Given the Choice

Susan Sellers

novel excerpt (Cillian Press, October 2013)
First Snow Loch Fyne, Michael Russell
Marion owns an artists’ agency in London and in the first passage Jean-Claude, a French painter Marion represents, is in New York on the eve of a solo show:

‘Jean-Claude leaned on the railings overlooking the Hudson River and gazed at the New York skyline. He had asked Celeste where he could go to view the island and she had recommended he take the Path train to Hoboken. She was right. From here the city spread out before him, a breathtaking vista of lights in the darkness. He found his tobacco and cigarette papers in his jacket pocket. From this side of the river he could take in the lower half of Manhattan in its entirety, gain his own perspective on the pulsating, frenetic onslaught of the metropolis. He had arrived in New York three days ago and his mind felt pulverized by sensory overload. At this distance, the city seemed a fantasy creation, an enchantment conjured by a magician from the sea. He lit his cigarette and walked along the esplanade, noting the extraordinary crenellation of illuminated buildings, the glittering jetties that stuck out from the shore like afterthoughts. The esplanade led him past a clump of shadowy trees and round a slight bend. The city’s brilliance, he saw, derived from millions of individual lights, from the chequerboards of lit up windows that formed the facade of building after building. Most were interior lights, but there were also bands of colour: a glowing orange top floor, a tower in a tracery of red neon, a glass-front that sparkled an ethereal green-blue. Light hurled itself upwards into the sky, leaked onto the surface of the water where it settled in channels that appeared solid enough to walk on.Tomorrow, his show opened in a gallery somewhere to his left. [….] He was nervous – not about his work, but because Celeste had asked him to make a speech. [….] A white beam winked at him from the other side of the river, splitting, as he observed it, into a many-pointed star. He thought about his London show. He had given Marion several reasons why he did not consider it appropriate for him to talk about his art. [….] He finished his cigarette and flicked the butt over the railing, listening for the hiss as the water extinguished its flare. He began rolling another. Though he believed everything he had told Marion, there was a further reason why he could not stand up tomorrow and speak. The paintings on display were as finished as he could make them. Consequently they no longer interested him. The process of creation was over and the pictures felt remote. He could no more describe what had been going through his mind as he worked than he could recall with any accuracy an event from his past. The complex operation of choice and decision was lost to him. All he would achieve if he tried to articulate it in hindsight was a story that bore little relation to his experience.

He lit his cigarette. He knew his restlessness was only partly connected to tomorrow’s opening. He had hoped New York would inspire him, but so far none of his sketches had caught alight. He felt exactly as he had after his show in London: unable to focus, alienated from everything round him. He sensed he was searching, waiting for an angle, a juxtaposition, a confrontation even that would fire him to begin painting.

Far out, he watched a boat passing. Its trajectory disturbed the lanes of light the metropolis cast onto the river, causing them to shiver, bleed into each other, dissolve and reappear. Yet they reformed differently, he noticed: the boat’s crossing altered them. Ripples of black now streaked the red, yellow shone amidst pure silver. A purple plume illuminating a spire caught his eye. Lights came on, went out; the city was never still. He stared into the murky water. Even the river was moving, slapping the sides of the esplanade.

He started walking again. This activity was what was missing from his pictures. He had wanted to call his show Still Lives to draw attention to the singularity of the English art term, but now he saw the joke was on him. His own language might have taught him. French coined the phrase Nature morte to describe set pieces in painting – literally dead nature. He stared at the winking panoply of lights. He was on the wrong side of the river, too far away to see how all the millions of lives the lights represented interacted with each other. He had crossed the river in the hope of escaping the city’s teeming, frenzied chaos, when what he should have done was immerse himself in it. His endeavour to distance himself and find a point of perspective was borne out of a futile desire for control. He needed to go back and focus on the intersections, to paint life in all its randomness and unpredictability. He tossed his cigarette end into the glassy water and hurried towards the station.’

In this passage, Marion is listening to a young Estonian pianist play Messiaen’s style oiseau:

‘Peeter placed his hands over the keys. Suddenly the piano was alive. Marion settled back in her chair and closed her eyes. She did not know what she was listening to but within moments she was transported out of her surroundings into a dense jungle of sound. The piano was no longer a music-making machine but the source of a magical power. She could hear the swooping calls of birds as they darted through treetops or skimmed and dived in a free expanse of air. The bare walls of the practice room had metamorphosed into an enchanted forest, teeming with flashes of brilliant plumage and abrupt, raucous caws. As she opened her eyes she was reminded of the monastery of San Marco in Florence, its plain white cells transfigured by Fra Angelico’s art. She thought of the ritual of Peeter’s daily practice. The long hours he spent at the keyboard required the same devotion the monks expended in prayer. When Peeter finally stopped playing she felt as if he had taken her to a world beyond herself, where she had glimpsed something extraordinary.’
In this next passage, Marion, having agreed to represent Peeter, takes him to a contemporary art exhibition.

Together they stopped in front of a vast fish tank filled entirely with paper money. Pounds, dollar bills, euros, Japanese yen had all been crammed into the space. Above the tank a fish dangled from wires. It was real and in the warmth of the gallery had begun to smell.‘What do you think?’ Marion asked.

Peeter stared at the installation.

‘Money has replaced the water so the fish has died. But I do not understand why all the notes have been torn in half. Is the money real?’

‘I’m sure it is.’

‘Then it is a waste. The fact the money is real adds nothing. Besides, it is a very simple idea.’

‘Can’t art be simple?’

‘Yes, but the simplicity must do something. This is a cliché.’ Peeter wrinkled his nose in disgust. ‘And the fish is going bad.’

‘Ah, that will be part of it. The smell of the rotting fish. We experience our revulsion viscerally as well as with our eyes. Perhaps the idea is not so simple after all.’

‘But how is it art?’ Peeter wanted to know. ‘Even if I were to agree with you that the idea is a good one – which I do not – anyone might have done it. There is no talent, no skill involved. This is designed to shock.’

‘Isn’t that what art should do? Make us think. Jolt us out of our complacency?’

Peeter appeared sceptical.

‘What will happen to this “art” when the exhibition is over?’

‘It will be bought,’ Marion told him. ‘Perhaps by a gallery, more likely by a private collector. All these artists are unknowns. Don’t worry, while the owner waits for the artist to become established the fish will be replaced by an imitation one.’

‘So it will no longer shock us “viscerally”.’

‘Well, no….’

‘It makes me angry,’ Peeter interrupted. ‘The artist will be paid for something which does not deserve it by someone who only buys in the hope of making money. This is not what art is for!’

‘You don’t like it because it isn’t beautiful,’ Marion teased him, remembering the jewel-like koi they had seen in her garden.

‘No,’ Peeter assured her. ‘I do not mind about that. Schoenberg is not beautiful, parts of Beethoven are not beautiful but they move us. I mind because this is a trick.’

People were staring.

‘Let’s read this,’ Marion suggested, steering him towards the plaque. ‘Perhaps we will discover what the artist intended.’

‘If the work is good I do not need to learn what the artist says.’

The next piece was a metal trolley on top of which a model heart, several foil-wrapped packs of butter and a scalpel had been set in a line. Sensing this would not appeal to Peeter either, Marion led the way upstairs. There was a video installation in the first room they came to. Two screens were projecting simultaneously. In the first, a man was addressing a filled auditorium; in the second, a typed text consisting of the words ‘me’ and ‘blah’ ran across the screen. The piece was entitled ‘Civilization.’ They moved on to a painting.

‘What is Kerashi?’ Peeter queried, deciphering a series of mauve, shocking pink and lime green letters across an otherwise blank canvas.

‘It’s the name of a fashion house.’

‘This I do not understand. Is it advertising for them? If not, why use a brand name? Or did they sponsor the artist?’

‘Probably,’ Marion answered. ‘I’ve seen another piece by this artist. She specialises in using the alphabet in her work in innovative ways. I expect she’s done a deal with Kerashi. You don’t approve,’ she observed, reading his expression. ‘Someone has to pay for art.’

‘But not like this! Governments pay for art, charities perhaps…. Of course people pay for it too, but not this blatant kissing with commerce.’

‘And do you imagine governments and even charities don’t have their agendas?’ She pointed towards the exhibits. ‘What do you think when you see all this?’

‘The pop songs on everyone’s ipod, television.’

‘How?’ Marion was curious.

‘Yesterday I watched part of a film at a friend’s lodging. It was about a woman who is made to work hard then all this changes because she falls in love. It was Cinderella with everything dark cut out.’ He gestured round the room. ‘This is the same, except here all you see is the stepmother made to dance in the red-hot shoes. It is the other side to all the sugar.’

In this next passage, Edward, Marion’s husband, has quit his job in order to fulfil a long-held ambition to study classics.

On the top of his book pile was volume four of Virgil’s Aeneid. He had studied it in the sixth form and the text was covered in his underlinings – though whether he had marked the passages for use in an exam or because they were important to him personally he could not now recall. It was an odd experience going back over terrain he had covered as a much younger man. He kept a copy of the English open beside him, but for practice he made himself stop whenever he came to a section he had highlighted in the original and translate it. First he copied the sentence, then tried a rough draft. He was aware he was the only member of his class who did not work on a computer, but writing the Latin out helped him focus. If any of the words were unfamiliar he looked them up in his dictionary. As he compared versions, he felt himself reconnecting to the pleasures of translation he had known at school. It was satisfying to grapple with what initially appeared impenetrable and tease out meanings until gradually the message became clear. What he loved about both Latin and Greek was their precision, the way a change of word-ending catapulted an event into a different tense, or shifted his perspective so that what had been the object of a sentence was suddenly its subject. Only when he was as certain as he could be that he had faithfully transcribed the sense of the original did he consider the English. Now, he focussed not only on semantic accuracy but on the onomatopoeia and cadence of the phrase. Finally, he came to the stage he liked best of all: pondering its significance. There was no doubt the translation process assisted with this. He did not presume to understand everything Virgil or Homer or Herodotus wrote, but this close engagement with their thoughts brought him into an enriching and intimate dialogue with the great masters.
In this final passage, Marion, in New York, is looking at three of the paintings in Jean-Claude’s show:

Marion crossed the gallery to the far wall. This held three large canvases none of which matched the description in her catalogue. The pictures formed a triptych, and according to the label beneath them were a late addition [….]The three canvases were vertical bands of colour, painted in such a way they appeared liquid and mutable, like reflections on water. What fascinated her was although each picture contained the same proportion of scarlet and silver and viridian in an identical sequence, the effect in each case was different. This was partly connected to subtle alterations in focus that affected the play of shadow and light, and partly to the introduction of new elements – a streak of grey like an arrowhead in the painting to her right, traces of submerged gold in the one to her left. The consequence of these seemingly negligible modifications was electrifying. It was as if Jean-Claude had captured the way an unexpected appearance, a variation in mood, a coincidence of timing could transform an entire scene. His triumph was to have done this in terms of the medium of painting itself. It was clear from studying the triptych that it had been the repercussion of a brush stroke, the acceptance of an unforeseen coalescence or clash of colour which had wrought the changes. Looking across the three paintings was like listening to music where the performers improvised, or reading a novel in which characters were allowed a say. She stared at a spiral of turquoise flecks in the central canvas. It was not in either of the other two and she examined its impact on the crimson and magenta brushwork surrounding it. She felt she could, by following its trail, detect the precise moment when a previously inexorable trajectory had been diverted from its course.