Friday, April 17, 2009

Creating a life that convinces (Books - An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay)

A young woman coming of age in the Western world in the 1950s was expected to marry and make the home her job, if she were the type that couldn't marry, then perhaps she might become someone's secretary, a nurse, or a teacher, but a career as a serious painter would have been thought impractical at best and at worst pathological. Francesca Kay writes a fictional biography of one such crazy-woman, Jennet Mallow, in her first novel An Equal Stillness. By extension, it seems to me, she honors her artistic ancestors- the women, indeed all the artists of whatever sex who preceded her in the determination to create serious work and had the talent to do so.
In the realisation of her children's utter dependence, and her own concomitant and wholly adult obligation, was the crux of Jennet's problem. Freedom from personal obligation was in the world's eyes vital to an artist who intended to achieve the highest, the most transcendental of ideals in their work. It was that freedom which David Heaton had conferred upon himself. A freedom which was essentially childish by nature but without the drawbacks of a child's powerlessness. David could never be entirely adult if her were to succeed as an artist. So was this the stark choice Jennet faced: responsibility to the people she had brought into the world or truth to her vocation?
I'm not so sure that this isn't a romantic myth concocted by those who imagine the practice of art as a quasi-religious vocation. It brings pleasure to us, they reason, it allows us to taste of the transcendent and therefore they imagine that the life of the artist must be one of indulgent pleasure and his or her activities the daily seduction of some sort of transcendent haze. The work of an artist is, well, work like any other. This romantic claptrap is a lovely grass-is-always greener myth for those who associate art with their own escape, and it is a convenient myth for those who pursue art to run from the world, but very often, the valuable work is done amidst life's inconveniences and this novel says so, or better still, shows you that this is so.
Perhaps it may seem strange that 1952, which was in many ways the most testing year of Jennet's life, should mark the onset of her time as a serious, committed painter. She never explained it. Precedent would have suggested she do no painting; now, with three young children and one of them unwell, she might have been completely daunted. On the contrary, Jennet worked that year with fierce determination.
I appreciate this novel as much for telling these truths about life as an artist as for anything else about it. Francesca Kay's voice for this novel has a flow-y, at times distant, and elevated tone. There is a touch of Virginia Woolf or Jeanette Winterson about it. You feel the craft of her sentences:
So the house and lands were sold at no profit, and Lorna, fatherless and brotherless, adrift and mourning, met Richard Mallow at a Chrismas party and decided that as a door marked exit he would do.
Months of backstory are compressed into three scant lines. This is the sentence as a work of art. There were times in the first fifty pages of this book that I wearied a little of all that inventiveness. But as Jennet grew more interesting, the writing lost that self consciousness. I admired how Kay expressed the way an artist's materials, tools, and methods become the very way they apprehend their experience of the world. Take this passage about Jennet's relationship with a plasterer she hires for a project:
Together Roddy and Jennet mixed the lime with sand and marble dust to make a mortar, in proportions that varied with each coat. One volume of lime putty to three of coarse sand for the scratch coat, finer sand for the brown coat, one part of the finest sand with a little marble dust for the painting surface... She admired the sure way in which he worked, his minimal use of enegy, his reliability, his patience. He taught her how to apply the plaster by herself, as she would have to do in the final stages of the work, and the clean wet sandy scent of it would always be connected in her mind with gladness and with him.
That is a marvelous evocation of how the artistic language of a project one works on, the mundane techniques, the people, and the emotions of the time in which it was made become all bound up as one. Future meetings with any one of those ingredients immediately release all the rest and that become a source of richness not just for projects you later create, but for your experience of any part of life.

And one of the inherent challenges that Kay has given herself in writing of the life of a great painter is writing about great painting.
A woman, life-size, full-length, dressed in a white shift, her arms pinioned against her sides and her face terror-stricken behind the carapace of salt that is her prison. In the story Lot's wife turns into salt itself, but Jennet has a different version, showing the live woman trapped as if the salt had crusted instantly around her and would soon corrode her flesh. Although the expression of feat on the woman's face is unmistakable, her features and her body are glazed over by the salt so that she looks like a ghost of someone seen through water...
It struck me in reading this paragraph what a great project Kay gave herself. Many people think creativity is about the ultimate freedom but I don't find. either from being an artist or from teaching it, that that is the case. Total freedom is terror, creating usually comes best for me from the right balance of freedom and limits. Good limits are tremendously useful and here Kay has given herself the limit of telling this part of the life story of Jennet Mallow, artist, not as a narrative string of events, but rather as a static image, one made from the conscious technique and the unconscious urges of this artist who we have come to know. And further, as a writer, must render this in words. When these passages work best, as this one did for me, it creates a tremendously layered reading experience. It actually forwards the plot because much of the story of any artist is what they made. But it also deepens the experience in that we know something about how Jennet felt about her life, probably more even than she did herself at the time, by seeing what she made out of it. This is this book's strongest suit - evoking the life-work dyad that is the life of Jennet Mallow - and remember this is a fictional life, but one that ultimately convinces us and that moves us and that is its great achievement.

I will be interested to read whatever Francesca Kay writes next. Thanks, Cornflower Books, for the recommendation.

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