The Ebony Tower Summary
Henry Breasley, one of England’s most famous twentieth-century artists, has lived in France for decades. Achieving his fame in the 1930s through his impressions of the Spanish Civil War, Breasley sees no reason to adapt his artistic style to the changing times. Instead, he spurns abstraction and works on what pleases him. A near recluse in his Normandy manor, Breasley surrounds himself with young female acolytes. When he agrees to be the subject of a major book, its author, David Williams, travels from London to spend the weekend at the estate. Williams is an abstract painter who has had moderate commercial success; a former art teacher, he now works primarily as a critic.
The novel is primarily concerned with the effects of Williams’s stay at the estate, especially his interactions with the newest young devotee, Diana. As soon as he arrives, even before meeting Breasley, he sees Diana and another young woman, Anne, on the grounds; both are naked. Henry has continued to paint, although his latest series is unfinished, and spends much of his time drinking. Rather than conventional interviews, David realizes, he must listen to the cantankerous senior artist’s monologues, some of which are harangues against contemporary trends in general and even attacks on David’s painting style specifically.
The next day, the four of them picnic outside, and the women again wander around nude. As Henry naps, David swims nude with them and they converse about art and life. David is especially attracted to Diana, nicknamed Mouse, a former art student who has left school in London to live with Henry. After dinner, she shows him her paintings, which have some commonalities with his own. He tries to initiative a sexual relationship, which she rebuffs despite her attraction to him.
The next day, David leaves for Paris. He broods over the missed opportunity for a sexual connection. His wife, Beth, had stayed in England with their sick child, but now she is traveling to Paris to join him. Conflicted over the lost opportunity to be with Diana, he dwells on the ordinariness of his life in comparison to Breasley’s and considers whether he has settled for mediocrity in both art and life.
Very little action is involved in the two-day span that constitutes the plot of The Ebony Tower, the title novella in a collection with four short stories. Presented from the point of view of limited omniscience, the novella concerns the thoughts and reactions of David Williams, as he contrasts his domestic and predictable life in London with the unconventional world he encounters at Henry Breasley’s estate in France, the Manoir de Coetminais (“the forest of the monks”).
David has come to Brittany to interview Henry in preparation for writing a biographical and critical introduction to a volume of the older painter’s work. On his arrival at the secluded, fifteenth century estate, he encounters two naked young women-nicknamed the Mouse and the Freak-whose presence seems to validate the reputation of the painter, a notorious iconoclast and womanizer. After being introduced to Henry, David smugly but enviously is taken on tour of the artist’s collection of modern art. Later that evening at dinner, the two men have a serious discussion and almost an argument about contemporary art, hindered by Henry’s increasing drunkenness but aided by the Mouse’s role as interpreter for the generally inarticulate Henry. Henry abhors abstract art, the “decorative” style for which David has become moderately famous.
Helped to bed by the two women in an apparently familiar domestic ritual, Henry is repentant the next morning, and all four go on a picnic for lunch. In a scene suggestive of Edouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863), the women lounge and swim in the nude while the men converse, and, after their meal, while Henry sleeps, the other three swim again. David begins to revise his formerly dismissive opinions of the Mouse and the Freak, recognizing their...
(The entire section is 1,494 words.)