Richard Skinner’s The Mirror consists of two tales, a pairing which will seem either intriguing or just incurably esoteric. The title tale is set in the convent of Sant’Alvise, Venice, at the time of the 1511 earthquake.
As a young novice sits for her portrait, the artist’s mirror prompts dangerous reflections on faith, art and temptation. The second tale, “The Velvet Gentleman”, imagines the death of the composer Erik Satie who, lodged in a purgatorial halfway house with the rest of the recently deceased, is tasked with choosing a single memory to be recreated by the on-site film crew and taken with him into the afterlife. In the same vein as The Red Dancer (2002), Skinner’s “fictional biography” of Mata Hari, the tale summarises Satie’s romp across bohemian Paris, scattered with famous names & natty ampersands. The result is an uncanny cross-breed of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
As director of the Fiction programme at the Faber Academy, Skinner knows the tricks of the trade. Both tales are based on the trope of a building that houses a catalogue of characters, where corridors, cloisters, cells and closed doors construct an architecture of encounters. We hear Skinner at the lectern when the fictional Satie preaches the importance of physical enclosure for imaginative freedom, adding that “the trick is to let the room outgrow the walls”.
There is a sense of something riotously Baroque bubbling beneath Skinner’s prose, restrained by a scholarly mantra of economy. Skinner is at his most engaging when describing the panoramas of the mnemonic film sets or the nuns’ secret hoard of luxuries, but attempts at literary purity result in an awkward, studied naivety.
The novice of “The Mirror” speaks in a strange mixture of Enid Blyton quips, medieval mysticism and crashing clichés –perhaps suggesting her artless innocence in contrast to the pop-philosopher-painter’s elaborate twisting of religious metaphor. The overall result is oddly stilted.
Fundamentally, “The Mirror” and “The Velvet Gentleman” are hampered by their own purgatorial position as “tales”, “novellas” or “short stories”. They read as over-egged literary exercises, highly researched, precise, with sudden sweeps of beautiful prose. It would be interesting to see what would happen if these tales were let loose from their cloistered confines.