Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Portrait

Iain Pears, The Portrait

Pears' previous novel, The Dream of Scipio, deserves every blurb on its cover. Pears deftly interweaves three love stories around an imagined philosophical text, creating a unique tapestry of drama, suspense, and insight.

Where Scipio is adroitly erudite, though, The Portrait is forced, canned, name-droppish. Imagine an Art Appreciation professor flipping through slides of the classics, and you have a perfect rendition of Henry MacAlpine, the narrator, who exacts a form of artistic revenge on the antagonist, William Nasmyth, whose abuses of literary power have wrecked the lives of those near to both.

I feel a little nervous critiquing a novel that essentially attacks the pettiness of criticism, and hope that the narrator speaks for Pears when he says to Nasmyth, "I discovered early on that I could always forgive you anything, as long as you told the truth." There are elements of sheer beauty, as always, in Pears' prose, and deft didactic touches, but overall, The Portrait is disappointing. To paraphrase its narrator, it overpaints the subject.

The novel's weakness springs not from its author's lack of power--he has none, to my mind--but from the limits of direct narration. When the text is addressed in second person, "you" becoming both antagonist and reader, the effect can be surprising and unsettling, a la The Death of Artemio Cruz, but only in small doses. As a sustained effort, it becomes wooden and artificial, and the shocking revelations lose a good deal of their potential force. To switch modes, the novel is a slow crescendo from piano to mezzoforte; the final chords are solid, jarring, and muted.


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