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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.

 

 

I begun and begun again; and though I had nothing to say, and that nothing might have been express’d in half a dozen lines, I made half a dozen different beginnings, and could no way please myself.

In short, I was in no mood to write.

So this is the story. For the last three weeks I have taken on an additional challenge for the month of November. No, not to grow a moustache. That ship has sailed and made a few round trips already.  I joined NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

Write 50,000 words in a month. That’s the challenge. Anything you want. Then once it is all over, you can take a gander at your ‘masterpiece’, and see if there’s anything worth salvaging.

This afternoon I finally hit 40,000 words. I am cutting it close, as the deadline is this Tuesday. But books don’t read themselves, so a delicate balancing act has occupied me for the last few weeks. (I am also nursing one sick cat. That takes up a lot more time than any invertebrate ‘novel’).

Approach a student of English letters and say the words ‘Tristram Shandy’. Observe how the shibboleth brings a look of despair and panic to their eyes. Personally I rather like Sterne’s ground-breaking novel, but then I came to it from the opposite direction, as a related text to La Peau de Chagrin by Balzac. The French literary scene were quite taken with Sterne’s device of writing a novel that never properly starts.

By its completion, with several volumes concerning the ancestry of Tristram, our hero’s story has yet to begin. It’s as much a novel about the difficulties in writing a novel as anything else. There are also a few visual quirks thrown in, such as the page that is entirely black (a device supernatural authors became fond of in the 19th/early 20th centuries).

I would also recommend Michael Winterbottom’s film ‘adaptation’, A Cock and Bull Story which concerns a film production of Shandy that itself can’t quite get off the ground.

A Sentimental Journey is equally digressive, a travelogue that is entered into on the whim of the narrator, Yorick, which is more concerned with his thoughts on travelling than the journey itself. Crossing France from Calais he relates the various encounters he has with people of interest, although the peculiarities of the French language and the differences in social conventions prevent Yorick from developing any real relationships. He somehow manages to be oblivious to the fact that England is at war with France during the first half of his journey!

His one constant is a hired manservant named La Fleur who is lacking in qualifications, but has an innate understanding of what is required to protect monsieur’s honour. Yorick is continually caught in his own complicated thought processes, at one point naming the various devils that prevent from entering any course of action – Avarice, Caution, Cowardice, Discretion, Hypocrisy, Meanness and Pride. These personal forces at all times in conflict with one another, leaving Yorick a more comical procrastinator than the eponymous hero of the play from which Sterne gave him his name.

To Sterne’s credit not only is Hamlet referenced in the text, the play is mocked mercilessly, or rather the regard with which it is held by the English. To illustrate Yorick’s confounded thought processes Sterne writes mostly in a stream of consciousness style. The frustrated flirting of the hero – for it would not do to approach a woman in France as one would in England – occasions much of the suspended plot.

Perhaps this is a stumbling block for readers of Sterne. Nothing much happens, but what does occur is poured over and agonized by the characters in a mockery of authorial insight.

This is a witty, inventive and above all, fun book.

 

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