At the beginning of Tracking Giorgione by Thomas Kabdebo, Giorgio Barbatella, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, outlines what is titled a “Pre Position”—a little preface in which he talks about the physical and sensual responses we experience and the neural activity that occurs when looking at a painting. He explains how the viewer effectively constructs a map with the picture as its focal point, and the novel that follows is a fictional autobiography that has at its centre Barbatella’s passionate affinity with the painter Giorgione. The pursuit of a lost picture, the desire to find an ancestral connection and the sleuthing to uncover hidden mysteries about the artist shape and drive the fiction. That, at least, is the intention.
Barbatella recounts his Giorgione adventures and insights and how his life took shape: his Fulham upbringing, his Italian family connections, his time at art school where he fell in love with a Czech girl whose talent as a painter led him to realise that his own talents lay elsewhere. He becomes an art historian. With his family, in-laws, experts and friends, his life story unfolds around and is structured by his search for the Venetian painter.
Kabdebo is an acclaimed translator and author, and I am baffled by his clunking prose, weird tonal shifts and phrases wrapped up in parentheses. The focus is constantly skewed by pompous turns of phrase and bald intrusions of opinion. The continually jarring effect of the language makes any suspension of disbelief impossible. I found myself wondering what kind of neural activity was at play during the editing of this book.
The effect of giving, say, the Fulham post-code when remembering a childhood home, of mentioning the menu choices of the diners at a restaurant—endless, often deeply banal, thought-associations—makes the prose sag and the reader’s stamina flag. Random memory triggers may work in an actual memoir (which is how Tracking Giorgione reads) but are self-defeating in a novel: the sheer artificiality exposes the writer’s hand at work. The means has defeated the end—Kabdebo might have looked a bit longer at Giorgione: the painter never made this mistake.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Defeated by technique'