The Portrait

The Portrait

5.0 4
by Iain Pears
     
 

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A national bestseller from acclaimed author Iain Pears, The Portrait is a novel of suspense and a tour de force.

An art critic journeys to a remote island off Brittany to sit for a portrait painted by an old friend, a gifted but tormented artist living in self-imposed exile. The painter recalls their years of friendship, the gift of the critic's

Overview

A national bestseller from acclaimed author Iain Pears, The Portrait is a novel of suspense and a tour de force.

An art critic journeys to a remote island off Brittany to sit for a portrait painted by an old friend, a gifted but tormented artist living in self-imposed exile. The painter recalls their years of friendship, the gift of the critic's patronage, and his callous betrayals. As he struggles to capture the character of the man, as well as his image, on canvas, it becomes clear that there is much more than a portrait at stake...

Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio are also available from Riverhead Books.

Editorial Reviews

Howard Norman
This novel, full of such emotional sabotage and honesty, seems dutifully straightforward, especially compared to the baroque intrigue of An Instance of the Fingerpost . It is nonetheless just as splendid an accomplishment.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Justly praised for his complex historical thrillers (An Instance of the Fingerpost; The Dream of Scipio), Pears scales down to a simple tale of vengeance told by a narrator obsessed with destroying the man he once called his friend and mentor. Henry MacAlpine has abandoned his comfortable life as a celebrated portraitist in early 1900s London and fled to a tiny island off the coast of Brittany. To that lonely spot he lures William Naysmith, the British art world's most famous critic, with the promise of painting his portrait. In the course of the narrative, MacAlpine recalls the development of his artistic talent with the advice and praise of the ambitious Naysmith. The suspense lies in the gradual revelation of Naysmith's ruthless use of power, yet the double crime for which MacAlpine holds him accountable comes as little surprise. While this novel never approaches the sly cleverness and tingling suspense of John Lanchester's A Debt to Pleasure, which it otherwise resembles, readers will enjoy some period ironies, as when MacAlpine expresses contempt for the upstart French Impressionists, while the contemptible Naysmith discerns their true genius. Anybody in the business of criticism, whether it be artistic or literary, will be chastened by Pears's indictment of a critic's power to make or ruin reputations. Agent, Felicity Bryan. (Apr. 21) Forecast: The relative lack of plot may disappoint Pears's readership, but the subject matter will likely make the book popular fodder for reviewers. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In his latest work, Pears accomplishes the near-impossible; he turns unstoppable monolog, potentially a one-note bore, into a true tour de force. The monolog, delivered by an unnamed artist painting the portrait of an old friend, is initially engaging and finally utterly chilling in what it reveals of the characters' shared past and the sitter's irredeemable sins. As a callow Scottish boy, the artist had been in thrall to his sitter, a monstrously powerful critic who helped his career. At its height, however, the artist fled early 20th-century London for a rough and rocky little island off the coast of France, and the critic has evidently come to discover why, with the request to have his portrait painted serving as pretext. As the artist unleashes his ever-darker discourse, we learn just how carelessly the critic has treated others, including the artist's model Jacky and a colleague named Evelyn. Though there's a mystery to be cracked here, this is not a thriller in the mode of the author's excellent An Instance of the Fingerpost; Pears steps away from that genre altogether to produce an extraordinary work. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/04.]-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Scottish painter meets his English mentor and former friend after many years, in this poisoned miniature from the author of the behemoth An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998) and The Dream of Scipio (2002). In the waning years of the 19th century, William Nasmyth encouraged Henry MacAlpine to paint, shared his knowledge of the European masters with the younger man, included his work in exhibitions he was organizing, and subtly managed at the same time to inhibit and discredit him. Now that the insurgent Impressionists and Post-Impressionists William championed have become establishment artists, Henry, long retired from public life to the tiny Breton island of Houat, has enticed William to the island to sit for his portrait. As William poses in what he takes to be the foreground, silent as a Strindberg foil, Henry reflects on the very different roads that have brought the two of them to this spot at the end of the world. His monologue ranges over the moment when he first knew himself to be an artist, the shameful way he got money for his first trip to Paris, the still undetected fraud he perpetrated on William years ago, and his relations with the painter Evelyn, the prostitute/model Jacky, and the prophetic patron Mrs. Algernon Roberts. Until the very end, narrative elements are resolutely subordinated to an essayistic ramble on the themes of the artist's vocation (the painter is "someone who prays with his brush"), the symbiotic relationship between artists and the critics they hate, and the artist as creator and killer. Though Pears's epigrams are not in the same league with Oscar Wilde's, his grasp of melodrama, honed on his seven mysteries starring Rome's art-theft squad (TheImmaculate Deception, 2000, etc.), is sharp as ever, as he finally indicates in disclosing Henry's motive and master plan. A short story's worth of incident floated on a prickly cushion of aphorism.
From the Publisher
"Mighty scary. Only an author as clever and confident as Pears could pull off this trick."—Newsweek
 
"A stripped-down exercise in creeping dread."—Christian Science Monitor
 
"A shrewd and masterful raconteur...a tour de force."—The Washington Post Book World
 
"Weirdly haunting, the traps [Pears] sets for the critic are also traps for the reader."—Baltimore Sun
 
"One gutsy novelist... The suspense becomes almost unbearable."—Boston Globe
 
"A fascinating world of high-minded literature written on a small canvas."—Houston Chronicle
 
"An exquisite little gem."—Booklist, starred review
 

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780676977516
Publisher:
Knopf Canada
Publication date:
04/01/2006
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.19(h) x 0.62(d)

Read an Excerpt

Well, well, well. Come in, my dear fellow. Let me look at you. But first, an embrace; it is not often you see an old friend for the first time in nearly four years. You’ve not changed a bit. Well, of course I’m lying. The eyes are that little bit more lined, the skin has lost some of its texture, the hair is a touch more grey. We are both past our best. But at least you’re still slim, to the point of emaciation. How you can eat so much to so little effect never ceases to astonish. The differences between us grow year by year, as you undoubtedly noticed the moment you saw me.

I must confess I was disturbed when I received your proposal last month. I thought, to begin with, that it was a bad idea. I could hardly believe you were prepared to travel all this way just to see me. Hence my cautious reply, in case you were making sly fun of me. My years of exile have made me sensitive, as you will no doubt discover. But here you are, a figure from history itself — my history, at least, as I suppose you are still very much in the centre of things back in London.

A glass of wine to toast your arrival. The pick of the Luberon. A particularly good year, 1912, as I am sure you will agree, especially when carefully aged for nearly nine months. I joke, of course. I like the stuff, but hardly expect your sophisticated palate to be equally enthusiastic. It is all sun and earth; no artifice in its production whatsoever. Dark, strong and somewhat violent — a little like the people who make it, in fact. I’ve grown used to the taste; it makes a change from the beer and cider that are the staples hereabouts, and fine vintages would be wasted on me, even if you could get them. I have a barrel brought over on the boat every month or so and drink it until it turns to vinegar. Already has, you think? No; it’s meant to be like that — or if it isn’t, few on this island know any better. This is the wine of the peasantry, the fuel of France. Drink it and you become like them. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Sit down, then. I know, not comfortable, but it is the cleanest and best chair I have. Besides, it will suit my purpose admirably, as you will see. I have been made nervous, even irritated, by your sudden arrival on my little island. Do you know how long it is since I’ve had a commission to paint a portrait? Extraordinary, considering my vogue, but I gave all that up when I gave up England. And now you want to take me into my past. So be it; you will have to endure the consequences of your own folly.

Your timing is as good as ever, though. A few months ago I would have rejected the idea out of hand, but now I found the invitation tickling. Why not, I thought? Let’s see what we can do here. It is time to discover whether I can ever go back to England by exploring why I left in the first place. And who better to help the enquiry than the man who is the foremost critic in the land, whose opinion has the weight of the divine behind it?

Another little joke. But it is an opportunity to renew the battle and fight it to a conclusion. Who will emerge triumphant from this encounter of ours, do you think? The painter or the sitter? Will it be “portrait of a gentleman by Henry Morris MacAlpine,” or “portrait of William Nasmyth, by anon.” The National Gallery, or the National Portrait Gallery? We shall see. It will be your fame against my abilities, and the result won’t be in until long after we’re both dead. I won’t trick you, I promise. I won’t sign the picture and forget to put your name on it. We will have an equal chance to see whom posterity decides to favour.

Do look around the room. I’ll be able to study your face in different lights. Not much to see, though; I’ve cast the material world aside and live as simply as the fishermen of this island. I have some books, some clothes, my paints and a few pots and pans. Not that I cook much; there is a perfectly good bar in the village, and the widow who keeps it will prepare a meal for me whenever I like, which is most of the time. Don’t look like that; she’s fat, old and has a fearsome temper. You will stay there, if you insist on going ahead with this project. As you see, I am hardly in a position to offer you hospitality and wouldn’t anyway. I have grown used to solitude, and now prefer it. I have only the one truckle bed, which you would find as uncomfortable as sleeping on the floor. Madame Le Gurun’s accommodation will not be much better, but you will get a true taste of deep France to shock your delicate sensibilities. This is not Paris, nor Deauville nor yet Pau, I warn you.

I can see on your face that you are surprised, even a little disoriented by all this. What did you have in your mind, as you travelled to see me? A lovely maison de maître, nestling in the hills, at least. Servants, certainly. People of some sort — a maire, an avocat, a doctor to invite me to dinner. Surely your old friend would insist on some sort of society in which to bathe his ego, however provincial it might be? Did you think this poor benighted island was like Belle-Ile over there, that poets and playwrights came in the summer to preen themselves on my terrace? Could the man you knew in London exist without being surrounded by company?

And what do you find? Nothing. A dingy, smoke-filled house with the roof coming off — perfectly serviceable, though, I assure you. Scarcely any furniture. A painter dressed in rags, looking hardly better than a tramp, living like some hermit on a windswept, bare island inhabited only by a few hundred Breton fishermen and their families. I mean, how extreme!

You’re right, of course, but what would be pretentious in Chelsea is perfectly acceptable here. What difference would it make how I dressed? No one ever sees me, except when I beg passage to go to Quiberon, and then I dress as fine as any country lawyer. I trim my beard — which you must admit is very fine and distracts attention from the ever-thinner hair on my head. And I struggle into my old suit with much wheezing; I have put on weight in the past few years as you see, and my clothes fit only with a protest. Still, I am elegant in comparison to most people in these parts, and with a straw hat on my head at its old jaunty angle, and with the walking stick that you gave me as a present, I believe I still cut a grand enough figure. I may be eccentric, but I do not want a reputation for such; it is the one way of attracting attention which I have always disdained. I need only one bed, one chair, one table, so that is all I have. The walls are bare; look out of the window and you have a finer sight than any painter has ever placed on a piece of canvas. And constantly changing, as well. The intensity and variety of the sea is extraordinary; there is no chance of ever getting bored with it, and I find even the greatest painting wearies me sooner or later. As for my own works, I know perfectly well what they look like, each and every one. I don’t need to hang them up and look at them, and don’t need anyone else to look, either.

Stop! Don’t move! That will do; I want you to be comfortable, as I intend to keep you here for some time.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Mighty scary. Only an author as clever and confident as Pears could pull off this trick."—Newsweek
 
"A stripped-down exercise in creeping dread."—Christian Science Monitor
 
"A shrewd and masterful raconteur...a tour de force."—The Washington Post Book World
 
"Weirdly haunting, the traps [Pears] sets for the critic are also traps for the reader."—Baltimore Sun
 
"One gutsy novelist... The suspense becomes almost unbearable."—Boston Globe
 
"A fascinating world of high-minded literature written on a small canvas."—Houston Chronicle
 
"An exquisite little gem."—Booklist, starred review
 

Meet the Author

Iain Pears was born in 1955. Educated at Wadham College, Oxford, he has worked as a journalist, an art historian, and a television consultant in England, France, Italy, and the United States. He is the author of seven highly praised detective novels, a book of art history, and countless articles on artistic, financial, and historical subjects, as well as the international bestseller An Instance of the Fingerpost. He lives in Oxford, England.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Oxford, England
Date of Birth:
1955
Education:
Ph.D., Oxford University

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Portrait 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
It's all about the narrator. Pears has created an impressive character in the artist Henry Morris MacAlpine. The reader know only his perspective, which is less than reliable, but I found myself hanging on his every word. I've been a fan of Pears for years, and The Portrait illustrates his brilliant diversity as a novelist.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Add to the comments of the reviewers the concept of peeling the layers of an onion; however, it is not only the critic who is peeled to show how intellectually and morally derelict he is, but it is also the portrait painter who reveals more and more of himself as this monologue, divided by the sittings, moves forward. The painter realizes his failings and inexorably forces to speechless sitter to recognize what he has done as a creator of artistic opinion and the damage he has wrought. This short novel, or should one say parable, should provide joy to critics in their search for tags by which to identify the characters.