22 May 2006

Authenticity, Deirdre Madden

This book blew me away. It was delicate, subtle, and utterly lovely. I luxuriated in it for three days, and it was sheer pleasure.

The book follows several characters, but focuses mainly on Julia, a young artist, Roderic, Julia's lover, an older (more successful) artist, and Dennis, Roderic's brother. Supporting cast includes Dan, Julia's working class father, and William, a rich guy who Julia becomes friends with. The book gracefully weaves back and forth in time, exploring their lives at various moments. It's a really eloquent portrayal of relationships between people - the emotions are beautifully captured, a real pleasure to read.

One really interesting feature is the way the book handles questions of art and class. Julia, Roderic, William, and Dan all have creative gifts, but only Roderic and Julia are working artists. Though this shared creative impulse would seem able to bring them together, class divides prove stronger. This is made most clear in the interactions between William and Julia. Although she appreciates William’s intellectual companionship, ultimately, the gap between them cannot be bridged: “To look at him tonight, everything about him suggested that his life and values were alien to hers, and she wondered what had ever possessed her to think that there was common ground between them. Why had she let herself be drawn into his world?”. Likewise, we see this with Roderic and Dan: “Roderic was aware that in spite of all the warmth and good will of the occasion, he and Dan were not breaking through to each other on a significant level” (338), and again when Roderic reflects that despite the fact that his whole life has been a “desperate flight from the middle class into which he had been born”, when facing Dan, he feels “deeply conventional”. At the same time, there are moments where art seems capable of crossing this barrier, for instance, when William shares the memory associated for him with the scent of turf smoke:

"‘I feel,’ he said deliberately, ‘that I’m giving you something private. Something precious.’
‘Yes, you are. You’re doing just that,’ Julia said. ‘That’s why I asked your permission.’
‘Is this,’ he asked, ‘what art has become?’
‘This,’ she said, ‘is what art has always been.’"

Thus, there is a way in which class is implicated in the ways that people interact with art, and with each other through art. At times, art seems able to temporarily bridge the class divide, but ultimately, these barriers seem to prove stronger.

There is a second issue at play as well, namely, the class character of the artist. As mentioned above, only Julia and Roderic are working artists. Dan and William both have artistic impulses, but are not practicing artists. The role of class here is most clear when Julia compares William and Roderic, and the seemingly similar trajectories of their lives. It seems that in addition to a creative impulse, the artist requires something else, which could be viewed as a willingness to break with class affiliation, along with a certain measure of privilege, in a curious sense. Not the privilege of money and high class, but having people in one’s life who support artistic pursuits, and see the profession of artist as acceptable.

Also fascinating in the text is the way it plays with time: it moves between past and present from chapter to chapter without warning, forcing you to orient yourself in a way that is intriguing but not unpleasant. But the order in which the story is told seems to be an important part of the way it's being told - the form contributes to the content in a really interesting way, which sort of mimics an artwork, or at very least, reminds you that literature is meant to be aesthetic. As you move suddenly to the past, you can't help but reflect on the passage of time between the two moments portrayed, how the characters have changed, etc. The text’s shifting chronologies and repetitions are certainly connected to the issue of art, but I haven’t quite thought through how this works. It’s certainly interesting that the text ends up looping – the first and final chapters contain the same scene, word for word, of Julia lying in Roderic’s bed and looking at the play of light on the bookshelf, imagining painting it. Furthermore, the prologue and epilogue contain a similar repetitions, but changed: “When she was a child, she used to wake early in the winter”, and “In the winter she used to wake late” – the use of the past perfect (?) tense here is notable. This connection between two moments, the second inflected by the passage of time between, is linked to the question of art, most notably in the following passage:

"What Julia did not understand was that between the joy of an experience such as she was then living and the recollection of it years later, might fall the shadow of intervening time. She knew that each artist creates her own precursors. She knew too that a work of art was changed by being viewed through the filter of later works, but she did not understand that this was also true in life. Roderic could have told her this, so too could her father and even William.
But Julia, at this time, did not know."

Really, a wonderful book, and one that I will definitely be thinking about for awhile. I highly recommend it.

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