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May 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque by Jeffery Ford
Tor, UK Trade: ISBN 1405006595 PubDate: May 2003
Review by Iain Emsley

305 pages List price 10.99
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Jeffrey Ford Interview with Iain Emsley

The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque is an enthralling read that engages its readers with its eloquent portrayal of imaginary lives, madness and desire. A historical novel, a passionate crime story and an exercise in nineteenth century literature - but above all wonderful novel - The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque, is one of the essential reads of this year.

Piambo is a successful New York society artist, engaged to paint the portraits of the most eligible families at the end of the nineteenth century. He is offered an intriguing proposition by Mrs Charbuque – he must paint her without seeing her face as she will stay behind a screen. Rather than see her, he must listen to her stories, told in one hour sessions over the course of four weeks. If he paints an accurate likeness, then she will increase his payment. Thus begins his descent into a nightmare as he tries to discern the mysterious patron. His friend, Shenz, helps him try to discover a picture of the benefactor but they come into contact with a murderous mystery concerning women crying themselves to death. Despite turning nothing up, Piambo discovers that he is being played with in more ways than one and that the deception runs deeper and is colder than expected.

Our preconceptions with sight, or lack thereof, are played on throughout. Mrs Charbuque sits behind a screen for the duration of the project, showing only her silhouette. The only time that anything is seen we learn to have been a trick, a gimcrack to throw the artist. Piambo must ruminate on the lessons taught to him by his master, Sabbott, and in particular the disciplines of drawing the edges of an object, not the object itself, and how it relates to its surroundings. We discover that Mrs Charbuque is not playing the same game, as she tells of a spy hole in her screen, patterned with fallen leaves. She tells Piambo of her early life and the discovery of two snowflakes that were exactly the same and how she used the screen to hide from the world. In so doing, she was able to reinvent herself, to play games of illusion and deception thus overturning the social boundaries placed on her through her sex. Ford plays with his readers, manipulating them into considering how Mrs Charbuque is placed within the novel as she is never described in detail, merely in apposition to other facts which may or may not be true, there is scant evidence either way. She is an uncertain narrator playing games with her toy, forcing him to meditate on the relationship between artist and subject and master and servant.

As in his previous works, Ford has his protagonist begin the search for perfection, for a state of paradise, with no sure path to success. Piambo discovers that he is not the first to attempt this portrait, that his master also attempted the commission. However, both Sabbott and Shenz keep Piambo on track because they have faith that he can somehow put together the puzzle. Counterpoint to this is the murderous Mr Charbuque, on the run from the police, suspected of murder, and who jealously guards his wife, threatening Piambo all the while. The altar scene depicting the Garden of Eden is curiously appropriate with its denizens as once again Ford denies us the chance to re-enter it. We are permanently cast out and no amount of reaching towards it will afford us re-entry, we can but enjoy our earthly delights and comforts.

With its late nineteenth century New York, The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque, beautifully imagines the lives of various artists and luminaries, investing them with an inner life that lifts them off the page. It is reminiscent of Neighbouring Lives by Thomas Disch and Charles Naylor, which charts the events in a short period of James Whistler’s life.

Ford’s writing is wonderfully evocative, moving from the gas lit drawing rooms of the urban sprawl to the naturally lit expanse of its edge, with a rich cast of characters who move around the set with a fluidity alike to a Merchant Ivory film. This is a novel that will make the reader consider their own relationship to fiction and art but it also pulls the reader through it at an unrelenting pace as the layers of fictions are built up for us.

Jeffrey Ford Interview with Iain Emsley:

Jeffery Ford is Professor of Writing and American Literature and the author of three other novels, set in the Well Built City. His most recent novel, The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque, concerns the attempt to paint the eponymous portrait which leads to some surprising conclusions.

SFRevu: I found the way that you present Mrs. Charbuque intriguing, as if you were putting the reader in the same position as Piambo but never directly describing her, even at the conclusion. Was this a comment on the way that characters are portrayed in fiction? Was this also a comment on the relationship between the patron and artist?

Jeffrey Ford: One of the ideas I wanted to explore in this novel was how characters are created in the reader’s mind when reading a novel. We sit and read a good book, and these characters, as real as anyone we know, spring up from the writing and inhabit our minds. We follow them, we know them, and we are upset when the writer is not true to them. A character can easily be formed in a readers mind with no physical description at all. Merely the dialogue of a given character, the manner in which he or she holds a cigarette, what they do in a given situation, forms an image. We don’t need to be told about hair color, the width of the nose, the hue of the eyes, to form an image. In Mrs. Charbuque, the character of Piambo is never physically described, and yet it is no problem for the reader to see him, yet Mrs. Charbuque, who tells more about her life and self than even Piambo, is murky at best. Readers have told me they can not get a clear view of her or if they do it keeps mutating, shifting. In studying the phenomenon of how and when images of characters are formed in the imagination from strings of words, I learned a few tricks. These I employed in order to block the reader’s view of the woman behind the screen even though as much information about her is given as for those the reader readily sees.

There is something in this book about the patron and the artist, about artistic integrity and the commerce of art. These are things that Piambo is working through for himself. These are issues that can only be decided by each individual artist.

SFRevu: I was intrigued by the way that you utilize the pallet afforded by the non-genre pallet, such as the uncertain narrator in Mrs Charbuque and also the way that the landscape maps the psychogeography of the main characters. It reminded me of the way that the New Wave writers broadened their own styles and subsequently their own takes on genres. Does this come from your interest in nineteenth century literature? Does this underlie your writing?

JF: I’m not a very good student of the “genre,” but I think what you say about some of the New Wave writers is true. Since becoming a “fantasy” writer, so to speak, I’ve been exposed to some of the great works of an earlier generation of Fantasy writers I had not read when I was younger, and it is plain to see that a lot of the techniques and stylistic innovations that readers and reviewers are clamoring about now in the work of more recent writers were all being practiced by people like Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, Gene Wolfe, Avram Davidson, twenty, thirty, even forty years ago. This became very clear when I picked up Harrison’s new collection of stories from Night Shade Books, Things That Never Happen, and read a story called “Egnaro,” that is now over twenty years old. The pace, the character development, the quality of the prose, the inherent depth, are all aspects of writing I strive for (to whatever degree of success) in my own work today. These writers re-connected the genre with an older tradition of fantastic fiction where a story with speculative elements was expected to be as well written and fully realized as any other great work of literature. I’m a sucker for a good adventure story, but a good adventure story with great characterization, psychological depth, wonderful writing, like Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy or Moorcock’s Elric stories, especially The Dreamthief’s Daughter, is just a richer reading experience for the “literary” technique involved. As students of the genre as well, the New Wave writers drew from the sense of energy, excitement, novelty and solid plotting that had become its hallmarks. What is remarkable is that these same writers I mentioned above, with the exception of Davidson, who has passed on, are still at the forefront of fantastic fiction, creating innovative and engaging works.

As for me, when I sit down to write, I’m not interested in writing the best “genre” story I can write, but the best story I can write. My influences for this did come somewhat out of the 19th century but also from every century preceding it and following. My reading knows few boundaries. Although I am a professional writer, I make no bones about the fact that I am also always a student of writing. There is something of importance to be garnered from every text, from the writings of my composition students to the works on the best seller lists to the work in literary journals to the last issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to the most recent masterpiece of Gene Wolfe. Remembering there is always much to learn and trying to think beyond artificially imposed boundaries, makes the experience of reading and writing perpetually interesting for me.

SFRevu: One gets a sense that your central characters have fallen from their own grace and are moving towards their own paradise through their journey. In the Physiognomy, you actually embed the fragment of text into the dream and bring it alive for Cley so that he meets the Traveler in his own life. Was this a use of books such as the Pilgrim's Progress and the dream sequences therein? I got the sense that Piambo was undergoing his own journey through the stories that his sitter was telling him and the screen that had the falling leaves yet he did not have a chance to attain the actual portrait. In some way, the search for paradise is ultimately not about getting their but the journey towards it and accepting your own fate.

JF: Yes, the journey’s the thing. Arriving is secondary, and merely a resting point in which to plan the next journey. During the journey is where one tests oneself and holds up for inspection one’s preconceptions for analysis and change. Pilgrim’s Progress, though a book I am familiar with, was not really my model for those surreal elements in The Physiognomy. I was much more influenced by the dream-like nature of parts of Jack Kerouack’s Dr. Sax, Amos Tutola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Kafka’s “The Hunter Gracchus,” etc, where dream slips into reality, manifests itself and then slips away at different intervals. I agree with you that Piambo is on his own journey of discovery. As my teacher, John Gardner used to say, “There are only two plots in all of fiction. One is ‘someone goes on a journey,’ the other is ‘a stranger comes to town,’” They are, of course, the same plot seen from different perspectives. The journey, the quest, is at the heart of fantasy fiction. Even a failure to culminate the journey, does not result in the failure of the journey. The characters of Tolkien’s fantasies are successful in the end, and that is one kind of journey tale. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, fails, but in failing learns about himself and how to live and treat others, and that is another kind of tale. Aristotle writes that the one element that successful stories must have is a character who changes due to the circumstances they find themselves in. Not that I consciously consider this when writing, but for readers, I suspect, reading about a character going through these changes allows them to face changes in their own lives, prepares them for the trials and struggles of living. Fiction can be a great resource in this respect.

SFRevu: I was deeply impressed by the way that you had Below create the city through the Art of Memory and that it was somehow failing due to Below? (Its construction reminded me of Mary Gentle's Rats and Gargoyles). How did you come across the Art?

JF: I’m unfamiliar with Gentle’s fiction, but I came to the idea of the memory palace through two books by the scholar Frances Yates – The Art of Memory and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. These are both truly wonderful texts with great painstaking historical research. Yates’ writing style is as engaging for the lay reader, like me, as for one familiar with the concepts of the history of philosophy. I highly recommend them and her other works as well.

Below is an interesting character to me, and not entirely unsympathetic. He has a sense of humore, and if you follow the trilogy, you will see that he has his reasons for the way he is. His Well-Built-City is a reflection of his desire for control. As in real life, the people who desire the most control are usually those who either have the most to lose by change or are insecure in their own understanding of themselves. What is essential about Paradise is that it is a place where change is dead, a living death. In the Judeo/Christian mythology of the Bible, Adam and Eve could only be free when they were booted out of it and subject to the vicissitudes of change. Free will is the enemy of Paradise.

SFRevu: What were (or are) your writing influences? Is there anybody that you are currently reading who is making an impression on you?

JF: My influences are myriad, but here are some I can readily point to. I was a student of John Gardner’s back in the early 80’s, and I learned a great deal from him about fiction writing. Another mentor for me is the Science Fiction writer and poet, William Jon Watkins, author of Click Whistle, Kosmic Thunder, The Centrifugal Rickshaw Dancer, with whom I have, for the past 12 years, taught a course in Early American Literature. As for writers whose works have really changed my view of fiction writing, there are too many to really mention. My favorite short story writer is Issac Bashevis Singer. My default favorite novelist is Melville (this changes depending what week it is and what I may be presently reading at the time). There are writers who work in and around the genre today whose fiction I find very exciting and will send me packing to the book store or online to whatever site they are publishing at – Jonathan Carroll, Jeff VanderMeer, China Mieville, Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, Patrick O’Leary, Richard Bowes, Leslie What, Stepan Chapman, … and this is just a start. Masters of the genre like Robert Sheckley, Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick, M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, continue to turn out vital work.

If that isn’t enough, there are a whole slew of new writers who are doing terrific things, like Charles Finlay, Ben Rosenbaum, Theodora Goss, Jay Lake, Tim Pratt, etc. And for readers interested in the borderlands where the fantasy genre mixes with surrealism and magical realism and other genres, there are Rhys Hughes, Jeffrey Thomas, Scott Thomas, Rikki Ducornet, Michael Cisco. I don’t know if anyone would agree, but in my estimation this seems to be a very rich time period for the literature of the fantastic. Two novels I read recently that I thought were very good were Greg Frost’s Fitcher’s Brides, a harrowing retelling of the Blue Beard story (marvelous writing) and K. J. Bishop’s The Etched City, a first novel, teeming with original imagery and great characters.

SFRevu: Portrait… reads as if it was a historical novel. How do you see the division between historical fiction and fantasy, in that both imagine lives? I was reminded of Neighbouring Lives which Thomas Disch co-authored and dealt with Whistler and his neighbours.

JF: With the exception of a few recent stories by Disch, I am ignorant of his work and so can’t speak to the analogy. In reality, every novel is a historical novel, whether it be set in an actual place and time or one of the imagination. Fiction boiled down to its essential mechanics is the description of objects in motion through time. It is the record of events and the lives of those who live them – hence it is a history. What I was trying for in Mrs. Charbuque was a novel that might have existed at the time the book was set in, not so much a conscious historical tour of the time. When I researched the time period, I spent more hours reading novels from the late 19th and very early 20th century, trying to capture the style and authorial voice. I was not so interested in proving that I knew how many stops there were on a particular trolley route in 1893 or pointing out all of the landmarks, like some sight seeing tour of late 1800’s New York. If you read a novel by Edith Wharton, there are very few mentions of landmarks or specifics about current politics or the manner in which Delmonicos prepared their steaks. What you get is people doing their thing, for better or worse, and a lot of that stuff hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. I did quite a bit of research initially for Mrs. Charbuque, but in the end had to toss much of it out because it got in the way of the story. I got great advice on this from my editor, Jennifer Brehl. The story is the most important thing, and it doesn’t pay to let it get bogged down in historical detail no matter how cool the tidbit of information is that you managed to dredge up.

SFRevu: Do you find a difference in writing for short stories and novels? How does this manifest itself?

JF: For me, the writing of stories and novels are two different experiences. I enjoy them both. One thing that is similar is that I usually carry the ideas for both around in my head for a good long time, letting them percolate, sometimes for years, and then I write relatively quickly (I think). With some stories, I just sit down, without any preconceptions and let loose, so to speak. I have to do one of those extemporaneous pieces every now and again to surprise my thoughts and see what is hiding just beneath the surface of consciousness. These are always stories and a lot of the time they show me new and different ways to go with my fiction.

Novels are like going on a journey. I prepare by reading all manner of useless information and other novels in an attempt to understand the subject matter I am dealing with. Then I reach a point where I realize my reading is an excuse for not sitting down and just getting started, so then I just start writing. I never take or keep notes or a journal. I like to keep whatever I have in my head and work from that. In this way the ideas get to mix, nothing is set in print, and I have no problem changing course if that is what is called for. A novel is a much more forgiving creature than a story. Henry James called the novel “a baggy monster.” There’s more room for digression, multiple voices, structural techniques that take time to develop. Novels are a meditation on space and time. I like to use the technique of having the reader remember within the novel, so objects and ideas resurface again and again in different settings and guises. This can really only be accomplished within a good amount of pages. The writing process is the same with novels as with stories. I see the character, I follow the character, and the character takes me to the story. I simply record what happens. Soon enough, I get a sense of the structure of the novel. This is very important for me, as I feel it like a kind of music, and then I can figure out the chapter lengths and the relative length of the book. I set a chapter length and stick to it as best I can. It’s like happy accident, whatever happens has to happen in that allotted space for that chapter. I thought this was kind of crazy, but I have recently seen that Michael Moorcock has done the same for years.

Stories are different in that they are more exacting. I usually have no idea of the length when I start. The actual writing process is the same as with a novel. I appreciate the fact that with a story the time it takes to create one is much shorter, for me, usually about a week and a half to two weeks. Sometimes it’s shorter than that. I’ve done some in a day. Another thing I like about stories, is I feel more freedom to mess around with new styles and approaches to story telling, odd structures and so forth. Stories are about compression. There are masters and masterpieces of compression like Borges or the story “Wakefield” by Hawthorne. The idea is that in the compression one gives the illusion of the passing of time without sparing the sense of detail. It’s like a magic trick.

Jeffrey Ford was talking to Iain Emsley.

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