This short novel is so different from the author’s The Dream of Scipio that I wouldn’t have guessed who wrote it. The Portrait is short, very tightly bounded by time and space, and highly atmospheric. There are just two characters, an artist and an art critic. Their mutual acquaintances (living and deceased) are frequently discussed.
We learn that the artist intends to paint a total of three portraits of his critic friend. One was completed years previous. On a remote island off northern France, where the artist lives in chosen exile, the second portrait is being executed. But what about the third portrait?
There are hints, but the conclusion of the book took me by surprise.
I’m such a sucker for romance! I picked up “Mr. Audubon’s Lucy” from the used book shelf at the Northwood Cape May Bird Observatory, a New Jersey Audubon Society Center located in Cape May Point (NJ). It is a fictionalized account of the courtship and first three decades of the marriage of Lucy and John James Audubon, told from the viewpoint of Lucy Bakewell Audubon. It covers events from 1800 to about 1830.
Lucy Audubon was a well educated English girl brought to Pennsylvania by her family. Audubon was a young Frenchman of uncertain origins, wealthy but spottily educated. Like Alexander Hamilton, he was born in the Caribbean. Audubon’s father returned to France a little before the Haitian revolution, which began in 1791.
At the time of their marriage, Lucy and Audubon intended to travel west and engage in trade. Kennedy describes in detail their journey, including river travel much earlier than described by Mark Twain. Wonderful to read!
Audubon was a wanderer and a dreamer and left Lucy and their two sons on their own for years at a time. In his biography, Chancellor asks whether she recognized and wanted to support Audubon’s unique genius, or if she was simply foolish. At this remove, we can only speculate. I am unreservedly impressed by Lucy’s success in supporting herself and her sons by teaching in wealthy households.
Chancellor’s biography of Audubon is a delight, because he provides extensive documentation, much of it visual – paintings by Audubon and others, letters and lists, photos of artifacts, woodcut prints…
Both these books are highly suitable for nature lovers and history buffs. Enjoy!
Copies of the elephant folio version “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon are very rare. The Library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia was a subscriber to the original edition of this mighty work. And you can see it whenever the Library is open, which is almost every working day!
I visited the Academy last week. At 3 pm, it was announced that the daily page turning was about to take place. The folio rests in a climate controlled cabinet. Each day at 3:15, it is opened and a Library employee wearing white gloves turns a page so a new print can be appreciated. To me, there’s something magical about a really old book, especially one that is in such lovely condition.
I was not the only spectator for the page turning. I chatted with another guest and also the employee who turned the page. He was not well informed about the bird revealed (a gallinule), being a historian rather than an ornithologist, but he willingly went on line to check when I asked him if the folio included a picture of the black vulture, the newest bird on my (non-existent) life list. Yes, Audubon painted my favorite scavenger.
Turning one page each working day means the entire collection of 435 prints can be viewed in about two years. Not more than 200 copies of the elephant folio were produced, and 119 can now be accounted for. Thirteen are in private hands. The value of a complete set is about $12,000,000, but they are seldom sold.
What makes this book so wonderful? There’s the artistry. The plates were produced by copper etching and aquatint, followed by hand application of water color. They are detailed and very beautiful. The birds look alive, although they were painted from skins and mounted specimens.
Audubon later produced smaller prints of the original works, and now, of course, all is available digitally on line. But there’s nothing quite like gazing at the old, fragile pages and enjoying their color and detail. Go and see this treasure! It is breathtaking.
Full disclosure: I read about a quarter of this book. If you read my last post (also dated November 11) about “trigger warnings”, this will make sense.
What about “triggers” embedded in fiction? One criterion of good fiction is that we react to it “as if” if was real. I had trouble with this currently popular book. The second chapter recounts a bombing in a museum, followed by pages of agonizing description as the young protagonist awakens in a daze, watches a stranger die horribly, and wanders alone through the unstable building, terrified that he will find his mother among the dead.
I kept waiting for the next paragraph to say “And then I passed out and woke up in a hospital” or “Then a fireman led me to an ambulance” but the nightmare just went on and on. I started skipping from paragraph to paragraph, looking for relief. When my stomach started to hurt, I stopped reading. I was “triggered” by this description of waiting for help that did not come. Did Ms. Tartt owe me a warning? No… Maybe I should have read the Amazon reviews more carefully. Did she intend or expect me to close the book and walk away?
What next? I skipped a chapter and tried again. I still couldn’t deal with the book. Jumping to near the end, I read a chapter that gave a very, very detailed account of a suicide attempt. This author does not let the reader “off the hook” about anything. Her point seems to be that life is suffering. I may, in the future, decide to read The Goldfinch in full. Would Ms. Tartt be surprised to find herself in the company of Stephen King? I won’t read some of his books either.
I could add a list of fiction that caused me too much anxiety to read. Probably half a dozen books over many years. If you feel like sharing about a book that pushed your buttons, please leave a comment below.