Making faces

Philip Horne

  • The Grimace by Nicholas Salaman
    Grafton, 256 pp, £13.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 246 13770 3
  • Playing the game by Ian Buruma
    Cape, 234 pp, £13.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 224 02758 1
  • The Music of Chance by Paul Auster
    Faber, 217 pp, £13.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 571 16157 X

What do coincidences mean? As I was reading Nicholas Salaman’s elaborately-patterned historical paranoia novel The Grimace, in which all the women the cracked narrator encounters are called Johanna, I came across the phrase ‘visions of Johannas’. It gave me a shock to realise that the song ‘Visions of Johanna’, by Bob Dylan, at which Salaman nods just this once, was at the same moment playing quietly on my stereo, which it does perhaps once a year. I didn’t bother to try to compute the odds against this happening, and left it as a sharp earful of what Paul Auster calls ‘the music of chance’.

Salaman, Buruma and Auster are all connoisseurs of the incongruous connection, all adept stringers-along of the reader into tantalisingly incomplete networks of significance. Salaman is a practised psychological construction-man, a builder-up of considered trifles into impressive delusional systems that register the mental states of his protagonists. He is good at evoking in us – as when the third and fourth and fifth ‘Johannas’ appear in The Grimace – a creeping distrust of his characters’ accounts of perceptions, which he then escalates from oddball eccentricity to a whole out-of-whack world-view.

Franz Xaver Froberger, the sculptor-hero of The Grimace, is based on the 18th-century Viennese creator of grotesquely expressive heads, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, whose project of cataloguing the possibilities of the human face has recently had a new vogue – a 1987 exhibition at the ICA prompted this novel. The yawning or screaming head by Messerschmidt which appears on the dust-jacket, appeared, indeed, three years ago on the cover of this paper, with a note inside about the sculptor’s double appeal: ‘Some art historians ... emphasise connections with the long artistic tradition of physiognomic studies, while psycho-historians point out resemblances to the work of patients suffering from psychotic disorders’ (LRB, 21 January 1988).

As usual with Salaman, the research, which follows both these trails, is enterprising and entertainingly presented. We get a lively account by Froberger of his meteoric (up then down) career: of his bigwig and imperial patrons, his many amours, his rivalries, his travels to Rome, Paris and London, where he brings himself up-to-date with art and anatomy. We get a cameo of Mozart, whom Froberger admires, and more than a cameo of Dr Mesmer, under whose sinister influence he falls. Through all this, Froberger gradually reveals to us his grand Promethean scheme to become ‘the Magellan of the face’, to capture the spectrum of facial variations (69 of them) and penetrate to some hidden order of truth. ‘I believe that if I can catch the exact gamut of all my expressive possibilities – then I can free my spirit from its house for I will have undone Nature.’ It is characteristic of the book’s joky, jerky address that he then grabs the reader’s lapel with a creepy insistence: ‘What do you think of that?’

What we are to think of it is not altogether clear from Salaman’s arch way with his story. Froberger’s sanity is evidently impaired: he hears voices and strange music, thinks the busts he creates are alive, and turns into a serial killer. But in a rather knowing ‘Postscript’ we are left with the corny warning that not only will one of Messerschmidt’s busts be worth a lot of money, ‘there could be more to it than that’ – a showy pretence, it seems, of sharing Froberger’s belief in the magical powers of his heads. Unless, that is, ‘more to it’ refers not to the magic but to the ideas Salaman’s arty thriller appears to be using his counterpart of Messerschmidt to expound: the mystery of self – that human identity is radically unstable and not to be located, if it exists at all; and the madness of art – that, as the 1988 note in this paper uncontroversially put it, ‘madness combined with creativity is comparatively common among artists.’

Froberger spends his time in front of the mirror trying on expressions, ‘looking once again for that singular oneness that was myself’, but what he starts by projecting as ‘my Me-ness beginning to stir’ threatens to turn out as a multiplicity of discrete elements, an aggregation of dispersed wriggling bits, of which ‘he’ is the passive object (and ultimately, in his fantasy, the rapee). His Frankenstein-like quest for the Ideal Proportion which will uncover Nature’s secret detaches him from reality and puts him at the mercy of his inner darknesses: perhaps because the quest is divinely prohibited, but more likely, the novel seems to say, because its object doesn’t exist, and the quest simply dissolves the specious coherence on which socialised human beings normally get by.

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