The Ecliptic – Benjamin Wood

The Ecliptic

I think a man spends his whole lifetime painting one picture or working on one piece of sculpture. The question of stopping is really a decision of moral considerations. To what extent are you intoxicated by the actual act, so that you are beguiled by it? To what extent are you charmed by its inner life? And to what extend do you then really approach the intention or desire that is really outside it? The decision is always made when the piece has something in it that you wanted.

–Barnett Newman

Benjamin Wood’s second novel The Ecliptic has at its heart three forms of instability: that of creation, that of criticism, and the artist subject to both. There is a fourth instability underlying these three: the novel itself, which creates a space of uncertainty and an analogue of creativity itself. The cipher for this instability is the ecliptic itself.

The ecliptic, put simply, is the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun. But since we all live here on earth, we observe the sun to be moving along this plane instead. Why? Because what would be the point of looking at things from the perspective of the sun? That’s no use to anyone.

This is the explanation given to the painter Elspeth Conroy, a rising star of the male-dominated artworld of 1960s London, who is thrown into creative disarray as she tries to understand how to represent the ecliptic in a mural commissioned for an observatory. “How could I represent things that were themselves just representations of other people’s representations?” The ecliptic does not exist: it is a useful falsehood, a way of seeing. Conroy’s search is for the right medium to represent the collective delusion of the ecliptic.

This useful, truthful falsehood touches on the nature of art itself. To paint the ecliptic is to wrestle with a challenge which drills down to the very core of picture-making: what is it to depict or represent? What is it to represent on the canvas something with so strange a nature as the illusive line of the sun’s orbit around the earth?

In portraiture this problem does not arise, nor in landscape, because there is a presumption of realism in the physicality of their subjects; and even if the subject is fictional, its representation can stand on its own two naturalistic feet. But the ecliptic is something else, apparent but insubstantial, unreal yet functional. How does Conroy place that on the canvas?

In this way Wood sets up a dialogue between realism and abstraction. The apparent duality of the ecliptic pulls Conroy toward both, but there is a suspicion of ‘abstraction for abstraction’s sake’ throughout the novel, representative as it is of a certain mid-twentieth century male machismo. You have to earn abstraction.

This problem and Conroy’s subsequent breakdown lead her to the hidden Turkish island retreat of Portmantle and her experiments with a unique pigment which might solve the challenge of representing the ecliptic.

It was not known how long Portmantle had existed, but we understood that many others had sought refuge there before we ever claimed it: to rescue the depleted minds of artists like us was the reason it was founded. In the seclusion of the grounds artists could work outside the straitjacket of the world and its pressures. We could tune out those voices that nagged and pecked, forget the doubts that stifled us, dispense with all the mundane tasks, distractions, and responsibilities, detach from the infernal noises of industry…

Overseen by the austere presence of the provost Portmantle provides an escape from reputation: everyone receives a new name from the provost, Conroy’s is “Knell”; an escape from clocks, time, and “the straitjacket of the world”. Knell and her friends, a famous novelist, a celebrated playwright, and a frustrated architect are “long-termers” at Portmantle when they are enlisted to aid the troubled teenager “Fullerton” in making the transition to life at the refuge. Fullerton’s origins lie at the heart of The Ecliptic. In many ways the opening section during which he arrives feels like an extended prologue, before the second section takes us back to Conroy’s early life and career and the circumstances in which Portmantle becomes a necessity.

The tension between art and life recurs throughout The Ecliptic. Removed from life whilst attempting question and represent it: That tension in the artist’s life is laid bare at Portmantle where the rules which ensure seclusion are meant to secure creative freedom. Yet, there’s no escaping the world: not in art, not in anything; and yet that is precisely what the space of creativity, what Portmantle seems to do. This tension underpins the novel, but it is a tension which reflects the tightness in the chest of creation. That anxious dialogue between art and life is one of the most successful elements of The Ecliptic.

“Once your best story’s told, it can’t be told again. It makes you, then it ruins you.”

Art and life. The dangers of intentional criticism—that is, looking to the intentions and, more broadly, the life of an artist in order to interpret their work—are well attested but seductive. A second novel which follows a much-lauded debut and which contains plenty of anxiety about the ability to produce new work, to repeat the trick, and how to handle success, rather invites an intentional angle.

I had become accustomed to this sort of discussion—the type in which I sat as an observer, hearing my own work being spoken about without being invited to contribute an opinion. I was passed around between people like the head on a coin, regarded only when questions needed a quick answer or small points required clarification.

The Ecliptic is in some ways inimical to criticism or review by virtue of the ironic slant it forces on the reviewer. As Julian Barnes puts it in Keeping an Eye Open, Georges Braque “thought the ideal state would be reached when we said nothing at all in front of a painting.” It is hard not to read something similar into the chasm between creation and reception in The Ecliptic. Time and again the experience of the artist in creating their work and their judgement of its value by critics, galleries, and buyers creates an instability in the idea of artistic value itself. It is as if the experience and language of the two groups are completely distinct. Only other artists recognise the works Conroy considers her best.

It is not straightforwardly that no standard for artistic judgement exists in the novel, but that the perspectives of the artist and the critic are so divorced as to bewilder Conroy when she hears her reviews.

Clearly, Muirhead had failed to notice the sheer apathy that underpinned the paintings, how poorly I had gone about the task of executing them, how knowingly I had let them be carried from my studio, one after the next, like meat leaving an abattoir.

Nor is this a kind of critical relativism: there is a difference between not knowing the value of a work—perhaps our being in no position to know—and its value being relative. Wood’s version of this recalls and reverses the chasm in perspective between the artist Frenhofer, on the one hand, and Porbus and Poussin, on the other, in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece.

The third instability I mentioned at the beginning of this review was that of the artist. It is not uncommon to pathologise the anxieties of the creative process. Indeed, it is something of a psychological industry, exemplified by the work of Kay Redfield Jamison. To link creativity and mental illness is seductive for some because it is one way of making sense of a mysterious process so often inimical to the mental health of the artist. Obsession can be pathologised, frenzied creation can be pathologised, barren periods become depression. It is, in general, unhelpful. Creativity requires a kind of instability, but it need not be mental. That this kind of instability plays a role in The Ecliptic has left me ambivalent. It will be up to each reader to decide whether it is convincing.

It is a painter’s job to give shape to things unseeable, to convey emotion in the accumulation of gestures, the instinctive, the considered, the unplanned. There is both randomness and predestination to the act of painting, a measurement and a chaos…

In novels about art it is often the art which is missing. That is not the case here. The description of detail and aesthetic effect—the language of gesture, composition, and perception—is a challenge Wood overcomes. Likewise, Wood’s phrasing and, yes, painterly description of Conroy’s environment. The “steel-blue water roiled quietly and a clutch of white sloops lilted on their moorings”; “Dust clotted the daylight. Fingerprints deadened the balustrade”; Handwriting in “an upright style that never broke the borders of the rulings, whose letters crouched like tall birds herded into crates.”

The end of The Ecliptic will undoubtedly bother some. Any given reader will have to decide whether the questions Wood raises about realism and representation are best served by the ending he chooses. I think he strikes an uneasy balance between the novel’s concerns with instability and the mysterious space of creativity; but my concerns about the pathologisation of the artist remain; and, whilst the structure of the novel serves Wood’s aims, it may sag a little in the central sections. There are passages where Wood is perhaps too careful, opting for careful enumeration over the telling detail.

Nonetheless, The Ecliptic is an intricate, ambitious, and compelling novel of creativity, ambiguity, instability, and the nature of representation. The fictional truth of the ecliptic and Wood’s handling of the dialogue between art, life, and the artworld is superbly realised, with resonances building throughout the novel. Moreover, the characterisation of Elspeth Conroy is, for the most part, spot-on: her anxieties, false-starts, resistance to the commercial, her youthfulness, and response to success all ring true and underpin the abstract concerns of the novel. All in all, The Ecliptic is a very good novel and comes highly recommended.

The thrill of painting turns so quickly to bewilderment if you let it, and nobody can help you to regain your bearings afterwards. Talent sinks into the lightless depths like so much rope unless you keep firm hold on it, but squeeze too tight and it will just as surely drag you under.

The Ecliptic is published by Scribner and is out now.

My thanks to Scribner for this review copy.

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Toby’s Room – Pat Barker

I really wanted to love Toby’s Room – released 16th August – because, whilst it is not in any way a bad book, I had not enjoyed Life Class, the book whose events are sandwiched by those in Toby’s Room, as much as I had hoped. Toby’s Room was going to bring me back to Barker. However, I found it oddly unsatisfactory despite, or perhaps because of, its thoroughly competent and occasionally powerful character. Toby’s Room returns to the young Slade-trained artists of Life Class, Elinor Brooke, her ex-lover Paul Tarrant, and Kit Neville, as well as their artist-surgeon teacher Henry Tonks by whom Barker was clearly fascinated and who plays a larger part in Toby’s Room as the portraitist of disfigured servicemen. At the heart of everything is Elinor’s brother Toby whose presence haunts the novel. Their complex relationship of desire and dependence, and his apparent disappearance and death on the battlefield set her on an obsessive mission to discover what happened to him. So close growing up, one day is enough to derail their relationship.

Toby had been right all along. Somehow or other they had to get back to the ways things were. What had happened was not something that could be talked about, or explained, or analysed, or in any other way resolved. It could only be forgotten.

After he is reported ‘Missing: Believed Killed’ Toby’s bedroom becomes the repository of guilt and longing, but most of all the signifier of the empty space inside Elinor. It is the space she needs to fill, to exorcise, before any resolution becomes possible. His ghost is everywhere, not least in the person of Elinor herself, who bears such a resemblance to Toby. Following his disappearance her work becomes inspired, she paints landscapes each of which contains the diffuse shadow of her brother. Indeed, Toby is only ever seen through the eyes of others, all artists, which is fitting as the analysis and deconstruction of the War, and of Toby in particular, by each of them seems to be Barker’s key concern. In the pre-War section Tonks enrols Elinor in an anatomy class where she dissects an unknown man and is repelled by so clinical an approach to the human form: she cannot see the life in such an artistic programme.

 Churned-up flesh; churned-up landscape.

The ordered and disordered in the analysis and destruction of flesh underpins the novel and probes the artist’s role and aims in the body’s depiction. As Paul Tarrant puts it when describing his Nash-echoing landscapes, ‘The point is, the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.’ This affinity between ruined earth and ruined flesh can be seen in Kit Neville, who returns from France with an awful facial injury and is sent to the specialist facial reconstruction hospital at which Tonks works to record the progress, or lack thereof, of the patients’ recoveries. Neville is an unflinching, unsympathetic Modernist, all hard edges and machined parts, all of which make him ideal both as an observer in France, and as the individual whose facial disfigurement both challenges his Futurist aesthetic and leads to his being, in turn, subject to another’s analytic gaze.

The northern light flooding in through the high windows was pitiless, but not more so that Tonk’s gaze. He was still at the table selecting pastels from a tray, but now and then he stopped to look at Neville, who felt his injuries had never been more cruelly exposed than in this glaring light.

The ambivalence of the artistic response to disfigurement and ruin is well played-out in Elinor’s response to an injured patient.

He had been a remarkably handsome man; still was, on one side of his face. If anything, his injuries threw the beauty of his remaining features into sharper relief. He reminded her of some of the ‘fragments’ they used to draw at the Slade where so often a chipped nose or broken lip seemed to give the face a poignancy that the undamaged original might have lacked. It disturbed her, this aesthetic response to wounds that should have inspired nothing but pity.

This marks the beginning of a more sophisticated response both to the war and to artistic practice on the part of Elinor. So what is it that fails to satisfy? Part of the problem may well be that this is well-trodden ground for Barker and, indeed, for many others. She has spoken of the First World War as our myth, our Illiad: a set of events which can be endlessly reinterpreted and represented as a means of exploring human nature and action. This is a valid position, as the wealth of good Great War literature attests, but new ground should be broken each time and supported by the particular characters and narrative presented, and this is where Toby’s Room becomes unsatisfying. As a study of differing reactions to service, grief, and injury, Toby’s Room is fairly compelling, particularly in Neville’s brooding and occasionally explosive recuperation, whose morphine dreams transport him back to the Front, and to Toby. However, the whole book feels curiously unmotivated, and the figure of Elinor is partly to blame.

The paradox of Elinor is that she so resembles her brother as to become unconvincing as a woman. She is curiously unsympathetic in her pursuit of the truth of Toby’s fate, simultaneously passive and aggressive and oddly opaque despite our access to her mind. Without the violence of the Front to fall back on – something Elinor’s political stance precludes – the normal centrifugal force of Barker’s men is missing, despite the attempt to supply that founding injury in another form in 1912.

One also has to question whether Toby’s Room works as a stand-alone novel given its oddly bracketed structure. As far I can tell it is not presented as a sequel to Life Class whose narrative, for all that I was not bowled over by it, at least had the virtue of cohesion and a quality of concentration.  Toby’s Room is dark, disturbing, and, in certain respects, acutely insightful; and yet it refuses to cohere as it should in order for its aims to be fulfilled. In that sense it is frustrating, but certain passages stand out as impressive, in particular those about art: those focused on the artists are less compelling in general, and suffer from a lack of weight. This is a good book, but it’s not the return to form I was hoping for. Essentially, the problem is that it’s all been done before. It’s no Regeneration.

A discussion of the evolution of the cover for Ben Marcus’ new novel. I really want to get hold of this to review it here.

(Knopf, 2012)

When I finished writing The Flame Alphabet, Tom McCarthy’s novel C had just come out, with a dazzling jacket by Peter Mendelsund.

This confirmed what I’d been suspecting: Mendelsund is a tremendously strong, intuitive designer. I’d already drooled over a few of his jackets, including the Kafka reprints he recently completed.

  

And then when I met him, and we spoke a bit, I learned he was a passionate reader, a deep reader. He knew The Flame Alphabet inside and out—had read it as closely as I ever could have hoped. While we never spoke about what the design would be (what on earth would have been the point?), I knew then that my mission was very simple. I would stay the hell out of his way and let him do his thing.

He makes beautiful, inviting jackets, of course, but they are also wickedly smart…

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The Sacred Made Real (National Gallery 2010)

The Dead Christ

In the centre of a shadowed room lies a pale and bloodied corpse.  Hair, matted and tangled, is spread out on a pillow as the head lolls onto one shoulder open-mouthed, eyes open but staring into nothingness, freed from the pain of grievous and grizzly wounds.  Dirty fingernails and emaciated flesh are yet to be cleaned in preparation for entombment.  Only a piece of blue cloth saves this man from complete indignity in death.  The eye is drawn to puckered holes on hands and feet – to the sliced and deep hole in this man’s side, its leaked blood smeared down his stomach toward that blue cloth.  This was not an easy death. In the words of Isaiah,

He is despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. And we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.  Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem Him stricken, Continue reading

Turner and the Masters (Tate Britain)

First published on The Bubble (June 2011).
ovid banished
Ovid Banished from Rome (1838)

There is a tiny portrait of J. M. W. Turner at the very end of the Tate Britain’s Turner and the Masters. It is by Charles West Cope and shows us Turner in 1837 when he was fifty-two years old: a hunched, somewhat scruffy man in his trademark stovepipe hat stands, as he was wont to do, on a platform barely an inch from the canvas whilst awed hangers-on stand at a respectful distance from this son of a barber and a mentally unstable mother. This is a man whom we can well believe never lost his cockney accent. It is also not the picture he would have wished you to remember.

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The je ne sais quoi of the Eternal – Van Gogh at the RA

First published on The Bubble (May 2011): http://www.thebubble.org.uk/art-photography/the-je-ne-sais-quoi-of-the-eternal#!page=1

[This article was written while The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters was featured at the Royal Academy last year.]

A house, a street, burns against a cobalt sky, figures obliterated by a remorseless “sulphur sun”. A train crosses a bridge in the background, its plume of smoke swirling up and out of view. That movement is all the more striking for the stillness of buildings, trees, and people fixed by the unforgiving blaze of light.

The Yellow House was painted in Arles in 1888. The artist thought this place “tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue”. It is difficult to disagree.

Most of us think we know Vincent van Gogh: brightly coloured Provençal landscapes, rustic portraiture, and those sunflowers. This monumental exhibition – The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters – allows the real artist, a true intellectual, to shine through. Placing the works and the letters side by side allows each to shine a light on the other. They letters reveal a man deeply involved in all aspects of art, its philosophy, mechanics, discipline, and cost. We have no greater or more detailed record of an artist’s personal development and views of their work than this.

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The Manner of Our Going

First published on The Bubble (January 2011): http://www.thebubble.org.uk/art-photography/the-manner-of-our-going

There is a poem in Andrew Motion’s collection The Cinder Path called “My Masterpiece”. The poet imagines that he is, in some other life, a Renaissance artist and describes his great work: a Madonna. This suggests not just the continuity of artistic endeavour across the centuries and between the arts, but something else as well. The master looks beyond his central motif, proudly informing us that,

… my real triumph
consists in the view
extending behind her,

the mile upon mile
of blue-green hills
with their miniature lives.

These lives are depicted in a few evocative and sympathetic strokes, showing us the importance of the everyday in creating a tapestry Continue reading