secret history

Benjamin Wood: The Ecliptic

Why is the life and world of the visual artist such an appealing subject for novelists? Perhaps I’m overstating it, but I’ve seen or read several in the last year (Jonathan Gibbs’s Randall, Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian) and have strong memories of others: Patrick McGrath’s Port Mungo, Patrick White’s The Vivisector. Could it be that writers like telling painters’ stories because it enables them to write about the creative process – so familiar to them – but in a slightly, well, sexier form? Benjamin Wood: The Ecliptic The Ecliptic is such a book and more. Its narrator is an artist, and in the second part of the book we get a full-blooded account of her development as a painter, but there is more to it than that. We are told this only after we already know that she – Elspeth Conroy – is blocked, can no longer paint, and has come to Portmantle, an artists’ retreat on Heybeliada off the coast of Turkey, to rediscover her muse.

At Portmantle, established “to rescue the depleted minds of artists like us”, everyone has a pseudonym. Elspeth is known as Knell, and she is one of the longest-staying residents there, along with Quickman, MacKinney and Pettifer. (They are, respectively, novelist, playwright and architect, so the four friends conveniently cover a range of creative forms.) Artists leave Portmantle when they have completed a new piece of work, so remaining there for years indicates serious stoppage. Reading this, we wonder whether the approach of going to special place to be an artist and nothing else is more likely to cement the blockage than dislodge it. Is seeking “to rid ourselves of external influence and opinion” a good idea? (Answers accepted from anyone who has tried to write anything while ping-ponging between Word doc and social media feed.)

At the time of the story, it is the mid-1970s and Elspeth, now in her late thirties, has been there for over a decade. Other guests (“transients”) come and go but the four friends seem permanent fixtures. They are intrigued by the arrival one day of a teenage boy, seemingly a musician, known as Fullerton. (The book opens in sturdy read-on fashion: “He was just seventeen when he came to Portmantle, a runaway like the rest of us.”) You might say that they needed something to disrupt their stasis. There’s something affected about them – Quickman smokes a pipe, Knell describes weather as “clement”, they play backgammon – and precious too, so it would take a heart of stone to read MacKinney’s complaint that “I can’t even put down a simple stage direction without questioning myself” without laughing. On the other hand she puts their struggles in perspective when she says:

Do you know how many plays I’ve written in my life? Thirty-six. Know how many of those were actually any good? One. One! If I had a market stall, I’d be in penury by now.

This perfectionism could be the root of their problem, or a corollary of it. “The making part is what we’re addicted to, the struggle, the day-to-day,” Fullerton observes. Or, when Pettifer complains that “I’m useless in every respect, but especially in the field of architecture”, it could be a version of Thomas Mann’s observation that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for anyone else. But the clever thing is that the rest of the book makes such struggles feel vital and important, not silly and trivial, through immersing us in Elspeth’s past.

After a dramatic conclusion to the first part of the book (“One of Four”, it says here: geddit?), we get that entirely engaging and in-depth portrait of her birth and growth as a painter. She leaves her Scots upbringing and moves to London, where she has an informal apprenticeship with artist Jim Culvert, has early success, tussles (and more) with a critic, becomes sufficiently important through one series of work to be hung in the Tate, and then – stops. It is the ecliptic of the title that stops Elspeth, when she agrees to a commission to paint a mural for a new observatory, and cannot determine how best to depict the mysterious – well, what is it exactly?

ecliptic, n. a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year.

All this is tremendous stuff, engaging, persuasive and full of life. And at its end it brings us back to when Elspeth – Knell – joined Portmantle, and so we skip back to the ‘now’ of the story. Here the book adopts a third form, after the Secret History-esque buddy drama of part one, and the life-in-full of part two. It turns into a mystery, which I can’t say much about to avoid spoiling it. It might be enough to say that it reminded me obscurely of Theodore Roszak’s underrated novel Flicker, which was a sort of mad conspiracy theory thriller about cinema. In The Ecliptic there is just as much eyebrow-raising implausibility, but the pages turn so smoothly – I rattled through its 465 pages in a couple of (bank holi)days – that quibbles flee. Indeed, its craziness is much of its appeal.

If there’s a weakness, it’s in the revelation that comes near the end, which makes things too rational (but at the same time, paradoxically, explains both the neatness and the implausibilities earlier). In particular it seems a stretch to compare The Ecliptic, as my proof copy does, with the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, for its “delight in playing with our perceptions”. It certainly has a wide range and an impressive capacity for turning things upside down, but there isn’t really that sense of existential rudderlessness that Ishiguro excels in. Then again, to say that a book fails to live up to one of the greatest writers of fiction in English is hardly a knock. Another comparison the blurb makes, to David Mitchell, is closer to the mark.

All in all The Ecliptic is a satisfying, irresistible novel with that combination of storytelling punch and literary sensibility which can, with luck, be the sign of a big commercial and critical success. I was going to say that it marks Wood out as a writer to watch, but that usually seems to me to be code for “this book isn’t all that good, but the next one might be.” Better instead to say that he’s a writer to read.