Monday, March 29, 2010

To avoid life's questions or to court them? (Books - Nothing is Black by Deirdre Madden)

Deirdre Madden has become my Irish muse. Her humane, compact novels vibrate like lovingly crafted string instruments. Sometimes it is the solo voice we hear - with the idiosyncratic personality driven art of the singer - sometimes it is the more richly resonant overtones of several strings played at once. But the song is always infused with distinctive personality - a complex human song, sometimes one that doesn't even know it wants to be sung. Many of her characters are artists - writers, visual artists - who live their lives against the grain trying to both maintain their privacy so that they don't lose the thing about their vision that is singular, and also enrich themselves of humanity so that they may produce a thing that is authentic and useful in that it can speak to others.

Very often, these artists are coming into contact with people who don't produce art themselves, but who are beginning to feel the confines that normally define their lives press up against them. In Nothing is Black, Claire, a painter living in remote Donegal, hosts her afluent cousin, Nuala. Nuala has recently lost her mother and despite her professional success has encountered a crisis:
The waitress brought her coffee, and as Nuala stirred it, she notice the spoon, noticed how heavy and cool it was. she put it on the saucer, and continued to look at it as she drank. And then something quite extraordinary happened.

She realized that she wanted the spoon. No matter that the name of the hotel was stamped upon it; no matter that she had at home a splendid canteen of silver cutlery, a wedding present she had never used; no matter that she had access to any amount of spoons and forks in the restaurant. No, it was that spoon and no other she wanted, and she had never wanted anything so much since she had been a child...
And from that point Nuala's life ceases to resemble the comforting thing she had aspired to. That grain that Madden's artists live against - here it is. Nuala's grief and uncertainty must be lived out away from the eyes of her usual audience, so that they are not too disturbed by the way her urges rub up against the confines of propriety. It is this departure of an ordinary person from their everyday seeking out the richly uncertain realm of the artist that is Madden's specialty.

The cousins Claire and Nuala from an interesting counterpoint of the ways humans can try to understand the mystery of living inside of our bodies and our lives as sentient beings.
No, she didn't understand life. She knew how it operated, but she didn't understand it. Did anyone, though?

Kevin and Nuala had finished their meal, and signaled to the waitress to bring them their bill. After they'd gone, she moved to clear the table, They'd left her the biggest tip she'd had all season. She wonder if this was to make up for the fact that they'd taken the pepper pot with them. No, she'd never understand what went on in people's heads, not if she lived to be a hundred.

[and]
'Daddy, why have some birds got blue eggs and some speckledy eggs? How many colours are there in the whole world? Is there a word for the colour a shadow is? shy is grass green? Is white really a colour?'

Her parents both agreed that she would keep a nation going.

She liked the words for the colours: yellow, green, red. Then she learnt new words. Turquoise, vermilion, aquamarine. Ochre, crimson, puce. This love of colour did not diminish as she grew up. The questions never ended, they became more complex, the only difference was that she stopped going to her father for answers to them. She was sitting in the studio reading Frida Kahlo's notes on colour.

Brown: colour of mole, of the leaf that goes. Earth.

Yellow: madness, sickness, fear. Part of the sun and of joy.

Cobalt blue: electricity and purity. Love.

Black: nothing is black, really, nothing.

'Daddy,' she'd said when she was eight, 'why do people keep saying the sky is blue, when it almost never is?' He'd laughed aloud at that.
These seem to be emblematic of Nuala and Claire's experience of the world. The first based in rules of cause and effect - if one thing occurs then another occurs as a balancing force. Whereas Claire's world is more immediately experiential, less rule bound. One seems to be an exercise in avoiding questions, the other in courting them. The interior struggles of her characters' lives are the action of Madden's novels. It would be cliched to say she that she crafts her prose simply or directly. Because simplicity and directness in prose about elusive subjects in anything but simple and is more than likely arrived at through effort. But her prose seems simple and direct, which is its art. And its intensely human complexity is its beauty. If you have not yet sampled Deirdre Madden's thoughtful, singular body of work, I urge you to get started. Here are my thoughts on Molly Fox's Birthday, One by One in the Darkness, Hidden Symptoms, The Birds of the Innocent Wood, Remembering Light and Stone, and Authenticity. I am growing sad now because I think I have read every one of Madden's novels. I guess that just means I will have to read some of them again.

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