How to Paint a Dead Man, By Sarah Hall

Art with bottle as the dead come to still life
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The Independent Culture

The short answer (given on the last page) is don't use pink. But the relationship between art and death is the capacious subject of Sarah Hall's finely crafted new novel. For death makes everyone an artist when they remember the deceased; and so do writers, whose words require orchestration into mental pictures.

Hall explores these questions by switching between four narratives that never intersect, but hook on to each other when the main characters make appearances in different plots. In postwar Bologna, Giorgio, a dying artist who paints only bottles, records his last observations, sparring wryly with the critical establishment who struggle with his conduct under Mussolini. Giorgio is based on the Bolognese bottle-painting Giorgio Morandi, who had an ambivalent relationship to fascism.

The second strand concerns Annette Tambroni, a teenager with a degenerative eye condition, who tentatively tries to understand the relationships between her dead father, her mother still in mourning, and her flower-breeding uncle. But she remains confused about her own burgeoning sexuality, and worries about the intentions of the Bestia, a demonic figure depicted in the local church. Annette's blindness gives scope for some of Hall's most imaginative writing, as she describes sightless perceptions. Giorgio, who teaches Annette art, has "breath [that] was gamey, like lamb fat".

Closer to the present we encounter Peter Caldicutt, a bluff Northern landscapist who corresponded with Giorgio. This brings us Cumbria, Hall's native terrain, which she recreated so knowledgeably in Haweswater and The Carhullan Army. When Caldicutt snags his leg between two rocks after a fall, he endures a night on the bare mountain where, tripping out on pain, he atones for his disastrous first marriage.

Hall is most at ease voicing Caldicutt, rendering pathos and humour with a plain-speaking sincerity that contrasts with the mannerist contortions into which her prose sometimes stretches. Susan, Peter's daughter, as she flails in grief after the death in a road accident of her twin brother Danny. A photographer and curator, she starts an affair with her colleague's husband (who may be Annette's brother).

Hall rarely indulges in any ponderous pronouncements about the nature of art. But the novel is a demonstration of the desire expressed by Giorgio that art should be both lyrical and formal. She delights in the variety of a first-person voice (Giorgio's journals), the third-person narrative of Annette, Caldicutt's free-indirect speech, and the eerie second-person recounting of Susan's breakdown. If Hall has a fault, it is a tendency to abstraction and overearnestness when talking about the everyday. She accomplishes, however, the conceptual ambitions of the novel with great skill: it is a tough and unsentimental exploration of the way art feeds on the dead. What we call still life, the French call nature morte.