Critique of Criticism

“There are many differences between critics and sensible human beings, but the main one is this.  Critics are fixated, above all else, with novelty.”

This was how Michael Deacon began his review of the Magpie restaurant on Heddon Street on London.  The Telegraph  lists him as a ‘Parliamentary Sketchwriter’; Wikipedia says he is a British author and political satirist.  In any event, I thought, ‘this guy knows what he’s talking about’.  The review appeared in The Telegraph Magazine on the 2nd of September.  If you’re interested in food, he gave the Magpie four stars and said, “With no menus, adventurous taste buds and an acute sense of smell are required.  Most of the food was terrific.  Essentially, it was dim sum, but with all kinds of influences”

Michael Deacon

He went on to say, “It’s the same in every field of creativity: books, music, film, theatre, painting.  In the eyes of critics, the highest accolade they can bestow is to call a work original – or groundbreaking, bold, radical, seminal, revolutionary.  To them, it’s more important for a book to be original than readable.  More important for music to be original than tuneful.  More important for a play to be original than enjoyable.  Novelty trumps all.  Pleasure is a lesser concern.

“There are two reasons for this.  First, insecurity.  A critic is anxious about dismissing a work that is experimental for fear of how he’ll look to his fellow critics.  He’ll look stuffy, provincial, dim.  He’ll look as if he doesn’t get it.  He has to show them that he’s intelligent enough to understand and appreciate what the artist, this subversive innovator, this trailblazing auteur, is doing.

“The second reason is just as crucial.  Boredom. Think of a teacher marking a stack of essays from an exam in English literature.  In essay after essay, the same topics recur.  An exhausting majority of students have written about the set texts.  Read in isolation, their essays might be perfectly well-written – but read one after the other, they start to seem drainingly uninspired.  So a student who writes about an unusual topic – about novels, plays or poems that weren’t even taught  on the course may get a higher mark than those who wrote about the set texts, even if his essay is inferior.  The marker is simply relieved by the change in scene.  That’s what critics are like.  Sooner or later they run out of things to say about the conventional.  Hey ho, another romantic comedy.  Yawn, another detective thriller.  So when something unusual turns up, they embrace it with desperate gratitude.  What the paying customer is likely to make of it is irrelevant.  What matters is, it’s given the critic something new to write about.  The artist has done the critic a favour – and, more often than not, can expect to be rewarded.

“But of course, the above doesn’t apply only to critics of books, music and the rest.  It applies to restaurant critics, too.  And so when I go out to review a restaurant that’s in some way out of the ordinary, and decide that I like it, I have to ask myself: do I, though?  Am I genuinely enjoying myself?  Honestly?  Or am I just grateful to the chef because he’s just made  my job easier?”

Five stars to Michael Deacon!

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, St Martin’s Press, 2016, comes to some unexpected conclusions.  The book was reviewed by Sandra Elliot in the June issue of The Florida Writer.

“Through an analysis of recent best sellers, Authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers claim to have identified the elements that move a novel to the top in sales.  They begin with an overview of what makes people read, including insights and quotes from Stephen King’s On Writing.  He says no one really knows what makes a story a hit, and advises would-be professionals to choose topics they know and blend in others like relationships, sex and work.  The Bestseller Code authors arouse reader interest by debunking King’s adages.  No sex in popular novels?  No, they say, and use their research findings to support their statements.

“. . . One of their first questions: themes that promote or limit a story’s commercial popularity.  Sex, drugs and rock and roll are among those tested and found wanting.  Few bestsellers are based on these themes.  What about Fifty Shades of Grey?  . . .  Not the sex, they say, but a living, breathing side of the narrative that readers feel it like the thrum of nightclub music.  The Da Vinci Code is the only other book to have such a powerful rhythm, they add.

“. . . (The book) identified John Grisham and Danielle Steel as authors who used themes of interest to many readers.  Grisham’s signature theme is ‘Lawyers and the Law’, Steel’s ‘Domestic Life’.

“Overall, bestselling authors allocate a third of their novels to one or two themes; less successful authors include more. . . . These findings are particularly relevant for debut writers who tend to write about too much.  An in-depth story is easier to follow than writing heavy with description and detail.  More women than men gain popularity with their debut novels.  Does a feminine writing style have payoff?  No, it’s not gender but an understanding of audience and language that pays, that, and the nurturing of skills through practice.

“Gender differences were noted.  Protagonists in recent female-oriented novels are internally complex and externally challenged, odd or different gals with power and motivation.  Characters in bestselling novels, male or female, are high-energy people who set out to achieve what they want to be.”

A three star review by EVS on Amazon.com says, in part: “I found myself simultaneously impressed with the depth of the research and disappointed with the triviality of the findings. Moreover, as much as the authors hope that their formula will open publishing industry to new writers overlooked otherwise, I have a feeling it will only serve to build more, higher walls, imprisoning writers in even tighter cells. Ironically, what would mediate the potential for abuse is making the formula available to the public in the form of a readily accessible test. It’s just the question of time until application of this or similar math becomes obligatory among agents and publishers. If the potential success or failure of an artist’s project is going to depend on a formula, the artist should have the right to face his accuser.”

I tend to share EVS concerns about agents and publishers using this, or a more ‘perfect’ algorithm in selecting works for publication and thereby building higher walls and imprisoning writers in even tighter cells.  But, I also guess that it will indeed be helpful in coaching overlooked authors to better hit the mark.  And I suspect that, in any case, there will always be a writer who finds a route to success that the algorithm overlooks.

In view of all this, I am motivated to get a copy of the book and report to you in more detail.

Review: Song of Solomon

A couple of months ago, in this blog, there was a post about the 100 greatest novels, and how many of them had been read by the average reader.  In order to improve my score, I said I would read Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison.  I’m very glad I volunteered: it’s a wonderful novel.

Toni Morrison

Wikipedia says this about Toni Morrison: “(born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, editor, teacher, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.  Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. The novel was adapted into a film of the same name (starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover) in 1998. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison wrote the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016 she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.”

The paragraph in Wikipedia on the early years in Toni Morrison’s life helps me understand her great facility as a black writer: “Morrison’s parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through telling traditional African American folktales and ghost stories and singing songs.”  Song of Solomon is full of children’s songs, traditional folktales, ghosts, and – in today’s terms – unthinkable racism.  All the principle characters have names one would never think of: Milkman, Guitar, Pilate, First Corinthians, Hagar and eccentric, engaging personalities.  The novel is set in a small, poor black community in Michigan, beginning in the 1930’s; it progresses through Pennsylvania into Virginia, but always in black territory.  It is the story of the development of Milkman against the background of a family whose origins are slaves and Native Americans, and whose strange history make them what they are.  There are numerous tensions within the family with various historic causes; and external tensions of being well off vs having nothing; sexual tensions; and tensions arising from differing circumstances and values. Milkman’s development as a person is facilitated by his dissatisfaction with his comfortable, but pointless situation, and by his search for identity in the personalities of his fore bearers.  He must learn, figuratively and mythologically, to fly.

For me, Song of Solomon was the best kind of reading experience.  One learns, or perhaps in my case re-learns, the savage history of racism in America, set against a background of ‘real’ people who are flawed but nonetheless our friends.  One admires their unique coping skills: songs, love, stories and tradition.  One is carried from one set of circumstances, expecting the outcome, to a new, more interesting situation.  The author’s inventiveness is breath-taking, and enjoyable.  The writing is voluble or terse as the situation demands, and the language is appropriately unique but always descriptive.  Most of all, I admire Toni Morrison as a great story-teller.

Review: Today

In my post of 3 March 2017 on the obituary of David Miller, literary agent, I mentioned that he wrote one novel: Today.  I have now read it, and share the consensus of other readers that it is a little gem of a novel.  Today concerns the gathering of friends and family of  Joseph Conrad on a bank holiday weekend in 1924.  Jessie, Joseph’s wife had recently been discharged from a nursing home.  During the weekend, Joseph dies unexpectedly.

Joseph Conrad was born into a Polish family in what is now Ukraine in 1857.  He traveled around Europe, and eventually settled in England, where he learned English.  He applied for and was granted English citizenship in 1886, but he remained a subject of Russia until he was granted a release from obligation to Tsar Alexander III in 1889.  Conrad had a nineteen year career in the merchant navies of France and England, rising from apprentice to captain. But in 1894, he gave up the sea, partly because of ill health, partly because of the lack of ships, and partly because he had become fascinated with writing.  Almost all of Conrad’s writing was first published in influential magazines and newspapers: The North American Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Illustrated London News, for example.  Nonetheless, financial success eluded him for much of his career, although a government grant of an annuity of £100 per annum greatly eased his situation.  His fame increased greatly with the publication of Chance in 1913, which is, ironically, thought to be one of his weaker novels.  Many of his novels include a maritime theme, and he is believed to be a writer who sailed rather than a sailor who wrote.  His writing style is thought of as poetic prose; his work is marked by exotic style, complex narration, profound themes, and pessimistic ideas.  He suffered from gout, malaria and depression.  Conrad wrote some twenty novels and a long list of stories.  His best known novels include: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissis’, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes.

Joseph Conrad

Coming back to the novel, Today, it is written by a man who clearly admired Conrad and his work.  But Joseph Conrad, as a living character, never appears in Today.  Nonetheless, one feels his remote greatness by the way other characters react to him.  Today is a short, historical novel (160 pages) about the passing of a great author in 1924.  The setting and the culture of the time are accurately reflected.  The writing is fittingly oblique but engaging.  The characters, many of whom were real people – including Conrad’s son’s Borys (a disappointment to his father) and the younger, John; his wife Jessie, an ordinary, working-class, English girl, who was 16 years Conrad’s junior, and who was looked down upon by his friends, but was probably the supportive companion he needed.  And there is the middle-aged Miss Lillian Hallowes, Conrad’s loyal secretary.  At the end, Lillian receives not the typewriter on which she transcribed most of Conrad’s work, but, secretly, from John, the fountain pen by which the original manuscripts were written.  Did it really happen?  We don’t know: this is fiction.

I would certainly recommend Today.  Though it’s subject is death, it is largely about life.

Review: Silence

The film Silence has been in theaters, lately.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I decided to read the book, Silence, on which it is based. The author, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996) was a Japanese author who wrote from the rare perspective of being a Japanese Roman Catholic.  During World Was II, he worked in a munitions factory. After the war, he briefly studied medicine.  He lectured at several universities on the craft of writing, and he took a particular interest in French Catholic authors.  Ill health troubled him for much of his life.  His work was dominated by a single theme: belief in Christianity.  It has been said that Endo was a ‘Japanese Catholic author’ struggling to ‘plant the seeds of his adopted religion’ in the ‘mudswamp’ of Japan.

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Shusaku Endo

Silence is the story of a Portuguese, Catholic priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, who volunteers to go to Japan in the 17th century to minister to Christian converts and to discover why his colleague, Christovao Ferreira, another Portuguese priest, has reportedly apostatized.  The background of Silence is historically accurate.  Christianity was introduced to Japan in 1549 by the co-founders of the Jesuit Order, and the religion found favour with the Japanese court for the next sixty years.  However, the hostility of English and Dutch Protestant missionaries and the desire of Shugun Icyasu to destroy Christian influence in Japan led to ruthless attacks on Japanese Christians, many of whom were tortured, burned alive, or forced to apostatize – renounce their faith.

Rodrigues makes the long sea voyage from Portugal to Japan in the company of another missionary priest: Father Garrpe.  On arrival, and escorted by a shifty Japanese peasant named Kichijiro, they are placed in a remote hut above a Christian village.  As the story unfolds, Kichijiro becomes a surrogate for Judas Iscariot: admiring Rodrigues and helping him, but also so tempted by the reward in silver for leading the Japanese officials to a priest that he succumbs to the temptation.  Kichijiro goes through repeated episodes to apostatizing and then returning to his Christian faith, claiming that he is too weak to resist torture.  The strategy of the Japanese official who is the chief persecutor, Inoue, is to use the Christian peasants as hostages to wring an apostasy from the priests.  With the priests eliminated, the religion will disappear.  In one scene, watched by Rodrigues, three Christian peasants who have apostatized are wrapped tightly in reed blankets and dropped off a boat.  Father Garrpe tries to swim to their rescue, but all four drown.  Rodrigues had been invited to save all four if he would just put his foot on a plaque on which there is the face of Christ.  The psychological torture continues: Rodrigues is kept in prison, un-harmed on meager rations, but exposed to the suffering of Christian peasants.  Ferreira appears, and advises Rodrigues to take the right way out: simply trample on the image.  Rodrigues spends the rest of his life as a comfortable captive, performing translations and writing anti-Christian essays at the behest of his captors.

Silence is not an enjoyable book, but it makes one question one’s own beliefs and assumptions.  The title refers to the silence of God in the face of so much suffering.  How can that be?  And yet, Rodrigues is frequently confronted with mental images and the words of Christ.  The definition of Christianity seems to be based on the concepts of the Japanese oppressors: a flame of strange faith, driven by priestly ritual, which contradicts the warm, comfortable ‘mudswamp’ of Japan, and that a coerced apostasy extinguishes that faith.  I, personally, am not at all comfortable with this definition, which seems far too limiting.  Moreover, given that one of Endo’s objectives as a writer was to introduce his faith to his country, this definition seems unlikely to attract many adherents.  The central messages of Christianity are obscured in the focus on what is faith and the complex role of Judas, and, by extension, on the roles of Pontius Pilate and Herod.

The Daily Telegraph calls Silence, ‘A masterpiece.  There can be no higher praise.’  I disagree.  I would call it, ‘a fine, and thought-provoking, historical novel’.  Some of this divergence in opinion may be a function of timing.  Silence was first published in 1969 (in Japan), and at that time it may have caused something of a sensation.  But for me, now, it seems a dated classic, but still well worth reading.  I didn’t find the prose to be captivating – more ordinary – though perhaps this is the translation.  But, for example, I cannot blame the translator for the inclusion of the phrase ‘a number of” three times in the space of half a dozen lines.

Review: All that Man Is

My wife bought this book for me when I was in the hospital and needed something to read during what would have been periods of utter boredom.  I had asked her to find a book which had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The author is David Szalay, who was born in Canada in 1974, moved to the UK, has lived in Belgium and is now based in Budapest.  He studied at Oxford University, has written dramas for the BBC and his four novels have attracted several prizes including a listing for the Booker Prize in 2016.

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David Szalay

All that Man Is is nine short stories about men, away from home, in different stages of their lives, each of whom tries to come to grips with what it means to be alive.   In the final story a 73 year-old man – knighted for his services in Whitehall twenty years ago, on his own, in a small, old Italian house considers, gloomily, his mortality, and it is this story which – for me – comes closest to establishing a theme for the work.  Before this story, we have: a thoroughly bored 17 year-old university student travelling around Europe with an acquaintance; a university drop-out on a down-market holiday in Cyprus where he meets two willing fat women; a tough guy employed to protect an aloof call girl; a driver delivering a car to his disconnected girlfriend’s father; a journalist involved in a political scandal; a real estate developer who meets an attractive young woman in Switzerland; an English drifter in Croatia is stung by a local con man; a suicidal billionaire on his super yacht.

The stories are well-written except that an occasional detail about setting makes one wish for a similar detail about a character.  The characters are interesting – not least because the reader cannot help but try to understand them. There is an undertow of submerged emotion in the book.  Also,  an air of pessimism in the written tone and in the actions of the characters, so that the reader might ask: ‘what is the point of this?’  With most of the characters, one feels urged to shout: ‘Why don’t you get a grip?  Make an effort for goodness sake!  No one ever promised you a rose garden!’  Is Szalay trying to express a sort of  nihilist philosophy?

For me, this more a collection of short stories than a novel, because there is little to connect the pieces except the tone, European geography and men facing dilemmas.  In summary, this is an interesting, if slightly flawed, book

Review: Selection Day

My wife bought me a copy of this novel – signed by the author!  – while I was briefly in the hospital (nothing very serious) and I wanted something to read.  Hospitals are a great place to read: one is always waiting for the next procedure to take place; one can make oneself comfortable; and it is not particularly noisy!  She bought it because I had asked for a novel by a Man Booker shortlist author.  The author, Aravind Adiga, actually won the Man Booker in 2008 for his first novel, The White Tiger.  Adiga was born in Madras (new Chennai) India in 1974; after achieving his secondary school certificate, he emigrated with his family to Australia, where he graduated from high school in Sydney.  He graduated, next, from Columbia University in 1997 and subsequently studied English literature at Magdelan College, Oxford.  He began his business career as a financial journalist with the Financial Times, Money and Time before becoming freelance.

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Aravind Adiga

Selection Day is a book focused on Indian cricket and its effect on a Mumbai slum family of two boys and their compulsive father.  Radha, the older brother, expects to fulfill his father’s dream of being selected for a top Indian team.  Tommy Sir, a coach/agent/promoter introduces the boys father, Mohan, to a ‘businessman’, Anand Mehta, who pays Mohan a stipend in return for a large slice of the boy’s earnings when they become famous.  Unexpectedly, Manju, the younger boy, is the better batsman, scoring 497 not out in a crucial contest.  Radha has a ‘weight transfer problem’ which is inhibiting his effectiveness as a batsman.  Enter a rival, Javed, a cocky, rebellious, rich kid who is also a fine batsman, and who happens to be gay.  Manju, at the center of the story, is his older brother’s best friend and rival, and his father’s severest but respectful critic.  The younger batsman is torn between his admiration for Javed, and his reluctance to commit to an intimate relationship; and between careers in cricketing or in science.

Selection Day offers a rich mixture of conflicted, imperfect characters with whom the reader cannot help but empathize.  The setting of Mumbai is drawn with natural clarity; one feels truly present.  And without being a ‘book about cricket’, Selection Day, presents the culture, the mystique, the competitiveness of Indian youth critic captivatingly, without technical fussiness.  The dialogue is credible, but occasionally seems too tangential to lead the reader to any firm conclusions.  Perhaps, this is Mr Adiga’s intention with this novel: to make the point that, try as one might, there can never be the achievement of one’s ultimate dream.

This sense of failure seems to carry over into the two concluding parts of the novel: what happens after selection day and in the epilogue.  One cannot help but be engaged by the beautiful writing, the energy, and the unfolding future in the lead up to selection day.  The writing is as good, but the energy and the future have dissipated after selection day.  Perhaps this novel could feel more whole, more consistent, if dreams could be scaled back rather than dispelled, and the energy and the future modestly re-directed.

Books as Therapy

The November 7th issue of Time Magazine has an article Read a Novel: it’s just what the doctor ordered, written by Sarah Begley.   Ms Begley is a staff writer for Time; she writes book reviews and culture stories for the magazine.  She has worked at Newsweek, The Daily Beast and Hearst Magazines.  She lives in the New York City area and is a graduate of Vassar College.

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Sarah Begley

She says, “the latest round of research on the benefits of literature focuses on how it improves not our IQ but our EQ.”  Researchers at the New School for Social Research found a link between ‘theory of mind’ (the ability to know what a person is thinking or feeling) and reading a passage of literary fiction (as distinguished from popular fiction).  Ms Begley continues, “Maria Eugenia Panero of Boston College says it is ‘hard to know whether reading literary fiction increases theory of mind or if people who naturally have a higher theory of mind are more drawn to literary fiction'”.

Ms Begley reports that a 2012 study at Ohio State University had undergraduates read different versions of a story in which a protagonist overcomes challenges (car trouble, bad weather, long lines, etc.) in order to vote.  Those who read a version of the story which led them to identify strongly with the character were more likely to vote in a real election a few days later: 65% reported having voted as compared to 29% of those who read a less relatable version of the story.  The story did affect the behaviour of some readers.

Bibliotherapy, which involves the prescription of novels to ‘cure life’s ailments’, is practices at the School of Life in London.  Ella Berthoud, an artist, and Susan Elderkin, a novelist, are friends from their Cambridge days when they left books for each other to deal with the crisis of the week: be it romance, work stress, or whatever.  Now, while they are not trained at therapists, their clients pay £100 to spend 50 minutes with them, in person or via Skype.  The clients fill out a questionnaire about what they like to read and what is going on in their lives.  “The bibliotherapist makes an ‘instant prescription’ at the end of the session and then sends a list of six to eight books and the reasons for the recommendation a few days later.  They say the feedback is 99% positive.”

Ms Begley concludes: “The science behind reading for mental health is limited, but researchers like Panero are eager to continue exploring the benefits.  ‘I think we all have some intuitive sense that we get something from fiction’, Panero says.  ‘So in our field we’re interested in saying – well, what is it that we’re getting?’  Even the greatest novel cannot cure clinical depression, erase post-traumatic stress or turn an egomaniac into a self-denying saint.  But it might ease a midlife crisis or provide comfort in a time of grief.  As Elderkin says, it’s natural for readers to find it’satisfying when people come up with ‘proof’ of something which they’ve always felt to be true.'”

As for me, I certainly subscribe to the theories presented by Ms Begley in her article.  That is why I write novels like Seeking Father Khaliq.

Review: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

I bought this book – an historic novel – in a Waterstones bookstore because I had nothing to read at that moment and it looked interesting.  Its author is Antonia Hodgson who grew up in Derby and studied English at the University of Leeds.  Her first novel, The Devil in Marshalsea, won the 2014 Historical Dagger Award.  Ms Hodgson lives in London, where she is an editor.

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Antonia Hodgson

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is set in a rather down-market section of Georgian London.  Its principal character, Thomas Hawkins is a ‘gentleman’ who killed a man in self-defense in prison, and throughout the story is under threat of being hung for murder.  There are several intertwining plots.  One involves a rather loathsome neighbour who is a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners (a pathological moralist) and whose own morals permit him to consort with prostitutes and to beat his children.  The neighbour is suddenly dead.  Who killed him?  Thomas, one of the children, the apprentice, the son of a notorious gang?  Another plot involves King George’ mistress who is also a lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte.  This Henrietta Howard (who was a real person) is a pawn in the struggle of her very evil, estranged husband to extort money from the king.  The queen, also a real person, is caught in the middle and manages to capture Thomas as her rook to defeat the black knight, Charles Howard.  To keep things going, there is Kitty, the pretty and libidinous girlfriend of Thomas.

There is plenty of action in this rather engaging tale which moves along at a frenetic pace with many twists and turns along the way.  The characters are well-developed and likable or despicable; the dialogue is terse and credible.  The Covent Garden area of London is well described in physical and moral terms, but it was difficult to picture oneself in the setting.  It is not just a familiarity with the Covent Garden of today that blocked – to some extent – the credibility of the scene; it was more that at a feeling level one is somewhat remote. Having said this, one has to admire the depth of Ms Hodgson’s research into the times, the issues and the characters.  There are plenty of surprises in The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins – they certainly keep the reader engaged – but sometimes the events seemed a little too contrived.  For example, the events around the ambush of Henrietta’s carriage by her husband, and the conclusion where Thomas is sent on a new mission by the queen.  The cockfight and the duel of the female gladiators, while authentic and interesting, added little to the story line.

For those who like a historical novel with an anchor in truth, one with many fascinating twists and turns, with important, stand-out characters, and a good helping of mystery, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is the novel for you!

Characterization

My wife and I went to see the Picasso exhibition of portraits at the National Portrait Gallery last Saturday.  Until I went to the exhibition, I hadn’t been aware of the enormous range of portraits, in varying styles, Picasso had painted, and most were not included in the exhibition.  I have to confess that I liked best Picasso’s paintings in the traditional style.  In these paintings, one can really see Picasso’s artistic skill.

One other aspect of these paintings that impressed me was that the character of the subject was clearly identified in the picture.  It was this aspect that reminded me of the writer’s task in establishing an identity in his characters.  Picasso was less interested in presenting a clear likeness of his subject than in suggesting to the viewer the personality of the subject.

Let me illustrate:

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Olga Khokhlova

These are two portraits of Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s first wife and a Ukrainian ballerina whom Picasso married in 1918.  The painting on the right was done early in the relationship.  In it one can see an elegant, beautifully dressed woman whom Picasso admired greatly.  Olga was, in fact an aristocrat who enjoyed a full social life.  Picasso grew tired of the meaningless social life and returned to his private, bohemian lifestyle, eventually beginning an affair with the 17 year-old Parisian girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter.  The two stayed married until Olga’s death in 1955 because Picasso refused to grant a divorce which would have given her half his assets.  The portrait on the left is of Olga painted during the period of estrangement.  Her head appears to be precariously attached to her body signifying, perhaps, lack of substance.  Her hair is orderly and disorderly.  The stylish purple hat looks rather silly.  The black eyes look out toward Picasso critically.  The mouth is small and a bit sad.  In these two portraits one can see both a changed relationship and two different views of the same person.

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Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler

Kahnweiler was a German-born art historian, art collector, and one of the premier French art dealers of the 20th century. He became prominent as an art gallery owner in Paris beginning in 1907 and he was among the first champions of cubism and Picasso.  Picasso wrote of Kahnweiler “What would have become of us if Kahnweiler hadn’t had a business sense?”  The figure in the painting is imposing, the head powerful, the hands relaxed but commanding.  There is light that seems to emanate from the head and the hands.  One has the impression of a dynamic, creative and important person.  When one looks at the painting itself, which must be about a meter and a half tall, one can’t help but be impressed by the intricacy of the brushwork and the hours that Picasso worked on this portrait.  It is certainly a fitting tribute to a very important influence in Picasso’s life.

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Jacqueline Roque

Jacqueline Roque was Picasso’s second wife whom he married in 1961, and she outlived him.  She was his favorite female subject; in 1963 he painted her portrait 160 times, and continued to paint her, in increasingly abstracted forms, until 1972.  In looking at the portrait, one has a sense of a strong relationship between the subject and the painter.  She is dressed in black but does not seem to be in mourning; in fact her forthright stare and raised eyebrows suggest a positive outlook.  She appears to be about to disclose something important.  The figure expresses confidence and femininity.

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Old Man

This is a self-portrait of Picasso in a posture similar to a Rembrandt self-portrait; Picasso greatly admired Rembrandt.  This was painted in the last year of Picasso’s life, and suggests a powerful figure looking out on the world.  There is little motion in the picture, except for what appears to be heat on the right which dissipates toward the left.  His right hand is clearly shown; the left hand is somehow disabled.  His exposed upper torso conveys a sense of vitality in spite if the stasis.  The face seems prepared to make an announcement.  Overall, one has the impression of a painter who knows what he wants to paint and why and who cares very little for the reaction of his audience.

Picasso was highly skilled in communicating a message along with the image in his paintings, and this is particularly evident in his portraits.  Artists and writers share a challenge: defining a character to the viewer/reader.