Buried Alive by Arnold Bennett

arnold-bennettThis book, first published in 1908, feels oddly topical, with the alleged unmasking of Elena Ferrante and Dylan’s delay in engaging with the Nobel committee. Priam Farll is an artist who wishes to remain invisible. He is an enormously shy man who is shielded from the rigours of social interaction by wealth and his valet. When the valet is suddenly taken ill and dies, Farll sees an opportunity to adopt his identity.

Farll has been abroad for a number of years and is taken aback when he realises the extent of his fame. He eavesdrops as the media and the public debate hotly over whether ‘his’ funeral should be in Westminster Abbey, hears a starlet fabricate a story of their meeting, and is aghast at plans for his legacy. Meanwhile he has to live and to find his way around the social milieu of his late valet. Predictably, there are complications.

Bennett’s writing style is wonderful, rich with arch observation and satire – of the art world, of the media, of class. But beyond that there is a moving story. Farll’s change of circumstances brings opportunities, in the way he relates to people, in what he values, in his appreciation of his creativity.

Farll finds that while he can act like another person, he can’t fake his painting, whatever the consequences. Bennett nicely carries this tension – between the potential for change and the essential nature of who we are – to the end. And he shows how our obsession with the towering persona of the artist burdens the life-sized human behind it who just makes great art.

Buried Alive is in the public domain and can be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg

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