It might be a bit weird to consider something a pity purchase, but I can’t really define the circumstances that I got The Portrait in as anything but that. I was browsing a charity shop’s book section, as is my wont, when I saw almost an entire shelf’s worth of this book. All identical spines, all yellowed pages, but otherwise in pretty good condition. Confused by the sheer volume, I was informed by one of the workers that sometimes local bookshops give them old stock that they can’t shift. I don’t think that I have ever felt quite so dismayed on an inanimate object’s behalf before. So before I could really think it through, I bought a copy. Only for it to sit largely undisturbed on my shelf for years. So, is this a case for or against impulse pity purchases?
The Portrait is the monologue of a reclusive artist, by the name of Henry MacAlpine, as he paints a commissioned portrait of his former friend, the prominent art critic William Nasmyth. Having retreated entirely from the fashionable centre of English painting to the grim, windswept island of Houat, this is something of a surprise. But what starts as an attempt to rejoin the art world and reconnect with an old friend becomes something much darker as he ruthlessly picks apart their shared history.
I wasn’t sure quite how I was going to receive this when I began. My interest in art is superficial at best, with only a few painters like Salvador Dali really catching my attention, so I was kind of worried that my lack of knowledge in art history would be to my detriment when reading The Portrait. My worries were largely unfounded, though there were a few movement names that I was entirely ignorant of; I could gather the sort of paintings they would have produced, but wouldn’t be able to tell you anyone who made up said movement. Not that it mattered hugely. The emphasis is on MacAlpine’s specific experience within these movements, under the influence of his critic friend and mentor. And after a few chapters to settle down in, it rather reminded me of Camus’ The Fall. Anything that reminds me of The Fall has to be doing something right, especially when there’s such an eerie relationship between painter and subject unfolding as the narrative progresses. I can’t really say much about the actual content, as it would most likely give away the ending, but it is a perverse joy to watch it unfold. There is perhaps less to take from it in multiple readings, as the intricacies of their relationship are pretty thoroughly explored in the text, but it’s an absorbing journey nonetheless.
Not a particularly illuminating review perhaps, but The Portrait is the sort of book where the first read-through is key. If I were to say anything concrete about its plot or characters, it would give away things that are revealed in such a well-timed manner in the actual book. The relationship between the painter and his sitter is the heart of the book, and to see it unfold organically is more recommendation than any cut-and-dry analysis I could write would do. It is perhaps apt that a book with a less than favourable view of critics should be so resistant to in-depth criticism. 4/5
Next review: Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer