The line of beauty

Sat, Jan 16, 2010, 00:00

FICTION: BRIAN LYNCHreviews The Pen FriendBy Ciaran Carson, Blackstaff Press, 256pp. £14.99

CONTEMPORARY Irish writers are crazy about ekphrasis. Why the verbal representation of visual art should engage stylists as diverse as John Banville, Paul Durcan and now, triumphantly, Ciaran Carson is a subject too broad to be opened out in this narrow space. Suffice it to say that ekphrasis has emerged as a favoured literary practice in a period of often violent social change in Ireland, particularly in the area of sexuality: it’s no accident, I think, that Durcan called his National Gallery poems Crazy About Women.

Seen in this light, the efforts by these and other writers to mirror the static objects of art in the ruffling surfaces of language may reflect a desire for stability. Politically speaking, ekphrasis is a Tory technique. But, Ireland being Ireland, the conservatism has an anarchic and comic tinge to it. Banville, for instance, does the trick tongue in cheek: The Untouchable, his 1997 novel inspired by the traitor and art historian Anthony Blunt, includes an accurate description of a painting by Poussin that does not exist.

Carson’s novel is similarly twisted and playful. Muffling what WG Sebald called “the grinding noise” of mechanical narrative, the story it tells is, nonetheless, relatively easy to follow. Which is not to say that it is not also a fiendishly intricate puzzle machine.

The narrator, Gabriel Conway (whose name reminds us of Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of Joyce’s The Dead), is recently retired from a municipal art gallery in Belfast. Twenty years after the end of a love affair with a civil servant called Miranda Bowyer he receives from her a series of 13 postcards. Each of these postcards, which are handsomely reproduced in the text, contains a cryptic message. Interpreting the images and decoding the messages, Gabriel probes for reasons why his lover inexplicably dumped him. Some of the explanations, maybe all of them, are connected to the Northern troubles. Without giving away too much of the plot, Miranda’s work for a shadowy information-gathering organisation may have involved state collusion in the bombing of a bar frequented by Gabriel’s father.

The father is crucial to the novel, as is the concept of fatherliness. The book begins: “Your postcard came like a bolt from the blue . . .” But the cliche is justified by the famous photograph on the facing page of a bolt of lightning striking the Empire State Building, in New York. The lightning certainly electrifies the narrator: the arrival of the card “was the spur that drove me to begin writing again”. The writing he now resumes is a book about his father’s involvement with Esperanto, “the international auxiliary language devised by Ludwig Zamenhof”. While one can only guess at the level of autobiography in The Pen Friend, it is undoubtedly high. My own Googling of Esperanto, for example, brought up a useful and revealing link to an article Carson wrote about Zamenhof and his father’s interest in him.

But the Esperanto book is confined within the book we are reading, which is also devoted to unpacking a Pandora’s box full of other subjects, all of them related in one way or another to communication. There is much use, for instance, of the vocabularies of fashion (Christian Dior gets a look in here); of music (we learn about a seven-syllable language based on the do-re-mi scale); and of scents: the reader is sprayed with enough information about perfumes such as Après l’Ondée – “warm musky base, almond top note . . . the scent of violets doused in rain, cold and shivery” – to want to go out and buy some.

The most important of these diversions from the central theme of erotic rejection and communal hatred is the act of writing itself. Gabriel is a collector of fountain pens. Not expensive ones – there are no rare Montblancs here; many of them, we are told, were bought on eBay for a few pounds. But as the child is father to the man, so in this book the pen is father to the style. Each chapter is headed with a photograph of the instrument used to write it. Beautiful objects they are too – and beautifully described: a good deal of the thrill of this thrilling book is that Carson’s ekphrases concentrate on the democratic and ordinarily disregarded jewels of industrial manufacturing. The beauty of Conway Stewart pens, for instance, comes ready-made in the catalogue descriptions of their casings: “Teal Blue with Green Veins, Blue Cracked Ice, Autumn Leaves, Peacock, Grey Jazz, Candy-stripe Relief . . . Blue Rock Face, Moss Agate, Pink Moiré and Salmon Pink with Grey-green Flecks . . .”

Elegant pens, fashionable clothes, poetic perfumes. Do these subjects not seem somehow effeminate and unmanly? Not to this male they don’t. But even in the pejorative sense of effeminacy it is worth pointing out that few women novelists have attempted to emulate the sensuality with which Carson describes what are commonly regarded as feminine fetishes. The Pen Friendis, gender-wise, a novel novel: straight Irish masculinity takes a new turn in it.

When it comes to conventionally “fine” artists, Carson’s choices for ekphrasis mix the famous with the local. Andy Warhol (who kept a calendar of perfumes) keeps company with Gerard Dillon; Vermeer rubs shoulders with Maurice Wilkes. The French neo-Dadaist Yves Klein is specially favoured, partly because he more or less reinvented the colour blue and partly because he was also a writer of sorts – Klein liked to dip naked women in paint and draw with them. Carson does high art and low comedy with a poker face.

But while he mocks himself and his hero’s overaesthetic world-view – “it’s all a bit of tautology really, or codology” – there is a constant current of ethical seriousness running through the book. In a sense The Pen Friendis both a protest against and an alternative to the North’s recent murderous history. As Gabriel says, not very confidently, “living with beautiful things must necessarily work against narrow sectarian interests”.

To live with a beautiful thing, it first has to be created. This novel is an original creation. Technically complex but oddly simple, arcanely informative, humorously puzzling, sensible, sensational, compassionate, it deserves to win whatever prizes are going. For the Man Booker jury, here’s a book and a man.

Brian Lynch is a poet, novelist and art critic. His Duras Press recently published The Nicotine Cat and Other Peopleby Augustus Young