Turner's Paintbox by Paul Morgan

turnersViking, 9780670071364, 2007 (Australia)

Gerard Moyne is an extremely successful Sydney-based art consultant, art lover, and all round philosophical aesthete. He falls for the independent, earthy, and oft-scattered Julia. They’re not exactly opposites, but nor do they complement each other entirely. Their relationship, and its undoing (it begins with this) are chronicled, alongside the narrative of artist JMW Turner, whose life and works Gerard is fully versed in, being his first professional interest and introduction to the art world.

The novel is quiet and accessible. The intimacies, ticks, secrets, needs, sweetness, and terrors of the relationship are very relatable. The first-person protagonist, Gerard, shows his weaknesses and flaws. You don’t always like him, but you do often understand him – on a level of emotional and/or intellectual conflict with himself, his lover, and the structure of his private and public worlds.

I found some of the overall writing a tad clichéd, a little florid and emotionally angsty (‘arty’ even?), especially when Gerard asks his readers questions, which grates a little. There are also some strange metaphors and similes that seem unnatural (such as a funeral being like ‘a ghastly negative of a wedding … with … death his pale bride’). But in general Paul Morgan lulls you into his quiet, reflective, and quite deep, story. Something like this passage shows the way the profundity and slight awkwardness sit aside each other:

‘Everything we did together was as though for the first time and retained an Edenic glow. Each moment was spot-lit by a constellation of twinkling endorphins. There is a kind of prospective nostalgia, isn’t there? While experiencing a happy time, you already regret its passing.’

See, he’s right, of course, and the ‘prospective nostalgia’ is a wonderful phrase, but there’s something a bit pokey about it too. The way Gerard nudges the reader to help confirm his floaty theories.

There are so many spot-on moments though. In a much more honed description, Morgan describes the ‘holy spirit of compromise’ that flies back with Gerard and Julia on a plane after their first fight. There is also the (both joyful and daunting) discovery of parts of the ‘secret identity’, when you begin living with someone. For example, Gerard keeps the clock running 15 minutes fast so he’s never late and Julia leaves her dirty socks and underwear on the floor. The protagonist describes the way we invade each other in relationships. Yet he later concludes that we’re always alone (‘aren’t we?’, he asks).

Gerard generally scrutinises life as though he were looking at a painting. Aspects move him, conflict within the frame, and are complex. From different angles, surfaces change to look like something different. Another way this is shown is through the visual recording of moments (reflecting the aforementioned anxiety of the ephemeral nature of happy moments). Some that spring to mind are his descriptions of his lover, not necessarily in bed (though there are those) but washing the car windscreen, amongst the kids she works with, sipping from her favourite mug, and other small but important burns on the memory.

Turner’s Paintbox has a lot of charm, colour, and meaningful philosophy. Subversively, I would recommend it to people who are currently in a relationship, or have only just broken up. A worthy companion to Annie Hall, if not quite so witty. Also, if you’re interested in art, art history, and are generally a visual being, you would be quite absorbed by the palette on offer (the chapters are in fact named after colours in the paintbox).

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