, memorably. Maybe he’d have his elderly and supportive uncle. Such
first, intensely enjoyable, reading, I liked Water, an atrocious attempt at a novel carefully crafted walk-on roles as the
marked passages of particular acuity or by the painter Jasper Joffe. It is certainly egregious Horace Vernet, who swaggers
relevance every few pages. Jack, a ‘latter- boring; in fact it’s unreadable. Water through these pages, enlighten the mor-
day Gauguin’, and his wild, wild wife Vera (Telegram, ppb, d8.99, $15.95, 286 pp. gue studies and cannibalism. Edge is also
Savage (‘she was a strong artist but a weak ISBN 1-84659-004-3) is what is called an good on the kitchen of painting, the
woman. The trick was knowing which was ‘illustrated paperback’, which means it making of a picture, the cuisine. Yet the
which’), their daughters Peg and Anna, has a line drawing every few pages. These book remains an adventure story more
hold centre stage throughout. The paint- are not good, but at least they are better than a novel about a painter: a rattling
ings, tropical, lyrical or spare, filled with than the execrable text. Matthew Collings good yarn, and an enjoyable read.
bravura or rage, match the exposition. The calls this book a page-turner. Turn the Sarah Emily Miano’s novel Van Rijn (hb,
book is romantic all right, also emotion- pages by all means, but don’t waste your d12.99, $24.05, 475 pp., ISBN 0-330-
ally ravaging, but it is also horribly time trying to read them. 41180-2) is a strange beast: experimental
believable with a gradual unveiling which Two novels about artists have appeared and ambitious, it mixes art history with
is utterly compelling. It has a flavour concurrently from the same publisher various literary forms – play, novel, poem –
compounded of exotic venues and wilful (Picador), The Raft and Van Rijn. The Raft in an ungainly hotchpotch. Excitable and

r 2006 the authors. journal compilation r 2006 bpl/aah volume 13 issue 4 The Art Book 63

wild, some of its conceits are simply be the memoir of an artist, yet it contains the artist toiling alone on his scaffold, on
winsome. (At one point, Rembrandt’s not a single drawing by Cueco, not even his back, like Charlton Heston in the 1965
house is likened to a woman. The for the cover. For this place of honour, the film adaptation of Irving Stone’s novel The
metaphor is misjudged and over-ex- publishers evidently deemed a photo of Agony and the Ecstasy’. So does fiction
tended.) The poems are dreadful, and a plump man in cap and overalls with a depart from fact, though it often makes
much of the dramatic dialogue is super- pushbike and a box of marigolds to be a for a better (or more memorable) story.
fluous. There is too much description of better selling point (‘human interest’) Sticking closely to the facts, Michelangelo
paintings, and not enough of the act of than art. The book is a rambling, episodic and the Pope’s Ceiling is composed in an easy,
painting, and the strategy of quoting and occasionally gnomic dialogue on the readable style, but its scholarly credentials
Rembrandt’s journal, supposedly discov- nature of beauty, full of farmyard rumina- are firmly displayed in 39 pages of notes,
ered by the novel’s ‘hero’, the young tions and peasant wisdom (and ignor- 14 of bibliography and an index. Likewise
publisher Pieter Blaeu, is a disastrous ance). The artist and the gardener discuss King’s new book, The Judgement of Paris,
one as the diary’s tone is so unconvincing. a number of topics from the modern art subtitled ‘Manet, Meissonier and an Artis-
(A sample: ‘My sparkling lights could museum, to art programmes on TV, to the tic Revolution’ (Chatto & Windus, hb,
glorify a pig trough. If anyone says Mona Lisa. Gradually the gardener gets d17.99, $34.41, 320 pp. ISBN 0701176830)
otherwise I’ll shove this palette up his used to the concept of beauty, and sees the a tale of two painters and the birth of
back passage!’ This is supposed to be point of it. In the end he actually wants Impressionism, is impossible to do justice
Rembrandt? As played by Norman Mailer paintings, so that he may be reminded of to here. Both are a reminder of how
perhaps.) Yet there is readability hidden things in case he loses his memory. So art gripping art history can be.
beneath the novel’s pretensions. The does have its uses. The comparative Why are so many novels, ostensibly
description of Rembrandt’s first appear- success of this little book testifies to the about artists, actually about nothing of the
ance is surprisingly compelling, and most huge appetite for enlightenment amongst kind? Because art is currently big business,
of Blaeu’s sections are entertaining. The today’s disaffected non-believers, who will and the art world attracts the roving
intrigue with his inamorata, for instance, latch onto any source of apparent wisdom interest of the fiction writer, but the
is vivid, but there are too many red even if it is homespun. It is a light read, subjects remain much the same as they
herrings (as well as pickled ones). To quite charming, but its roots are too do in other kinds of novel – principally sex
show off her versatilty, Miano is constantly shallow to be of real value. and intrigue. It is almost as if the fictionist
breaking into other genres – an exchange In welcome contrast, Ross King writes resents the closed-shop exclusivity of the
of letters, or a meeting between Descartes lengthy, apparently well-researched factual artist’s world and attempts to render it
and Sir Thomas Browne – and never accounts of famous encounters or events ordinary. Rare colours are dulled, tonal
capitalising on her assets. in the history of art. He has already written values dimmed, human issues take over.
On page 418 Miano has Rembrandt a highly praised book, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Usually this kind of treatment, whether
slyly caution young Blaeu against writing on the construction of the Duomo in about the real Rembrandt or imaginary
an artist’s life: ‘An artist’s life is nothing Florence, and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Slather, does nothing to deepen our under-
but vanity, greed and falsehood. Substi- Ceiling (Pimlico, ppb, d7.99, $16.00, 371 standing or appreciation of the very
tutes for living! Such an undertaking pp., ISBN 1-844-13932-8) is the paperback particular plight of the artist. Or else the
would require tremendous judgment and version of his next narrative blockbuster, temptation is to romanticise the artist
understanding’. The current fashion for the story of the Sistine Ceiling. Although out of all recognition. Equally unhelpful.
turning out novels about artists (when will his writing is strictly fact rather than Musicians do not seem to be so burdened
art stop being considered sexy by lazy fiction, King adopts a novelist’s breadth with fictional heroics. Lucky them. I could
editors in the popular press?) has led too and treatment, the authorial all-seeing eye, almost wish that aspiring novelists would
many writers to think they understand the as if to the manner born. (It comes as no refrain from adopting artists’ lives as
subject. It is quite evident that they don’t. surprise to discover that he also writes subject matter, and turn to something
And very few have ‘tremendous judgment’ novels.) His depiction of Michelangelo – easier to comprehend. Even the skilled
either. It is certainly not evident here. This ‘a squat, flat-nosed, shabbily dressed, ill- hand has difficulty with the artistic voca-
novel is over-long and self-indulgent, but tempered sculptor from Florence’ whose tion. Yet when such fine works of art fiction
then what would one expect of a book in trademark is ‘muscular nudes in frantic as Port Mungo and (not reviewed here) The
receipt of an Arts Council Writers’ Award? but graceful gyrations’ – has all the Portrait by Iain Pears (HarperPerennial, pb,
Savage understatement? Miano can write familiarity of the novelist, and some of d8.99, 224 pp. ISBN 0007202776) con-
engagingly, but lacks formal discipline, the same possessiveness. The book has a tinue to appear, it is difficult to regret the
unlike Rembrandt. A shame nothing magnificent donné, a battle of the Titans, novelist’s choice; not to mention recent
better could have been produced in the featuring not only Buonarotti but Pope reported triumphs by Siri Hustvedt and
fiction line to mark his 400th birthday. Julius II, Leonardo and Raphael, with such Mario Vargas Llosa. Keep them coming
John Berger, in the seven short pages of figures as Bramante playing good subsidi- please – most of us need a fiction-fix to
his brilliant essay ‘Rembrandt and the ary roles. The text is filled with convincing make life more bearable.
Body’ (in The Shape of a Pocket, Bloomsbury, and intriguing detail, and stresses the fact andrew lambirth
2001), says a hundred times more. that the Sistine ceiling was achieved by Curator, writer and critic, London
Conversations with my Gardener (Henri group effort. As King writes: ‘The idea of
Cueco, Granta Books, ppb., d6.99, $13.95, Part I of this assessment of current art fiction
Michelangelo at the head of a team of
appeared in our last issue.
202 pp., ISBN 1-86207-840-8) purports to assistants dashes the cherished notion of

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