Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How Not to Write a Dead Novel

Sarah Hall’s second novel, The Electric Michelangelo, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and that brush of encouragement has carried her though to her fourth work now, How to Paint a Dead Man. At best an uneven book, How to Paint a Dead Man tips its hat to Hall’s well-regarded ability to craft sentences of near-perfect beauty, without really being a novel in the conventional sense.

Four chapters that recur through the book recount the lives of four artists. There are the Italians in the 1960s: Annette Tambroni, a blind florist who once harbored dreams of becoming an artist, and Signor Giorgio, a world-renowned painter of bottles who is dying of cancer. Respectively called “The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni” and “Translated from the Bottle Journals” Annette’s and Giorgio’s tales are filled not with “life”, but with wistful reminiscences of lived moments and stolen delights.

Annette’s mother, for instance, is intensely protective of her, crafting elaborate fictions to scare Annette into submission, in a bid to protect her from any harm. This lends Annette’s narration a dream-like quality, gently carrying pain within it. Every Sunday, she visits the cemetery where her father is buried and contemplates the long life, still unlived, that she must pass without a template on how to go about it.

Giorgio’s testimony is largely philosophical musings, and while reading it, I sincerely came to question its inclusion in a novel. These are the last cries of a dying artist, one who must accept his lost vitality and emergence into a sort of tragic figure for his admirers. A heavy sadness lingers over this narrative, punctuated by rather abstruse sermons on life and the meaninglessness of it:

“My visitors indulge me. They are charmed by my antiquity and my devotion to this place. Later they walk back to the station along the road, and perhaps halfway they kneel with an ear to the ground. And perhaps they hear their own blood, and then the traffic in the town, and then a deeper rhythm. They get up, and brush the dust from their knees, and they continue walking. If everything seems lost, I tell them, trust the heart.”

Such heavy sentences when the reader has been provided only the slight background of their creator dying of cancer load the book with a seriousness it has not earned. This may have something to do with the time that these two fragments are set in—perhaps Hall just imagined her characters from a pre-consumerist era to deal with pain and loneliness in subtle, gentle ways, and not indulge in unclean behavior of any sort. Whatever the reason, there is a sense of something not being whole in these narratives.

How to Paint a Dead Man comes closer to a novel in the other two strands: of a father-daughter artist duo in contemporary Britain. In “The Fool on the Hill” Peter Caldicutt (who used to write letters to Giorgio as a student) is a noted landscape painter who bases his drawings on real scenes that he harnesses from walks in the countryside. On one such excursion, his leg gets trapped inside a mountain crevice and Peter spends the night waiting for help. This launches a series of memories that carry him through the night, but thankfully, here the force of life and vigor flows through the narrative, and pain and resilience are evoked in life-affirming ways.

The most interesting and also the central fragment, “The Mirror Crisis”, concerns Sue Caldicutt, the young daughter of Peter, who is trying to find success as a photographer. Sue is grappling with the death of her twin Danny in a bicycle accident. Allowing her to grieve over a twin lets Hall develop her penchant for fine sentences with real felicity, since here, the emotion comes across as real:

“You’re not crazy. You must emphasis this point and remind yourself of it. You are not crazy. And you’re not being coy, or difficult. This isn’t about fashionable social detachment, the current trend for woe-is-me, or wanting to be the cool detached outsider. You can’t quite catch sight of yourself as you go about your life, that’s all. Your body doesn’t contain its spirit, just as the mirror has relinquished your portrait. You are elsewhere.”

Narrated in the second person, this is the most effective part of the novel, as Sue starts on a self-destructive affair with the husband of a friend to drown her grief. The writing is raw, frequently sexual, and also—in a novel that once threatened to lose itself in philosophical meanderings—satisfyingly fictional.

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