A dark and disturbing novel of suspense brought to vivid life in this CD audiobook. This is a tale set at the turn of the 20th century, by the bestselling author of An Instance of the Fingerpost. The windswept isle of Houat, off the coast of Brittany, is no picturesque artists' colony. At the turn of the twentieth century, life is harsh and rustic. So why did Henry MacAlpine forsake London -- where he had been feted by critics and gallery owners, his works exhibited alongside the likes of Cezanne and Van Gogh -- to make his home in this remote outpost? The truth begins to emerge when, four years into his exile, MacAlpine receives his first visitor. Influential art critic William Nasmyth has come to the island to sit for a portrait. Over the course of the sitting, the power balance between the two men shifts dramatically as the critic whose pen could anoint or destroy careers becomes a passive subject. And as the painter struggles to capture Nasmyth's true character on canvas, a story unfolds -- one of betrayal, hypocrisy, forbidden love, suicide and ultimately murder.
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Iain Pears was born in 1955, educated at Wadham College, Oxford and won the Getty Scholarship to Yale University. He has worked as a journalist, an art historian and a television consultant. He is the author of many books, including the bestselling An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream Of Scipio. He lives with his wife and son in Oxford.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Well, well, well. Come in, my dear fellow. Let me look at you. But first, an embrace; it is not often you see an old friend for the first time in nearly four years. You’ve not changed a bit. Well, of course I’m lying. The eyes are that little bit more lined, the skin has lost some of its texture, the hair is a touch more grey. We are both past our best. But at least you’re still slim, to the point of emaciation. How you can eat so much to so little effect never ceases to astonish. The differences between us grow year by year, as you undoubtedly noticed the moment you saw me.
I must confess I was disturbed when I received your proposal last month. I thought, to begin with, that it was a bad idea. I could hardly believe you were prepared to travel all this way just to see me. Hence my cautious reply, in case you were making sly fun of me. My years of exile have made me sensitive, as you will no doubt discover. But here you are, a figure from history itself — my history, at least, as I suppose you are still very much in the centre of things back in London.
A glass of wine to toast your arrival. The pick of the Luberon. A particularly good year, 1912, as I am sure you will agree, especially when carefully aged for nearly nine months. I joke, of course. I like the stuff, but hardly expect your sophisticated palate to be equally enthusiastic. It is all sun and earth; no artifice in its production whatsoever. Dark, strong and somewhat violent — a little like the people who make it, in fact. I’ve grown used to the taste; it makes a change from the beer and cider that are the staples hereabouts, and fine vintages would be wasted on me, even if you could get them. I have a barrel brought over on the boat every month or so and drink it until it turns to vinegar. Already has, you think? No; it’s meant to be like that — or if it isn’t, few on this island know any better. This is the wine of the peasantry, the fuel of France. Drink it and you become
like them. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Sit down, then. I know, not comfortable, but it is the cleanest and best chair I have. Besides, it will suit my purpose admirably, as you will see. I have been made nervous, even irritated, by your sudden arrival on my little island. Do you know how long it is since I’ve had a commission to paint a portrait? Extraordinary, considering my vogue, but I gave all that up when I gave up England. And now you want to take me into my past. So be it; you will have to endure the consequences of your own folly.
Your timing is as good as ever, though. A few months ago I would have rejected the idea out of hand, but now I found the invitation tickling. Why not, I thought? Let’s see what we can do here. It is time to discover whether I can ever go back to England by exploring why I left in the first place. And who better to help the enquiry than the man who is the foremost critic in the land, whose opinion has the weight of the divine behind it?
Another little joke. But it is an opportunity to renew the battle and fight it to a conclusion. Who will emerge triumphant from this encounter of ours, do you think? The painter or the sitter? Will it be “portrait of a gentleman by Henry Morris MacAlpine,” or “portrait of William Nasmyth, by anon.” The National Gallery, or the National Portrait Gallery? We shall see. It will be your fame against my
abilities, and the result won’t be in until long after we’re both dead. I won’t trick you, I promise. I won’t sign the picture and forget to put your name on it. We will have an equal chance to see whom posterity decides to favour.
Do look around the room. I’ll be able to study your face in different lights. Not much to see, though; I’ve cast the material world aside and live as simply as the fishermen of this island. I have some books, some clothes, my paints and a few pots and pans. Not that I cook much; there is a perfectly
good bar in the village, and the widow who keeps it will prepare a meal for me whenever I like, which is most of the time. Don’t look like that; she’s fat, old and has a fearsome temper. You will stay there, if you insist on going ahead with this project. As you see, I am hardly in a position to offer you hospitality and wouldn’t anyway. I have grown used to solitude, and now prefer it. I have only the one truckle bed, which you would find as uncomfortable as sleeping on the floor. Madame Le Gurun’s accommodation will not be much better, but you will get a true taste of deep France to
shock your delicate sensibilities. This is not Paris, nor Deauville nor yet Pau, I warn you.
I can see on your face that you are surprised, even a little disoriented by all this. What did you have in your mind, as you travelled to see me? A lovely maison de maître, nestling in the hills, at least. Servants, certainly. People of some sort — a maire, an avocat, a doctor to invite me to dinner. Surely your old friend would insist on some sort of society in which to bathe his ego, however provincial it might be? Did you think this poor benighted island was like Belle-Ile over there, that
poets and playwrights came in the summer to preen themselves on my terrace? Could the man you knew in London exist without being surrounded by company?
And what do you find? Nothing. A dingy, smoke-filled house with the roof coming off — perfectly serviceable, though, I assure you. Scarcely any furniture. A painter dressed in rags, looking hardly better than a tramp, living like some hermit on a windswept, bare island inhabited only by a few
hundred Breton fishermen and their families. I mean, how extreme!
You’re right, of course, but what would be pretentious in Chelsea is perfectly acceptable here. What difference would it make how I dressed? No one ever sees me, except when I beg passage to go to Quiberon, and then I dress as fine as any country lawyer. I trim my beard — which you must admit is very fine and distracts attention from the ever-thinner hair on my head. And I struggle into my old suit with much wheezing; I have put on weight in the past few years as you see, and my clothes fit only with a protest. Still, I am elegant in comparison to most people in these parts, and with a straw hat on my head at its old jaunty angle, and with the walking stick that you gave me as a present, I believe I still cut a grand enough figure. I may be eccentric, but I do not want a reputation for such; it is the one way of attracting attention which I have always disdained. I need only one bed, one chair, one table, so that is all I have. The walls are bare; look out of the window and you have a finer sight than any painter has ever placed on a piece of canvas. And constantly
changing, as well. The intensity and variety of the sea is extraordinary; there is no chance of ever getting bored with it, and I find even the greatest painting wearies me sooner or later. As for my own works, I know perfectly well what they look like, each and every one. I don’t need to hang them up and look at them, and don’t need anyone else to look, either.
Stop! Don’t move! That will do; I want you to be comfortable, as I intend to keep you here for some time.
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