Circle of Vanity by Michael Reidy
If you enjoyed Michael Reidy’s On the Edge of Dreams and Nightmares, as I did, you will be delighted to find that its protagonist, the portrait artist, Sir Nigel Thomas, and his friend, the actress, Ligeia Gordon (aka Sophie Gregg) reprise their curious and complex relationship in Circle of Vanity (released in 2022) and become involved in the arcane world of art forgery and questions of attribution.
Sir Nigel’s expertise is sought when hitherto unknown works by Old Masters and other celebrated artists begin to appear in major cities around the world. The art establishment, with its lucrative vested interests and its hieratic authority, closes in on itself in a ‘circle of vanity’, and few dare challenge the authenticity of these works, while the way they are multiplying cannot but generate suspicion among the cognoscenti.
If enigmatic women are something of a Reidy signature, this sophisticated novel treats us to at least three.
The nature of the relationship between Sir Nigel and Sophie continues in its fascinating complexity. They tell the world that they are cousins to avoid any imputation that they are lovers, and though they are constantly in each other’s company, they maintain their separate apartments. They clearly need each other, though Sir Nigel also needs the solitude of his studio and Sophie has her public persona (or multiple personae) to curate. When they have been apart they rush together to share gossip and food. Any declaration of a deeper meaning to their liaison is elegantly deflected with a quip or a change of subject.
Theirs is a world of velleities, of nuances, of refined persiflage, where they gleefully and surgically dissect the lives of others but never turn the scalpel inwards. The dark hurt in Sophie’s past (revealed in the earlier novel) must remain unspoken as they elegantly side-step the word (and idea) of love in an elaborate verbal ballet.
The other two enigmatic women are Marissa and her mother, April – a Cambridge friend of Sophie’s – who inhabit the wonderfully named Bickering Place in Lincolnshire. Sir Nigel has been commissioned to paint the daughter’s portrait and during the sittings the behaviour of both women seems distinctly odd, at least to the refined and fastidious sensibility of the painter. He is quite taken aback when Marissa changes her clothes in front of him, and disconcerted as April looks on without comment. Are they flirting with him? Are they in competition? He is embarrassed and confused. He tells Sophie that he thinks Marissa is mad, and she replies that it is April who is deranged. Exasperated, Sir Nigel declares: ‘I think they’re both bats’. Slyly, Reidy leaves the reader to make up his own mind.
The forgery narrative is likewise charged with ambiguities. With the assistance of Sir John Hawsley, Chairman of a prominent auction house and retired DCI, James Beech, the putative Rembrandt is subjected to all manner of forensic tests. Here the technical detail is so convincing that a reader might suppose that Reidy must be an expert in the technology of authentication, just as in the previous book (and this) the specialist knowledge displayed might suggest that the novelist is also a painter of portraits. Reidy has denied this, in which case one has to marvel at the meticulous detail of his research. I am particularly thinking about the passage where he brings the portrait of Melissa to life by adding a single crucial touch to the painting of the eyes.
The ‘detective’ strand is convincingly plotted, and to say that is no denigration of the genre. Nabokov says somewhere that all good novels are detective novels. Reidy offers no easy answers where, in fact, there are none because at the core of his novel is the question of aesthetic values, a notoriously unstable field of philosophy. ‘What’s aught but as ’tis valued,’ says Troilus in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, implying that there are no intrinsic values, only attributed ones. In the world of Reidy’s novel that word ‘valued’ is double-edged since it is a world where aesthetic products are audaciously monetised.
Reidy’s style is mature, lean and nicely modulated, erudite without pedantry, and supple without sagging. He knows how to show without needing to tell, inviting you to be an active reader, which will enhance your enjoyment because of your investment in the creative process.
This is a compelling and original work.