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.

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