I first heard about this book from customers who came in asking if we had any copies. This is a common thing. People who don’t usually go into charity or secondhand bookshops don’t know how the complexion of the stock works. There are only certain things that are nearly always in stock: popular classics (Dracula, Emma etc.), anything by a huge-selling author (McCall Smith, Grisham etc.) and books that are as ever-present as nitrogen (Michael Palin’s Himalaya, Katie Price’s Being Jordan etc). The rest of the stock depends on what comes in.
So after being asked several times if we had a copy of The Goldfinch, I found myself curious enough to buy a copy. Sadly, at the time, despite the popularity, it was too recent for a secondhand copy to be available, so I shopped around for a new one, and surprise surprise, it turned up in a 3 for 2 sale in Blackwell’s.
One compensation for paying higher for a book than I usually would is that this one weighs in at 864 pages, so potentially good value there (nomiresdebajodelacama thinks not). But of course, this is a novel, not an economics tract as the intro suggests by now.
What was peculiarly attractive in what I’d heard about it was the difficulty anyone had in describing it. In a sentence, it’s about the what happens to a kid when he comes into possession of a famous painting (of the titular goldfinch). There’s a severe randomness in the events that unfold as he persists in keeping a hold on his find. This might account for the desire to keep with the story as a reader – a certain feeling of ‘whatever next?’, without this being marred by any preposterousness in what happens (shotdownartist thinks things pick up as you go along, contrary to the blogger above, who thinks the reverse).
The readability that helps overcome the daunting size has been commented on in respect of literary language being sacrificed for the sake of accessibility. There is a politics there in what kind of book should win the Pulitzer Prize, which The Goldfinch did (he says in an unliterary sentence). Can’t say I’m terribly interested in that debate, but I did wonder at this enprizement during my read. This was mainly because I kept asking myself ‘why are you telling us all this?’ There didn’t seem to be a driving point or topic. Yet the arbitrariness of events, the waiting for the kid – Theo – to get drawn into the underworld as promised by the blurb, all seemed refreshingly unoverblown, so the everydayness gave a sense of reality from which conclusions weren’t easy to draw. This, it turns out, is the point (ish, to which we’ll return below).
This was especially the case with the character Boris. Boris is one of those characters who could easily become highly influential in literature. The son of a Russian manual worker in the oil industry, he’s lived out of a suitcase all his life, missing consistent schooling, becoming educated instead by exposure to different countries and different ways to live within them. He’s a realist ahead of his years, morally relativist, and entertainingly so for someone driven to get whatever he can from an existence whose basic conditions are mostly outside his control. Boris’s matter-of-factness is, I would dare to venture, a good enough reason alone to read this novel, as is Theo’s moral ambiguity, in that he’s neither hero nor anti-hero. But Boris is also a device. The concluding chapters seem to hastily bring you to conclusions about the difficulties in drawing conclusions – Boris is one of the prime foundations for this. But any feeling that you’ve been fed some cod-philosophy is slight. The conclusions about conclusions will only be disputed by the kind of dedicated dogmatist who’s unlikely to read this novel in the first place. So on the other hand, and consequently, the conclusions don’t say that much.
Which does raise the question as to whether it might have benefitted from having pages (even literally) chopped, perhaps a couple of hundred of them, especially in the dialogue. I concur. It’s a handy book for a holiday or passing away your work lunchtimes. It does offer the satisfaction in completing a tome. And it means you’ll know what the fuss was all about, whether you think it was justified or not. Maybe, then, a secondhand copy won’t leave you feeling short-changed?
Excerpt from p.857/8 (don’t worry, there’s no plot spoiler here – Tartt has publicly read this extract herself):
Who knows why Fabritius painted the goldfinch at all? A tiny, stand-alone masterpiece, unique of all its kind? He was young, celebrated. He had important patrons (although unfortunately almost none of the work he did for them survives). You’d imagine him like the young Rembrandt, flooded with grandiose commissions, his studios resplendent with jewels and battle axes, goblets and furs, leopard skins and costume armor, all the power and sadness of earthly things. Why this subject? A lonely pet bird? Which was in no way characteristic of his age or time, where animals featured mainly dead, in sumptuous trophy pieces, limp hares and fish and fowl, heaped high and bound for table? Why does it seem so significant to me that the wall is plain—no tapestry or hunting horns, no stage decoration—and that he took such care to inscribe his name and the year with such prominence, since he can hardly have known (or did he?) that 1654, the year he made the painting, would also be the year of his death? There’s a shiver of premonition about it somehow, as if perhaps he had an intimation that this tiny mysterious piece would be one of the very few works to outlive him. The anomaly of it haunts me on every level. Why not something more typical? Why not a seascape, a landscape, a history painting, a commissioned portrait of some important person, a low-life scene of drinkers in a tavern, a bunch of tulips for heaven’s sake, rather than this lonely little captive? Chained to his perch? Who knows what Fabritius was trying to tell us by his choice of tiny subject? His presentation of tiny subject? And if what they say is true—if every great painting is really a self-portrait—what, if anything, is Fabritius saying about himself? A painter thought so surpassingly great by the greatest painters of his day, who died so young, so long ago, and about whom we know almost nothing? About himself as a painter: he’s saying plenty. His lines speak on their own. Sinewy wings; scratched pinfeather. The speed of his brush is visible, the sureness of his hand, paint dashed thick. And yet there are also half-transparent passages rendered so lovingly alongside the bold, pastose strokes that there’s tenderness in the contrast, and even humor; the underlayer of paint is visible beneath the hairs of his brush; he wants us to feel the downy breast-fluff, the softness and texture of it, the brittleness of the little claw curled about the brass perch.
But what does the painting say about Fabritius himself? Nothing about religious or romantic or familial devotion; nothing about civic awe or career ambition or respect for wealth and power. There’s only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and a sense of no escape. Time that doesn’t move, time that couldn’t be called time. And trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching. I think of something I read about Sargent: how, in portraiture, Sargent always looked for the animal in the sitter (a tendency that, once I knew to look for it, I saw everywhere in his work: in the long foxy noses and pointed ears of Sargent’s heiresses, in his rabbit-toothed intellectuals and leonine captains of industry, his plump owl-faced children). And, in this staunch little portrait, it’s hard not to see the human in the finch. Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another.