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The Portrait    by Iain Pears order for
by Iain Pears
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Riverhead, 2006 (2005)
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* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Meet the artist Henry Morris MacAlpine, originally from Glasgow and formerly a resident of London. Now, estranged from his past, he lives in a 'dingy, smoke-filled house' on a small island in Brittany, France. A formerly successful portrait and landscape painter who is now most often 'dressed in rags' while he patiently endures the tedium of his self-imposed exile, MacAlpine - when we join him in this tour de force tale of reminiscence and revenge - is speaking to his visitor, the 'foremost art critic in the land,' William Nasmyth of London.

Apparently visiting MacAlpine for purposes of having his portrait painted, the art critic Nasmyth listens (and we eavesdrop) as the artist muses over the many pleasant moments when both men enjoyed 'the bliss of friendship and the joy of experience.' As we overhear MacAlpine's rambling monologue, we listen as the artist makes the tongue-in-cheek admission that he has often been 'too eccentric, too strange.' We also hear that MacAlpine has been a frustrated and angry artist who reached a point in London when he could no longer suffer 'the prostitution of his skills into sterile emblems for the bourgeoisie.' So now, for a variety of reasons that he will soon reveal, he lives far away from London's world of art and culture.

For the present, however, for reasons that the artist eventually makes clear, MacAlpine eagerly embraces the challenge of painting Nasmyth's portrait which will 'depict the flight ... of the soul' and the 'magnificence of his arrogance, the exuberance of his daring, ... sincerity and ... cynicism.' And, as he mysteriously warns Nasmyth, 'You are defenceless until I am finished.'

But what is the purpose of the portrait? What does MacApline really have in store for Nesmyth? After several meetings between the artist and critic, MacAlpine ominously says, 'My friend, it is another - yet another - experience you have missed in your life, that realisation that someone wishes to do you harm, and has successfully done so without meeting any resistance. It is a great hole in your existence.'

With chilling irony, MacAlpine - like the sinister speakers in Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, and like Poe's unreliable narrators - goes on to unwittingly reveal more about himself than perhaps he had intended. The art critic Nasmyth, however, is perhaps too late in realizing that MacAlpine is planning to -

Ah, but that is all you need to know in advance of reading Iain Pears' extraordinary novel. Filled with surprises and revelations, The Portrait is consistently fascinating and creepy. Read it and you will not soon forget this accomplished writer's vision of a vengeful artist who witnessed injustice, suffering, and death but who now is about to execute his ultimate portrait.

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