The Woman and the Painter

Who is she?

Quote: The squalor is what strikes her first of all. Dirt and daubs of paint everywhere, gnawed chicken bones on a smeared plate, a chamber-pot on the floor in the corner. The painter matches the place, with that filthy smock, and those fingernails. He has a drinker’s squashed and pitted nose. She thinks the general smell is bad until she catches a whiff of his breath. She discovers that she is relieved: she had expected someone young, dissolute, threatening, not this pot-bellied old soak. But then he fixes his little wet eyes on her, briefly, with a kind of impersonal intensity, and she flinches, as if caught in a burst of strong light. No one has ever looked at her like this before. So this is what it is to be known! It is almost indecent.

Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, c. 1633–1634

Not the painting in question, but it is the style you should have in mind. This is Rembrandt’s Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh, c. 1633–1634.


Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidencea fictional book-length confession of a man awaiting trail for bludgeoning a girl to death while attempting to steal a valuable painting. The narrative structure is complex and nonstandard: the protagonist, Freddie, interweaves his recollections of the events leading up to the crime (first person past tense) with his confessional voice addressing you, my lord, the judge (first person present, with second person thrown in occasionally). Or perhaps this is the simplest, most natural narrative structure: that of one person telling another about an event and interjecting commentary with hindsight.

Back to the Quote and the question: who is the woman in Banville’s story?

She is the woman portrayed in the painting Freddie tried to steal, and the Quote is Freddie’s imagination at work: the seventeenth century painting has become an obsession to the point where he has made up a five page story about the the identity of the woman, her family, her household, habits, and health, how she arrives to an anonymous painter’s studio in the Quote, and how the process of painting ensues. Freddie imbues her with thoughtsSo this is what it is to be known!, with feelings, she is relieved, with expectations, she expected someone young, even with a nuanced sense of societal norms, It is almost indecent.

In other words, the Quote is an example of a particular kind of descriptive storytelling embedded within storytelling.

What is at the core of the Quote?



Ekphrasis is a figure of vivid description employed with the goal of presenting a place, person, object, etc in such a way that the reader can envision it in great detail. Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, uses ekphrasis as a means of compelling the reader to believe in something by sheer force of description: what you can imagine is more likely to be true than what you cannot, even if the imagined object not only doesn’t exist, but is a physical impossibility.

More narrowly and outside of rhetoric, ekphrasis is thought of as a vivid description of a work of art, real or imaginary.

Ekphrasis is what Homer does in one hundred lines of the Iliad when describing a beautiful shield of Achilles that is wrought by the gods:

Two cities radiant on the shield appear,
The image one of peace, and one of war.
Here sacred pomp and genial feast delight,

It’s what Shakespeare does when he describes Cleopatra on her barge in Antony and Cleopatra:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; …

It’s what Keats does in Ode to a Grecian Urn:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;

A less famous, speculative example might be Borges’s short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius that is built out of ekphrastic elements describing an imaginary book, an imaginary legend, an imaginary world.

Even when part of a larger whole, ekphrasis is self-contained and stands alone. As such, it is both a miniature work of art in itself, designed to be more engrossing than a generic description, and it is an unnatural interruption of the larger narrative. I particularly like thinking of it as a kind of virtual reality or as an unmooring of description from object (Claire Preston, Ekphrasis: painting in words, see 2. below). It lends a second layer of virtuality, but it also unmoors the reader from the first.

Like flashbacks or stories within stories, ekphasis purposefully arrests the plot of the main story, but unlike them, it is an opportunity for gratuitous word-painting exhibitionism on behalf of the author (no wonder ekphrasis was considered an essential rhetorical exercise by the Ancients).

Just look at the Quote: it’s part of a five page ekphrasis that is so convincingly real you forget what the main story was about. In fact, once you’re done reading it, you’re a little more convinced that a painting so brought to life was worthy of an obsession. What we read is what we see, and what we see sways what we feel.


Reading Recommendations

  1. The Book of Evidence, John Banville.
  2. Renaissance Figures of Speech, Edited by  Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and  Katrin Ettenhuber.
  3. Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges.

14 responses

  1. Yes, I agree and those are the reasons I try every new Banville novel. I thought “The Sea” was especially good, and also liked “The Infinities” and “Ancient Light.” I put aside “The Blue Guitar,” but it sent me back to both the painting and the poem, which I’ve always liked, so I’m not complaining. I can’t remember the earlier Banville books I’ve read, because I didn’t use Library Thing back then. 🙂

    The Benjamin Black books are more relaxed, and they are mysteries, so lighter in that sense. You can tell he’s written them more quickly and spent less time working over each sentence. I wouldn’t characterize them as fun to read. They are very dark. The first seven are based in Dublin in the 1950s. They are uneven in quality, to me, but much better written than the bulk of mysteries.

    Now, the current Benjamin Black, “Wolf on a String,” is completely different, being set in 1599 in Prague. It started out strong and now is bogging down, in that Banville way, but we’ll see. It’s an interesting exercise in storytelling. I admire Banville for his technical wizardry, and by that I don’t mean only his beautiful sentences, but the way he constructs his novels so intelligently and purposively. He’s a masterful novelist, not just an excellent writer. In this one he seems to have challenged himself to build a “whodunit” around a character who is clueless — just out of school, not in authority — and who just arrived in a new country, the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor. And in 1599. That’s very different for a mystery. We’ll have to see if it works. I think perhaps not, but that tells us something about the mystery format.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Infinities was my first Banville book. I think I sensed the beauty and depth of his prose, more than I was able to appreciate it—so I chose another book by him and read more closely. The Book of Evidence is a genuine story, and I liked it for the (wandering) plot elements and the prose; Mefisto is weaker on the plot (but maybe there’s reason for that according to the Paris Review article), but the lyrical elements are stunning in places. I’m currently midway through Birchwood, the second novel he wrote, because I’m curious to see from which staring point his prose developed. Eventually I plan to read them all 🙂

      An aside: what’d you think of Library Thing? I use Goodreads to shelve books and am fairly satisfied, the reviews are good, the community is nice, their app works well etc. What pulled you over to the Library Thing?

      It’s interesting to hear your opinion about the Benjamin Black books. I somehow extrapolated from the Banville prose that his Black books would be faster-paced crime novels, equally well-written, equally clinical, and equally grim, but more “fun”, if going around investigating murder can be called fun. I’ll definitely get to them at some point.

      As for the latest one you mention, I have to admit I hadn’t heard of it. But the premise sounds catchy and might be worth looking into even if the middle is bogged down. If you get a chance let me know what the final verdict is on that one 🙂


      • You are most welcome. It’s an honor to share your prodigious insights, beautifully crafted and insightful posts, as well as your formidable library of book reviews. If only I could muster the discipline to be a portion as productive as you! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, that’s such an encouragement! I’m afraid my small amount of diligence in certain areas, means I struggle to visit all the great blogs I’d like to … And I draw inspiration from the smallest, weirdest, most eclectic things, so I think I’ll be paying even more attention to your versatile blogs. How do you manage to find such diverse material in finite time?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Most welcome! I too draw inspiration from the most non-standard avenues and least traveled paths! And that’s what is so attractive about what you do (IMHO). Hmmm, I suppose, having not thought about it before, that after 3+ years of posts I find the vast mother seablog washes all form of beautiful artifacts onto your personal beach of consciousness . That is when you bookmark like a madman – creating your own map of wondrous places to go be inspired!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. For those of my readers who delve deeper into matters of ekphrasis:

    Is it possible for a seventeenth century lady to flinch as if caught in a burst of strong light? Were there any sources of strong light likely to burst back then? If not, would this be an example of Banville, or rather Freddie, using words and concepts from his frame of reference (second half of twentieth century) and does realising this kind of thing burst the ekphrasis illusion or only reinforce its purpose?


    • An interesting question. It would make more sense if Banville (as the narrator) is the person/sensibility describing the action and state of mind of both characters. I can’t tell from that short passage if the novel is told from her perspective or that of Banville. Or perhaps the character Freddie? Or all three?

      This sounds like a book I would like. But Banville is a writer I have conflicting feelings about. I enjoy his highly wrought style, and his intelligence. And the things that interest him, interest me. But I roll my eyes at the non-natural, non-colloquial, vocabulary in some works. Plus, he does tend to yammer on sometimes. 🙂

      Nonetheless, he’s an excellent writer. And, coincidentally, I just started his most recent Benjamin Black book.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The novel is told from the point of view of the fictional Freddie Montgomery who is awaiting trial for murder. He muses on the painting for five pages. If the ‘burst of light’ is indeed implausible in the seventeenth century, it would actually be Freddie’s narrative “mistake” … I only asked because it’s a curious situation: in this particular case I didn’t mind as it’s a pedantic point, but I wonder how I’d have felt if the temporal incongruities in the narrative had been larger.

        Apropos Banville: I think his prose has a lot to teach any lyrically inclined writer. As a reader, there is also a lot to be enjoyed: at least once per page he produces a sentence so pleasing I could reread it many times, and most of his descriptions are vivid despite the “highly wrought style”. The “non-natural, non-colloquial” vocabulary I found troubling (but also intriguing!) in the first couple of his books that I read. However, after I’d combed through the words I didn’t know, learned them, and had their meaning settled in the contexts in which he uses them, I enjoyed the next few books. I’ve started to notice themes and word patterns characteristic of his writing, and that makes for an even more satisfying experience. I read his books in little dozes and only when I’m willing to be intellectually (linguistically?) stimulated. The interview that he gave to the Paris Review helped me understand him a bit better as a writer. Even just the introduction justified my opinion that you can’t be a “casual tourist” in a Banville book, and that if you’re looking for a striking plot you should look elsewhere. (“As a novelist, he is famous for his difficulty. In their architecture and in their style, his books are like baroque cathedrals, filled with elaborate passages and sometimes overwhelming to the casual tourist. For this, Banville makes no apologies—he says he is committed to language and to rhythm above plot, characterization, or pacing.”)

        However, I only know of his Benjamin Black books—am yet to read one!—and have heard they’re more relaxed and “fun”. I take it you agree and would recommend them?

        Liked by 1 person

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