Being an artist isn’t like other professions. It’s not a livelihood where the primary motivation for devoting one’s labour to it is for money or status or the simple satisfaction of a job well done or even making the world a better place. Certainly these factors influence artists during their careers, but the act of creating art is about realizing a vision and making something meaningful. The path to inspiration is elusive. Benjamin Wood’s novel “The Ecliptic” questions what drives, galvanizes and motivates artists. The narrator Elspeth Conroy is stuck. She’s a painter who has received acclaim for her work, but the majority of her output feels like it falls short of saying anything profound. On a small island off the coast of Turkey there is an artists’ retreat for those who have lost their way in whatever discipline they pursue. It has a rigid code and rules designed to support them in finding their way back to inspiration. Elspeth has spent many years here, but does retreating from the world encourage the creation of real art or only drive her irretrievably further into herself?
At the retreat, Elspeth has become part of a tight-knit group of other artists who are architects, novelists and playwrights. They have daily comfortable routines while waiting for the muse to visit them again. One day a very young man arrives to join the colony and their ordered world is disrupted. What follows is an engrossing complex tale of artistic aspirations, tangled passion and the quest for meaning. Elspeth is one of those rare female protagonists who isn’t motivated by a desire for romance or success, but wants to create art in the purest sense. Her journey questions whether this is even possible. It deals with all the complicated factors which drive us to create and experience art, shedding light on the reasons why art can be the one thing which makes our difficult lives bearable.
The author is good at wrong-footing you in this novel and avoiding cliché. A situation where a painter is eclipsed by his assistant could prompt scenes of deception and jealousy. Instead a gentle ceding to recognized talent is allowed and a surprising new camaraderie forms later on. A fast-talking art agent who would be presented as nothing but a caricature in many novels is presented in this story as having a surprisingly intuitive sensitive side. This is the kind of writing that sees the everyday humanity in people and that everyone is just stumbling along, trying to do their best and make something meaningful.
There are many compelling different perspectives given throughout the novel on the impact of art both for the artist and the public who consume it. At one point the playwright MacKinney reflects: “that’s the problem, isn’t it? Once your best story’s told, it can’t be told again. It makes you, then it ruins you.” Some speculate that everyone has one great story in them, but once this is realized in an artistic form does this mean the artist is defined and trapped by it? Once you know the story you want to tell in art it can be devastatingly complicated finding the right form to communicate it through. Can it be found through sheer persistence? At one point it’s posited that “doggedness in art is no substitute for inspiration.” But at another point it’s observed that “real inspiration turns up only when your invitation has expired.” There is no straightforward way of finding the muse which artists wax on about so poetically. With occasional asides from Elspeth that tell us the things that no art college teaches you, this novel considers the multifaceted ways in which art finds ways of expressing the inexpressible.
Benjamin Wood constructs his story carefully so that the past reflects meaningfully upon the present in Elspeth’s journey as an artist. All the while it has tremendous momentum and drive making it compulsively readable. The closest comparison I can make for Wood’s novel is Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” for the way in which it deals with high concepts about art in a way which is utterly unpretentious and tells a cracking good story at the same time. The ending has left me thinking hard about how we create and commune with art. “The Ecliptic” is a passionate, invigorating and expertly conceived novel.