It was always portraits with me. Portraits of other people. For forty years my work was images of strangers. Then it changed. She brought about the change. I don’t know how it happened. It’s a story, not an explanation.
Oh sweet relief. Today I finished my #NaNoWriMo entry. It’s already been submitted and I can breathe a sigh of relief – before the more arduous task of rewriting begins. After all, and I cleave to this point, I have not written a novel, only 50K words. An important distinction to make.
Still the process has given me a newfound respect for writers and the dedication that they show to their craft. Writing is a process of discipline and routine, ensuring the consistency of the initial idea, but still allowing the story room to breathe, to perhaps become something unexpected. These are all things I will have to learn if I want to be a writer, but I hope I have made a first step in that direction.
Today’s book is about artistic ambitions, the struggle between the life of the artist and the final work of art. The story’s nameless narrator is a well-known portraitist based in Canberra. In the autumn of his career he meets an academic on exchange at the university he haunts. Jessica Keal, a still young woman with a past that is the reverse of his own. He agrees to paint a likeness of her for a commissioned study of Australian academics and the two fall into a routine of artist and subject, casually revealing more and more of their former lives.
Jessica is a fourth generation Australian, who left her farming background in the Araluen Valley outside of Canberra for the life of a university academic in London. Returning to Australia she discovers a host of recriminations waiting for her, personified by the mother she left behind. The artist, in turn, left London for Australia when he was fifteen, cutting himself off from the frustrated failures of his own father, who hoped his son would become an author so that he could vicariously enjoy his success. Instead the artist chose to paint portraits of strangers, to capture the lives of people he does not know, so as to avoid questioning his own history.
The artist explains that sitting for a portrait is actually a process of give and take. Throughout the process he begins to reflect more on his own past, just as Jessica opens up to him about her fears and concerns elicited by her return to the family home in Canberra. The artist does not stop with one painting of his subject, he produces dozens, crowding out the spaces of his studio, capturing her in different poses and attitudes. In studying her he learns more about how a life can be understood as a sequence of experiences.
Reading this I was reminded of Lucien Freud’s painting of Kate Moss. What did they talk about I wonder? Alex Miller has the narrator initially tempt the vanity of Jessica in order to convince her to sit for him, but it becomes clear that his need for her to take part outstrips the flattery of her ego. His obsession with her transcends the causal force of sexual desire. It becomes the key to understanding his own life’s failures and inadequacies. In particular his refusal to paint members of his own family points to his shame at leaving his father behind, as well as his absent relationship with his wife and son, now both long gone.
It is interesting that the narrator’s father wished for the artist to become a writer, as his process of painting Jessica produces a series of portraits that fit into a loose narrative of her own life. The most startling moment for the two of them is when he paints her absence in a setting she has posed for a statement on the childhood long gone that is preserved in Araluen.
Miller’s descriptions of the farm belonging to the Keal family and their relationship with this natural environment is wonderfully detailed, with unchanging oak trees and swimming holes transporting Jessica back to her childhood self simply by coming into proximity with them. However, while this novel is concerned with the process of painting, it focuses more on the internal monologue of the artist faced by a blank canvas, the blurring of the painter’s own self with that of the subject, sourcing experiences from both in order to bring the painting to life.
Studied, intimate and very inspiring.