Books: Miss Haversham lives on

Vanitas by Joseph Olshan Bloomsbury pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
Social conditions should have advanced sufficiently for there never to be another jilted, embittered character like Dickens's Miss Havisham haunting contemporary fiction. But Joseph Olshan has upheld the grand tradition of bitter tragediennes in the waspish, bedridden figure of homosexual art dealer Elliot Garland. Garland languishes in his Upper Fifth Avenue apartment, gaunt from the advanced stages of Aids and quietly weaving a complex web of guilt and recrimination from his deathbed. Miss Havisham preserved her mouldering, rat-infested wedding cake as a remembrance of things past. Garland keeps a Vanitas portrait of a naked male torso cradling a skull, painted by his only grand passion Bobby La Coeur.

The Vanitas theme, popular in 17th-century Dutch painting, juxtaposes images of life with symbolic reminders of death and decay. Garland's Vanitas is a potent Machiavellian weapon used to exert a power the art dealer no longer has over his former lover. As the novel begins, there is life - and bile - in the old queen yet.

Sam Solomon, the innocent chosen to ghost-write Garland's memoirs and - unbeknown to him - draw Le Coeur back to Garland's bedside, is the book's protagonist. For devotees of Olshan's work, Sam Solomon is an already familiar character. Sam is an echo of bisexual James Gregary caught in the female-male-male love triangle that dominated The Sound of Heaven. Olshan uses bisexuality just as Elliot Garland uses the Vanitas: as a device which adds a further dimension to what would otherwise be a predictable story. A bisexual hero distances Olshan from gay contemporary novels such as Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library, Edmund White's The Beautiful Room is Empty and Adam Mars-Jones's The Waters of Thirst, which explore similar terrain. Sam's relationship with ex-lover Jessie and her daughter Eva, and the references to Sam's bisexuality and his yearning for children, are not convincingly rendered. His desire for a child is half-hearted and his memories of Jessie merely sketched. Who is trying to convince us: Sam or Olshan? If it is the latter, then this reviewer was as cynical as the distingue Elliot Garland who asserts, "In my book you're as queer as your last relationship."

It is the tortured desire of Garland for Le Coeur that makes this book more animated than a homoerotic pencil sketch. The complexities in the Grecian model of older mentor and younger man are textbook when Olshan takes us back to Garland in his prime and Le Coeur in his bed. The narrative concerning the end of the affair, and Le Coeur's "restoration" of a fake Gericault cartoon at Garland's behest, is technically clear but dramatically as soft as a pastel sketch. If this novel were a Gericault, Vanitas could afford to be heavier-handed on the gothic shadows and more subtle in the psychological brushwork.

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