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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‘that strange echoing fear’ How to be a Good Wife – Emma Chapman

The distant mountains rise higher and darker, surrounding us: shadowed blue-green masses capped with white snow.

On the surface Emma Chapman’s debut novel is a cool, controlled, and compact account of the apparent psychosis of Marta Bjornstad in a nameless Scandinavian town as her husband and son look on in increasing despair. Yet beneath this is a deeply intelligent consideration of the destabilising effects on identity and the experience of time caused by the absence of a framework of memory.  Marta’s narration relates a scraped out experience related by Chapman’s chillingly direct and economical language which always points beyond itself and the starved atmosphere of her character’s mind. An unstocked mind in which things reverberate: sounds, images, memories, desires. These oscillations colour everything. Shapes rise and fall in the wan twilight of a Scandinavian Autumn, the rays of the Sun playing on the surface and, although attenuated, penetrating the depths. From those depths rise visions or memories of a blonde girl in dirty pyjamas, a forgotten grace of movement, a prison. Each one confuses or casts doubt on the life Marta has led, cleaning, cooking, and caring for her husband Hector and son Kylan. The accepted narrative of their meeting and marriage is that Hector saved Marta from drowning and nursed her back to health after her parents died. And yet, as she once again stops taking her medication, the sunlit uplands of an apparently blissful marriage begin to fracture.

 Now it’s as if I can see shadows for the first time.

Marta’s experience of time is episodic because she lacks the kind of structure required to secure its continuity. Hence, her narration and experience is insistently present tense, which is why knowing the time is so important to her: it’s the only structure she has. The only structure, that is, apart from the book given to her on her wedding day by Hector’s overbearing mother – How to be a Good Wife – which contains such commands as ‘Never hurry or nag him along. His time is precious, and must be treated as such’; ‘Always wait for him before you begin eating: he should always come first’; and ‘Never question his authority, for he always does what is best for the family, and has your interests at heart.’ This guide and framework simultaneously secures Marta in a stale home and erodes any sense of agency and selfhood she might have possessed or developed. The question the reader must ask is whether it is in reaction to this diminished selfhood that Marta’s developing assertiveness arises.

The passivity of Marta’s narration is broken by insistent voices which, whether excerpts from a domestic guidebook, fragments of memory, unattributed threats and entreaties, or external attempts to constrain through dismissal and psychiatric diagnosis, serve to reinforce and then undermine her fragile structure as the of tone each develops throughout the novel. ‘If you do what I say, there’s no reason for anyone to get hurt.

And there it is again, that strange echoing fear, slipping through the cracks that have formed in the memory. It’s easy to look at a photograph, and to tell yourself things happened in a certain way, that you were happy. Easy to talk about until it seems that it really happened that way. But as I looked out through that gauzy veil, the petals of my bouquet quivering in my hands, as  I made those steps towards Hector standing at the altar without my father’s arm to support me, I remember being frightened, not excited.

This passage might stand for the whole novel in apparent simplicity and uneasy allusion: that gauzy veil a symbol of Marta’s desaturated experience, a filter on her perception, her understanding and memory. Her marriage has framed and constrained her entire being, completely externalising her identity such that it is dangerously dependent on feminine roles: wife, mother, housekeeper, cook. Are her insidious doubts a reaction to this constrained and hollow existence?  Marta tries to lift her veil, which immediately speaks to Shelley’s sonnet and to the collapsing marriage of Maugham’s novel.

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.

What lurks behind the veil, the story of her marriage, and that phantom girl, whose image seems to efface Marta’s each time she washes or gazes into the mirror? Reflecting surfaces herald the loss of one self and the glimpsing of another. Mirrors lack depth and yet mimic it. Waters can be deep and yet hide their extent. Marta’s certainties drain away with the bath water. Where is her father? Why was she so afraid on her wedding day? Perhaps most compelling: Is this veil her medication, forced upon her by Hector? Or is she actually ill? Or both? Of course, that very suspicion of Hector’s story should alert the reader to doubt Marta’s voice as keenly as she does her husband’s. Fear and hope begin to bleed into one another as her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

What if I wasn’t myself before?

Chapman probes how we treat individuals diagnosed with mental illness. There is an implicit challenge here to the view that a mental disorder should entail a corrosive departure from oneself; a challenge to the narrative of unreliability and the distrust of memories of potentially significant trauma. In many ways I prefer this book to Sebastian Faulk’s Engleby which shifts the ground very sharply beneath the reader’s feet toward the end. In its apparent simplicity How to be a Good Wife contains multitudes. It is not devastating and its development was far from a surprise, but I don’t think that is the point of this book at all. Chapman has done something far more interesting than just write a competent thriller: the landscape of the novel and Marta’s mind is submerged, but an emergence from those depths, an ascent to the mountain peaks that shelter the fjord, is not straightforwardly liberating, as the ambiguous relationship with water throughout attests. Her compact and allusive resistance to reduction and the complex archaeology of memory and despair make Emma Chapman’s debut novel very impressive indeed.

For some time, I have watched a magpie, working at the frozen earth.

 

How to be a Good Wife is out from Picador in January 2013.

My thanks to Picador for this review copy.