Books: George Lucas rewrites The Waste Land

The War Artist

by Steven Kelly

Scribner pounds 9.99

Steven Kelly's second novel opens in considerable style. An unnamed man, clamped to a table, is surgically blinded - he watches without protesting as a syringe is inserted into each of his eyes, "greying" his vision, then turning it black. The scene then changes to a club in west London, where Charles Monk, the war artist of the title, is sitting in an armchair waiting for a blind man. The story centres on Monk's life-long involvement with a family of shady Swedish shipping magnates, the Janssens, and Kelly's narrative design continues to be innovative and confident throughout: each chapter begins with a catalogue entry describing one of Monk's paintings, written by a critic whose central role in the story gradually becomes clear. The book circles this opening moment in the 1990s, returning to the beginnings of the story in the Spanish Civil War, and ranging effortlessly through the intervening years.

often reads like an upscale dynastic melodrama: a saga of big men, guns and dark secrets, with chic, slightly postmodern locations. (Kelly is fond of extravagant, Disneyfied artifice - much of the action takes place in a clapboard film-set village, high in the Sierra Nevada, built for an abortive nouvelle vague Spaghetti Western.) He writes with precision and grace, though he has a few irritating stylistic habits. The novel also reeks of Continental Sophistication - like his short story collection, Invisible Architecture, but without the ironic distance of the earlier work. Artists, poets and aesthetes roam the pages, discussing Sartre, Sacher-Masoch and Pauline Reage, and making gnomic utterances, often in French, to their empty rooms.

An unnecessary critical postscript spells out Kelly's artistic concerns: European modernism, and its classical and mythical models; war and violence; ritual and routine; the attempt to impose an artistic order on life. Unnecessary, because the novel hits the reader with its big themes on a very regular basis. Blindness and its mythical correlatives - Tiresias and Athene, the blind god Hod - crop up very frequently. And, with the exception of the unexpected, hallucinatory change of mode at the end, his use of the old mythic method is often strained. The proposed Spaghetti Western is clearly a pop version of The Waste Land; its director, sounding like George Lucas by way of Damon Runyon , explains that all our myths are broken right now: so "you gotta put them right back together again".

The semi-digested modernist inheritance would be less grating if the raw material was more promising. Curiously, despite Kelly's purported neo-modernism, the aesthetic battles that he and his characters are fighting are noticeably late-Victorian. It's all about the freedom of the artist from "arbitrary moral codes", the "creative genie", sensual pleasure: Wilde, Pater and Baudelaire (without the wit and style). The novel would have been more interesting if Kelly had actually engaged with the avant garde's extraordinary images of - and attitudes towards - war; if he'd raided Futurism or, say, Dix, Beckmann or Nevinson. As it is, the slightly tiresome intellectual apparatus tends to weigh down what is otherwise an accomplished, intriguing and entertaining novel.