Kills off the talent too early

Kills off the talent too early
Rhonda Dredge

There’s a lot of discussion in Chris Womersley’s new novel The Diplomat about what makes a work of art.

The protagonist/narrator has studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and likes to philosophise.

As the novel opens, Edward Degraves has quite a few problems he has to solve as well.

Not only is he on detox, but his wife has just died, he’s smuggled heroin into Melbourne and his only skill appears to be mixing colours.

Art distracts him from the downside of life. A painting that is read too easily, he suggests, qualifies for a lower case a instead of being a work of Art.

Edward and his wife Gertrude have been in the business of forging paintings and the research they did lifted them out of a humdrum existence in ‘80s London.

This part of his argument holds up but when Edward resolves to go straight when he arrives back in Melbourne it’s hard for him to give up the drugs and the fantasies.

This is the fifth novel by Womersley and a sequel to Cairo which was set in a block of flats in Fitzroy.

The novel was launched last month at Readings in Carlton and has had good reviews, particularly in terms of its depiction of Melbourne in the ‘80s so it has quite a lot of inner-city cred.

You could call The Diplomat a cross between the typical grounding style of Aussie realism and the moral dilemmas of Russian formalism.

Many of the tropes, such as poverty, seem hackneyed until they are transformed into art by the creative talent of Gertrude.

In Cairo she faked a Picasso that was stolen out of the NGV. In The Diplomat she paints little studies on cheap card to hit the right note of pathos for a poverty-stricken genius from middle Europe.

The novel tells the story of the couple as they try and make it in the art world.

Gertrude is the talented one and she uses Edward’s colours to paint the fakes they sell to a Russian investor.

Deceit is one of the drugs of their addiction and the tricks they play, while illegal, are not that removed from the art practices of the day. Damien Hirst was big at the time and patrons were paying a fortune to look cool, come what may.

When Edward returns to Melbourne to sort out his life, he doesn’t really look that cool. If success is the mark of talent, Edward has none.

It’s hard to pull off a story about a junkie. Fiction takes discipline and this could be what keeps the reader on track. Edward does have stamina, an attribute we’ve come to admire during lockdown.

He manages to get off his habit and tries to do a drug deal but there’s not enough creative tension to really drive the narrative. It’s a pity the author killed off the artistic talent so early.

The Diplomat, Chris Womersley, Picador, 2022. •

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