Online Edition: Spring 1999

The Sensualist

The Sensualist

Barbara Hodgson

Chronicle Books ($22.95)

by Rachel Pollack

The Sensualist fulfills its title first and foremost in the physical book itself--beautiful to look at and to hold, with the cover, dust-jacket, and even endpapers a field of enigmatic illustrations. On a small card pasted onto the cover is a skeleton and the book's subtitle: "A Mysterious Illustrated Tale for All the Senses." With 41 spectacular full-page illustrations it certainly fulfills the pleasures of sight. The pictures are mostly archaic anatomical drawings, some of them layered; that is, you lift a flap to find another drawing underneath, either a detail or an internal level, as if the flaps follow a dissection. In addition to the anatomical images, the pictures include such things as torn maps, a collage of dictionary fragments scrawled with notes, what may be a cloudy x-ray, a magnificent engraving of a crowded Renaissance theater of medicine presided over by a skeleton holding a staff, and faint grainy portraits of a man's face in anguish, overlaid by Braille.

The novel also engages what we might call an inner sense of wonder. It opens with the stunning sentence "Helen woke up in the middle of the night wearing someone else's breasts." There are other such images and moments, some frightening, others humorous. Helen meets a blind man who lives in a house filled with art and books; he used to be a photographer whose pictures were so perfect their subjects no longer had any need to exist and simply died. She meets a famed biographer who bases all his work on the phone book. She meets a man with a perfect pearl in place of one of his teeth.

With so many delights, I wanted very much to like this book; unfortunately, I often found it slow and tedious. As the above sentences indicate, the action of the book consists largely of Helen meeting people. Few of the descriptions and characters really excite the senses. Helen travels to Vienna, Budapest, and Munich, yet we get very little feeling for the sensual reality of these places.

Helen Martin is searching for her husband Martin (we never find out if she has taken his last name in marriage, which would make him Martin Martin), though she does not seem seriously concerned about finding him. She fantasizes her mother telling her never to lie and in her mind she answers "My whole life is a lie!" But she never follows up this epiphany. The line actually resonates with the plot, for the story concerns possible forgeries of anatomical engravings by a 16th-century artist. When Helen discovers that the pictures are modern work done on old paper, it opens doors to questions about authenticity and lies. But neither Helen nor the text go very far through those doors.

The "sensualist" of the title may be a play on "surrealist." In the surrealist tradition the novel follows the associative logic of dreams--everything is connected, dead characters make calls on disconnected telephones, people's identities shift (or lurch) between bodies and times. Unfortunately, surrealism in fiction can become merely a series of wondrous surfaces. From dreams we wake with a sense of some powerful truth under that iceberg tip of mystery; to convey a similar sense of emotional truth, a book needs a strong central character. Helen too often seems little more than a focus for the bizarre people and events that surround her.

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Spring 1999 Table of Contents