14 NOVEMBER 1958, Page 28

Novel of Manneis

IT is autumn, 1956. Janos Lavin, a Hungarian Communist painter who has been living here for nearly twenty years without recognition, has dis- appeared immediately after his first and com- paratively successful exhibition. His friend J., an art critic, returns to the studio and stumbles across a journal which Lavin had kept right up to his disappearance. The rest of the book purports to be a translation of this journal, interspersed with explanatory comments by J. The idea provides the author with an admirable vehicle for a whole series of reflections, ranging from the most general to the most particular, on painters, painting and 'modernity' in the arts. Mr. Berger, it must be said, lacks many of the typical gifts of the novelist. His powers of characterisation, for instance, are so undeveloped that I cannot see how he gets along even in ordinary conversation. In this book either they altogether fail to work so that we get no impression whatsoever of a human being, or else they acquire a kind of explosive intensity and the

character on (or rather against) whom they are directed disintegrates into cheap and ludicrous parody. But then Mr. Berger is not really inter- ested in anyone save the central character, Lavin. And with him he employs the method of Ba zae: that of portraying a man through his central conscious interests and preoccupations. Mr. Bef" ger has revealed a painter through his painting, and the result is something at once shallower and yet also broader than the conventional novel.

The supreme merit of this book is the way it

brings out so concretely and so intelligently the intense significance for the painter of theory and speculation about painting. The painter, unlike the obsessional, needs to give the material he spends his life manipulating some conscious significance and import. The 'coloured shit,' as Lavin calls it, becomes alive and meaningful for the pa inter in part through being regarded in this or that light' as something more than the mere stuff or matter that it is. This accounts for the extreme and des- perate struggle for articulateness which is 5° marked a characteristic of painters and is 'quite unsuspected by those who do not know them.

The theory through which Lavin tries t0 ennoble the painter's material is Lukacs tYPe Marxism, and the aesthetic observations to which it leads him are often illuminating though some' ern • times obscure. But when he extends the th eorY from art to other aspects of modern life, the result is sometimes deeply disagreeable. I do not know the extent to which the author wishes us to sYln. pathise with Lavin's political fantasies, but I hope that he shares my dislike for a vision that flickers between the sentimental and the sadistic : I live, work, for a state . . . where the word freedom has become unnecessary be- cause every ability is wanted; where prejudice has been so overcome that every man is able t° judge another by his eyes . . . whereve crY Imperialist leader has been tried by his fcralef victims and, if found guilty, been shot by a COT tingent of his own General Staff whose lives hay° been spared for this purpose. A central incident in the journal is the execution by the Rakosi government of a poet and old comrade of Lavin's, who had held office under the regime. Lavin not unnaturally suffers agonies of doubt and anguish, and then tries to muffle his sorrows in a cocoon of Marxist casuistry. The painful portrayal of a man who has exchanged his conscience for a dogma, and then can reconcile


the dogma with anything whatsoever that otca in the world, is, I suspect, executed in part at teas; unwittingly : in this respect it finds its closes; parallel in that same combination of self-tarn& and special pleading which defines Scobie's Pre- dicament in The Heart of the Matter. Doctrines and theories, which were originally designed for practical guidance and are then deprived of any unambiguous practical into Pre' tation, take their revenge. Their adherents, de- prived of any clear notion of what to do in big matters, become excessively concerned with16':hi:ft is the right thing to do in small matters. A Palf of Our Times illustrates this well. From beginniri.g to end—from the initial assertion that the bonic not the result of `one man's effort' but is sonteh° the a collective enterprise, to the last sentence !no is author's own biography, 'his main relaxan, and motor bikes'—there is a kind of 'correctness


conformism pervading the book that I find depressing. What other point, for instance, isv ti te° to in introducing the ghastly Hancocks e the show that (contrary to appearances) these th elt sort of people whom it is perfectly all right to i Our Mr. Berger may find that A Painter at cols Time will do for the extreme Left what the 110 of Miss Nancy Milford have done for some it ltd