by Eric Miller
Much of Russell Hoban's latest novel, The Bat Tattoo, consists of
what scholars call ekphrasis-the description in words of works of
art. The reader is treated to thoughtful interpretations of Caspar
David Friedrich's Chalk Cliffs on Rugen, of Daumier's Don Quixote
and Sancho Panza, of Paul Bril's Campo Vaccino with a Gypsy Woman
Reading a Palm, and of an eighteenth-century Chinese bowl decorated
with red bats, symbols of happiness. Elsewhere, plots of movies
such as Crash and lyrics of songs such as "Is that all there
is?" are likewise the subject of meditation, always with a
view toward defining the sensibility of the character who ponders
them. The Chinese bats offer the title for Hoban's novel; both of
the middle-aged protagonists, Roswell Clark, 47, an artist, and
Sarah Varley, 44, a dealer in antiques, independently choose the
bat, a crepuscular emblem of felicity, as the template for the
tattoo each wears on a shoulder. Grieving their deceased spouses,
they pursue parallel and, eventually, confluent lives in London,
England. A tattoo supplies an ideal image for the conjunction of
life and art: it occupies both zones, existing on the vital integument
that separates them. Clark and Varley's blind choice of the same
motif for their tattoo shadows forth their fateful compatibility.
Hoban's book is partly a satire about the art world, holding up the
exquisite work of the likes of Tilman Riemenschneider (a German
sculptor born around 1540) against the contemporary taste for
conceptual art, with its used tampons and its battered dustbins.
One focus for satire is Adelbert Delarue, a wealthy, vivid, implausible
character who writes an improbable translationese and who acts as
a patron to Roswell Clark. Hoban's satire is amusing, but sentimentality
undercuts it at times, especially in the character of Abraham Selby,
an oracular member of "the low-budget drinking community."
As a decadent aesthete, Adelbert Delarue does not convince on the
same plane of plausibility as Roswell Clark and Sarah Varley; the
philosophical alcoholic Abraham Selby persuades the reader not much
more fully. Hoban is a magical writer, but as in the case of his
fine post-nuclear-apocalypse novel Riddley Walker, local beauties
of observation and expression compensate for larger weaknesses.
What kind of beauties will the reader encounter in this novel? When
Hoban describes a person, he economically illuminates how everyone
projects an atmosphere of his or her own. Here is what Roswell Clark
thinks as he visits the artisan Dieter Scharf in his workshop:
"there was Dieter wreathed in vile blue smoke with his invisible
charcoal-burner's hut and a goblin-haunted forest in the shadows."
Weather receives beautiful treatment: "It was a damp and foggy
November morning with a chill in the air. The fog made everything
more personal, as if it were taking me aside to tell me a secret."
At times, the discourse about art adopts a tone, variously successful
and unsuccessful, somewhat like W.G. Sebald's rambling erudition:
"The performances of Gislebertus had of course to be planned
but they are like jazz improvisations in stone. I think he must
have been an obsessive, and to such people the Romanesque style
comes naturally: again and again they reiterate the folds in
garments-you can almost hear the left hand doing the bass part while
the right hand carves the tune!"
A character has "sudden blue eyes"; trees receive the
following accolade: "fashions come and go but the trees still
maintain their original identity, their unfashionable mystery."
At one point, Roswell Clark is bidden by Adelbert Delarue to make
a couple of miniature crash-test dummies capable of having sex; the
suspense in Hoban's novel, a weaving of synchronicities, is generated
by a different imperative, the rediscovery in middle age of how to