The Exquisite

It is related how one day the Prince of Naverges received a call from an artist going by the name of Magassimo. Eschewing the customary bows the perfectly uncouth painter proceeded to ask a favour of his excellency. Four days before, the glorious coloursmith had been caught gambling in bed with the daughter of a local knight. He was wearing a cloak stolen from a mutual friend, consuming illegal foodstuffs and using the kind of language unimaginable to any maiden. The law suggested, with charming leniency, that the man should be hanged by a noose. Magassimo had other ideas.

In any other case our Prince would have dismissed the man out of hand. In any other case the man would never have had the opportunity to present his case at all. But this was Magassimo. You’ve probably seen his work. His Nativity hangs in Lyon. There’s a rather excellent, even touching,  Annunciation in Bordeaux. And those painted vases in Turin? There was never a better example of a painted vase. To see these vases is to catch a glimpse of the divine.

‘All I ask,’ said the scruffy artist, ‘to be made immune from the pounding hand of the law. A simple request, the granting of which will help me enormously in my work’.

The Prince nodded. ‘Please say more’.

‘Remember the sculpture I made last year? Hercules and the lion was the subject’.

The Prince nodded once more. He remembered this piece well. Who wouldn’t? Marble had never been so soft. The lion, in particular, was beautifully done. Exquisitely done. A fine, fine work of art.

‘One of my masterpieces,’ noted the proud sculptor, ‘and no doubt about it. But where would I have been without my transgressions? That sculpture means more to be than a lump of chiselled marble. No, there is so much more to it than that. Do you know how many times I broke the laws during the creation of my Hercules? Let me tell you. There was never a day I didn’t overstep the mark. Rampant fornication, violent behaviour, careless theft: that was the very least of it. An artist requires his inspiration, does he not? Beauty springs, we all know, from blood and sweat. And yet here I am being punished. Punished for doing my job! When will you learn that we artists require immunity from the law?’

‘But if I grant you immunity you will no longer be able to transgress,’ pointed out the Prince. ‘One needs the law to break the law.’

‘But you could at least be lenient! They want to hang me from a noose! It’s ridiculous!’

‘You’re quite right.’

‘So you agree?’

‘I agree that it’s ridiculous. But I also think that you should hang.’

‘But what good will that do my art?’

‘Very little I’m sure. But I’ll make sure other artists are on hand to sketch the scene. Goodbye Magassimo: I’ve enjoyed your work greatly.’

With a short bow the Prince took leave of the artist. Magassimo was hung two days later. Filippo Lorenza’s painting hangs in Mantua. It is, of course, exquisitely done.

Real Substance?

Leo Barnard’s last book, Love and Selfishness, surprised us all by its brevity. Not only are we used to Barnard producing doorstop-like tomes, but we struggled to see how this subject, of all those he has tackled, managed to inspire so few words. Surely there was cause for several volumes? Instead we got a forty-eight page pamphlet.

Hot on the heels of this comes a controversial second short work entitled Sentiment and Substance. This one makes it all the way to fifty-nine pages. Compare this to Barnard’s earlier works: The Eternal Dilemma (912 pages), The Unworking World (1034 pages) and History Schmystery (701 pages) and you may understand our bewilderment.

Barnard has, it seems,  followed many a writer in eschewing quantity for quality in his old age. I say that: most elderly writers only think they pursue this goal – in reality they drop quantity, only to lose their grip on quality also. But Barnard has always been a cut above. He has, in fact, managed to pull off the near impossible feat of compressing several hundred pages of unalloyed wisdom into fifty or so. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he has got shorter and better; he has merely managed to cut his losses; which is to say that he has got shorter without any discernible drop in quality.

Or, to put it another way, despite the hysterical gulf in the word count, Sentiment and Substance is much the same sort of book that History Schmystery was. These two brief books do not represent the dawning of a new writer. Leo Barnard is just as cantankerous, as casual, and as damnably clever as ever.

There has always been a pinch of the opinionated teenager in Barnard; a dab of the pretentious adolescent; a generous sprinkle of the obnoxious child lording it over his brain-dead parents with a strangely undefeated brand of logic. Sentiment and Substance has all these qualities in spades: it is the literary equivalent of a room of small boys throwing paper balls – essentially harmless, but not without a hint of animal malice. Maybe if I wait awhile a better analogy will spring to mind. Maybe not. And so I move on…

Barnard’s central – and indeed, single – concept is this: poets (and he uses the term loosely) rarely practice what they preach. Not a new idea by any means, but he tackles it nonetheless with unrestrained gusto. Indeed, he tackles it like a gang of hounds tackling a fox. Tread lightly? Pish, says Barnard. He picks up his poets by the scruff of their scrawny necks and shakes them like – and I quote – ‘the fearsome hypocrites they are’.

‘Who are they?’, he asks, ‘these so-called artists of ours? And why do we, why should we trust their emotional response?’ Anger creeps upon him quickly: ‘most of the great poems on love are written by hateful creatures’, he claims at one point, going on: ‘and yet we sup on them eagerly, like piglets sucking blood from a gorilla’s breast’. A simile after my own heart there.

It’s all slightly crazed stuff, but then you can’t say that he doesn’t back his statements up. There’s plenty of evidence stacked up on Barnard’s table, all pointing toward the possibility that the substance behind most sentiments is made of less than solid stuff. Still, the way he rounds on some of his subjects does seem overly cruel. Songwriters, in particular, get a rather rough ride: ‘peddling their coy harmonic tales of stolen kisses and small hands held, whilst sleeping their way through cities of whores’. It’s the age-old question: can you separate what people say from what they do? Barnard’s answer is charmingly abrupt: not in the slightest, he says. It’s all one.

It takes a brave writer to go about the task with as much ferocity as Barnard does – not least because it invites criticism of his own personality. Does Barnard practice what he preaches? Whilst he never claims to be morally incorruptible, for all the flaying he does of other people’s hides, he seems peculiarly comfortable in his own skin. But then, as he writes, ‘I have never pretended to have the last word on life. I speak with the wisdom of one who knows he knows nothing at all’.

All in all, it’s another typical work from Leo Barnard. Infuriating and illuminating, fanciful and fierce, beguiling and blunt. Barnard, for all his faults, never fails to stimulate discussion. And though it seems that he must be wrong, it’s usually very hard to prove him so. This is no less the case than it ever was; at fifty pages only, he is still the master of the wierdly-water-tight argument.

The Truth and the Silence

‘When his old friend, Madame Ganderax, complimented him in front of one of his paintings, saying “Bravo Degas! This is the Degas we love, not the Degas of the Affair,” Degas, without blinking an eyelash, replied “Madame, it is the whole Degas who wishes to be loved.” (Linda Nochlin, Degas and the Dreyfus Affair)

‘The truth about about any artist, however terrible, is better than the silence… I don’t see how the “lies” we write and the “lies” we live can or should be divided. They are seamless, one canvas, for me’ (John Fowles)

A Mural of My Ascent

Early last year the Andorran novelist Oa Aayorta was presented with ‘The Henrik Stofferson Award for an Autobiography of No More than Five Sentences’. This, as you probably know, has always been one of the more contentious prizes out there, ever since, well, Pablo Diemar’s victory in 2004 (no need to rake over that, is there? No, I thought not…) Just why a man of Aayorta’s standing would want to be associated with such a soiled mattress of a competition was a question few people could answer at the time. Still, pondering its unanswerableness proved far more interesting than exploring the content of the entry itself. In rushing to the conclusion that Aayorta’s offering was some sort of joke, no one stopped to consider the possibility that it held a little more meaning than your usual two sentences. Time, then, for a re-evaluation:

I painted on the wall a mural of my ascent over it. This filled me with hope, though in the time taken to complete the painting I had missed the opportunity to ascend for real (‘Autobiography’ by Oa Aayorta)

Right. So, maybe people were right to dismiss the work. It’s succinct, and not without a certain elan. But it’s also yawningly typical: yet another slice of self-indulgent, solipsistic writer’s pie, complete with a side-order of sugary paradox. ‘I’ve wasted my life thinking about life’ – how many elderly writers have screamed these words towards an indifferent sky? It’s a tiresomely common complaint. You need to experience life, in some sense, to write well; but by dedicating oneself to writing well, the opportunities to ‘experience’ life diminish. Which may explain why so few people write well: it’s near impossible. You either get murals on walls, or nothing at all. As someone once said: ‘the real writers never wrote a word – they were too busy living’.

I exaggerate: some sort of balance can, on rare occasions, be maintained. Some artists will paint on, and ascend the wall (possibly returning to paint another brick or two before departing, once more, into the regions beyond). Most artists, nevetheless, will never paint a sufficient mural, nor ascend the wall. Many will fall, and be crushed, by the wall. And no one will paint a mural of their being crushed, because no one much cares. Wall-related fatalities will happen.

To bring this back, however, to Oa Aayorta. After all, this is his autobiography – or so he claims. All of which makes the whole thing so much more intriguing, no? After all, Oa Aayorta is most definitely not your archetypal writer-type. His first novel wasn’t a repository for turgid teenage angst, or some middling mid-life crisis. He started later than that; he was in his sixties, I believe, when he first put finger to keyboard. Which is to say that he would seem to have fit in rather a lot of ‘life’ before he got around to the process of documenting (and/or avoiding) it. So why issue forth a semi-cryptic statement suggesting the contrary? Is he having some fun at the expense of his contemporaries? Or is he wondering why, after half a happy lifetime crouched under the comfortably cruel wings of reality, he has leapt out into the sadly thrashing winds of fiction? Does it matter that he only turned to art late in life? 

Sometimes one ascends a wall only to find another wall behind it. Sometimes the wall you thought you ascended wasn’t a wall at all. One reads Aayorta’s two sentences, at first, as an expression of exasperation. After a while, however, one comes to realise that it isn’t this at all. It’s simply a statement of fact. He missed the opportunity. Who’s to say whether or not that was a bad thing?