The Review--One Recent Release and One Classic Revisited
July/August 2005 Edition
Ways of Seeing
Reviewer: Stedman Mays

Recent Release
THE PORTRAIT Book CoverTHE PORTRAIT by Iain Pears. Riverhead Books, 2005.  Hardcover.  211 pages of sparsely laid-out text.  Estimated length: about 52,000 words.  

Is there anyone who hasn’t been damaged by critical comments at some point in his or her life?  I certainly have, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t.  Being criticized is a fact of life--and no one is immune.  We all have egos that can be bruised, despite how tough we might seem on the surface.  

Iain Pears has taken on this ugly fact of life in his new novella THE PORTRAIT--an often compelling, if sometimes glib, historical thriller centered around the relationship between a painter and an influential art critic.  The time period of the story is from the late nineteenth century to the early years of the twentieth century. 

Henry MacAlpine has left his successful career as a portrait painter behind him in England.  MacAlpine refused to continue providing overly flattering likenesses of the idle rich.  So he defected to pursue a more honest art in the relative isolation of Houat, a small island off of Brittany, in the northwest coastal region of France.  There he has painted more genuine, more aesthetically satisfying canvases, including one of a fishing-boat crew in a bar that is “the finest thing” he has ever done.  In the midst of this newly inspired existence on Houat, MacAlpine writes an elliptically worded letter that makes its way back to his “old friend” William Naysmyth, a leading critic in the London art scene.  MacAlpine had painted a somewhat idealized portrait of Naysmyth in England years earlier.  Now, in Houat, the artist relishes the opportunity of having the critic sit for a portrait more truly revealing of the soul of the man. 

Naysmyth journeys to Houat to sit for the portrait--circa 1912.  As the artist is painting the second truer likeness of the critic in the remoteness of the tiny difficult-to-reach island, so too does the truth come out about how the critic has done irreparable harm--by means of vicious reviews and vicious behavior--to members of MacAlpine’s artistic circle.  The novel is narrated by the artist in the present tense in a sort of “my brain is speaking out loud and I’m holding nothing back” style.  What we experience as a reader is an extended monologue recounting MacAlpine’s evolution as an artist with numerous critical and philosophizing asides on the nature of art and criticism.  These asides contain some of the best material in the book.  Pears vigorously challenges any naive assumption one might have about the critic’s claim to evenhanded neutrality.  Subjective motivations and power plays inevitably creep into criticism, no matter how purely objective the critic tries to be--or, to seem, in the case of William Naysmyth. 

Some parts of the story of MacAlpine’s life and background are less successfully rendered, however.  He hates his mother, for example, and there isn’t enough detail for the reader to completely understand why.  This is an omission that mars the narrative, since his mother seems to have emotionally punished her son to the point that he feels justified in stealing almost all her money and getting revenge later in life on anyone who’s wronged him.  I also felt that the narrative moved too quickly over some other intriguing subjects, such as the artist’s vaguely alluded to past sins, his passion for a woman with whom he is infatuated, and his being shunted off by his father to live with his grandmother.  Including a bit more incisive detail on those subjects would have warmed up the artist’s character and made him pulse with a greater sense of life, psychological complexity, and full-roundedness of being.  There’s so much snideness and sneering throughout that more moments of vulnerability and sincerity of feeling would be welcome.  And some of the dramatic revelations near the end could have stood more emotional texturing and nuance to fully engage the reader as well. 

But I feel that I’m complaining too much.  Most books offer so little, it seems barbarous to register too many reservations.  And I think it’s a good thing that THE PORTRAIT makes me hesitate and reflect on my own position as a commentator.  I am rather self-conscious criticizing a book about the relationship between artistic object and critic.  This is a thought-provoking novel, well worth reading--and commenting on.  Pears is best known for his very long historical mystery AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST; it's admirable that this recent effort is taut and lean, signaling that he's not stuck writing one book after another of the same scale. THE PORTRAIT is a devilishly entertaining exploration of the wounded psyche of an artist who turns the tables on that godlike nemesis--the critic.  

Classic Revisited
REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE Book CoverREFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE by Carson McCullers.  With an Afterword by Tennessee Williams.  Mariner Books edition, 2000 (the novel was first published in 1941).  Paperback.  127 pages of the text of the novel; 136 pages including the Afterword.  Estimated length of the novel: about 38,000 words.

Voyeurism can be defined as desire at a distance.  The peeping Tom--or peeping Tina, as the case may be--has erotic yearnings for what he or she is watching, but actual consummation with the secretly viewed object, though longed for in theory, is often avoided in practice.  Or if consummation does occur, then the voyeuristic spell is broken and the desire-at-a-distance dynamic is changed irrevocably.  Pure voyeurism can only maintain the erotic thrill by avoiding direct sexual contact.  The “peeper” satisfies his or her hunger in the eye alone.

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE is Carson McCullers’s brilliant meditation on the voyeuristic impulse and how it plays out in the lives of a group of quietly desperate people affiliated with a military base in the American South (McCullers herself was a native of Columbus, Georgia).  Published originally in 1941 and trivialized by some of the early critics as a futile exercise in perversity, this novel only seems fresher with the passage of time.  Unforgettable--for its exquisitely rendered sexual tensions, its unpretentious symbolism, and its deceptively simple narrative flow.  The omniscient narrator’s almost casual, off-hand approach in moments of steamy melodrama makes the reader feel as if this could--and does--happen to some degree in the hearts of people everywhere.  

By contrast, the narrator does seem rather hard on and condescending to a few of her characters in several fleeting comments about them (their stupidity or pettiness, etc.), and these minor lapses are unfortunate. I felt she should have let the situation speak for itself in these instances.  But it's nitpicky to make too much of this.  The lapses of condescension are very few and very far between.  The narrator's overriding tone is one of guarded compassion for the foibles of people disoriented both by accidents of fate and by some of the choices they have made, especially the intensely conflicted marriages they seem to be stuck in.   The book seems to be saying that we're all vulnerable.

The movie version of REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE from 1967, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando as husband and wife, is as underappreciated as the book on which it is based.  Taylor is equally adept at being funny, frightening, and alluring.  She’s a kind of erotically charged archetype who inspires sexual chaos in all who encounter her.  Brando is superb as the repressed officer whose latent homosexuality threatens to break the surface when he becomes smitten with handsome young enlisted man Robert Forster who, to complete the triangle, is obsessed with “observing” Taylor, secretly entering her room at night to watch her asleep in bed.  The film is directed by John Huston (best known for his handling of noirish material such as THE MALTESE FALCON and psychologically-probing dramas such as THE MISFITS) with memorable cinematography by Aldo Tonti and some fine performances from the supporting cast, which includes Brian Keith, Julie Harris, and Robert Forster.  The only real flaw of the movie is the stiltedness of Zorro David’s acting in certain scenes.

The plot of REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE--in both the book and the movie--is as artfully distilled as Greek tragedy.  Although THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER is the novel for which McCullers has been most highly praised in literary circles, her REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE is one of the finest examples of Southern Gothic literature that we have, a masterpiece of mixed sexual signals and voyeuristic fetishism.  It deserves a wider audience. Perhaps readers now are in a better position than ever to appreciate these haunting representations of desire gone askew.
For the Carson McCullers Project website, click here

For the current edition of the Review, click here

For the archive of past reviews, click here

Back to Top | Sitemap

Copyright 2005 Scribblers House® LLC New York. All rights reserved.

Good Short Novels