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How To Paint A Dead Man [Paperback]

Sarah Hall

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Book Description

July 28 2009
Italy in the early 1960s: a dying painter considers the sacrifices and losses that have made him an enigma, both to strangers and those closest to him. He begins his last life painting, using the same objects he has painted obsessively for his entire career - a small group of bottles. In Cumbria 30 years later, a landscape artist - and admirer of the Italian recluse - finds himself trapped in the extreme terrain that has made him famous. And in present-day London, his daughter, an art curator struggling with the sudden loss of her twin brother while trying to curate an exhibition about the lives of the twentieth-century European masters, is drawn into a world of darkness and sexual abandon. Covering half a century, this is a luminous and searching novel, and Hall's most accomplished work to date.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Faber And Faber Ltd. (July 28 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 057122489X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571224890
  • Product Dimensions: 13.7 x 2.3 x 21.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 358 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #793,855 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

“Sarah Hall is a huge talent. Her third novel, How To Paint A Dead Man, is a beautiful, powerful book of love, lust, death, passion, art, desperation and loss. She writes her characters brilliantly.” (Bookseller (London), “Bookseller's Choice, June 2009”)

“Invigorating….her verbal depiction of fictional art never stales…This deeply sensual novel is what you rarely find - an intelligent page-turner which, perversely, you also want to read slowly to savour Hall’s luscious way of looking at the world.” (The Sunday Telegraph)

“Her latest novel, even more than ever, reads as though it was an absolute thrill to write....a maddeningly enticing read...an amazing feat of literary engineering.” (The Independent on Sunday "New Review")

“Daring...Along with contemporaries like Scarlett Thomas and Lydia Millet, Hall is staking new ground for women in the “novel of ideas” category. Full of haunting images and thought-provoking ideas, How to Paint a Dead Man will linger in the mind.” (BookPage)

“In this gorgeous still life of a book, Sarah Hall gives us four lives…each narrated in a different voice…Hall has a poet’s gift, and this novel is best enjoyed as a prose poem whose blindingly beautiful insights gradually accrue…She has made visible to us…the ever-present shadow of eternity.” (Washington Post Book World) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Back Cover

The lives of four individuals—a dying painter, a blind girl, a landscape artist, and an art curator—intertwine across nearly five decades in this luminous and searching novel of extraordinary power. With How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall, "one of the most significant and exciting of Britain's young novelists" (The Guardian), delivers "a maddeningly enticing read . . . an amazing feat of literary engineering" (The Independent on Sunday).

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Existential Connection between life and art Sept. 17 2009
By K. L. Cotugno - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
There are four disparate strands to this muscular rope of a book, apart at the beginning but ultimately woven together to create a story that promotes the importance of art in life. Each strand is set in a different time, written in a different style, the author challenging the reader to make the connections and draw their own conclusions. There is Suze's story, told in the second person, which is the most compelling, seemingly the centerpiece of the narrative. The story of her father, Peter, is told through his reflections while he is caught, trapped, overnight on the fells. Both Suze and Peter are artists, active in the art world, and it is Peter's connection to Georgio, an Italian artist, that sets in motion the other two narratives. This book was long listed for the Man Booker award, but didn't make the final cut to the short list. As I haven't been able to read the five that did, I can't make a comparison except to say they must be quite remarkable to have beaten out this seductively readable, highly original work.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Of Art and Emotion Jan. 19 2010
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It is inexplicable to me how Harper Perennial, the publishers of this deeply serious novel, could have given it such a frivolous cover! The cartoon drawing of a girl dancing down a hillside with hair flying suggests a carefree romp, not the meditation on loss and perception that Sarah Hall gives us here. And it is certainly no preparation for a novel centered so much in the visual world, in which three of the four principal characters are artists. One of these (though acknowledged only in the front matter) is based on the painter Giorgio Morandi, probably the most fastidious Italian painter of his generation, whose mature work, heedless of contemporary Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, consisted entirely of paintings of bottles, meticulously arranged in a luminous opalescence.

While Hall's writing about art shows her love for the medium, her real subject is human feeling, and especially the way emotions can be aroused and distorted by the passage of time, the loss of possibilities, the ending of a life. Four protagonists take turns in the spotlight in a repeating sequence of short chapters. There is Giorgio not-quite-Morandi on his hilltop in Italy, working even as his death approaches. There is Peter, a landscape painter of rocks and mountains in the Northwest of England near the Scottish Border. There is Susan, a successful photographer in London, shocked by the death of her fraternal twin brother. And there is Annette Tambroni, an Italian teenager whose own sense of vision turns inward as she goes inexorably blind.

At first this is all you know. You have no idea why the author chose these four people and not others. You have only a dim sense of the time-frame. But clues gradually emerge. The sections with Susan seem to be contemporary; those with Giorgio are roughly mid-sixties (Morandi died in 1964); the other two fall somewhere in between. You also begin to discover connections between the four, some relatively close, others little more than a thread; I won't explain these, because there is great pleasure in the discovery. Hall gradually reveals more of each person's inner life, moving backwards in the case of the two men, and forward for the women. Giorgio, it seems, was a Fascist sympathizer until something happened to turn him in the opposite direction. Peter's second wife is as different as possible from his first, a relationship born in the cauldron of drug-culture Liverpool, San Francisco, and Greenwich Village. Annette's blindness coincides with her coming into womanhood, those confusing discoveries only complicated by a prudish and protective mother. And Susan works through grief by turning to illicit sex, shocking at first but brilliantly evoked.

It is not a perfect book. Relatively little actually happens in it, and there are chapters (with Peter especially) which seem to hang fire. It is satisfying to see the four portraits getting filled out, but you want to see more of the background than the author shows you; you want to see them calling to one another from behind their frames; you want to know why the author has hung them on the same wall. Eventually, most of these questions will be answered, but not all of them; the rightness of the book is to be found in the mind of the reader, not in revealed fact. Sarah Hall has written a novel that honors her readers' intelligence, and assumes that they can make their own connections, thematic or literal. That in itself deserves five stars.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Work of Art In Vivid Brushstrokes Feb. 5 2010
By Jill I. Shtulman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The title of this masterful work of art is taken from Cennino d'Andrea Cennini and as one of the characters reflects: "Sadly, the master craftsman is unable to instruct us in the healing of wounds."

For all of the characters in this book are wounded -- some figuratively, some literally. There is the famous Italian painter Giorgio (based on the real-life Giorgio Morandi), who, after a living life fully on his own terms, now moves inexorably towards death. His correspondent -- a renowned artist of the harsh Cumbrian landscape -- Peter Caldicutt, is navigating his own transition into middle age and contemplates his past as he lies wounded on a mountain. The third character, Annette-- a student of the Italian painter -- could have risen to the top of the art world but now practices her art as a flower arranger and seller; her creeping blindness has lead to a rich inner visionary life. And probably foremost, there is Susan, who is horrifically emotionally wounded from the death of her twin brother; this may be the most vivid, precise, and lacerating view of a person in grief that I have EVER read. She turns from the man with whom she shares a life to pulsating sex with her gallery partner's husband to feel alive and connected again.

Susan reflects: "It isn't grief. Grief would be simple. Something internal, something integral, has shifted. You feel lost from yourself. No. Absent. You feel absent. It's like looking into a mirror and seeing no familiar reflection, no one you recognize hosted within the glass." The book is filled with reflections like these on the human condition: grief and resiliency, reality and illusion, love and loss, art and creativity. Those who have studied art will discover even richer meaning, but it is not necessary to be an art student to appreciate the ripeness of the prose.

The book is fluid in its structure and pace; two of the four scenarios are set at least a generation apart, so it takes careful reading to keep track of the time sequence. The scenes -- both external and internal details -- are richly, intensely, and colorfully draw and teeming with authenticity. The tone is lyrical, sensual and downright ravishing throughout. And the ultimate question it raises -- what is REAL -- is universal.

At the end, it is the connection of these characters -- to each other, to the world they live in -- that is real. Rather than a single framed portrait in a gallery, the reader view four such portraits, all with different brush strokes, yet all related. To say this is an intelligent page-turner would not be doing it enough justice. This is a writer to watch.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant Novel About Art and Artists Feb. 24 2010
By Bonnie Brody - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Sometimes one is privileged to read a book that is so brilliant we hope it never ends. Such is the case with 'How to Paint a Dead Man' by Sarah Hall. This is Ms. Hall's fourth book. Her second book, 'The Electric Michelangelo', was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

This is a book about art and artists, about life and grief. It is about "how we investigate our existence and make meaning and teach one another in small and large ways". The book is like a chorale woven of four parts, each part about a different artist. The composition of the book is much like a chorale in music with each artist playing a different role in the book.

There is Suzi, a curator and photographer, who is so lost in her grief for her dead twin and mentor, Danny, that she has lost herself. No matter what extremes she goes to in order to feel alive, her grief is pervasive and overriding. In fact, the emotion is so strong that she denies it is grief. "You're not sure what's wrong exactly; it's hard to put your finger on, hard to articulate. It isn't grief. Grief would be simple. Something internal, something integral, has shifted. You feel lost from yourself. No. Absent. You feel absent. It's like looking into a mirror and seeing no familiar reflection, no one you recognize hosted within the glass." Hall's descriptions of grief are the most profound and poignant I have ever read. The poignancy is reflected in the demise of the human spirit as it searches to be reborn.

Annette is a blind Italian florist, caught up in the visions in her head. Despite her mother's attempts to keep her childlike, she blooms , much like the flowers she loves. She sees beauty in others, senses colors, and is empathic. She imagines the world in all its sensory glory and has been deeply influenced by Giorgio, the artist who taught in her school when she was a child. Years after his death, she still brings flowers to his grave.

Giorgio is an elderly Italian artist of some renown. His character is based on that of the actual artist, Giorgio Morandi, known for his exquisitely shaded paintings of bottles. Giorgio lives a reclusive life but is influential in mentoring a young landscape artist named Peter.

Peter's landscape art takes him to the brink of danger, and the very landscape that he loves and is the source of his inspiration, becomes a threat to his life. He is Suzi and Danny's father and has been Suzi's mentor. He himself, an over-the-top, expressive human being has been mentored distantly by Giorgio who is one of the most disciplined of artists.

This is a book about art and artists. It examines the discipline of art - - its freedom and passion along with the sense of release that art provides. It also explores art as an entrapment. Art is both the seen and unseen, the visible and the visualized. Though the book takes place in different times and different places, through different voices, it all comes together in the unfolding relationships between artists and mentors.

This is a book to savor, one that is a page-turner and also one that must be read slowly. It is one of the best books I have read this decade. I highly recommend Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Suri Hustvedt's book, What I Loved: A Novel, for those who enjoy 'How to Paint a Dead Man'.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ineffably exquisite and contemplative Jan. 11 2010
By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
An art curator wracked with grief over the tragic death of her twin brother; an aged, dying artist of still-life bottle art; a landscape artist; and a blind florist tell their inter-connected stories in alternating chapters of this stunning, imaginative novel. Spanning several generations in Italy and the U.S. (primarily rural Florence and San Francisco), the reader is taken on a journey of ideas and transported to the inner chambers of the heart. The story contemplates the nucleus of art, the essence of beauty, and the inestimable measure of loss. Additionally, the illusive nature of reality is explored like a kaleidoscope rotating within a turbulent vortex or shifting around a vast abyss of stillness. The prose is poetic and infinitely exquisite, often stirring me to tears and evocations of wonder at its penetrating sensuality. The elliptical ending continues to contour in my mind as I am drawn to multiple readings of the final page. The epigraph preceding the novel is the recurrent theme of the story, a quote by Gaston Blanchard:

"Things are not what they are, they are what they become."

High-toned but accessible, dense but light, I visualized the sun's rays beaming and burning through layers of volcanic rock as I continued to turn the pages. Its radiance massaged my senses and literally put me in a state of grace. Even the carnal scenes were like polished ore, mined with such brutal delicacy that I recaptured my own spellbound encounters with erotic infatuation.

This book is meant to be read slowly, allowing the passages to percolate and reverberate. There is such sublime luminescence to the narrative that it put me in an elevated state of consciousness as it also burrowed in my subconscious strata. Erudite, cultivated, and masterful, this is a quietly profound literary experience.

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