LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
The photographs of Bellocq…. 89 glass plates survive. Look at the pictures. Imagine the mis-shapen man who moved round the room, his grace as he swivelled round his tripod….
She now offering grotesque poses for an extra dollar, and Bellocq grim and quiet saying No just stand there against the wall there that one, no keep the petticoat on this time. One snap to quickly catch her scorning him and then waiting, waiting for minutes so she would become self-conscious towards him and the camera and her status, embarrassed at just her naked arms and neck and remembers for the first time in a long while the roads she imagined she could take as a child. And he photographed that.
What you see in his pictures is her mind jumping that far back to when she would dare to imagine the future, parading with love or money on a beautiful anonymous cloth arm.
observations: Unfortunately Ondaatje had lost me by the time I got to this bit, about a third of the way through this short (160 page) novel. It’s a story of New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century and features real people: a jazz musician called Buddy Bolden is one of the main characters. He’s a barber by day, plays his cornet by night, and in the course of the book goes mad. As above, the photographer EJ Bellocq turns up – also a real-life figure, the man featured in the 1978 Louis Malle film Pretty Baby, famed for his pictures of prostitutes in the New Orleans district of Storyville.
This was Ondaatje’s first novel – he has gone on to write several others, and I really liked some of them, particularly In the Skin of the Lion and The English Patient. But I couldn’t get on with this one, although it has been very highly praised and won an award. I found the descriptions of music hard to read, although when he got to the visual work of Bellocq I was more appreciative. Onddatje says in a note at the end: ‘While I have used real names and characters and historical situations I have also used more personal pieces of friends and fathers. There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction.’
Many people obviously love this book, and it seems to be appreciated particularly by musicians and music writers, so I would guess that his writing about jazz is very good… just not for me.
The astonishing picture is one of EJ Bellocq’s from 1915, from Wikimedia Commons.