There’s a corny old Victorian song (music by Arthur Sullivan of G & S fame) called “The Lost Chord”, in which an organist, idly tootling on the organ, happens on a sublime chord that he can never after recapture.
I have sought, but I seek it vainly,
That one lost chord divine
Which came from the soul of the organ
And entered into mine.
Benjamin Wood’s book is of an infinitely higher order than this song, but the same idea, that great art comes out of a mysterious universe of truth not accessible to ordinary people, is at the heart of The Ecliptic. It seems to be a theme of his: in The Bellwether Revivals, which I haven’t read, a central character is a musical prodigy with a messianic belief in music as an organising principle in the world. For Elspeth Conroy, the painter who narrates The Ecliptic, the lost chord is emotional truth, a personal truth that resonates with some form of universal truth.
It is a painter’s job to give shape to things unseeable, to convey emotion in the accumulation of gestures, the instinctive, the considered, the unplanned. There is both randomness and predestination in the act of painting, a measurement and a chaos, and the moment you allow the mind to implicate itself too much in the business of the heart, the work will falter. It is not something you can control. You might toil long and hard, bullying the painting until it agrees to do your bidding, but you will only beat the life right out of it. And when you reach the stage where you are not expressing feeling in your work but engineering it, you might as well become a forger, or present yourself at a museum and donate your skills to the conservation of its masterpieces. Otherwise, you will be tempted to hang your feeble efforts on the wall and say, “Good enough,” seeing pound signs where there should be meaning. You must resist this temptation with every fibre of your being. (232)
The struggle to follow this credo drives Elspeth, a celebrated young painter who despises the falsity of her own work, to such a crescendo of psychological distress that she leaps at the opportunity to get away from the world and enter the mysterious colony of Portmantle, on an island off the coast of Istanbul, where artists give up everything, even their names, to dedicate themselves to the creation of the great work they’re searching for. All, like Elspeth, are high achievers in despair; all are looking to transcend their own fame in total dedication to the artistic goal. They have no contact with the outside world and time here means nothing: Elspeth estimates, from the passage of the seasons, that she’s been at Portmantle about ten years, and she’s still experimenting to find the right medium for the great work she’s obsessed with. Her long-term companions – a playwright, an architect and a novelist – are the same. The arrival of a 17-year-old boy known as Fullerton upsets the balance and routine: he is farouche, disruptive and subject to alarming panic attacks.
There’s a considerable build up to the arrival of Fullerton, but Wood doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. Fullerton is less that we expect. Later in the novel we see the connections retrospectively, but at this stage it feels as if Wood doesn’t quite know what to do with him. The timing falters, big events seeming truncated and out of balance with the assured movement of the earlier chapters.
When the book moves back into Elspeth’s past, we learn that the ‘ecliptic’ of the title refers to something that’s become the focus of her artistic obsession. It’s an imaginary circle that represents the earth’s movement around the sun, but which we see as the path of the sun moving among the stars. The point is that it doesn’t exist in fact, but it does in our imagination, and it represents a truth about the universe. When working on a mural for a planetary observatory, she felt she must represent it, but she couldn’t work out a way of doing it that felt true to her. That’s the project she’s been working on at Portmantle. It’s an arresting image, but it feels too overtly symbolic for the book. Like Fullerton, its aura is bigger than its actuality.
It’s an absorbing and memorable book for its portrayal of Elspeth and the perspective of a uniquely creative mind. Wood writes really well about painting and the world in which painters move. Around that, the structure creaks a bit. It feels overly-plotted and too neatly dovetailed at the end (as in the connection between Fullerton and the rest of Elspeth’s life that is spelled out). I’d prefer this any day to Donna Tartt’s work, to which Wood’s has been compared. He’s less showy but there’s more artistic integrity. Recommended.