Donna Tartt's latest novel is smart, in both senses of the word

Ravishingly beautiful writing from a rock-star novelist.

Back in black: Donna Tartt. Image: Melanie Dunea/ CPI Syndication

 

The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Little, Brown, 784pp, £20

In the world of modern publishing, it is not enough to be able to write. If you want to make a living from books, it helps to be goodlooking, with rock-star cool and an intriguing backstory. The American novelist Donna Tartt qualifies on all counts and has the additional virtue of being fascinatingly taciturn. A handful of published interviews record a tantalising modicum of information.

She was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963 and educated at Bennington College, Vermont, where her classmates included the future “brat pack” novelist Bret Easton Ellis. Her first novel, The Secret History, a richly mannered Gothic murder story set at an imaginary college, became a bestseller when it was published in 1992. Ten years later, The Little Friend appeared. This, too, was a protracted essay in Gothic suspense, set in the American South with a bookish 12-year-old heroine bent on avenging the murder of her elder brother.

Another decade passed. Tartt’s admirers wondered fretfully whether she was suffering from writer’s block. Had she become a recluse? The more prosaic reality seems to be that it simply takes her ten years or so to complete her long and intricate fictions.

Her third novel, The Goldfinch, takes its title from a picture by the 17th-century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, who died aged 32 in 1654 when the Delft arsenal exploded, destroying the artist’s studio and much of his work. His little painting of a captive finch hangs in the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. Tartt imagines for it a spectacularly more eventful career.

Her protagonist, Theo Decker, is 13 years old when he first sees Fabritius’s painting. He and his mother are on their way to an awkward disciplinary meeting at his school when they drop into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the painting is on loan. As they admire it, Theo is distracted by the sight of a pretty, red-haired girl of about his age. He is wondering how to start a conversation with her when a terrorist bomb explodes.

Theo’s mother is killed. He, the red-haired girl – Pippa – and the painting of the goldfinch survive the blast. Of the three, the painting, which Theo, in shock, carries with him out of the museum, is the only one unscathed. Theo, unlike Pippa, is not physically hurt but his life begins to unravel after his mother’s death. He has no close relations; his raffish, alcoholic father has abandoned the family, leaving no address.

Just as it seems that Theo has found a home with the wealthy family of his nerdy school friend Andy, his father reappears. Dried out and with a new girlfriend, he offers a simulacrum of family stability plausible enough for the New York social services to agree that Theo should live with him in Las Vegas. There, Theo falls in with a Ukrainian artful dodger called Boris. The ensuing drug-strewn picaresque follows the two waifs as they make their way – accompanied, as though in a fairy tale, by the goldfinch and a fluffy white Maltese dog called Popper – from the compromised innocence of parentless adolescence to grown-up experience of the most dangerous and lurid kind.

Tartt’s style, though distinctively her own, resonates with the influences of other novelists. She shares with Dickens a fondness for orphans, grandiose coincidence (“God’s way of remaining anonymous”, as Boris puts it) and the swift, pungent delineation of minor characters. And, like Dickens, she is fascinated by impalpable qualities: innocence, love, value and the way these things are embodied in the tangible world.

Fabritius’s little painted bird; the emerald earrings that once belonged to Theo’s mother, which his fiancée carelessly flings into her bag as though they were loose change; a topaz necklace, left as a despairing love token inside Pippa’s boot: all of these speak of hope, endurance and a kind of defiant aesthetic order – an intriguing reversal of the critique of material acquisitiveness in the Henry James novel The Portrait of a Lady, devastatingly updated in Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.

J K Rowling is a more surprising influence, although bookish children are one of Tartt’s leitmotifs. In The Goldfinch, Theo is nicknamed “Potter” by Boris because of his spectacles; and the novel’s transcendent moment, in which Theo, in extremis, dreams of seeing his dead mother reflected in a mirror, echoes the moment when Harry Potter sees his parents in the Mirror of Erised.

The Goldfinch is without doubt a beguiling novel. It is smart – in both the American and the British senses of that word – brilliantly readable, thrilling and touching. It contains some ravishingly beautiful writing about objects and about cities; New York and Amsterdam appear as characters in their own right. But there is a sense – engendered, perhaps, by the sheer length of time between novels – that Tartt’s ambition extends beyond the writing of very stylish, engaging and literate bestsellers. If that is the case, it will be interesting to see what she comes up with in ten years’ time.

Back in black: Donna Tartt. Image: Melanie Dunea/ CPI Syndication

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle