Monday, 3 September 2012

Portraits of the artists

Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, The Map and the Territory - recently out in paperback - is a neat spin on that favourite of novelists, filmmakers and, indeed, artists: a portrait of the artist. Houellebecq's work, which varies wildly in tone (translator Gavin Boyd is masochistically faithful to the original French), has an artist invade the life of a reclusive writer - Houellebecq himself.

The author is gloriously unflattering about his subject. The 'author of Platform' - the book apes the language of Wikipedia or even technical manuals - is discovered as a reticent recluse, gasping for a drink, spouting non-sequiturs. 'He stank a little, but less than a corpse...' '"I've relapsed,"' he tells his visitor, '"I've completely relapsed into charcuterie."'

It made me return to one of my favourite pen portraits of an artist: W Somerset Maugham's fictional take on the life of Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence (1919). Maugham's novel is just as reflexive as The Map... as it is told by another writer, an acquaintance of the subject, Charles Strickland (the fictive Gauguin).

Maugham reflects on the narrator's early days as a writer in a manner that seems little changed: 'Then it was a distinction to be under forty, but now to be more than twenty-five is absurd.' Although the venues may have returned to type: 'Chelsea and Bloomsbury have taken the place of Hampstead, Notting Hill Gate, and High Street, Kensington.'

Nor is Maugham any less sharp than Houellebecq: 'Mrs Strickland had the gift of sympathy. It is a charming faculty, but one often abused by those who are conscious of its possession: for there is something ghoulish in the avidity with which they will pounce upon the misfortune of their friends so that they may exercise their dexterity. It gushes forth like an oil-well... There are bosoms on which so many tears have been shed that I cannot bedew them with mine.'

And, later: 'I had not yet learnt how contradictory human nature is; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, or how much goodness in the reprobate.'

W Somerset Maugham's 1928 play The Sacred Flame is at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, 13-22 September.

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