1995, 131 p.
The Sitters is only a small book- 131 pages- and as with other Alex Miller books, its simplicity is deceptive. Its narrator is an elderly, somewhat self-deprecating and yet emotionally frozen painter who has not been able to return to his painting after achieving success with an earlier portrait The Tan Family. I felt as if I had met this character before in other of Miller’s works – the voice is similar to that in Lovesong and Miller has written about painting before in Prochownic’s Dream.
The narrator paints only portraits of other people, never his own family, but
… a portrait’s always a portrait of the artist. Except that nothing’s ever as simple as aphorisms. Whenever we’re tempted to try them on, we discover that their general truths never quite fit our particular realities. All the untidy bits are left hanging out, the important bits, the inexplicable stuff that nothing resolves, and we discover again that those explanations don’t help because they don’t belong to our present reality but belong to something in the language, to that other dimension. The cover- up. (p.71)
Language and silence are brought up against each other again and again in this small work. Early on, the narrator comments
There are things that are impossible to express with words. Language employed to express emotion is a perversion. The records of commerce is the only honest use of written language. The rest is a cover-up. It’s not words that shape our intuitions. It’s not in what we say but in what we leave unsaid that we reveal the shape of our deepest motives. In the places between the words. In the tacit and the implicit. In the silence beyond words. That’s where we hid our truth. Behind the endless buzzing of language. The sovereignty of silence is its ambiguity. Silence is a power greater than speech. (p.16)
Presence is brought up against absence as well. The painter meets, fleetingly an expatriate academic, Jessica Keal, who has returned to Canberra on a fellowship, and he is instantly attracted to her. After a commission to paint a series of sketches of women, including her, he asks if he can paint her portrait- not just one, but many studies of her, over an extended period of time. Yet when he does paint his first portrait of her, he finds that he leaves her out of the painting: the room, the bed, the furnishings are there, but she is absent. He does not need his subject to be present, and when she is, he doesn’t necessarily paint her. He had earlier in his career painted a close, recently deceased friend as a corpse, just died, and years later he will paint Jessica again, rubbing her chest in heart-pain. Some years earlier he had painted the back view of his agent. His agent perceived this painting as a joke, which on one level it was, but it also revealed something about our narrator as painter.In a portrait-sitting, he is painting from life, but the life is not necessarily present in that moment.
He has never painted his family: indeed, he lives in a vacuum with his memories of his family intentionally suppressed, and his relationship with his son detached and observational. He lets us know early in the book that he has distorted and embellished his memories of his father as some type of artistic mentor and influence. He has extended his memory of a single pre-WWII day painting outdoors with his father into a golden-tinged lifetime of paternal artistic inspiration, and this benign memory has been overshadowed by the words and actions of the bitter, damaged man who returned from World War II. His sister, from whom he had become estranged through inattention rather than intention, had written to him that she’d come to see one of his art shows but left without speaking to him, not wishing to intrude. She had since died, and it was in painting The Tan Family, the painting that brought him the greatest praise, that he painted his grief for her, even though he didn’t recognize that.
The book is titled The Sitters (plural) and although ostensibly it is a slight story about an elderly painter and a younger female sitter, the ghosts of his childhood are sitting, too. There are multiple sitters, not just one, and he is painting them present from their absence.
The book makes much of silence, but there’s much in it about language. The sentences are short and pared-back, and although his narrator professes to eschew words, there is a joy in them as well. The description of his sister as “ungainly, angular, gangly, ugly” betrays a joy in the sound and shape of words. It is a reflection on the act of representation and capturing the essence, whether it be through words or through art.
This is a carefully crafted little book with nothing superfluous. There are no chapters and the reader has to work a bit in following its leaps back and forward. It sustains a sexual tension well, but is tinged with regret and vulnerability as well. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin in 1996 (a year with a majority of female authors, by the way); pipped by Christopher Koch’s 450 page Highways to a War. You’d be hard-pressed to find two more dissimilar books.
Read because: David recommended it.