Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Disparate Trinity . . .

We're leaving for Amsterdam (five days there, then most of the month in France) early next week, and when I return I'll be even further behind in recording my reading!
So I'm just going to list a few titles here:
Maureen Medved's The Tracey Fragments offers a radically different treatment of memory to those I've written of recently such as Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, Rosecrans Baldwin's You Lost Me There or Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses. Rather than the controlled, confessional, often lyrical narrative that marks these fictional retrospectives by men in late middle age, Medved's narrator is locked in an eternally-looping trauma which she only, chaotically, almost organizes into a cohesive horror story.  Enacting Freud's repetition compulsion, she repeats and repeats, looking at the torments of her teenaged life from several perspectives as she rides a bus around Winnipeg, trying to figure out how she became (and, in her mind, at least, caused) such tragedy. Profoundly moving, especially if the reader glimpses elements of one's adolescent self in the shattered mirror that is Tracey (or the pieces, I should say, that are the Tracey fragments).  Not for those who have no patience for non-linear narratives, but a brilliant demonstration of how the non-linear can work to powerful effect.

Brian Moore's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a title that has regularly come up over the years when people learn that I teach Canadian literature, and I wanted to find out why it represents that field for so many despite the fact that I never studied it. Moore was born in Northern Ireland in 1921, emigrating to Canada in 1948. He was twice awarded the Governor General's Awards for Fiction. Nonetheless, while I think I might have read The Luck of Ginger Coffey long ago, and perhaps Black Robe (I've lived long enough, read widely enough, that many titles have fallen to the back of my memory, but I have a vestigial twinge of recognition at these titles). Written in 1955, completely set in a fairly claustrophobic Belfast, the novel tells  of the constrained life of a lonely woman who has become a figure of fun to those about her, yet who the narrator reveals as worthy of sympathy in her longing for meaning and connection. This narrator is a wry observer, and details of dress and setting mean everything -- it's difficult to read this novel, in fact, without thinking of Joyce's The Dubliners. As difficult for me to see how it could represent Canadian literature for many, but I suppose no more a challenge in that regard than, say, Yann Martel's Life of Pi. . .

As I write this rather random post, it occurs to me that despite their vast stylistic difference, Medved's and Moore's novels could profitably be combined in a course looking at loneliness, particularly at loneliness in women. Both protagonists suffer because their lonely passions are stunted, at least in their own perceptions, by a failure to conform to societal constructions of female attractiveness. Hmmmm. . .

But then the last book I'm throwing into this post will not be roped into a complementary grouping -- it insists on the randomness of my enterprise: Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes. This is a get-your-hands-on-this-one book, really, a wonderful combination of memoir and cultural history. The author, a celebrated British ceramicist, follows an inherited collection of 264 netsuke (small Japanese carvings, in wood and ivory) through their history in his family, rolling back five generations of the Ephrussis, a family clan comparable to the Rothschilds in terms of riches and social status. Beginning in 19th-century Paris where an ancestor first began putting the collection together, he then follows them to Vienna, through the turn of the 20th-century, and then through the First World War, and, as the reader dreads, toward and into World War II, and his family's inevitable dispersal as Jews under the Nazis.

As I prepare to spend another week in Paris next month, I'm once again struck by how that city's focus on art and aesthetics in no way precludes a nasty history of anti-semitism (among other unpleasant tendencies, xenophobia among them).  Collector Charles supported many of the Impressionist painters, both in his influential critical writing and by buying their works at very fair prices and encouraging others to do the same. Yet those same painters' letters and diaries reveal a widespread contempt for Jews that was very thinly veiled -- and which exploded messily with the  Dreyfus affair.

Still, Charles found his way into the art of some of the artists he supported. Renoir, who makes no secret of his dislike for Jews in general, includes him in his well-known painting Le déjeuner des canotiers, the Luncheon of the Boating Party. As deWaal describes the painting, "Charles is there. He is the man at the very back, in the top hat and black suit, turning slightly away, seen glancingly. You can just see his red-brown beard. He is talking with a pleasantly open-faced, poorly shaved Laforgue, dressed as a proper poet in a working man's cap and what could even be a corduroy jacket." Charles also shows up, apparently in Proust's pages.

And just imagine looking back through your family to learn that only five generations ago was a relative who "put together a collection of forty Impressionist works . . . .paintings and pastels by Morisot, Cassatt, Degas, Manet, Monet, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir: Charles created one of the great early collections of the Impressionists. All the walls of his rooms must have been filled with these pictures, they must have been hung above each other three deep. Forget the Degas pastel glowing solitary on a gallery wall at the Metropolitan, five feet from another picture on either side, nothing above or below. In this room this pastel (Two Women at the Haberdashers, 1880) must have shaded the Donatello, knocked against a score of other glowing pictures, rubbed up against the vitrine of netsuke" (74).

Of course, the inevitable horrors toward which the narrative must progress resulted in the theft and dissolution of most of the art that was still in the family in WWII Europe. But de Waal does not indulge in indignation (to which he's certainly entitled) nor even much wistfulness. Merely, yet significantly, he recovers these rooms full of art by poring through records, letters, journals, ledgers, as well as by spending time in the environs they once occupied. In this he somewhat resembles his admirable grandmother who tried to hold accountable those who had appropriated art and furnishings that she had grown up with. And then, finally, he follows the netsuke to post-war Japan where his Great-Uncle lived with them, returning them to their original context albeit with a wholly renewed inflection. But I'm wrong, this is not the book's final destination; rather, the last trip takes him to Odessa, the city where the family began building its wealth as brokers of grain. And finally, de Waal lets us see the netsuke in their new home, his own family home in London where children are again allowed to handle them, where they carry family and cultural memory along another generation.

 It's a fascinating, fascinating memoir, one of the most entertaining and instructive that I can remember. Have you read it? I'd love to know what you thought. And if you haven't, I recommend it unreservedly.

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