Construction Kit

A. J. Cronin, Crusader’s Tomb (1956)

I read this somewhat under false pretences, it having knocked around various to-be-read piles for a couple of years.

I’d read that it was inspired by the life of artist Christopher Wood, friend to Ben and Winifred Nicholson and possible “discoverer” of Alfred Wallis. He was born in Knowsley, Liverpool, in 1901 to a doctor and his wife, thought of training in medicine or architecture, before becooming an artist in Paris. He met with mixed success and, preparing for an exhibition at the Wertheim Gallery in London in 1930 he had a nervous breakdown. After lunching with his mother and sister in Salisbury, he committed suicide by throwing himself under a train.

Here the protagonist is Stephen Desmonde, son of a vicar in Sussex and groomed to be his father’s successor around the turn of the twentieth century. He is granted a year to become a successful artist in Paris and, when this inevitably fails, he breaks with his father. Desmonde struggles in Paris and then southern France, going on a pilgrimage to Spain after winning the Prix de Luxembourg just as World War One breaks out. Back in England, he wins a commission to paint five canvases commemorating the War for a new church, but these are found to be obscene in a court case. He breaks with his family and the art world for good, and marries a working class woman he had met in London before the war.

I had to say I struggled with this, in part because it clearly is very distant from Wood. Whilst the satire on British attitudes to modern art is amusing,  and still current, Desmonde’s self belief is a little tedious. His coyness when it comes to sex — Wood was at the least bisexual — is presumably a reflection of the age when it was written, even as the novel seems to see itself as adventurous. (A couple of years later, Desmonde could have been shown as more forward, albeit presumably still heterosexual.) Too much stuff just happens to him. 

The last quarter picks up, as he works upon his commission and he retreats to Margate and the gentrified suburb of Cliftonville (which has clearly come down in the world, along with the rest of the town). But by then I fear I was reading mostly out of duty.

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