Sunday, May 03, 2020

the last book I read

Picture Palace by Paul Theroux.

Maude Coffin Pratt is a photographer. Seventy-ish, she is semi-retired but currently assisting a younger acolyte, Frank, in preparing some of her work for a big retrospective spanning her entire career. Not the easiest job, or certainly not for him anyway, as Maude is an irascible old bird who is resolutely unimpressed by most things, including most of the subjects of her photographs, which include among others many of the big literary beasts of the 20th century: Lawrence, Eliot, GreeneHemingway.

Such a retrospective requires Maude to delve into her past, and we are invited to tag along for the ride. So we see her experimenting with her first camera, a Box Brownie, taking pictures of her family (at their sprawling property on Cape Cod), as most aspiring photographers start off by doing. Maude's motives here are a bit more specific, though: the camera gives her a licence to gaze at length upon her brother, Orlando, about whom she nurses a deep and consuming obsession. More on this later? You betcha.

Maude is muddling along making a living from the old photography (hardest game in the world, the old photography game) through the 1920s and 1930s but only achieves proper celebrity after the publication of some photographs she took after sneaking into a secret quasi-Masonic event where circus performers were performing in the nude for an audience of well-fed baying Florida businessmen. The fact that this group of businessmen includes her own father makes for some family tension, although HOO BOY nothing to the tension Maude herself experiences upon returning in triumph from the shoot only to catch a glimpse through the window of Orlando and her younger sister Phoebe in the throes of sexual combat. It turns out he has a FLASH UNIT with a GLOSS FINISH and, well, I expect you can make up your own jokes. Stunned by the irony of finding Orlando open to a bit of the old incest (always Maude's self-confessed ambition) but preferring her younger sister, Maude experiences a prolonged (a few months, I think we're meant to assume) episode of what would be colloquially called "hysterical blindness" but is now apparently one of a group of conditions that go under the more anodyne banner of "conversion disorders".

So, ironically, the period of Maude's greatest celebrity for her visual images comes during a time when she is unable to perceive visual images at all, though this doesn't stop her from snapping various images (at least some of which, thanks to her years of experience, are straight and in focus) which bolster her celebrity. Her vision eventually returns, but her problems aren't over: Phoebe and Orlando drown in a boating accident off the coast next to the family property.

The windmill-shaped summer-house on the Pratt property contains boxes and boxes of Maude's old prints, including many taken during her period of blindness which she has never even seen. It's only when she reluctantly ventures in there to see what Frank has been up to and starts leafing through some of these old prints that she finds one that she must have snapped almost instinctively: Orlando and Phoebe, glimpsed through a window but clearly and identifiably naked, on the floor, and going at it like knives. Had Phoebe and Orlando discovered this print, carelessly discarded in a pile of other photographs, and decided that a dramatic lovers' death at sea was preferable to the shame of discovery, or at least the unbearable knowledge that Maude KNEW and had always known?

Regular loyal big-hearted blog-readers who don't skip over the book reviews like some of those other lazy bastards will immediately say to this: hang on, this seems awfully similar to the plot of Sweet Caress a few years back (August 2017, actually), doesn't it? And you are of course correct: famous photographer, born in the early decades of the 20th century, long and varied career, difficulties with men, settling into a formidable old age.

What Sweet Caress doesn't have but Picture Palace does is a bracing dose of incest. I've no idea what the statistics are like for real-life incest, and I don't know what novelists as a general group get up to in private, but it does seem to be a plot device that features surprisingly often. Just on this blog there are The War Zone, Walter, Statues In A Garden, Not That Sort Of Girl, Clea, Invisible, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Notice, and possibly just a whiff of it in On Chesil Beach as well. It is perhaps somewhat implausible to get what effectively amounts to a double dose within the same group of siblings as we do here: Maude has explicit designs on getting at Orlando only to find that Phoebe has beaten her to it. Maude's only sexual encounter, or at least the only one that's alluded to in the book, is with a serviceman friend of Orlando's during the war, and this only happens because she's crept along to Orlando's room in the dead of night without realising he'd swapped rooms with his mate. Rather than raising the alarm he gives an enthusiastic WAHEY and climbs on with some gusto. Well, I mean, there's a war on: why wouldn't you?

If it's a direct comparison with Sweet Caress you want then the Boyd book is more of a rollicking event-filled journey through a life (as Boyd books usually are) while Picture Palace is a bit denser, a bit stranger, and brings its central protagonist's work more vividly to life by (perhaps paradoxically) not being encumbered with the slightly clunky device of including actual photos in the text. If it's a direct comparison with the rest of Theroux's oeuvre that you're after then Picture Palace doesn't have the exotic setting that some of Theroux's books have (contrast it with, for instance, the other two Theroux novels on this list which were set in Hong Kong and a post-apocalyptic North America instead) but is none the worse for that. I enjoyed it, but not as much as The Mosquito Coast, which remains The One, if one is the number you want.

Picture Palace won the Whitbread Award (later the Costa Award) in 1978; The Children Of Dynmouth, Every Man For Himself, Leading The Cheers, Spies, The Accidental, Restless and Middle England are the other winners on this list.

Speaking of William Boyd, as I was a moment ago, I forgot to mention in the Lanark post that my Canongate edition carries a foreword by him, an occurrence (i.e. a book on this list having a foreword by another author who also appears on this list) which mirrors the ones in True Grit, Stoner and The Queen's Gambit.

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