How to Paint a Dead Man, by Sarah Hall

Let me confess to a personal conflict of interest concerning this book before I begin the review. Art-collecting joins reading as one of my passions (hence the use of detail from an early Lawren Harris abstract as the header for this blog). I have a serious soft spot for works of fiction which feature artists and their work as central themes — if I can expand the definition of “art” to include “architecture”, that would help explain why The Glass Room is still at the top of my 2009 Booker list. And I knew before I started Sarah Hall’s Booker long-listed novel that it was about an artist, so I approached it with both anticipation and goodwill.

In fact, How to Paint a Dead Man is about four artists, their stories told separately in alternating chapters and distinct voices. The chronology, while not linear in the book, spans a half-century; the range of age of the four as their stories are told is about the same. In addition to all four being artists (still-life, landscape, early impressionism and photography would be their respective styles), the stories are tenuously linked through correspondence, instruction and family relation. Perhaps more important, they are also linked by an overwhelming sense of impending or realized loss. For close to 80 per cent of this novel, I thought that Hall did an admirable job of both constructing these narrative streams and, in her own way, holding them together. She very effectively establishes and maintains a tension faced by individuals who devote their lives to creating works of art but now face an inescapable loss.

Translated from the Bottle Journals. My favorite of the four story lines, an elderly Italian painter who knows his own life is approaching its end contemplates his past and tries to make the best of his last days. It is the 1960s, he is a commercial success — he is the still-life artist and all his recent work has consisted of groupings of ancient bottles. That wasn’t always the case, as he remembers creating art as a younger man during the Mussolini era and the war years:

And finding the most unusual strong-boned girl to make love to and use as a model — if she had distinguished flesh between her hip and navel, if her eyes were like marble and her hair auburn, if she would wear it down across her breasts or up off her neck, if she sets jealousy among the young men like a songbird among cats, if she brought her temper or her sexuality to the canvas. Her heels in the summer storms made careful steps across the cobbled stones of each courtyard she visited. She was immortalised by whichever artist she came to with her modern love.

We were all emaciated and our hearts and livers were inflamed. We measured our passions like weights on empty scales. And the only cure, for conventionalists and Futurists alike, was the fresh colour squeezed on to the palate. And then another, compatible, deposited by its side.

The artist’s journal does explore some of the trauma of those Fascist years. In its present tense, it also explores the dilemma that, despite his commercial success, neither the artist nor the critics can explain what it is he actually does. A one-way correspondence with a young British artist, Peter, (one-way because Peter’s letters have no return address) comes as close as anything to doing that and the Italian artist eagerly awaits the arrival of those letters.

The Fool on the Hill. This is the story of that Peter, set about 40 years later, he too now an international success — and equally famous as an offbeat international character — for his semi-abstract landscape work. A child of the Sixties, he left Britain for the U.S., found his art but not his life there and returned to Cumbria where this story is set. Despite his continuing fondness for alcohol and wandering, he has a devoted (second) wife and twin children, both artists in their own way. Again, much of his story comes in the form of reminiscence after a sketching trip into a ravine turns into a disaster. Like the Italian artist, his impending loss may mean the end of his life.

The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni. Annette is an adolescent Italian girl whose sight is fading — total blindness is only a matter of time. Her family grows flowers, which she sells in the marketplace; her divine vision is that the Bestia is pursuing her. Offsetting that is her artwork at school, which has attracted the attention of the established painter who teaches the class one day a week:

He told Annette he liked her paintings of the flowers she had brought from Castrabecco (her home) best of all. He told her the flowers in her paintings contained exactly the purple substance of the flowers on the desk in front of her. He said he could even detect the fragrance of the paintings from the other side of the room. ‘Such a remarkable waft of begonias,’ he would say, ‘I felt we must have been overtaken by them while my back was turned talking to Sandro. Let us open the window and see if your paintings can entice the butterflies.’

For anyone who has seen Monet’s Water Lilies, painted as his blindness became complete, Annette’s experience cannot help but spark memories.

The Mirror Crisis. Susan is Peter’s daughter, a photographer who has also attracted significant critical attention, although even she wonders if her parentage isn’t the main reason for the attention. Her twin, Danny, has just been killed in an accident, provoking her identity crisis. While Hall does keep this narrative going, it is the weakest stream of the book — we learn little about her photography and much of this story heads off into territory that is not even echoed in the other parts of the book.

As stated earlier, for 80 per cent of the book the author — at least for this reader — nurtured and balanced these stories in a most satisfying way. Alas, in the final 20 per cent, it all falls apart. The creative tension established in the first part of the book doesn’t so much dwindle as it is abandoned. While the two mature artist sections maintain some momentum, both Annette’s and Susan’s wander into unsatisfying and distracting conclusions that bear no relation to the rest of the book. A resolution that would have kept the streams together and perhaps even resolved the creative tension (allowed the written pictures to set, as it were) was entirely possible, but not realized.

I confessed my personal conflict of interest in this book at the start. I am fairly sure that I will be able to forget that last 20 per cent and remember the real strengths of this book, and they were considerable. Having said that, I have to admit that readers who say the ending ruined the novel for them will get no argument from me. It is frustrating that a novel that could have been so, so good ends up falling short of the mark.

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18 Responses to “How to Paint a Dead Man, by Sarah Hall”

  1. john h Says:

    Good review, Kevin. I admire your ambition in taking on all these Booker candidates. My eyes would give out long before that happened.

    Like you, I really enjoy fictional treatments of artists and their work. I’ve read quite a few over the years. One of the most impressive was Olga Grushin’s “The Dreamlife of Sukanov” from a few years ago. Exceptional book! A few others I could mention are as follows just in case you haven’t heard of them and are interested. The first is very old, from back in the 1940s. It’s called “Portrait of Jennie” by Robert Nathan. A couple of more recent novels on that theme are “What I Loved” by Siri Hustvedt and “Port Mungo” by Patrick McGrath.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the tips, John — I’ve read the Hustvedt and McGrath but the other two are new to me and I’ll check them out once the prize season eases off (as a Canadian, I have the Giller checking in as soon as the Booker longlist is complete — actually, some of the contenders are already piling up).

    I’d offer a few more artist books, as well. The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart you have probably heard of — if not, it is set in your part of the continent (Lakes Superior and Ontario), moving on to First World War France and then New York. And Richard Russo’s Book of Sighs also features an artist, although it is a secondary plot.

  3. diane Says:

    This sounds really good to me. I have Electric Michelangelo by her.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Diane: I can tell from your email address that you are in Red Sox territory (at least mentally) so I’d be very interested if you have read the Richard Russo book reviewed earlier in this blog and any impressions you have of that one. Looks like your baseball team may have to back into the playoffs this year, but they have done that before with success as I recall. Damn Yankees.

  5. john h Says:

    thanks for the heads up on the Urquhart book. I hadn’t heard of that one. I see they have it at my local library so I expect to check it out soon.

    I’m currently reading “My Brother Jack” by George Johnston. I heard about this book from kimbofo at Reading Matters. She calls it her favorite book of all time and I can see why. Great stuff.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m crossing my fingers that I have not led you astray with the Urquhart. If you like it, and don’t know her work, you’ll find you have a number of fine novels ahead of you. I like all of her books, except for A Map of Glass. On the artist front, you might also want to consider her The Stone Carvers which is about building the Canadian war memorial at Vimy Ridge, one of the most soulful places that I have ever visited. I also very much like Away, an immigrant novel that bears comparison with Toibin’s Brooklyn in some ways — but also speaks to the kind of terrain that you are familiar with. In fact, most of her work is set in the parts of Ontario that are somewhat similar to northern Michigan.

    Thanks for the pointer to the Johnston, which I have never heard of (and which looks like it will be difficult to find). I’m interested in comparisons between Canadian and Australian fiction (see my essay on it on this blog if you haven’t already looked) and this would definitely come into that category. I’ve also been thinking about suggesting to kimbofo that she and I should collaborate on a list of novels featuring journalists (she is one, that was my trade before retiring) and this seems to fit that category as well. I’ll find a copy eventually I am sure.

    Finally, thanks for adding some excellent new thoughts to the blog. It is much appreciated.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting stuff, but the quotes didn’t really speak to me on this occasion, a slight overelaboration of language for my tastes perhaps.

    That coupled with a problematic ending suggests I won’t be reading this one, which makes this a valuable review for me!

    That aside, I’ve not heard of the Urquhart, is it simply the quality of the writing that leads you to recommend it Kevin? Plot? Character? All of the above. My curiosity has been piqued…

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    A very good question on Jane Urquhart, Max, which I am not sure that I can answer very well. I do like Urquhart for her prose, but I think that becomes more a necessary, than a sufficient, reason for liking her work. Most readers who like her, I think, would point to characterization — I would say characterization within context. E.g, Away creates a character, but always within the context of the phenomenon of the wave of Irish immigration to rural Canada. The Stone Carvers is mainly about the workers creating the Vimy monument, but the context of Canada’s place in the world is always present. All her books, except for the one that I don’t like, have that dual appeal. And because she is so good at “Canada” I’m not sure how well her work travels to international readers.

    As for the Hall, I’d say given your tastes you can give it a miss unless it somehow moves on to win (I don’t think it will, probably won’t make the shortlist) or you are planning a trip into Italy. It’s a good novel that is well enough executed for some of us, not recommended for others.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Well Kevin, it would be interesting to find out. I’ll check her out.

    I will be in Italy next year, but there’s Italian writers I like, so I fear Hall won’t make the cut for that particular trip.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Unless you are headed to Bologna, this book would be pretty far down my list as well — still, I think it is a worthwhile read.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Actually, Bologna is quite likely, should I reconsider then?

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    There is an interesting story line around Bologna that includes the Mussolini years in the Bottles Journal — if your plans include looking at contemporary as well as traditional art, it fits. And Annette’s story captures a lot of the flavour of the agricultural commerce of that area. The book is a quick read — since the Mirror Crisis part is set in London around the Heath and reflects that part of the city quite well in parts, I think you might find more in this book than a lot of other readers would.

  13. If Everything Seems Lost… Trust the Heart. « The Word Hoarder Says:

    [...] I find it interesting that some reviewers have omitted Annette from the company of artists struggling to build a life in this novel, or simply skipped over her story in their reviews. She’s a naïve teenager, struggling to reconcile a rather negative religious view of the world with her innate optimism, and the sense of joy, hope and redemption she finds in Christianity. The implicit parallels Hall appears to draw between artistic expression (the faith that a commitment to art as a way of life will see you through) and religious faith (the process of determining the balance point between one’s faith and one’s life) are subtle and not often raised. Should Annette become a nun, as her mother suggests, because the world is too dangerous for a young, blind woman? Should she find a way to live as normal a life as she can, trusting in a just and protective god, or stay at home fearing the ill intentions of the Bestia? [*Blogger KevinfromCanada makes the interesting point that Annette's artistic endeavor is literally developing her inner vision.] [...]

  14. Shastri Says:

    Hi, Kevin. For someone who loves books, I’m shocked to note that I discovered your enchanting blog only now. It sure is a treasure trove for book lovers.
    Like you, I adore art, I’ve been collecting Indian miniature paintings for a while now. And consequently, a book that brings together fiction and art holds special significance for me.
    I love the writing of Sarah Hall. “The Electric Michelangelo”, “Haweswater” and “How to Paint a Dead Man”. I love absorbing different literary voices of different writers, and so I rarely repeat an author. But Sarah Hall is a writer who’s name’s repeated in my book shelf. The other writers up there are Jane Urquhart, John Banville, Michael Ondaatje, Michael Cunningham, Mishima, and J. M. Cotzee.
    All of them have a phenomenal fusion of form and content, amazingly beautiful, breathless sentences that deepen the meaning of an image or theme being conveyed.
    Like someone else did here, I’d like to recommend “The Dream Life of Sukhanov”. I couldn’t read another book for a while, and I walked around like a zombie for days after reading the book, such was the impact it had on me.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shastri: One of the advantages of you just discovering the blog is that you bring posts like this back to the top for some more consideration — thanks. I hadn’t thought about this novel for a while and was delighted to reread the review. It did bring back quite concrete memories of the book, which is a good sign.

    I don’t know if you have read Michael Frayn’s Headlong, but it is another excellent novel that brings together art and fiction. And your mention of Jane Urquhart couldn’t help bring to mind The Underpainter, a particular favorite of mine.

    I haven’t read The Dream Life of Sukhanov but will certainly keep it in mind. Thanks for the recommendation.

  16. Karyn Says:

    As you mention “The Glass Room”, which you brilliantly recommended and remains one of my favourite books of all time, I too, from a curatorial perspective, am in principle, always interested in books about artists and their work.

    I have not read “How to Paint a Dead Man”, based on your fair review, but I have read Sarah Hall’s “The Beautiful Indifference”, a collection of seven short stories, 2011. I am entranced by the mosaic of these stories – stark, dark, sensuous and frightening. I expect that I will read it a second time. It is a very compelling and exquisite book.

    I would like to mention likely the finest biography I have ever had the privilege to read. As I don’t know where else on KFC to put my thoughts regarding this intensely compelling book, I am including it here.

    Regarding “brilliant”, “Breakfast with Lucien: A Portrait of the Artist” a biography of Lucien Freud by Geordie Greig, recently published, is a spectacular biography. It is a mesmerizing, highly personal account of the life of one of the finest artist of the 20th century. Freud was known to be intensely private – some of his 14 children (and likely more) did not even have his telephone number. From the book jacket:” Illustrated with many unseen photographs of Freud, it is a uniquely fascinating, personal and authoritative account of one of the greatest British painters of this century and the last, and a profile of a man who makes everyone else’s life seem less lived.”

    It is a jewel of a portrait of a highly complex, exceptional and compelling artist and his prolific life.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for the thoughts on Hall’s story collection. I have not tried anything but this novel and I was impressed by her writing, so I am not surprised to see the recommendation.

      I am not a biography reader, so this thread is as good as any for your thoughts on the Freud biography. I certainly know of him by artistic reputation — and given the sale in New York a couple weeks back, bringing the bio up here is certainly timely.

  17. Karyn Says:

    Many thanks Kevin. I appreciate that you do not read biographies, but as “Breakfast with Lucien” is so exceptional, I wanted to mention it. I am going to send a detailed note to Mrs KFC about it. She will become immersed. Thanks again for your outstanding blog – I love it!

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