Wednesday 7 December 2016

Julius and the Angel

The pain began quite suddenly, unlike anything he had experienced before.When his flight was called he got up, fumbled for his pills. His shaking hand sent them flying, rolling across the dirty floor. Making an effort not to gasp he lurched forward, crushing the pills beneath his feet. Then, with the empty box still clutched in his hand, the ghost of a smile still on his face, he struggled mightily, exerting his last strength to join the other travellers on their journey.

The Next Big Thing, Ch. 18

When I first read The Next Big Thing, on publication, I wasn't sure of it. Parts of it seemed like rehashes - Sophie Clay was, say, another Katy Gibb.

Rereading it earlier this year, I changed my mind, saw things I'd overlooked. The language of the final paragraph (above) especially caught my attention. I recalled the extended passage earlier in the novel (in Chapter 8), when Julius Herz stands before Delacroix's painting Jacob and the Angel.

Herz's final mighty struggle parallels in several ways the confrontation depicted by Delacroix. In the Chapter 8 description the word 'struggle' is used twice. We see too, at Heathrow, things cast aside - Herz's pills - just as a hat is discarded by one of the wrestlers in the picture. Then there is Delacroix's 'dusty train of men and horses disappearing into the distance', 'hapless voyagers' who are mirrored in the airport scene in the image of the 'other travellers', out of reach, receding.

'This most terrifying of painters,' says Brookner of Delacroix in Soundings, and Herz's demise is surely one of the most terrifying of Brooknerian endings.

(Jacob and the Angel can be seen in the post of 13 November called 'A Private View'.)

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