Book Review: A Thing of Beauty (Is a joy for ever) by A.J. Cronin

6 Mar

A few days ago I finished reading one absolutely beautiful book – A Thing of Beauty or Crusader’s Tomb by A. J. Cronin. Perhaps a more appropriate adjective to describe a book would be ‘brilliant’ or ‘astonishing’ or ‘interesting’, but trust me, every line in this book is pure beauty, regardless of the title.

The main character is Stephen Desmonde, the son of Reverend Bertram Desmonde of Stillwater Rectory, Sussex. Novel begins with his return from Oxford, his father, mother, sister Claire and younger brother David are all expecting him. Soon there’s a dispute between Stephen and his father; Bertram wants Stephen to become a reverend as well, but Stephen wants to be an artist. Cronin leads us into the story in an interesting way: first we see the background and hear about Bertram’s wishes, and then the main character steps in. We don’t wait for his arrival too long, but still it’s enough time to spark mystery.

Something interesting about the setting: St Mary’s Church, Sullington contains traces of Saxon Work although most of the fine church you can see today dates from the early 13th century.

The church contains a well worn stone effigy of a crusader which is thought to have inspired the writer AJ Cronin to write his novel A Thing of Beauty (1956), a book which had the alternate tile Crusader’s Tomb. Cronin lived at the Old Rectory in Sullington before the Second World War.’ (westsussex.info)

I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot, but rather share my opinion about the book and Stephen as a character and as artist. If you decide to read the book, you’ll find out everything. I think Stephen is a fascinating character and it was interesting to witness his moral and artistic progress, personal growth and inevitable physical decline, and eventual death. Yes, sadly, he died in the end.

At first I had a feeling, or, I feared that Stephen would turn out to be shallow and weak, but I was so wrong. One day, abruptly, against the wishes of his family, he went to Paris. The year is about 1912. His first weeks in Paris seemed like a dream; he still had money and ‘friends’, although some people later used his naive and trustful nature. Luckily, one good soul and an artist, Richard Glyn, rescued Stephen from the company of dandies, charlatans and other money-sucker bastards. Only then did Stephen realise what does it mean to be an artist – it means work, work and work. It’s something a lot of people don’t realise, but true artists work from dawn to dusk because painting is not a job, it’s a passion, a way of life, it’s essential to their existence as much as breathing.

The book features many interesting scenes that are so worth reading such as: Stephen’s encounter with Amedeo Modigliani!, then his time spent in circus, travels to Spain and death of his friend Jerome Peyrat, a fellow painter, and a poor, kind soul, whose last words were directed to Sainte Therese of Avila… Only after he died did I realise what a gentle and unselfish man he was! All these losses and defeats left a trace on Stephen’s soul and body. In October 1920 Stephen looked like this: ‘And he had grown a beard, cropped close on cheek and chin, which somehow accentuated the length of jaw and temple hollows, gave the planes of his face bones an almost startling gauntness. (…) His face, pale and deeply shadowed beneath the eyes, wore a look of languor. His glossy black hair was parted neatly in the middle…‘ A new phase of his life began:

Yesterday saw the opening at the Maddox Galleries, New Bond Street, of an exhibition of paintings by Stephen Desmonde. Mr. Desmonde, whose controversial picture ‘Circe and her Lovers’…

Although some of his paintings were exhibited, gallery visitors didn’t appreciate them, as the story goes with many artists. Stephen decided to visit his family after eight years spent travelling and working in France and Spain – the wrong step. Oddly, he enjoyed his days at home, and after breakfast he’d bring his papers and pencil and walk around picturesque Dawns, sketching bare trees in late winter and stormy waters of Chillingham lake. (‘Bathed in moonshine, an angelic peace lay upon the downs.’)

He was soon commissioned to paint a few paintings for the church. He was inspired by Goya’s paintings of Peninsular war, and wanted to make an anti-war statement, condemn violence, greed and lust for power. Instead, reverends and judges condemned him. Irony!? Stephen’s paintings The Rape of peace, Aftermath and Hail, Armageddon were judged for their brutality and honesty. The same people who advocated violence, nationalism and victory in wars, were now appalled by his paintings. Oh, hypocrisy and its unbreakable bond with the bourgeois class! Things have not changed a bit today. This book only intensified the contempt I feel for the middle class. Fuck the conventions, shatter all conservatism, and absolute artistic freedom for artists! Descriptions of the paintings:

But when he turned to the second panel, ‘Hail, Armageddon’, with its deadly massing of guns and uniformed men, while, amidst cheering crowds, bands played and flags were waved under a darkening sky…

…amidst a scene of destruction that is far from edifying, is the naked, full-length form of a woman, which, we are informed by the accused, represents the figure of Peace.’

They even told him: ‘This is not a picture, it is a mere splattering of colours.‘ – ‘Nevertheless, it is art.‘ Stephen answered. The judge and the audience were shocked by nudity, scenes of violence and rape – well, that’s what wars are about – pointless massacres of people, propagandas of hatred, why encourage them in the first place? just the thought of agony he must have felt, really pisses me off. The scene reminds me all too well of Kafka’s The Trial. Just like its main character K., Stephen was prosecuted but wasn’t aware of his crime. Obviously, the society thinks that exposing truth is a crime. Injustices at every corner. The scene reminded me of verses from the song Faster by Manic Street Preachers:

I am an architect, they call me a butcher,

I am a pioneer, they call me primitive,

I am purity, they call me perverted.

How couldn’t they see that he was an ‘architect’ and a ‘pioneer’, not a ‘butcher’ and ‘primitive’, and they called his painting ‘perverted’, but they were nothing more than symbols of peace! Is there a thing more ‘pure’ than art and free artistic expression. After ‘the trial’, Stephen was mentally and physically exhausted. They almost drained life out of him. The story leads him to Jenny, who was a cleaner at his college, and they soon befriend. Jenny’s warm and open-hearted personality soon won him over and they eventually married. His ever-frail health and lung problems were soothed by sunny days on the beach in Margate (Kent) – the same place Delboy and Rodney Trotter visited in one episode of Only Fools and Horses. At that point it becomes clear that painting is his life, and that brushes and pencils weren’t tools but an ending of his hand. From a naive and wealthy young man in Paris before the First World War, Stephen progressed into a true artist, always carrying pencil and sketchbook with him. He spent days painting, forgetting on food on many occasions.

Every good artwork is nothing more than beauty born out of sacrifice. Is the sacrifice worth it? Is art a continuation of life, or something even greater than life? I think art is truth and moral and beauty all in once, and it is worth dying for.

Novel ‘A Thing of Beauty’ really brings the message that: ‘Not only is fame (and until recent years even liberty) denied to men of genius during their lives, but even the means of subsistence. After death they receive monuments and rhetoric by way of compensation.‘ Let’s not forget that.

I decided to write about this book because I don’t think it is as popular as it should be. I loved Cronin’s style of writing – very simple, easy to read, yet it conveys a much deeper message. I also thought that his description of art studios, lifestyle of artists and difficulties they encounter till the moment they die, were very realistic and written in a sensitive, compassionate way. Not one sentence is kitschy and melodramatic, and that’s something I appreciate. Reader feels that he is with Stephen, in all his ups and downs. Cronin also brings up an interesting thesis: that art is born of out artist’s lifestyle. Without the experiences, hunger and sadness, Stephen’s paintings wouldn’t be as beautiful. At one point he is offered money by his childhood friend Claire, but he rejects it, because financial security would ruin his art, and art is something he can’t live without. So, quite a long review, but this book deserves it. Hope you’ll read it. And now two paintings which came to my mind upon reading the book:

1920s El Circo by Federico Beltran Masses (1885–1949) Federico Beltran Masses (1885–1949), El Circo, c. 1920s -> reminds me of Stephen’s ‘Circus’ scenes

1892. Alice Pike Barney - MedusaAlice Pike Barney, Medusa, 1892 -> reminds me of Stephen’s painting ‘Circe and her Lovers’

Title of the book is a reference to Keats’s poem Endymion so I will finish my post with the poem:

Endymion by John Keats:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing….

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One Response to “Book Review: A Thing of Beauty (Is a joy for ever) by A.J. Cronin”

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  1. My Favourite Books of 2016 | Byron's muse - 16th January 2017

    […] 3. A Thing of Beauty by A.J.Cronin is such a beautiful book, tells the story of a struggling painter Stefan who goes from a proper middle-class student obliging his dominant priest father, to diving fully into the bohemian and artistic life in 1910s Paris. It’s a sad, gentle book, you can empathise with the character and feel his struggles, pains and the beauty of his paintings. I wrote a long long review here. […]

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