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September 27, 2009

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Juggling creativity and life as an artist

I wouldn't say "How to Paint a Dead Man" is bigoted but it does traffic so heavily in troublesome stereotypes that they can't be disregarded. The book explores the lives of four artists, two British and two Italian, appearing in distinct chapters with their own narrative modes and time periods, from the 1960s to the present.

If that sounds like cause for confusion, it's not. And one of the book's achievements is that it moves seamlessly among its various elements without once feeling like a juggling act. Nor does Hall overemphasize how these four characters relate; instead, she concentrates largely on how they must contend with the limits of their bodies, their lives and their creativity.

The Italians are Annette Tambroni, a florist who dreamed of becoming an artist until she lost her sight, and her former tutor Signor Giorgio, an acclaimed still-life painter who discovers in old age that he is dying of cancer. But neither blindness nor mortality, nor suffocating Catholic mores, nor poverty, seem to affect these two in any significant way except perhaps as opportunities for reflection.

"I am reminded of my own youth," Signor Giorgio writes in his journal (which in the chronology of the book is translated and reprinted several decades after his death), "the sparse possessions, the poverty and hunger, too much acid in the stomach."

"The priorities of culture and a carafe, access to the museums and churches. ... I remember passionate conversation, which could not be anything other than profound, because profundity atones for poor revenue."

This is thick with the cliche of the impoverished, defanged foreigner, above all poetic, who has, through some deeper understanding of life, learned to be untroubled by things that would trouble the rest of us.

The mood in Italy is so consistently lyrical that everything, including dialogue and narration, takes on a stilted, unnatural quality.

This is a country where people say things like, "Yes, the day is fine." Or: "Perhaps you are right, Rosa. She is the perfect age. We should arrest her vitality before it has a chance to wilt." I wouldn't want to visit this country.

The author's attitude toward her Italian characters reminded me of a friend who recently visited Jamaica and talked at length - based on a week at the beach - about how cheerful everyone seemed.

In "How to Paint a Dead Man," the view is unmistakably that of a tourist looking in with nostalgia, not that of a native looking out with a story to tell.

All of this is too bad, because Hall can write forcefully and convincingly. But without exception she saves it for her contemporary British characters, one of whom, Suzie Caldicutt, a 35-year-old struggling photographer, deserves a novel of her own.

Suzie is grief-stricken by the death of her twin brother, cheats on her doting boyfriend with a married man, has violent feelings toward a friend lying comatose in the hospital, and speaks frankly and refreshingly about her sexual desire.

This material is related in the second person, but it feels somewhere in the vicinity of the author's own life; Hall is herself 35 and British. In other words, the you of Suzie Caldicutt reads like I, whereas Signor Giorgio's I reads like he, or someone who knew someone who knew he.

"You aren't feeling like yourself," the book begins. "You haven't been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident. More accurately, not since the moment you heard about it. That morning, that minute, holding the phone to your ear and hearing your father say those horrific words." Suzie's brother has died in a bicycling accident, we learn, setting in motion her fast decline.

As for her father, Peter, a middle-aged landscape painter who's enjoyed a degree of success, his story begins several years before the death of his son. Hall labels Peter's chapters "The Fool on the Hill," and there is something lovably foolish about him as we observe his daily routine, his dragging himself out to the countryside to sketch the mountains.

Along the way he's made to feel guilty as a farmer passes by with his cows while he sits waiting in his car "in his colorful overalls and gender-neutral smock, with a shoe-caddy of brushes and pencils."

It's a clear image, one that says a lot about the life of an artist without saying a lot about "the life of an artist."


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