Sunday, November 9, 2008

Beyond Measure - A Book Review

by Andrea McKenzie Raine

Pauline Holdstock's novel, Beyond Measure, takes place in Italy in the 1500s, and spirals around the main characters Paolo, Orazio, his daughter and assistant Sofonisba, Ceccio the land lord, Matteo Tassi, Alessandro and Caterina, the slave girl. Each character has a desire to be appreciated, if not seen.

Paolo, an artist, treats human subjects like objects; he searches for the inanimate flesh to make it come alive once again in his art. He cannot see beyond his own flesh and, therefore, has a compulsive need to capture the beauty of the human form in his paintings. He is calculating, methodical and manipulative in the way he obtains these objects. Paolo attempts to move past the emotional element of his subjects to get to the purpose of his art, as illustrated in the following passage:

"...The skin of a hanged man is as the skin of any other. It is its own miracle, a paragon of suppleness and strength and exquisite sensitivity and, when hairless and smooth as in youth and in the female form, a thing of beauty beyond compare."

When Caterina, the slave girl, is presented to Paolo, he becomes obsessed with the living quality of her female form and her strange markings. Caterina is an unwitting gift or pawn, passed around between the characters for the benefit of monetary, artistic and personal status. Paolo insists on painting her in the nude, as he says "a muse clothed is against Nature. The muse must be naked. She is naked truth. The naked flame of inspiration."

The novel examines the existing classes, and relationships between master and slave. The need each character has to interact with the other characters, in their varying positions, is modeled on hierarchy, obedience, responsibility and human value. Paolo reserves the right to manipulate human beings to dissect and exploit them, for the sake of art. Still, for his livelihood and art, he must answer to his landlord, Ceccio.

The circling relationships between the characters are interconnected and dependent, with different agendas revolving around their individual needs for the slave girl, Caterina. She will win them esteem, power, love, or artistic pursuit. Art and people are for bartering, and a means of ownership. Nothing is sacred in terms of art or human life, as each are subject to revisions.

Art is the central theme, and the characters are tied to it either physically or intrinsically. Holdstock's writing is thorough and painstakingly descriptive. She leaves out no detail of the work involved. For instance:

"Carefully he sticks pins into the anima and, in a process of trial and error, positions it securely in the mould, closing the two halves round it. The protruding pins keep it away from the inner walls; it hangs inside, clear of the shell of the mould, trapped and at the same time free, the way, Maestro Paolo once remarked, the rough unfinished soul hangs inside the body, a disparate element, longing for fire. So the artist's work, said Maestro Paolo, was the mirror of God's creation, Man."

The language used is clinical and instructive, and yet poetic and transcendent. Beyond Measure is, essentially, a commentary on art: how one's work is viewed by outsiders, other artists and critics, and the lengths that artists will go to come close to divinity. As well, the sacrifices people will make to achieve their desires.

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