This novella tells the story of an antique dealer who specialises in ceramics having loved the Portland Vase in the British Museum when he was a boy. He has learned how to buy and sell from his father who is a market trader. The narrator-protagonist goes to a stately home whose contents (including the panelling and even the lead from the roof) are due to be auctioned off; he discovers that the room full of Wedgwood is actually full of copies but that the lodge contains some very valuable pieces which were stolen some years before. But the auction trade has many opportunities for a wide boy to make a few bob and our hero has a number of tricks up his sleeve as he shucks and jives his way to some profitable deals.
What immediately attracted me to this little book is the command Monowitz has as he weaves language and plot and character together. He sees all life as a metaphor for dealing. For example, at the start of chapter two he describes how his baby, having been grumpy, gets a bottle: "His smile was full of satisfaction and triumph. He'd pulled it off once again, and was getting to feel infallible. I knew how he felt. I felt the same way when I managed to run something at auction." In chapter eleven he metaphorises death as bankruptcy: "It wanted just another bad winter or a really bad deal to put him out of business."
There is another nice moment of metaphor when he has just discovered that the Wedgwood he has been considering buying is fake and one of his many dodgy business associates ends up being fooled by purchasing counterfeit dollars. This ramps up the tension when the hero actually buys the Wedgwood, knowing it to be fake, on behalf of others; you are never quite sure whether he is playing them or they are playing him. As he says: "You can't be too sure. You can't be too careful. You can be too clever. You can't be clever enough. It's a bad lookout." (C 6)
In addition to this he starts off with the line "As far as I know it started when I was about eleven" which just makes you want to read on and then he suggests that an exhibit in the British Museum moves. I was hooked from page two.
But the best of the book is that he is describing some wonderfully seedy characters in the dog eat god of the antiques trade. It's very Del Boy.
There are a lot of great lines for such a little book:
- "The air was deep blue and very solid, and I thought suddenly that the vase was solid night carved with figures of pure light." (C1)
- "I reached out and put my hand on my wife's thigh. It was warm and I wanted to go to sleep again with my hand there, but she jerked away suddenly, as if I was a roadsweeper trying to feel the brush texture in one of the paintings at Wildenstein's." (C3)
- "When you walk around in the middle of the night it takes a while before you can really say you're thinking about anything particular." (C3)
- "It's a funny game, this dealing. Nothing's worth anything until you sell it, and then it's worth whatever you can get for it." (C3)
- "If you want to be unpleasant about it, dealing is sordid, and the dealer is a whore. But you won't pretend that whoring isn't hard work or that it doesn't supply a need. We don't have to be in love with the customer. We just have to take him upstairs." (C3)
- "I'm no better, nor fundamentally different from the girl trading on Birdcage Walk on a wet Saturday evening. When things are bad my standards and my prices go down." (C3)
- "Two smiles were fished out from the bottom of their spleens by a couple of American friends. They put them back quickly to save wear and tear." (C 6)
- "I mused on the idiocy of a life which tosses you money when you don't work for it, and a bellyful of promises when you do." (C6)
- "My stomach was self-supporting at the moment and I wanted to make some small contribution." (C7)
- "He loved trees but only when they were chopped down." (C7)
- "It's got a nice atmosphere of decay - and I love the way the herbaceous border's gone tropical and the trees haven't been pruned and the bushes haven't had a haircut in years." (C9)
- "Her expression meant nothing. It was just a dish cover and no one could say what she had on the dish." (C 10)
- "He couldn't think of more than one thing at a time, and thinking about that one little thing took up all the breath and blood and life he had left in him." (C 11)
- "The dealer was like the ring master in a dream circus ... Who knew better than he that nothing is given, that everything passes, the woods decay? He was the ultimately human being." (C 11)
A delightful bijou offering. April 2019; 85 pages