Books

Gail Jones
The Death of Noah Glass

Australian novelist Gail Jones is no great spinner of yarns or master of mood and atmosphere, but she does have a unique feeling for the fascinations of the fragmentary. Her books brim with literary allusions, historical anecdotes, references to scholarly oddities and intriguing quotations, and when all else fails she can always charm with the glitter of so many carefully arranged details and luminous curiosities.

Her latest book is no exception. We are introduced to an 18th-century Swiss alpinist who constructed a device for testing the blueness of the sky, and a 19th-century Italian who married a Japanese woman and created an uncanny series of portrait sculptures. We find ourselves in a leper colony in Western Australia and learn the secret of the frondless palms of Palermo. We cop a short lecture on the final film of Derek Jarman and explore the phenomenon of capering phosphenes. And on it goes.

But The Death of Noah Glass is also a family drama and the story of a daring art theft. When the Australian art historian Noah Glass dies at the age of 67 from a heart attack, his two adult children have to come to terms not only with the unexpectedness of his death but with the revelation that he was wanted in connection with a brazen heist in Sicily.

Martin, a successful painter who has a passing resemblance to Brett Whiteley, immediately heads to Palermo with the vague intention of getting to the bottom of the allegations. Evie, a brilliant but unemployed philosopher who has a nervous habit of making long alphabetised lists on exotic subjects in her head, decides to stay put in Sydney. While Martin is taking photos of deconsecrated churches and getting the attention of the wrong sort of people, she moves into their father’s apartment. Each shadows the father in different ways, learning what it is they’ve lost and how they can mourn it while retaining a personal identity.

Jones also takes a step back in order to trace Noah’s last weeks, during which he fell under the spell of a Sicilian Caravaggio expert who broods and smokes cigarettes in the manner of Sophia Loren and whose family was wiped out during the Second Mafia War.

So we move in a sinuous, crisscrossed course between continents and back and forth in time. The Death of Noah Glass is a novel that plays in myriad fascinating ways with the representation of figures from different temporal and spatial orders together in the one composition. The characters themselves discuss this idea of dislocation and time-shifting in relation to Italian Renaissance painting, but it’s also something that Jones experiments with in the way she structures her three different narratives, creating folds and pockets in time and space where details and parallel events recur and are enriched.

But why Palermo, you may ask, that ancient city of sin and sleaze with its stereotype of a blood-stained past? Well, Palermo was the site of one of the greatest art crimes in modern history: the theft of Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in 1969, a job commissioned by the Cosa Nostra. The painting has never been recovered and is presumed destroyed.

And it’s in Palermo with its circle of gangsters, its refugees crying for help and its nonnas all dressed in black that Noah recognises the truth about the subjectivity of vision and the profundity of that recognition. He sees how the bloody history of the place affects the way Sicilians see the world and how it heightens their sensitivity to dramatic contrasts of light and shade. As Noah’s lover explains, Sicilians understand the mesmeric pull of darkness. They understand how shadows might make a face beautiful.

By contrast, the view from Noah’s apartment in Elizabeth Bay in Sydney is intolerably bright, with the electric blue of the harbour and the sky unrelieved of cloud. What does this signify? Do we need to stare into our own violent past and commune with grief? Is it true that a culture with no experience of genuine mourning can never understand the truth of beauty?

Anyway, it’s some sort of achievement, this polished, pensive novel that swirls so much about, tantalising with implications amid the patterned intricacy of linked scenes, returning symbols and motifs. It’s a book that needs to be read closely. Look at how Evie remembers a long ago family vacation in Tuscany:

From somewhere she retrieved an image of the stoning of a saint: it was a fresco entitled The Lapidation of St Stephen, it was in Prato, years ago; and there was Noah, dear Noah, pointing to direct their vision.

This takes us back in a subtle but satisfying way to The Dream of Constantine, a painting by Piero della Francesca described earlier in the novel in which an angel descends and points towards the face of the sleeping Constantine, directing his vision in dreams.

At the same time The Death of Noah Glass is a heist novel, full of colour and baleful tales of the Cosa Nostra and dramatic action as the mystery of the missing sculpture unfolds, though in the end the book does lack the propulsion of a great crime novel. Jones has a tendency – as in Sorry and Sixty Lights – to pile on more narrative explication and longsome backstory than she needs.

You sometimes wish she’d try a less heavily plotted, less determinedly conventional novel and give her instinct for arranging and rearranging ideas and images a freer rein. A more challenging form might also reinvigorate a prose style that can run to stiltedness and cold formality.

For all this, The Death of Noah Glass is engaging. It’s a book about ways of seeing and about the gaps that persist between vision and understanding. And in the end this novel – which is dedicated to the memory of Jones’s father – is also about patrimony as the pattern and measure that fathers leave behind them.  JR

Text, 336pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "Gail Jones, The Death of Noah Glass". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JR