Back to the Ironing-Board

Theo Tait

  • The Music Lesson by Katharine Weber
    Phoenix House, 161 pp, £12.99, January 1999, ISBN 1 86159 118 7
  • The Museum Guard by Howard Norman
    Picador, 310 pp, £12.99, February 1999, ISBN 0 03 303700 0

In his unfortunate account of a Ter Borch brothel scene, Goethe earnestly identifies the leering john as a ‘noble, knightly father’ admonishing his wayward but honourable daughter (the prostitute). The pale mother, he explains, is sipping a glass of wine because she is delicate, and wishes to hide her slight embarrassment: she is, in fact, the procuress, depicted so as to suggest alcoholism and possibly a touch of syphilis. A discussion of Dutch realist painting in Adam Bede is similarly bowdlerised, but tilted towards the poor: Eliot stresses the dignity of the simple people depicted in these ‘faithful pictures of a monotonous, homely existence’. Ever sympathetic, she detects ‘expressions of unmistakable goodwill’ on the gnarled faces of the tipsy guests in peasant wedding scenes, where art historians would probably see emblems of human folly, or the sins of drunkenness. The death of Bergotte in A la recherche does more justice to two of the constant, and sometimes conflicting, preoccupations of 17th-century Dutch art: the representation of life and the omnipresent awareness of death. As Bergotte dies, he is mesmerised by the tiny patch of yellow wall in Vermeer’s View of Delft, which seems to outweigh his life and works in the celestial scales that appear before him. In John Banville’s The Book of Evidence it is an inexplicably entrancing portrait by an anonymous Dutch master which pushes Freddie Montgomery over the edge into homicide. Like Banville, Howard Norman and Katharine Weber write about stealing Dutch paintings, and they share a similar attitude to them. For them, Dutch art represents modesty of subject-matter, and precision – ‘the details’ is a phrase of some importance in both novels, and both are concerned with the ability of the small canvas to transform the large. So far, so George Eliot. But there’s also a hint in both novels of the other side of Dutch art – its preoccupation with death, obsession, loss of proportion.

Patricia Dolan, the narrator of Weber’s ‘literary thriller’, is a middle-aged Irish-American art historian. Her Irish cousin Mickey is a Republican activist. They fall in love. She helps him to steal, and demand a ransom for, a Vermeer belonging to the Queen. Though it’s called The Music Lesson, it is not the painting in the Royal Collection, but rather a fictional composite: a room with a window and a chequered stone floor, a pitcher, a lute and a beautiful woman looking directly at the viewer. Like Vermeer’s quiet interior views, Weber’s novel is small, neat and carefully designed. Patricia’s life, following the loss of a child and a broken marriage, is similarly quiet and contained – she calls it ‘cold storage’. Mickey appears in her cloistered life like one of Vermeer’s charming, roguish seducers, with, as it were, a flick of his cape. Patricia guards the stolen painting in an isolated cottage on the West Cork coast, where she writes a diary relating the domestic details of her life, and waits for occasional news of the outside world – like a girl reading a letter at an open window.

Literary novelists often find themselves embarrassingly unable to manipulate the thriller’s narrative machinery – the twists, turns and feints which control the suspense and excitement, and the meticulous, detailed realism that it demands in order to disguise its often outrageous premises. Weber keeps the reader’s attention, and pulls off a decent twist. She also manages a satisfactorily detailed account of how a painting might be stolen from a touring exhibition: the Vermeer is switched for a low-grade copy inside a false-backed, counterfeit packing case. But the general direction of the story is woefully predictable, and the fit with contemporary Irish politics offensively loose. Though the novel is set in the late Nineties, Patricia’s aim in helping Mickey to kidnap the painting is apparently to ‘force powerful people to pay attention and take decisive action at last’. Against the background of Nobel Peace Prizes, Presidential grandstanding and constant headlines, this seems a curious objective – even for someone whose naivety is constantly, and rather obtrusively, signalled.

The thriller’s unforgiving ethical scheme, its desire to solve crimes, to apportion blame, can also be problematic. The more skilful writers of genre fiction – Le Carré James Ellroy – have progressed beyond merely pointing the finger at ‘them’ (the Russians, SPECTRE) or, failing that, ‘us’ (moles, corrupt superiors), by depicting worlds in which betrayal, double-cross and conspiracy are all-pervasive, where everyone is horribly compromised or irrevocably fallen. Weber, on the other hand, gives the form only one, rather vengeful, turn of the screw. Initially, the British are the patsies. Patricia rages against ‘those entitled Brits’, and dismisses the Loyalists: ‘No number of Orangemen marching in their silly sashes every 12th of July will ever change what the Irish know and feel.’ Toe-curling stuff, certainly – but perhaps just defensible as an expression of her Irish-American sentiments. Patricia’s father’s stories of the Great Hunger, the Black and Tans and the Easter Rising are always there in the background, like the didactic paintings on the back walls of Vermeer’s interiors. When the inevitable pay-off comes, however, and Mickey turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a murderer (and, much worse, a philistine), the heroine turns just as simple-mindedly on him: ‘I knew the Troubles were an evil situation, but now I was looking at evil incarnate.’ A fictitious IRA splinter group is also conjured up: a stale, anodyne narrative device which even the most crude thrillers nowadays fight shy of using. The Music Lesson uses the diary form to try to cushion the blow, to make space between narrator and novel, but there just isn’t enough.

It is rare for a novel to incorporate so much interesting material, to offer so much, and yet yield so little. Oddly, The Music Lesson is visually bland. This is mostly because Weber works by reference and accretion. When she wants to describe a landscape, she’ll cite Jacob van Ruisdael; when she approaches the subject of photographic reproduction and the authenticity of the artefact, she quotes passages of Walter Benjamin. The justification for this is, again, that the narrator is an art historian, and this is her diary. But Patricia is not very interesting in her professional capacity and what she offers are mostly critical commonplaces: for example, she admires Vermeer’s ‘quality of safety, the sense of resolution, an exactness, a specificity, a devotion to order, a celebration of dailiness’. There’s even a tinny echo of Auden on Brueghel – Dutch art, Patricia explains, shows ‘people being people. Dogs being dogs’. Connections are made between the visual and the written story but they aren’t explored. Thus a ‘profound link’ between ‘Irish passion and Dutch restraint’ is suggested, and intended to illuminate the entire novel – the two sides of Patricia’s character, Protestantism and Catholicism, and so on – bur it doesn’t do the work.

Writing about art can be a lazy way of making grand announcements, ostentatiously alerting the reader to the fact that representation is being considered. This is a charge that can be levelled at The Music Lesson; The Museum Guard narrowly avoids it. Where Weber is schematic and facile, Howard Norman is subtle to the point of inscrutability. This novel, like all his other work, is set in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but Norman is largely uninterested in local or period detail: the rationale behind his fictional locations is nicely summarised by a character in one of his short stories who moves his model plane business to Churchill, Manitoba, in order to ‘give an air of mystery to the whole enterprise’. DeFoe Russet, the eponymous guard, tells the story. He begins thus: ‘The painting I stole for Imogen Linny, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, arrived to the Glace Museum, herein Halifax, on September 5, 1938.’ And he continues in this vein, noting the exact time that events occur, or fastidiously recording the proportions of a room – while theft, tragedy and murder take place around him. DeFoe is an orphan, adopted by his rakish uncle Edward, also a guard at the Glace. They live together in the Lord Nelson Hotel, and get on well enough, despite differences of disposition. Edward likes to womanise, gamble and drink whisky; DeFoe is introverted, shy and given to ironing at times of emotional tension. His troubled love affair with Imogen Linny, a caretaker at the Jewish cemetery, often sends him back to the ironing-board. Imogen becomes obsessed with the painting which DeFoe later steals – it is the work of a latter-day Rembrandt, Joop Heijman. First she apes the Jewess in the painting: she takes to carrying a loaf under her arm at inappropriate moments. Then she comes to believe that she is the woman in the picture (‘she became what she beheld,’ explains his uncle, misquoting from his Gideon). Meanwhile, Edward has developed a mania of similar proportions regarding the radio reports of the anti-Fascist broadcaster, Ovid Lamartine. Imogen drifts away from DeFoe in the direction of his uncle, their extreme behaviour establishing a link between the two.

Excessively literal-minded, DeFoe often misses the details, as Edward points out. His version of realism is distinctively American: stark, diagrammatic and naive, but punctuated with the eccentric, the gothic and the fabulous – somewhere between Edward Hopper and Grant Wood. Where Weber uses Dutch painting as a model, Norman uses it as a contrast to DeFoe’s descriptions of a dingy, routine world, peopled with bellhops, luggage handlers and cleaners. But into this featureless landscape Norman throws strange dialogue and stranger names. And occasionally a zeppelin falls out of the sky with tragic loss of life, or a slow-motion gunfight erupts at a provincial political meeting. The prose is stylish: mostly flat and ironic, but studded with doubtful aphorisms, apocryphal proverbs and familiar expressions thrown slightly out of kilter. At one point, DeFoe solemnly notes that ‘late that evening, my uncle demeaned me at cards.’ The museum’s curator signs off his letters with the words ‘I Kiss You’; and when, frequently, Edward is late for work, he shouts ‘Tardy!’ from his office. But Norman over-invests in this trick, and the steady flow of poised, ironic sentences can have a soporific effect. This is a pity, because he clearly has considerable range, as is shown by some rare changes of gear; Lamartine’s broadcasts pastiche the sonorous journalistic rhetoric of the time; and he is able to bring the paintings to life by describing the characters’ reactions to them. Particularly memorable is Sunday Flower Market, a sedate Amsterdam scene, with a menacing dwarf – ‘Knobby skin, rag bandages ... munching on a flower’ – hiding under a flower bin, ‘clutching a knife, about to stab up under the belly of a goat’. Miss Delbo, the local intellectual, pontificates about ‘a violation of pastoralism’; DeFoe’s approach is different – ‘my opinion was: Get me out of here.’

That Norman writes well about painting is not surprising. His excellent last novel, The Bird Artist, which was consistently as good and witty as the better sections of his more recent work, brilliantly described and elaborated the world of ‘bird art’ – pictures for magazines and ornithologists’ handbooks. Fabian Vas, the main character, learns this trade by correspondence with a distant and mysterious teacher, Isaac Sprague. Sprague’s letters are impersonal, detailed and exacting: ‘They kept to subjects such as the shaping of a beak, shadows, colour accents. He wrote to me about consciously denying certain backgrounds the opportunity – as he put it – to dominate rather than feature a bird.’ The extraordinary sequence of events – a small-scale, Newfoundland Hamlet – culminates with the painting of Fabian’s mural in the church: in which, against a bird-infested backdrop, the story is reproduced, examined and partially transformed.

In The Museum Guard Norman revisits his earlier work in a number of ways. The opening line almost replicates that of The Bird Artist, in which a similarly deadpan narrator also calmly confesses to a crime. Locations, situations, names and characters are continually recycled: bellhops and unsettled women with red hair are, for instance, ubiquitous. Norman writes with extraordinary confidence that people will be interested in this idiosyncratic fictional world. This is usually justified: his fiction reads like a collection of modern folk tales, reworking traditional storylines and using recognisable character-types (he also translates Native American stories). The Bird Artist was content to stay within this self-contained domain; The Museum Guard represents an attempt to break out – and is not entirely successful. From the fey, unreal atmosphere of Halifax we are suddenly transplanted to prewar Amsterdam. There is also an ill-advised change of narrator, with the reins being passed to the museum curator for much of the final section. With him comes a switch to politicised melodrama which may be designed to be emotionally ravaging and historically significant, but which never finds its stride. DeFoe begins to utter home truths of great import, and, for a chilling moment, turns into one of those smug idiot savants that Hollywood is so fond of, even speaking with Forrest Gump’s whining, folksy insistence. Thankfully, Norman eventually abandons the grandiose historical scheme and takes us back to Halifax.