One of Picasso’s recurrent obsessions was that of the artist and model theme, particularly in the Vollard Suite, his personal take on the Pygmalion story, the model as muse, both controlled and controlling. Something similar happens in the long chapter (5) that is central to the vision of Christopher Burns’s visionary novel, A Division Of The Light.
At the novel’s opening, Alice Fell, an attractive woman in her thirties, is lying concussed on a London pavement. She has been assaulted by motorbike-mounted thieves who snatched her handbag. Gregory Pharaoh, a professional – and eminent – photographer, is sole witness. His reflexive action is to photograph her, capture the angles and planes of light on her body, before helping her to her feet and eventually into a taxi.
After some delay, she contacts him to thank him and repay the taxi fare, just as he hoped; he has developed an obsession with her, with pinning down a quality he feels he alone has discerned in her, a quality he believes only his camera can reveal. Alice, at first reluctant, agrees to sit for him because she too feels she is special, marked out for some destiny that has so far eluded her.
This sets the stage for the photographic session, a battle of egos, but also a tussle of character and outlook: Gregory’s search for a material transcendence, to be found purely in the play of light on flesh; Alice seeking a spiritual transcendence, a clue to her chosen-ness. Yet by the end of the novel, it is Gregory the materialist who undergoes the spiritual crisis, Alice remaining the catalyst, instrumental but unchanged.
The crisis is beautifully set up, in a pattern of imagery that both advances the plot and functions in its own right, with a control and cumulative power that make the novel compelling.
Gregory persuades Alice to assist him in an assignment, that of photographing a cryptful of old bones – skulls and limbs – prior to a mass burial. This has the desired effect: Alice, feeling suddenly vibrantly alive in contrast to the decaying bones, decides to allow Gregory to photograph her nude, which she has previously refused him. This is very clever, both on Gregory’s part and the author’s. For the image of the heaped, discoloured bones has immense power in itself, and foreshadows the crisis to come.
But the image is also subtly reinforced by Alice’s boyfriend’s professional interest, as an archaeologist, in ancient burial sites and tumuli (mounds of stones raised over graves), an interest that again functions at plot level. After her boyfriend’s dismissal from her life, with tragic consequences, Alice decides, partly from guilt, to visit the tumulus he had been seeking on a bleak northern moor, accompanied by a reluctant Greg.
Earlier, as Alice and her boyfriend enact the first stages of their eventual break-up, they are startled by an explosive noise. It turns out to be a thunderbolt striking a nearby church. A little later, Greg is photographing the damage for a news report, hoping, maybe, to rival some of the iconic photographs of the Blitz, while the rector speaks of the superstitious attribution of the lightning bolt to divine intervention rather than meteorological chance on the part of some of his parishioners.
Thus when the catastrophic storm – catastrophic in its strict sense – strikes as Alice and Greg step onto the tumulus, the questions have already been raised; they don’t need to be laboured here.
It’s this control, this patterning, that gives the novel its power, together with the device of the photographs – so vividly and skilfully described that they visually articulate the novel in themselves. This is especially true of the description of the exhibition of Greg’s work towards the end of the novel, an exhibition arranged by his daughter, arranged as a retrospective; by now Greg’s life has changed dramatically, possibly irrevocably.
A life of surface detail, surface beauty – is it after all sufficient in itself? Ash and bone the only end? Are the visions of a peasant girl in a far-off land – the girl photographed by Greg on an assignment early in the novel, the visions now the focus of a tawdry tourist trail – delusions for both her and the pilgrims, Greg now among them?
As the girl tells Greg, we have to find the answer within ourselves.