Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 10, 2010

Prochownik’s Dream by Alex Miller, read by Paul English

I really like Alex Miller’s writing, but Prochownik’s Dream isn’t one of his best. It was released as a book in 2005, but it’s been languishing on the TBR for ages.  Recently I read Landscape of Farewell (2007) and Lovesong (2009) because they were titles for the ANZLL book group discussion, and you can see my enthusiastic reviews of these here and here.  But Prochownik’s Dream didn’t even making it onto my reading plans for 2010 over at Library Thing – was it the not-very-appealing name? I don’t know…

Anyway, when I saw it as an audio book at the library, I thought I’d give it a try.   The narration by Paul English is well done, and the writing is as good as you’d expect Miller’s to be.  But the theme of the book is the artist as a selfish beast, and it made me very cross indeed.

BEWARE: SPOILERS (LOTS)

Toni Powlett is an artist who’s been stuck in the equivalent of writer’s block since his father died, but gets over it quickly when the lovely Marina Golding comes into his life.  She and her husband, Toni’s best friend, have come back from Sydney to put on an art show, and they want Toni (why the female spelling, Mr Miller??) to paint something for it.  And lo! Marina becomes his muse, and the paint starts to flow.

Teresa, Toni’s wife, is a shrill character, given to tiresome self-martyrdom (she’s supporting him while he establishes himself as an artist) and long shrewish monologues about her suspicions.  My goodness, she goes on and on.  She nags him about the kid (whom he neglects); the business (which isn’t doing well); his art (how she wants him to paint her parents); how she doesn’t like the Goldings (because they aren’t ‘real’); and how her parents were right about him (with which one could only agree).  He, on the other hand, is a monster of self-absorption, forgetting to pick the kid up from child-care and mooning about in his studio while she comes home from a long hard day at the office to cook his dinner and wash his socks.  He doesn’t even sleep with her because he likes to paint in his studio in the middle of the night. Even when he’s not painting, just thinking about painting.  No wonder she’s a bit of a misery, eh?

His mind is on the higher things of life, you see.  He’s always thinking about how he can turn the people in his life into paintings.  (Especially Marina, and especially once he gets the idea that she should disrobe for him to do it.)   More than once when Teresa has launched into one of her exasperated harangues, he is thinking about how he would paint her even as she she’s talking to him, only waiting for her to stop moaning so that he can go and get on with the next bit of his painting without provoking her into a rage.

What Miller is exploring in this book is the idea of how selfish one might be in the service of art, but it seems to me that it’s a glorified justification of a bloke having a fling with his best mate’s wife.  There’s a lot of lofty nonsense about how their act of betrayal was integral to Toni’s painting, how somehow it inspires him to get the brushes out and get on with it, how it is somehow noble and not sleazy – but it’s not convincing.  Miller doesn’t spend any time considering the betrayal of the best mate but focusses instead on Teresa, whose passionate nature gets the better of her when she finds out what’s being going on.  They have a splendid row.  She wrecks the painting, breaks Toni’s arm and flounces out of the house to go on a cruise, eventually sending Toni an apologetic and completely unconvincing letter about how she thinks they can sort out this mess because they love each other.  Hmm.

I think that if you’re interested in themes of loyalty and betrayal, the ancient tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is unforgettable, and to get inside the mind of an artist, Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth is a wonderful book.

Ramona Koval interviewed Miller about this book on Books and Writing and James Ley at The Age admired the writing but wasn’t very enthusiastic.

Author: Alex Miller
Title: Prochownik’s Dream
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio, 2006
ISBN: 978 0 7320 3171 8
Source: Kingston Library.


Responses

  1. Thanks for the review: something I wouldn’t like I think. It sounded quite amusing, but then when you got to the bit about the arm breaking, I realised what you meant about unconvincing.

    Sometimes, though, books can be really funny when the main male character excuses his behaviour with all sorts of lofty ideas while we readers “get” what the real motivation is. A sort of sex-imbibed Pygmalion. But it doesn’t seem as though that is what is taking place here….

  2. Hmm, maybe G.A.S. I have failed to grasp the lofty ambitions of this work, LOL, but I think that if that’s what Miller intended he ought to have narrated it first person.
    (Hark at me, primary school teacher, advising Alex Miller, eminent novelist, how to write his books!)
    It was longlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin so I think the literati must have liked it. Oh well…


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