Back in my college days, I bought secondhand copies of Nick Bantock’s irresistibly beautiful Griffin & Sabine and The Golden Mean. I decided I would wait until I had the middle book of the trilogy before I read them. In the end this meant that two books I had have travelled with me, unread, for thirteen years, sitting on various shelves in different buildings as I moved a total of six times, and remaining packed in a box for a solid seven of those years. I was always either too poor or too busy (if not both) to even think about getting the second volume. It was only when I moved the sixth time in this past December and was shelving my books that I came across them and thought that I really must get around to buying that missing volume — and kept thinking it. Then just last weekend I came across a copy of Sabine’s Notebook at Value Village for $4. And so at last, I got to read them, indulging in just one a night this past week so as to make the long-awaited experience last.
And… the experience was disappointing. The art is certainly very good, and Nick Bantock has created two very distinctive artistic styles for his two characters. The multi-media concept, that of presenting postcards and letters that must be pulled from their envelopes, is a terrific one. And the premise of two artists who live at opposite sides of the globe and have never met yet share a mystical connection is very intriguing. The dust jacket flaps promise the reader a “delightful forbidden sensation” in the “wonderfully illicit activity” of reading someone else’s mail. But either I’m less voyeuristic than the jacket copy writer assumed or the said mail just wasn’t juicy enough.
The narrative is so slight it’s difficult to discuss it without giving it away. So, if you haven’t read these books, I’ll warn you of and apologize for any spoiling I may do in this review. Griffin Moss, an English artist, receives a postcard from a mysterious Sabine Strohem, who creates art for stamps and lives on Katie Island in the South Pacific. She claims that she has visions of the art he is drawing, and proves that she can by describing changes he has made to his work while alone in his studio. They exchange letters and postcards and details about their lives and, with the kind of efficiency usually only seen in Harlequins and Hollywood romantic comedies, fall desperately in love by the sixth exchange. They talk about meeting, they decide to meet, they try to meet and fail, they are hounded by a threatening man who stalks Sabine and writes (sub par) postcards to Griffin, demanding to know all about their psychic connection, they worry about this man and each other, begin to despair that they will never meet, and finally agree on another plan of meeting.
What there is in terms of narrative is pretty good, but there isn’t enough of it. Despite my year of visual arts training, I am still almost all about the text. I wanted to be drawn more deeply into this story, to have Griffin and Sabine’s characters come to life through the gradual accumulation of detail and demonstration of character, to watch their love for each other develop at a slower, more believable — and thus richer and more compelling — pace. But then I am aware that Nick Bantock and his publishers had to work within certain limits imposed by practical economics. Developing the story in the way I have in mind would have required making the correspondence (and the books) perhaps three or four times their current length and made them prohibitively expensive for most book buyers.
So we have them on our shelves in their present form, and the most compelling thing about them is their lush visual appeal and tracing the impact of their relationship and its resulting fervour and angst on their art. I will say this is not the least satisfactory of compromises. And that, to be fair, perhaps no book or reading experience could possibly live up to the kind of thirteen-year anticipatory build up these ones had.