20 July, 2009

'Turner's Paintbox' - Paul Morgan

Novels based around the life and works of a renowned artist can go one of two ways: either the story unravelling as the reader learns about the influences and motivations of artistic genius; or the reader discovers how much the author knows about their chosen subject, without it doing too much to enhance the story.

Richard Flanagan's Wanting achieves the former as it interlaces the late years of Charles Dickens with the establishment of the Van Diemen's Land penal colony (an unexpected link, but one that works). Paul Morgan's Turner's Paintbox achieves the latter. It is more in the vein of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, which was littered with references to classical musicians and interpretations of scores: the characters' differing interpretations sometimes served a point; the same could not be said for his obsession with antique furniture.

Morgan's protagonist is Gerald, an art dealer who began his career at the National Gallery of NSW cataloguing an exhibition featuring the works of J.M.W. Turner found in Australia. Morgan explores episodes of Turner's life sporadically throughout the novel. Initially, the two townscapes - modern Sydney and Victorian London - are contrasted, a juxtaposition soon overtaken by the enormous gulf between Gerald and his new lover, Julia.

The Turner episodes, however, are fragmented and within them the narrative tone changes notably. This is inevitable as they move the story from first to third person narration, but the voice presented is a didactic one, telling the reader things about Turner, rather than developing him as a character who could then counterpoint or reflect what is unfolding in the Sydney storyline.

Morgan's style is often overwrought, invoking similes for description when character action could have served the same purpose. Out walking one morning Gerald notes that '[t]he path materialised in front of me like a ghostly rug, and I could hear the water splashing with gentle phosphoresence'. Hearing phospherence? A pretty turn of phrase, but one that doesn't bear much scrutiny.

It's tough to like Gerald: he's pretentious, arrogant, self-absorbed and borderline unfaithful. At a gallery in New York, Gerald mentions Frech artist Jean Cocteau, to which Julia replies with a reference to Jacques Costeau. Gerald notes, 'I smiled at her confusion of Costeau's name but said nothing'. Is this a character note - another reason to dislike - or Morgan revealing more of his own knowledge?

Gerald considers a fling while away from Julia in London. He resists, but toys with regret, and is buoyed in his decision by the realisation that he didn't find the lady so attractive after all. When he discovers that Julia did have a fling while he was gone, he is disgusted, and ends the relevant chapter saying, 'I discovered the splinter of ice inside my heart...and with a raised eyebrow and icy silences...I began to bend Julia to my will'.

Presenting a narrator with double standards is fine, though a little unsavoury, but there's no counterpoint, no repercussion to that action to let the audience believe that Gerald (or Morgan) grew as a character because of it. Maybe he truly doesn't see the hyprocrisy of it. Gerald does reveal some of our less-admirable relationship traits, but again, without an impartial narrator - as a first person novel we hear only Gerald's perspective - no third party is present to moderate the message Morgan might be presenting.

I'm intrigued, too, by the gender roles in the novel. Imagine if the last line of that chapter had one extra letter, making it Julian, not Julia, and our author was Paula Morgan. To be successful, with that kind of 'domineering' female protagonist, the book would have to be written and classified as a Gemmellesque sex piece. Something about literary marketing and readers' tastes says unlikeable, unfair, irrascible male characters are acceptable. Women too often have to be downtrodden or grotesquely exaggerated to take centre stage.

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