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.