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.
Today’s Quote is from John Banville’s novel The Book of Evidence, a 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 thoughts, So 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.
Two cities radiant on the shield appear,
The image one of peace, and one of war.
Here sacred pomp and genial feast delight,
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 on a Grecian Urn:
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with bredeOf 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.
- The Book of Evidence, John Banville.
- Renaissance Figures of Speech, Edited by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber.
- Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges.