Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Portrait by Iain Pears

The last week of an intense minimester course (3 credits in 10, 4-1/2 hour classes) was the wrong time to begin this book. It is much too intense, like the two of his previous works I have read – An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio – even though those are both several hundred pages longer. This compact novel (211 pages) is as intense as anything I have read since.

This novel is hard to classify. It is part confessional, part psycho-analysis, and part meditation on the world of art, artists, and critics. The language is lyrical and absorbing. I find myself using that description more frequently, lately; I suppose it is the influence of some writing classes I have been taking. Here is an example of a particularly lyrical/meditative/psychological passage:

"They talk, you know, the dead. Not in words, of course; I am not losing my sanity. They talk in the wind and the rain, in the way light falls onto ruined buildings and dilapidated walls. But you have to listen and want to hear what they have to say. And you do not; you are a creature of the present. The modern." (93)

William Nasmyth is an egotistical, power-drunk art critic who travels to a remote island off the coast of Brittany to sit for a portrait by a former friend and self-exiled artist, Henry MacAlpine, the narrator. Henry reviews his life, William’s life, their former relationship, and several of their acquaintances.

This novel resembles a painting. At first, we have a rough sketch of the characters and a broad outline of the plot. Around page 160, we have a pretty good picture of where the story is going, but then we start on the downhill slid of the roller coaster – I could hardly stop reading. My idea of the plot, formed early, still contained some surprises.

This novel belongs on the same shelf with Fingerpost and Dream. 5 stars

--Chiron, 6/4/08

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