Picture Palace by Paul Theroux (Photography in Fiction #2)

therouxA few months ago I wrote about William Boyd’s Sweet Caress (a badly named novel if ever there was!) with the intention of looking at other novels with photography as a theme or backdrop. The one I had in mind was Paul Theroux’s Picture Palace. I read this and quite a few other Theroux books – (fiction rather than non) –  in my twenties when it made quite an impression.  On the other hand that impression had become vague over time (a famous woman photographer, a windmill, a compelling ending?) It was also long out of print and like so many novels pre-2000 not reissued as an e-book. Eventually I got hold of a second hand paperback, eager to find out what it had got my attention thirty or forty years ago. Since I did nurture an interest in photography back then, I assumed it was the subject matter as well as the characters and plot.

My rereading didn’t start well.  The yellowing (or rather yellowed) pages detracted from the reading experience even under my daylight reading lamp but I don’t think this was the  problem. The narrator, award-winning photographer Maud Coffin Pratt  is  a prickly character and although she masks a  deep vulnerability she somehow didn’t move me. The basic premise of the book (there’s a neat synopsis here) – that her career was driven  by her hero-worship of – and ultimately desire for – her older brother, felt unlikely. Not so much because  her success with the camera came about accidentally (the same could be said of Boyd’s narrator) but the fact that she continued to ride her luck only to please him. The wider family scenario – parents discovered to be conniving with racism, a sister who is both a best friend and a rival – and a run-in with a travelling circus, do round things out  successfully, but something seemed to be missing.  Nor was her contemporary conflict with the young researcher preparing a retrospective especially intriguing except as further evidence of Maud’s irascibility.

Despite a change of cover the book hasn’t changed. So has the reader? I think I’m less patient now and have struggled with novelists I loved back in the seventies. But this wasn’t a long or cumbersome book. One thing that did occur to me was that the subject of incest was probably more shocking and less widely written about then. Did that add to the impact it had on me? So a case of society changing as well as or alongside the reader. So what began as a post about books on photography has become one about changing tastes – mine and probably other people’s. It was certainly a huge surprise when I found myself comparing it to Sweet Caress – a much more episodic and rambling book – and preferring the latter.  I can only think that they are both books of their time and time has moved on for all of us.

20171204_172816_resizedHowever despite my reservations, I might hang on to my (Penguin 1979) antique edition. On a quick trawl of cover images, this one no longer comes up.Maybe I have a rarity of another kind.

Talking of physical books, the cover of Blink has been decided at last and the image licenses obtained. I am pretty pleased – but keeping you in suspense for now!





Photography in fiction (1): Other people’s photos

Fiction with photos?

I’ve just been reading William Boyd’s  Sweet Caress which I picked up when I spotted its photography connections. It’s about a girl growing up in the twenties who, after a family trauma, joins her uncle as a  society photographer in London then unshackles herself from an unhealthy relationship to reinvent herself several times over and in as many places: in from Berlin to Mexico,  New York and ultimately Vietnam.  It didn’t reel me in straight away and I noted a consensus amongst Amazon reviewers that it was ‘over-long’. I would say ‘episodic’ is more the case, but it does take its time to get where it’s going. On the other hand, that isn’t always a bad thing.

It’s a straightforward chronological narrative(contrast Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life), told by Amory Clay as she looks back on the different lives she has led from her final abode – a cottage in a remote corner of the Highlands. For a while the lack of a driving plot frustrated me, but I was eventually drawn in to this account of a restless soul who happens to be in the right place at the right time to capture iconic images of the twentieth century.

sweet caress photoInitially, one of the barriers to my enjoyment was the use of photographs incorporated into the narrative. They look like contemporary snapshots (their graininess is emphasised by being printed on ordinary book paper) and are labelled as illustrations of Amory Clay’s life and work.  But, wait a minute. This is fiction. These look like authentic illustrations but where did they come from and, most of all, why on earth are they there? The ‘acknowledgements’ refer to the many real photographers mentioned in the book but not to these photographs. Mr Boyd is either playing with the truth or teasing the reader or both, and I’m not sure I like it.

There was nothing for it but to ask Google what was going on, and it turns out that William Boyd is a collector of ‘found’ photographs – i.e. photos whose origin is unknown, photos lost by their original owners. As the Telegraph interviewer puts it,

These uncredited images of unknown subjects collected by Boyd over many years, originally without intent – are now freighted with narrative significance.

Aha – I think of Boyd arranging his motley collection of photos into a kind of story board and immediately I like Sweet Caress better than I did. But no, it appears he had the story in his head and went looking for  these illustrations, occasionally letting them take the plot in a new direction. Boyd likes trying to make fiction ‘seem so real you forget it is fiction’. Isn’t all fiction doing that same thing? Isn’t it possible to do this with just words? But the explanation does stop me fretting.

Maybe it’s this new found knowledge or maybe it’s coincidental, but from this point on I find  myself at peace with the book. I enjoy picking it up in a very busy fortnight to see where and when we’re heading next. Its episodic nature (very many chapters begin ‘I remember’)  suits my mindset.

Although Boyd claims to be ‘technically inept’ (a bit like me then!), there’s plenty to interest the photographer –  armchair or otherwise. For instance his heroine claims there are only thirteen genres of photography (that many?!) and I like the way she explains her preference for monochrome images.

The black and white image was in some ways photography’s defining feature – that was where its power lay and colour diminished its artifice: paradoxically, monochrome – because it was so evidently unnatural – was what made a photograph work best.

After so many months spent in the company of early photographs, I’ll drink to that.

Ironically, the paperback edition I read had a much more colourful (and to me less suitable) cover, but don’t let that put you off if you fancy a photographic adventure.