January 13th, 2009

Rose-coloured Reviews "The Limner" by Julian Barnes

I like to think I’m an astute enough reader to recognize a good story even if it is one that doesn’t appeal to me personally. I’m sure there are flaws in my judgement, things I judge to be objectively bad when in fact it’s just my subjective taste talking, but I do try on that front. Conversely, I try not to let personal pleasure in a story ellide it’s objective flaws. For some reason, the latter task feels tougher than the former.

Julian Barnes’s short story, The Limner, in last week’s New Yorker was delightful reading. It is a Victorian period piece about a travelling artisan, an self-trained portrait painter (that’s what a limner is). It’s lovely, detailed in the specifics of the back and front of house relations and authentic in how only the most “Christian” of clients would treat a travelling artisan as a guest in their homes rather than a servant.

There’s also lots of subtle visual description in this story, doubly emphasized because the protagonist is both a painter and deaf. We get the intricacy of the claw-foot piano and the customs officer’s waistcoat button as Wadsworth works to portray them on the canvas, the limner’s mare “shook her tail against the flies, or impatiently raised her neck.” Barnes does an admirable job of making these elements not just visual beauties but technical challenges of the painter. Barnes is also does much detailed work on facial expressions, because this is principally how Wadsworth understands human communication. Deaf since 5, he has never learned to lip-read or speak, so he relies on notebook to both send and receive communication.

But really, with most people, Wadsworth can “could silently perceive their meaning”: he observes the attitudes of their faces and bodies and divines their hearts, their true values.

Sounds a bit fairy-tale-ish, or at least morality-tale-ish doesn’t it? This isn’t *exactly* relevant, but if you have worked with recent grade-school-level pedagogical materials, you’ll know it’s considered unhelpful for young students to read stories like this, stories that imply a disability in one area confers a perhaps semi-supernatural gift in another. The stereotype of the moral-superhero parapalegic is just damaging and silly as the stereotype of the dumb blond or viscious jock.

The stereotypes and stock characters are pretty thick on the ground in Barnes’s story, though: in addition to the moral and perceptive deaf artist, there is Mr. Tuttle, the customs officer who poses for his portrait. He’s a customs officer and ungenerous, argumentative, undignified, self-important–shock! And a garden boy who is simple and sweet, “an elf with eyes of burnt umber.”

The resolution of the story is nearly contained in the fourth paragraph. We know in the first that the customs officer is awful, Wadsworth deaf, devout and humble. Then, we learn “And then there had been that incident on the third evening, against which he had failed—or felt unable—to protest. It had made him sleep uneasily. It had wounded him, too, if the truth were known.” An action against the child by the customs officer, we learn straightaways too, and what to be done about it?

I won’t, I guess, reveal what exactly, but suffice to say that no character goes against type or expectation, and that the end is quite satisfying in a fairy-tale way. It was very pleasant reading both because I like Victorian fiction (yes, yes, me, your high-school English teacher and your great-aunt Elsbeth) and because I like fairness. And the level of detail and colour was high and lovely.

But really, I think that’s all there was–nothing surprising or challenging or at all beyond the level of pleasant. Which is really hardly what I’d expect from a *New Yorker* short story. A momentary pleasure, quickly forgotten. How shocking.

I did my best to make it / when the call came down the line

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