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NAT TATE An American Artist 1928 – 1960 by William Boyd

21 Publishing Ltd, 1998, 71 p.

NAT TATE cover

Complete with cover flap comments from David Bowie and Gore Vidal attesting to its subject’s importance this is an account of forgotten US artist Nathwell ‘Nat’ Tate, whose final artistic act was to burn as many of his works as he had managed to lay hands on (“perhaps a dozen survive”) before committing suicide by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. The usual biographical conditions apply, obscure origins, father unknown, mother died young, adoption by her rich employer (emphatically not Tate’s father but an avid admirer and buyer of his work,) an influential teacher at Art School, chance viewing of his work by the founder of a gallery, socialising with other artists, the development of his style – aslant to that of his contemporaries and details of which Boyd provides – descent into alcohol, meetings with Picasso and Braque, disillusionment. The text is interspersed with photographs of three of the surviving paintings and various important stages of Tate’s life, four of which depict Tate but in only one is the adult artist the sole subject. Boyd gives us a convincing, if short, portrait of an artist and his life.

Yet the story of Tate is of course entirely fictitious. Not fictional, such biographies imagining the circumstances and lives of real people abound, but fictitious. Tate never existed. He is a total invention by Boyd.

On the book’s publication in 1998 the cover picture, containing as it does a cropped version of that black and white photograph of the adult “Tate” obviously photoshopped over a coloured one of New York, might have provided a clue to those not in on the joke but anyone at all familiar with Boyd’s work coming to it post hoc would be immediately aware of its confected nature on its first mention of Logan Mountstuart, protagonist of the author’s 2002 novel Any Human Heart. Boyd would also employ photographs to an equally verisimilituding end within the text of his 2016 novel Sweet Caress.

A hint of Boyd’s purpose in writing this book (apart from sending up the hagiographic artistic biography of the forgotten genius) may be gleaned from the passage where there are speculations on possible reasons for “Tate”’s destruction of his work and his suicide. “Tate was one of those rare artists who did not need, and did not seek, the transformation of his painting into a valuable commodity to be bought and sold on the whim of a market and its marketeers. He had seen the future and it stank.”

Pedant’s corner:- “the layers of white turps-thinned paint that was repeatedly laid over them” (Boyd treats this as if paint is the subject of the verb laid; that subject is in fact layers, hence “were laid”,) swop (swap.)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Serpent’s Tail, 2014, 341 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves cover

Firstly, this is a very good book indeed; and a consciously literary endeavour. Fowler’s first person narrator, Rosemary Cooke, frequently addresses the reader, digresses, makes asides, approaches her story obliquely, moves it forward and backward in time. She tells us in the prologue what she is about to do. Start in the middle. And later, in a cell, awaiting interrogation by the FBI she reflects on what she will say, “I would not only tell the tale but also comment on it.” Quite. By the end, though, she has decided that stories can begin and end anywhere.

When she was young Rosemary never stopped speaking. The reasons why, and why she gradually stopped doing so, are revealed over the course of the novel. Up until she was five years old Rose had lived with her mother, father, brother and sister. On returning from what she perceived as a banishment to her grandparents’ house she discovers her own family has moved house but it is her sister who has been sent away. This central circumstance is so essential to the novel that any discussion of it beyond generalities would reveal too much but it is its ramifications, the nature of her sister, Fern, and the effects both of these have on Rosemary and her brother, Lowell, which drive Fowler’s story.

Unsurprisingly, tensions abound. Rose tells us, “Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability. I believe the same can be said of many families.” This is most likely a nod to Tolstoy’s similar phraseology. Through Rosemary, Fowler tells us elsewhere, “In most families, there is a favourite child. Parents deny it and maybe they truly don’t see it, but it’s obvious to the children. Unfairness bothers children greatly.” Incidentally, the Cooke family had a dog called Tamara Press. Quite why Fowler chose the name of a 1960s Russian shot-putter for this is obscure (to me at least.)

Much play is made of the unreliability of memory. Rose recalls an incident from her childhood where she remembers her father deliberately driving over a cat but he was not the sort of person to do such a thing. She both believes it happened and also that it didn’t and refers to it as her own personal Schrödinger’s cat. She also says that language “simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies” memories and remembers her father telling Lowell that language and communication are two different things. In a neat line connecting Rose’s use of contact lenses with her sister’s disappearance she says, “It’s what you do with disposables; you get rid of them.”

Rose twice emphasises her experience that, “Where you succeed will never matter so much as where you fail” and refers to the rift in the family as “A monkey on my back….” but in what seems an authorial interpolation, “When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy.” Her father was a researcher into animal behaviour and the book is run through with references to such research. “‘You can train any animal into any behaviour on cue if it’s a natural behaviour to begin with. Racism, sexism, speciesism – all natural human behaviours… triggered any time by any unscrupulous yahoo with a pulpit… Mobbing…Bullying. Empathy.’” The book is very much Rose’s story, her umwelt (the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.) Humans it seems are much more imitative than other apes.

For various (and different) reasons I was reminded of both William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

There are not many novels which go into detail on the concept of theory of mind or discourse on embedded mental states and imputation. Yet these discursions seem a natural part of the narrative making for a tremendously well worked out and impressively rendered novel.

Pedant’s corner:- A flock of seagulls were grazing (a flock was grazing,) hieroglyphic (hieroglyph.) Fowler does, however, receive plus points for culs-de-sac.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

The Many Lives of Amory Clay. Bloomsbury, 2015, 451 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Sweet Caress cover

While the subtitle might suggest a novel along the lines of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August or Life After Life this is a much more conventional tale of a life recollected from old age, if not quite tranquillity. Pioneer woman photographer Amory Clay’s first person narrative more or less follows a chronological order but there are the occasional interpolated scenes telling of her present day existence on the island of Barrandale (with its “bridge over the Atlantic” to the mainland) at the supposed time of writing in 1977. What renders the book unusual is the inclusion of reproductions of photographs illustrating Amory’s life (most of which are attributed to Amory.)

Sweet Caress is another of those books describing the life of someone through the Twentieth Century and in which they keep encountering significant events. It is of the essence then that war impacts on Amory. Her father was disturbed so much by his experiences in WW1 that he tries to commit suicide by driving himself – and Amory – into a lake, the man she marries has a dreadful memory of a post-Rhine crossing incident in WW2 with which he cannot come to terms, a later lover disappears presumed killed while she and he are in Vietnam. However, Amory’s contact with the great and the good is minimal – one glimpse each of the Prince of Wales (as Edward VIII was at the time) and Marlene Dietrich – more reflective of a normal life.

I note that the choice of name for his protagonist does allow Boyd to essay the pun “roman à Clay” about a book one of her lovers subsequently writes about their relationship. Similar games are played with subsidiary characters in the novel whose names nod to women who were relatively successful in their fields in the times he is writing about.

All her experiences lead Amory to feel, “not to be born is the best for man – only that way can you avoid all of life’s complications.” Later, “Any life of any reasonable length throws up all manner of complications ….. but it’s the complications that have engaged me and made me feel alive.” Through Amory, Boyd makes much of the ability of a photograph to stop time for a moment. She is also of the opinion that black and white photographs are art and colour photography somehow less true.

It’s all beautifully done – and the final chapter does supply a reason why Amory is writing her story – but Sweet Caress nevertheless kept bringing to mind the same author’s The New Confessions and (though less so) Any Human Heart, though in this regard the woman protagonist did make a difference.

Pedant’s corner:- Amory uses the word robot in 1924. Boyd just scrapes by here; but only by a couple of years at most. The location of Barrandale is unambiguously close to Oban – part of the estate of her now deceased husband. The house where they spent their married life is, though, supposed to be near enough Mallaig that school there might have been an option for their twin daughters had he not been an aristocrat yet their groceries were delivered from Oban. Fort William makes much more sense for proximity to Mallaig than Oban, which is hours away by road even now.
Otherwise we had:- vol-au-vents (surely the plural is vols-aux-vents?) Achilles’ (Achilles’s, not that it makes any difference to the pronunciation,) gin and tonics (gins and tonic – which does appear later!) take it on board (in the 1930s?) the Royal Air Force (during the war in conversation people said the RAF – they still do,) a missing “?” at the end of a question, the Palais’ (the Palais’s, again this appears later,) the church of St Modans a few pages later becomes St Monad’s and may have been an unlikely location for a divorcé to be remarried in those times,) the girls had “just done their A levels” (in 1965 Scotland? Highers, I think – unless private schools put their pupils in for English exams,) dark matter and dark energy are mentioned in 1977 (the first had been by that time, but dark energy was not named as such till 1998.)

The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven by Alan Warner

Jonathan Cape, 2006, 390p.

The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven cover

Warner has been known principally for stories featuring women, eg Morvern Callar and The Sopranos, or with Scottish settings, The Man Who Walks. The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven represents a departure, a different focus. None of its themes nor concerns could be considered narrowly Scottish.

A man is told by his doctor he has The Condition, which is nowadays not an inevitable death sentence. The novel is constructed from his activities of the next few weeks and his memories of the women he has known. (Not as many women as he once planned.)

There are striking stylistic and narrative echoes of other authors; William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms and John Banville’s The Sea, The Sea but more particularly of JG Ballard. This tendency was clinched on page 94 when a sentence was begun with the word already – a typically Ballardian usage. Reflecting this there is a Science Fictional tone to some of the language. A winter festival of gift giving is known as Three Kings, an area of construction and development is Phases Zones 1 and 2, a train destination is Kilometre 4. The Heaven in the title may be the local cemetery, which is mentioned several times.

As with Ballard and earlier Warner novels the tone is dry and distanced, hence none of the characters entirely springs to life. Indeed certain characters are not named but only given attributes, The Woman Who Watched, Puta of Asuncion, Beautiful Screamer, Manic Coma, though admittedly these last few are inmates of an asylum.

Despite hints – a past Civil War, a fascist regime – which clearly point to Spain, the author, through his narrator Manolo Follana, resolutely refuses to name the country in which the story is set, only saying variously our language, our country, our region, the Capital City. Said narrator has a particular animus against English as a language, with its similarly spelled words with totally different meanings, eg tear. He is, incidentally, capable of the spectacularly ugly (and ungrammatical) sentence; for example, “I showed Teresa the new units my Agency were designing the interiors of,” and occasionally uses “less” when “fewer” is the better choice.

A flavour of magic realism tinges the narrative, albeit at a less heightened level. A more or less adult Manolo is taught to swim by two Vietnamese girls in the confines of the rooftop water tank of the hotel where he was brought up. An old man dies in a bath in one of the hotel’s rooms with the taps still running; the bath ends up cascading through the ceiling of the dining room below where his granddaughters were eating. On two occasions, one fatal but offstage, the act of sex is accompanied by the shedding of blood.

In amongst all this there was the – in context rather jarring – Scotticism of the phrase “sweetie” wrapper.

The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven is an example of accomplished modern world fiction. For me, though, too many of the characters are insufficiently fleshed out.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Bloomsbury, 2010. 403p.

This is the latest in Boyd’s apparent taking up of genre fiction. Okay, An Ice-cream War was a historical novel as were The New Confessions and Any Human Heart but he is not generally considered a writer of genre. Yet having most recently tackled the spy novel in Restless, he now ventures into thriller territory. (I doubt he’ll be trying SF though.)

Returning a briefcase left at a restaurant where he was eating to a man with whom he had struck up a conversation, Adam Kindred stumbles into a murder scene. The victim is still barely alive and asks Adam to remove the knife from his body. Disoriented, Adam does so and the victim promptly dies. Suspecting the murderer is in the next room, Adam flees with the briefcase and thus becomes the prime suspect. So far, so very The Thirty Nine Steps. What follows deviates from that template but is still pretty much a standard thriller where Adam sleeps rough, takes up begging, attends the Church of John Christ, changes his name, links up with a prostitute and her son, then later with the policewoman who was first on the murder scene! – all the while pursued by the murderer at the behest of a big pharmaceutical company with a secret to hide. The secret is of course in the briefcase.

Put like that this sounds ridiculous. Not very literary is it? Admittedly the novel doesn’t touch the heights of earlier Boyd offerings like Brazzaville Beach, Any Human Heart or even Restless but it is very readable, rollicking along at a fine pace – and the characterisation is good.

It is also a signal reminder of how easy it can be to stay lost in modern society. Use no banks, mobile phones nor credit cards and you are virtually invisible; certainly hard to trace. Whether the novel much enlightens the human condition is something different, though.

The story is told from the viewpoints of several of the characters and Boyd does that mainstream thing of giving their histories. I know it’s supposed to add to roundness and provide motivation but it struck me that really – especially if this knowledge is essential to the plot – it’s just another species of information dumping.

Inevitably with multiple viewpoints some of the narrators are less engaging than others. I was at first irritated by that of the chairman of the research company Calenture-Deutz but it is a sign of Boyd’s skill that he is able to elicit sympathy and even compassion towards him.

The writing appears effortless, very little jars (but see below) and the stupidity of Adam Kindred at the start apart – don’t touch the knife! – is psychologically convincing. If you like thrillers with a bit of character meat to them give it a try.

Small rant alert:-
Within, we have the old homonym “vocal chords.” These are cords; as in small pliable cylindrical pieces of living tissue. They vibrate as air passes over them and so produce sound. They are not a set of musical notes sounded simultaneously. Does no-one proof read any more?

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