It’s Just the Beating of My Heart
Richard Aronowitz’s second novel, It’s Just the Beating of My Heart, is a first-person narrative in the voice of John Stack, a borderline alcoholic living alone in the Gloucestershire countryside after being abandoned by his wife. He is an Art dealer, but not doing as well as he used to; in denial about his drinking and with little more to brighten his week than weekend visits from his twelve-year-old daughter, Bryony.
He sounds like this:
I am a visual person. Wolfgang von Goethe called himself an Augenmensch, an eye person, and that is how I view myself. I like looking at things: it is as simple as that. I see things that other people might not see. I notice things that other people might miss: the value of an old painting with yellowed varnish hidden away in a country auction, the quality of an emerging artist who has been overlooked by the mainstream, minute flaws in perfect-looking marble, ugly secrets behind the veneers of beautiful people. I want Nicola to have something wrong with her. She seems too perfect.
On Tuesday I put Penelope in charge of the gallery for the day and do not take my usual train to Paddington. I have spotted what could be a very good Old Master painting in a catalogue for a sale this Friday at a small auction rooms in Dorchester. I am going to drive the ninety miles across country to have a look at it.
The drive takes me nearly two-and-a-half hours. The weak early winter sun climbs steadily over my left shoulder as I head south. The hedges, trees, fences, lamp-posts and houses form a stream-of-consciousness narrative that speeds up to a blur or slows down to intelligibility with the flow of the traffic or the twists and turns of the road.
I get to Dorchester just after midday. I have been to the auction rooms before and find my way to them without getting lost. They are so far from the big London auction houses. There are no liveried doormen waiting to greet you, no lacquer-haired blondes of a certain age on the front counter who look like the ex-girlfriends of faded pop stars. This is where normal people come to buy an antique or an inexpensive painting to decorate their homes. This is where dealers come to spot items of quality that the inexpert eyes of the cataloguers at the auction rooms have failed to single out for greater scrutiny. The normal people have no chance when the dealers decide that they want something.
The small painting does not look like much at first. It is hanging in one corner of the large ground-floor showroom. The cataloguers have described it as ‘Seventeenth-century Flemish School. A still-life of pears and apples on a pewter dish.’ They have obviously not spotted the monogram tucked into the extreme lower left corner just inside the edge of the frame. A black cursive script on a near-black background. The apples and pears shine with preserved life. I am pretty sure that it is a late work by the Dutch still-life specialist Willem van Aelst. The estimate is only £4-£600. If my instinct is right and the hand and monogram are his, it would be worth at least a hundred times that.
Stack forms an obsessive relationship with a neighbour, Nicola, a beautiful widow whose husband may have died in suspicious circumstances. Although he comes to think of almost nothing else except this woman and his daughter, he keeps them apart, lying to Nicola about his daughter’s by-weekly visits.
But by this stage of the story we are beginning to think that John Stack is an unreliable narrator, another Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield, perhaps, someone hiding from his own self, like Humbert Humbert.
I had the impression that I was reading the mind of a man who had nothing to live for and was irrevocably set on a path to self obliteration. He looms large in his world, whereas the others arrayed around him are all minor, almost insubstantial characters.
The conclusion to It’s Just the Beating of My Heart involves a wonderful extended metaphor of a wounded consciousness entombed in a cellar. The whole leaving me with the ambiguity of having experienced some great writing and at the same time being duped.
Second novels are difficult to write, and although the ending didn’t quite deliver for me, I shall be looking out for more from this writer.