how to paint a dead man, by sarah hall

Everything that Sarah Hall writes is luminous with genius. Her fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, concerns the intertwining lives of four people, disconnected by place and time. Their stories take place adjacent to one another, are intimately connected, but never share the same temporal geography. For all its vibrancy and currency, its earthy people and gripping stories, this book is essentially a meditation on the nature of art. There is an exuberant and joyful celebration of the inner life of the artist, a basking in the mysteries, a revelling in beauty. It is a book full of love and loving, not at all cynical, alive with feeling.

There is something magical, too, in the way that Sarah Hall traces chains of coincidence and synchronicity: connections that are subtle, too oblique to be noticed, but which exert their power nonetheless on each of the characters’ lives. The people in this book are defiantly, irresistibly alive. Their deaths are tragedies, and yet, as the clever structure of the novel suggests, their deaths are not  the end of them. In the perspective of the novel, art is life, and art survives death.

Hall’s writing in her first novel, Haweswater, put me very much in mind of Alan Garner and, sometimes, Ted Hughes. She understands the landscape intimately, physically, historically, and her people in Haweswater seem to rise out of the land, seem to be hewn from rock themselves. How to Paint a Dead Man is a more polished novel, more sure-footed and wider-ranging, but it still has that same organic, natural magic. There is something wildly exciting about writing that is so confident, so daring, so unafraid of its own themes and emotions. If you want a novel that makes you feel brave about writing, I recommend this one.

making strange

Reading Alan Garner’s The Stone Book Quartet was an incredible experience. I read it in an afternoon, sitting in the kitchen with the dog asleep at my feet, and rain beating against the window. Not that I was aware of my surroundings for long. The voices in those pages spoke directly to me, called me into their world, and I was drawn completely inside – or rather outside, or elsewhere: this beautiful dark rough nature.

This book is an evocation of feeling, it compels the reader to inhabit the language and be overtaken by it. Nothing happens for the sake of show in Garner’s writing, but each image is organic, profoundly simple, dense with meaning, mysterious, and true. His magic is steeped in physical history, in the landscape, in the intimate connection between humans and the land we live from. The knowledge passed down through generations, which encompasses the true nature of the material, and works with it in precise, sympathetic, patient, intuitive ways. Crafting yourself so you can do the work without fear.

Garner’s craft is fluid, natural, timeless. His craft is to find the seam of magic running deep under everything. His infallible mastery of language is necessary in order to bring these old true stories back from the mists of time.

In 1999, Garner gave a brilliant speech in which he talked about what language is for and how it works:

Unless words are metaphor, they are dead. You will find this wherever you come across a jargon, which is a valid construct stripped of ambiguity in order to communicate matters precisely, simply and beyond misunderstanding. The words are not elegant and have no literary value. They serve, but never dictate.

What we need to follow, then, is the ambiguous, the strange, the nonsensical. There is no urgent need to worry about making sense. What we must do is make strange.

A work of art is a dream. For all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is always ambiguous. A dream never says, “You must”, or, “This is truth”. It presents an image. To grasp its meaning, we must let it shape us as it shaped the writer. Then we also understand the nature of his experience. He has plunged into the healing and redeeming depths of the unconscious, where we are not lost in the isolation of consciousness, but where all are caught in a common rhythm that allows the individual to communicate feelings and strivings to mankind as a whole.

This connection to one another, deep in the heart of this dream, where all is strange and obscure — is where we find the hidden magic of our lives. And that’s what art is for, to serve that connection and to increase its vibrancy and power.