A few months ago I wrote about William Boyd’s Sweet Caress (a badly named novel if ever there was!) with the intention of looking at other novels with photography as a theme or backdrop. The one I had in mind was Paul Theroux’s Picture Palace. I read this and quite a few other Theroux books – (fiction rather than non) – in my twenties when it made quite an impression. On the other hand that impression had become vague over time (a famous woman photographer, a windmill, a compelling ending?) It was also long out of print and like so many novels pre-2000 not reissued as an e-book. Eventually I got hold of a second hand paperback, eager to find out what it had got my attention thirty or forty years ago. Since I did nurture an interest in photography back then, I assumed it was the subject matter as well as the characters and plot.
My rereading didn’t start well. The yellowing (or rather yellowed) pages detracted from the reading experience even under my daylight reading lamp but I don’t think this was the problem. The narrator, award-winning photographer Maud Coffin Pratt is a prickly character and although she masks a deep vulnerability she somehow didn’t move me. The basic premise of the book (there’s a neat synopsis here) – that her career was driven by her hero-worship of – and ultimately desire for – her older brother, felt unlikely. Not so much because her success with the camera came about accidentally (the same could be said of Boyd’s narrator) but the fact that she continued to ride her luck only to please him. The wider family scenario – parents discovered to be conniving with racism, a sister who is both a best friend and a rival – and a run-in with a travelling circus, do round things out successfully, but something seemed to be missing. Nor was her contemporary conflict with the young researcher preparing a retrospective especially intriguing except as further evidence of Maud’s irascibility.
Despite a change of cover the book hasn’t changed. So has the reader? I think I’m less patient now and have struggled with novelists I loved back in the seventies. But this wasn’t a long or cumbersome book. One thing that did occur to me was that the subject of incest was probably more shocking and less widely written about then. Did that add to the impact it had on me? So a case of society changing as well as or alongside the reader. So what began as a post about books on photography has become one about changing tastes – mine and probably other people’s. It was certainly a huge surprise when I found myself comparing it to Sweet Caress – a much more episodic and rambling book – and preferring the latter. I can only think that they are both books of their time and time has moved on for all of us.
However despite my reservations, I might hang on to my (Penguin 1979) antique edition. On a quick trawl of cover images, this one no longer comes up.Maybe I have a rarity of another kind.
Talking of physical books, the cover of Blink has been decided at last and the image licenses obtained. I am pretty pleased – but keeping you in suspense for now!