How To Paint A Dead Man Paperback – Jul 28 2009
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“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. See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
How to Paint a Dead Man weaves together four different stories: a photographer coping with the loss of her twin brother, a quirky landscape artist in a dangerous situation, a dying man who paints bottles in seclusion, and a blind girl. Each story introduces different philosophical questions about art (i.e., what is it? Does it mean anything? What makes an artist?) all of them compelling and never entirely answered.
Susan speaks in second person, which I've always found to be an engaging, albeit presumptuous, POV. When she and her twin brother were children, she couldn't distinguish herself from him. She has a hard time figuring out who "I" is. And after his death, by using "you" she distances herself from her bereavement; the second person also intimately connects her to the reader. She neglects her photography and strikes up an affair. In her urgent need to be outside of herself, she creates and destroys indiscriminately.
The landscape artist, Peter, falls between two boulders while trying to paint on a mountainside. While stuck, he reflects on his previous disastrous marriage and his life as an artist. Peter is an extremely odd character; the way Hall handles Peter's scattered personality and darkly shrouded past seems like commentary on modern day artists.
Giorgio is an old man and a very famous painter of bottles. He lives hermit-like on a hilltop and has infrequent visitors. His guilt about his Jewish wife's death causes him to become absorbed in his work. Giorgio's inner monologue is a meditation on art and seems some what archaic and overly philosophical. His story lacks any narrative drive.
Annette, the blind girl, is born into a very conservative Italian family. She and her brothers sell flowers in the market and she paints occasionally. We learn how she became blind and what it's like to "see" from her POV. Annette converts sounds and smells into images. She is extremely intuitive, yet kept purposefully naive by her mother. Annette's chapters are where Hall does her most creative work.
The major problem with this book is that there is no plot driven story. Though the characters are interesting, I wasn't invested in them (except Susan). The book itself is like a work of art that you would appreciate in a museum, but wouldn't hang in your home.
"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.