Sometimes a reading experience is not as straight forward as you might first think. There are some books that demand more of the reader. The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones was one of those books for me.
I feel a little guilty about confessing that this was my first Gail Jones. One of my former colleagues (who is very arty and whose book tastes often, but not always, match my own) loves Jones’ ouevre. It has taken this year’s Stella longlist nominations to finally get me there though.
The Death of Noah Glass could simply be read as a tender, moving story about the sudden death of an elderly, but still physically active and able father in mysterious circumstances. Martin and Evie struggle with their grief and memories, although, ultimately, it is these memories that provide them with solace and connection.
I quickly felt, though, that there was more going on here. There was a lot of Italian art history and art theory being thrown around (as you might expect when one of the characters was an art historian and one an artist) and the discussions on time, space and memory felt layered and purposeful.
So after about 50-60 pages, I googled.
Piero della Francesca was the obvious place to start, as he was the Florentine artist that Noah Glass studied. I quickly discovered that Weng-Ho Chong, the cover designer, had used part of one of the frames from Piero’s The Legend of the True Cross for his stunning book cover design. This frame is titled, Dream of Constantine and features a sleeping figure (Constantine) and a relaxed servant in the foreground. The servant, dreamily sits in the left hand corner of the cover, whilst the angel, prophesying victory, has been moved to the other side of the cover.
|The Legend of the True Cross 1454-1458, Bacci Chapel, Church of San Francesco, Arezzo|
I’ve also thought many times in the past year, that the blue cover was a nod to Brett Whitely’s, The Balcony 2. Given the very Sydney setting of the story, the choice of this particular blue on the cover feels deliberate and significant.
And then I discovered Robert Dixon’s article in the Sydney Review of Books, September 2018.
My brain almost exploded with art references and philosophical debates way beyond my ken! However I did take on a few new-to-me terms, and thanks to wikipedia, managed to grasp their meaning:
In Western art history, Mise en abyme is a formal technique of placing a copy of an image within itself, often in a way that suggests an infinitely recurring sequence. In film theory and literary theory, it refers to the technique of inserting a story within a story.
A type of frame story. Sometimes a story within the main narrative can be used to sum up or encapsulate some aspect of the framing story, in which case it is referred to in literary criticism by the French term mise en abyme.
Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness.
In this way, a painting may represent a sculpture, and vice versa; a poem portray a picture; a sculpture depict a heroine of a novel; in fact, given the right circumstances, any art may describe any other art, especially if a rhetorical element, standing for the sentiments of the artist when they created their work, is present.
Acknowledgments are handy for literary snoops: they provide invaluable clues to a book’s emotional undertow, especially when the writer is as private and reticent as Gail Jones….
“I’m a novelist of ideas,” she continues, as if slightly insulted by the notion that she might entertain even for a moment switching allegiances from the literary side of the fence to populist genre fiction.
“Novels are machines for thinking as well as feeling. Plot points are really engines for dispersed, unstable ideas about art, family and time. Especially time, and the way it folds and crumples, its patterns and repetitions, how it stops in front of a painting.”
…Perhaps in spite of herself, Jones’ novel reveals her own feelings about what it means to lose those we love. “There is no closure and that is a good thing,” she says with certainty. “Other people live on in us, as a kind of secular afterlife. Art consoles us. That is its power.”
As someone who has experienced that profound stopping and folding of time in front of certain paintings and in certain historical sites, I honour and admire other people’s revelations. I certainly found some consolation in The Death of Noah Glass and hope that Jones did to in the writing of it.