Books: On the ocean of time

The Voyages of Alfred Wallis by Peter Everett Jonathan Cape, pounds 12.99, 165pp: Michael Arditti hails the seafaring artist of St Ives
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ALFRED WALLIS was born in 1855, on the day that Sebastopol fell, and lived on until the Second World War. A mariner since boyhood, by sea he sailed the world, while on land he barely stirred beyond his native Cornwall. He began to paint aged 67, according to his fictional alter ego in Peter Everett's fine new novel, "for the company". He worked on cardboard boxes, stones and earthenware jars, in isolation until he was discovered by the group of artists, among them "Mr Ben" (Nicholson) and "Mr Kit" (Wood), who settled in his home of St Ives.

Although following his last novel, Matisse's War, with another study of a painter, Everett is no Ken Russell, using the artistic temperament as a vehicle for overblown fantasies. The two novels could hardly be more different. Matisse's War is a highly measured juxtaposition of the committed writer, Louis Aragon, and the disengaged painter, Henri Matisse. Wallis, on the other hand, is an intensely private man who does not consider himself as artist. The book is a seemingly loose collection of memories, presented as a first-person narrative, which only falters when he dies, introducing a note of literary sophistication into a voice of otherwise total authenticity.

For the first half, it would appear that the most remarkable fact about Wallis is his marriage to Susan, 22 years his senior. Indeed, its most poignant moment comes when, lying beside her as she dies, he finds himself "stiff for the first time in years, and I got my hand up her nightdress because there was nothing she could do about it". Everett negotiates these dangerous emotions with dazzling dexterity.

Even without his painting, Everett's Wallis would still intrigue us with his tales of life at sea, his reverence for old traditions and, above all, his tetchy integrity. His painting brings him to the attention of the wider artistic community, who patronise him in both the best and the worst sense of the word. They pay him extravagant compliments which he fails to understand. The culture-clash is most extreme when, having gone to rescue Wallis's paintings after he is removed to the Workhouse, Nicholson and the others catch fleas.

This is a delightful book, at once vivid, direct and modest, in which Everett has found a verbal technique precisely to match Wallis's handling of paint. He manages to convey a remarkable sense of the passing of time (it is no accident that Wallis is introduced to painting by a clockmaker) as his narrator takes a mid-Victorian consciousness into the era of wirelesses ("Satan's tools").

When an inquisitive writer, George Manning-Sanders, visits him in the workhouse, Wallis is deeply suspicious of his motives. He would need to have no such fears about Everett, who pays him the greatest tribute of a fellow-artist: allowing him to speak for himself.