Wednesday, 16 September 2009

'How dangerous it is to be fashionable.'

A Winding Road
by Jonathan Tulloch

After the fixed space through time that unified Simon Mawer's now Booker shortlisted The Glass Room, Jonathan Tulloch uses a fixed object through time, in this case a painting, which we follow from its creation in 1890 through to the present day, where it has the potential to rock the art world. In contemporary London Piers Guest is an art 'adviser' rather than dealer, a maker of popular art TV programmes, employed by a vast financial organisation to provide guidance on who to buy and how much to pay. He's not afraid to associate with modern artists he thinks are crap, awards himself a nicely inflated commission on any deals and even indulges in a little insider trading to maximise his return. His moral compass is well and truly shot with his personal life degenerating into a series of empty and reductive sexual liaisons whilst his wife, whose creativity has been stifled by the back seat motherhood has forced her into, keeps up appearances in their impressive Chelsea home. To have such a hollow, repellent man at the helm of a large part of this novel allows Tulloch to make presumably his own feelings about the vacuity of modern art more than clear. The only risk is that with such a unlikeable character at the centre of things he risks alienating the reader. This would be a shame because the other two strands of the story demand attention in very different ways.

We first meet Ernst Mann as his former teacher, Prof. Gruber collates his work. A folklorist during the rise of Nazism, his study into Germanic storytelling tradition will be used and perverted through his association with the party. It is important for him to have as long a spoon as possible to sup with that devil because his own family is hiding a secret. His daughter Lotte, born with a cleft palate that places her well within the remit of the Nazi's growing list of undesirables and genetic flaws, is in constant danger of discovery - something her mother has changed into a game where the first sign of anyone approaching their rural retreat in Keilburg leads to a frantic dash to her hiding place where she must remain until the coast is clear. In a book which flits from location to location and from year to year and back again Mann's narrative is the most fractured, providing a chaotic insight into the confusions of the politics of that period, the impact of war and the genuinely terrifying consequences for anyone on the wrong side of the law. The moral questions raised by a man wearing the uniform of an organisation that seeks the destruction of his own daughter are clear enough; Gruber looks to find the 'moment when flirtation becomes a crime; to catch the clink of Mephistopheles coins.' What he finds, in a hidden compartment of Mann's trunk, is that uniform and two oil paintings.

In another complete change of tone Tulloch takes us back to Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890. Home to Dr Gachet and his famous patient; a scene probably best set by taking an excerpt from the journal of writer James Dalrymple who is visiting the region.

A veritable Arcadia of thatched cottages, villas and madness. And whither hasten the bedlamites? To a painting party hosted by Mr Chip Coakley, stolid, talentless son of a railroad king. Painting party? Mad Hatter's tea party rather. Whom of the mental misfits shall attend? Mrs Lucette Oyster, soiled Venus of the London rookeries; the Reverend Fairbanks, an Icarus brought down by the folly of his own obesity; Gachet, also known as Dr Foxglove; and of course, guest of honour, the coming man and chief goofball Vincent Van Gogh, devourer of Utopias, stinking Pan.

Tulloch pulls no punches in describing the ruined state of Van Gogh, one character describing him as looking like 'a testicle with mange' (which we later discover he pretty much does have when he drops his trousers to masturbate whilst painting what we now know as Wheat Field with Crows - above). This isn't to explode any kind of myth about Van Gogh as a person, his unsuccessful fight with depression and mental illness is well known, in fact by describing in such sensual detail (Tulloch enjoys describing smells and sounds particularly) the decay of Van Gogh he ends up creating a huge amount of sympathy for a man clearly struggling to battle his demons. The energy, vivacity and humour of these sections are so enjoyable I only wish there could have been more of them. Tulloch has a difficult feat of alchemy to handle though when combining this with the eventually horrific direction of the Nazi plot line and the sordid antics of our art adviser. There are some forced connections between the strands and some jarring of tone but what he does manage successfully is to cram the novel full of extraordinary visual detail and moments of magic of which the brothers Grimm (who are at the centre of Mann's studies) would have been proud.

This novel is another example of what has been called 'widescreen' fiction and like the better examples of that, despite the epic nature of the book, I think that some of the most effective moments come when the reader is brought in to focus on small details which touch us. The story of the painting and its provenance forms the backbone of the plot but it is a different work of art that captured my imagination. Inspired by the Grimm's Musicians of Bremen, Mann creates a handmade and illustrated version of the story for his daughter - The Musicians Of Keilburg . As Lotte, as a result of her disability, retreats into silence, it is through this book, with it's flick-book-animated donkey on the corner of each page, that her father is still able to elicit giggles and whoops of joy, to communicate with his daughter even whilst the very notion of storytelling is being used and abused to allow others like her to be persecuted and hounded by the witches and trolls that should have remained part of myth and fable.

Tulloch has attempted something ambitious with his latest novel, some parts of which are more successful than others, and it is very possible that your opinion as to which of those are which may be very different to mine. That I suppose is both its strength and its weakness, but the most important thing is to have had the ambition in the first place.


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