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The Horses Mouth ()

Anthony Burgess : 99 Best Modern Novels (1934-84) (1944)

Gulley Jimson is an aging ne'er-do-well artist who has just been released from prison.  Now he's wandering about London trying to scrape together enough money to return to painting.  He was once mildly successful, there's even someone working on his biography, but he's turned his back on the style of his most popular works in order to paint giant works, of dubious merit, like The Creation and The Fall.

Cary was a failed painter himself and he apparently is making a statement about artists as creators.  Gulley refers to himself as old horse and he is the novels narrator, but he also refers to God as the horse and, when inspired, says that the inspiration comes straight from the horse.  Here he speaks of the pleasures of the creative process:

    Certainly an artist has no right to complain of his fate. For he has great pleasures. To start new
    pictures.  Even the worst artist that ever was, even a one-eyed mental deficient with the shakes in
    both hands who sets out to paint the chicken-house, can enjoy the first stroke. Can think, By God,
    look what I've done.  A miracle. I have transformed a chunk of wood, canvas, etc., into a spiritual
    fact, an eternal beauty. I am God. Yes, the beginning, the first stroke on a picture, or a back fence,
    must be one of the keenest pleasures open to mankind. It's certainly the greatest an artist can have.
    It's also the only one. And it doesn't last long , usually about five minutes. Before the first problem
    shows its devil face. And then he's in hell for the next month or six months or whatever it may be.

But this grand statement and Gulley's iconoclasm both reflect an unwarranted admiration for relativism.  Art is not good in itself, nor is the artist godlike merely because he is creating something.  Works of art must convey universal truths in order to be worthy of being called big-A Art.   Gulley's life is a rebellion against the strictures of popular style and Cary obviously finds merit in this.  I do not.


Grade: (D)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Out of Exile (Brad Leithauser, NY Review of Books)