Letters to Gwen John – Celia Paul

I love books on art and creativity as well as hybrid narratives where the boundaries between genres are blurred – recent case in point being Nathalie Leger’s superb Suite for Barbara Loden. Celia Paul’s gorgeous work Letters to Gwen John, therefore, ticked all the right boxes for me.

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, aging and loneliness.

It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

THE SIMILARITIES – A SMORGASBORD OF ASSOCIATIONS

Celia begins her narrative by highlighting the four postcards of paintings that are her personal favourites; one of them being the work titled The Convalescent by Gwen John (“Just one look at this reproduction of Gwen John’s painting and my breathing becomes easier”), and which also caught my attention because it graces the cover of my Virago edition of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  

We learn that both Gwen and Celia were students at the prestigious Slade School of Art. Gwen, particularly, came from an artistically inclined family. Her mother Augusta, an artist, named her younger brother who she loved dearly Augustus, and later there would be Auguste Rodin in Gwen’s life. Augustus was the first to gain entry into this prestigious art school, and Gwen subsequently followed.

The two men in Celia Paul’s life (first Lucian Freud and then her husband Steven Kupfer) had girlfriends called Kate before they met Celia, and Celia has a younger sister Kate who she is closest to, while Steven’s mother was called Kathe. And then Lucian was named after his mother Lucie because “she sensed a special bond with him at first sight.”

LOVE, BURNING PASSION AND YEARNING

Celia Paul then goes on to elaborate how both women fell deeply in love with and were profoundly influenced by men – the sculptor Auguste Rodin for Gwen and the artist Lucian Freud for Celia.

Gwen’s passion for Rodin is all consuming and claustrophobic. Initially posing as a model for him, that professional relationship quickly transforms into an affair. The passion that Gwen feels for Rodin is so intense, that when he is not around, the pining and yearning for him destabilizes her to the detriment of her art.

Celia experiences something similar. She meets Lucian while still studying at the Slade and a passionate affair soon develops. His absences keep her on tenterhooks; the debilitating longing for him affects her art. Disillusioned by the painting techniques taught at the Slade, Celia draws inspiration from Lucian in many aspects while attempting her paintings. And yet it’s a relationship fraught with awkwardness. Celia outlines the contrasting attitudes of the two women while posing as models for their paramours; Gwen is uninhibited while sitting for Rodin and posing comes naturally to her. But for Celia it is sometimes a momentous effort, partly because she is disconcerted by Lucian’s objective, piercing gaze.

There are differences also in how these relationships play out. Gwen’s intense feelings for Rodin finds an outlet in a frenzy of letters she sends to him where she unabashedly writes about how his lengthening spells of absences torment her. The single-minded nature of her emotions alarm Rodin to the point that he is concerned for her, but is also gradually driven away. Celia’s relationship with Lucian goes one step further; she has a son with him named Frank. But this is a romance that also peters out, a development that Celia gratefully welcomes with a sense of relief as time rolls on.

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN

Letters to Gwen John is a book about women artists establishing their own identity in a field often dominated by men. Although encouraged in her art by her brother Augustus, Gwen often feels smothered by his proximity and influence and longs to get away so that she can blossom on her own and evolve independently as the artist she wants to be.

Both women strive for personal space, a physical domain they can truly call their own, a stamp of their monk-like personality. More importantly, it is free from the influence of their lovers, Auguste and Lucian, who can enter this private world as mere visitors and nothing more, the sharing of space strictly forbidden.

This desire is born out of the need for freedom to pursue their art (“We can be free if we are unseen. We are like nocturnal animals”), as well as a way to connect with their inner world (“Your aim has, always, was to lead a more and more interior life. We remain remote”).

SOLITIDE OR COMPANY?

Celia Paul has very eloquently painted a picture of the conflict that rages inside her – the aching need for solitude to practice her craft…

The peace is profound and it enters your soul to the extent that, even when you step outside, all sounds seem to be at a remove. The silence of the great ancient yew trees surrounding the tower seems to be at one with your own inner silence.

…which battles with the craving for company to ward off loneliness and old age.

I often think of those old women whom I have painted, my mother included, and I wonder at their quiet patience, and what inner reserves of strength they must draw on to keep up their courage and power to endue, riven as they all must be by memories and fear of the approaching dark.

ART & MOTHERHOOD – A DELICATE BALANCING ACT

One of my favourite books some years ago was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a fragmentary novella that dwells on the loss of identity and the mundaneness of new motherhood, where the protagonist laments that “she wanted to be an art monster.” Celia Paul experiences something of that as well. She wants to be a mother, Lucian encouraged it as well (although his relationship with their son Frank remained awkward and distant), and when the baby is born, Celia realizes that the demands of motherhood often clash with the discipline and quiet required for her art. And she struggles with this knowledge.

As a single parent of an angry adolescent son, I was in the spotlight, out of the shadows. Everything about me was exposed and judged. This exposure, and the world’s judgement that came with the exposure, is what prevented me from working truthfully. I was judged by Lucian, by my son, by my mother, by Bella. I lost confidence. There was no way, in the world’s eyes, that I could be a good mother – and I wanted to be a good mother now – while at the same time being a painter wholly committed to her art.

AN ODE TO THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I also loved the sections of the book that emphasized on the intricacies of the art-making process – the mixing of exotically named paints (Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Blue and so on), the challenges of the finished painting aligning with the artist’s vision, that ‘a-ha’ moment when you know that it has shaped up the way you had visualized it.

Painting is different from writing. A notebook or a laptop is a compact space for creativity. In order to paint you need paraphernalia: a palette, brushes, canvases, easel, and a room to yourself where it’s possible to be uninhibited – you need to be unconcerned about drips of paint landing on the carpet or staining the walls. We use words all the time. But painting is an acquired language that you need to practice every day, like playing an instrument: if you don’t, you lose your gift.

Akin to an image that quickly emerges from the deft strokes of a brush, these nuances of the artistic process are revealed to us in the later letters which focus on two of her paintings – “Copper Beech, Hampstead Heath” and “Weeping Willow”. Celia expertly illustrates the trials of completing these paintings, sometimes working on one painting only to move on to the other one and the unwavering focus required bringing it to fruition. And how the nature of the painting itself changes along the way.

BEAUTIFUL BOOK, WONDERFUL WRITING

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. Through her frank, unadorned, graceful narrative style, Celia Paul draws us into her solitary world where the sea that “gently washes and laps like milk tilted from side to side in a bowl”, and the incoming waves that “obediently follow each other, like sheep brought home to the fold”, has as much of a calming effect on the reader as it does on Paul. A fabulous fusion of biography and memoir, the book is an illuminating depiction of two female artists, their ascetic personalities, the desire to assert their independence while making art, and how their art becomes a steadying force and pillar of strength while navigating personal difficulties and turbulence in their lives. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

In a nutshell, the rich palette of themes, the quiet confessional tone of Celia Paul’s letters and the melancholic beauty of the artworks meld into a unique form that is a work of art by itself; the stillness and peace captured becomes a joy to truly savour.

Burntcoat – Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall is one of my favourite contemporary authors. No one composes short stories as exquisitely as she does. Indeed, she has become the first author to win the BBC National Short Story Award twice, with judges describing her as a virtuoso of the form.

She has now released three collections – The Beautiful Indifference, Madame Zero and Sudden Traveller. All are miniature works of art.

As far as the novels go, I’ve only read two – Haweswater (excellent) and The Wolf Border (good). So, I was pretty excited to know that she had a new novel coming out this year. Did Burntcoat, then, live up to my high expectations?

Those who tell stories survive.

Thus begins Burntcoat, the first virus novel I’ve read published in the pandemic period; a melancholic, compelling novel about passion, creativity, death and disease.

Edith Harkness, in her late fifties, is a renowned sculptor residing alone in her home Burntcoat, situated at the industrial edge of the city. At the very beginning, we sense that she is dying – she is in the thick of making various arrangements including a trip to the florist.

As the novel progresses, we are privy to a slew of flashbacks from Edith’s childhood to the time when she embarks on a passionate affair with Halit just before lockdown is imposed. This lockdown is precipitated by the deadly novavirus, which had been wreaking havoc worldwide (pretty much like Covid). There’s a difference though. Hall’s novavirus has the ability to resurface much later in a deadly fashion and explains why Edith’s days are numbered.

Consequently, Edith harks back to the past, where certain critical phases in her life are revealed to the reader layer by layer. We learn of Edith’s bond with her mother Naomi, a woman who survives a brain haemorrhage. But while Naomi does not lose her life, she loses her sense of self, a transformation that Hall expresses beautifully.

The haemorrhage had caused massive damage, and the procedure came with its own penalties. A precise section of bone had been sawn and removed, the pristine vacuum of the organ breached. They’d mended the tissue, clipped the vessel, and the brain’s flow of blood had been redirected. Against all odds, the rupture hadn’t killed her. Naomi would recover, slowly, anatomically, but something fundamental was disrupted by the process of repair – the complex library of thought, memory, emotion, personality they saved her life; they could not save her self.

The marriage disintegrates and Edith chooses to stay with her mother. Their existence is wild, nonconforming and not rooted in society’s perception of normality, they are outsiders and they come to accept it.

Intertwined with this narrative is Edith’s discovery of her vocation as a sculptor, her difficult years in art school, followed by a sojourn with a wood sculptor in Japan, living with his family at their humble abode, learning and absorbing his techniques.

Furthermore, Edith also reminisces on her intense relationship with Halit, a restaurant owner of Turkish origins, years later. As the deadly novavirus rears its ugly head, Halit and Edith hole up at Burntcoat to ride it out. This is a period filled with sex and passion as well as fear and uncertainty. Writing about sex is one of Sarah Hall’s strong points quite evident not only from her short stories (I am thinking about “Evie” from her collection Madame Zero), but also in this novel.

Upstairs I had other names, in your language, begging, sworn before climax. The stove in the bedroom kept us warm. We sat or lay, you unwinding from work, taking off layer after layer, and our forms melted together in the red underworld light. We slept as the flames settled and dies, tucked together like pigeons on a loft, the sleet creeping over the roof, the country waiting. February, with its bare, larval branches. March. Other nations were closing borders, quarantining.

The dominant themes prevalent in Burntcoat, then, are desire, death, illness and creation of art. Hall is great at capturing the terror of illness and its consequences – Edith’s mother suffering brain damage and its debilitating impact on the family unit, and then later when Edith has to assume the frightening role of sole caregiver when the virus penetrates the walls of Burntcoat. Through both these incidents, Hall explores the devastating loss of identity involved when afflicted with grave disease.

Even before symptoms truly arrived, there seemed to be profound change, in the way you moved, or sat – against the wall, staring down, your eyes dumbly asking for something that couldn’t be given. The process of illness is also the dissolution of the self.

Hall has also enticingly described Edith’s work as a sculptor, the creative process of wood sculpting and how Edith struggles with being an outsider in a vocation dominated by men, but where she eventually excels.

While the overall novel is very good, I did have some mixed feelings. First, a central premise was lacking; it seemed the novel was made up of three distinct parts and these parts did not always cohere. From the outset, one got the sense of a tenuous link between all these sections. Second, while I enjoyed the art section (I am partial to any writing on art and its creation), Hall delves into a failed relationship of Edith’s in that period, a story arc I felt to be a tad banal and not really contributing much to the overall narrative.

Third, the rendering of the pandemic on a broader scale somehow felt flat. Perhaps, after the horror and widespread devastation of Covid in reality, the depiction of the pandemic in fiction didn’t really come alive. Where Hall has done a brilliant job though is to portray the anxiety and fear at a personal level, particularly, when Edith is compelled to look after Halit with no outside help possible. These sections are some of the most intense in the book making it a compelling page turner.

There’s no good way to wait for disaster. Redundancy, a hurricane, surgery – the days, the hours before are already afflicted, emptied of true productivity and slippery with fear.

The real highlight of Burntcoat, though, is Sarah Hall’s writing. Her prose is raw, physical and sensual, her use of language striking, her way of expression quite beautiful and uniquely her own. It’s ultimately what makes the novel worth reading.

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of those authors whose books I can read only when the timing is right. Years before, I abandoned Mrs Dalloway twice, only to try it much later when I was on a sabbatical. I loved the novel on my third attempt.

Something similar happened with To the Lighthouse. In a previous attempt I had not made much headway, but the current lockdown was the perfect opportunity to give this novel another go. And I loved this one too.

Despite her daunting reputation as a novelist and the perception that her novels are difficult to read, I ultimately found both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse pretty accessible.

To the Lighthouse is essentially an impressionistic portrayal of the Ramsay family and their circle of friends during a holiday on the Isle of Skye told through various perspectives.

When the book begins Mrs Ramsay’s youngest son, James, who is around eight years old asks Mrs Ramsay whether they can visit the lighthouse. Mrs Ramsay believes the weather will be fine to make this excursion, but Mr Ramsay turns out to be a damp squib. He dashes their hopes stating that inclement weather is bound to make any such trip impossible.

This exchange at the beginning brings to the fore the tensions within the Ramsay family. Young James harbours resentment towards his father (which continues ten years later), and Mrs Ramsay is inwardly unhappy that her husband should be a spoilsport.

This brings us to one of the themes of the novel – the portrayal of a marriage, in this case the dynamic between Mr and Mrs Ramsay.

Mr Ramsay is quick tempered, and worries whether his body of work (he writes philosophy books) will stand up even after his death. He is insecure about being remembered by posterity and constantly craves for reassurances regarding his worth. For this, he more often than not turns towards his wife. To his kids, Mr Ramsay comes across as a tyrant.

Mrs Ramsay is described as a beautiful woman. In a way, she is the life of the assembly of people at their holiday home, the axis around which everything revolves. She is an intelligent woman but resigned to playing second fiddle to her husband, assuaging his moods, which often puts a strain on her. When it comes to their family life, however, she plays a central role, managing her eight children, being on top of household duties and taking care of her guests.

They came to her, naturally, since she was a woman, all day long with this and that; one wanting this, another that; the children were growing up; she often felt she was nothing but a sponge sopped full of human emotions.

It doesn’t mean the marriage is not successful because husband and wife love each other. Yet there are tensions between the two and the individual viewpoints of both Mr and Mrs Ramsay are presented to the reader.

And so she went down and said to her husband, Why must they grow up and lose it all? Never will they be so happy again. And he was angry. Why take such a gloomy view of life? He said. It is not sensible. For it was odd; and she believed it to be true; that with all his gloom and desperation he was happier, more hopeful on the whole, than she was. Less exposed to human worries-perhaps that was it. He had always his work to fall back on. Not that she herself was ‘pessimistic’, as he accused her of being. Only she thought life-and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes, her fifty years.

Providing another perspective on their marriage outside of the family is Lily Briscoe – a young, aspiring painter who is also one of the guests at the holiday home.

Lily is very unsure of her talent as she frets over the form and composition of her paintings. It doesn’t help that Tansley, another guest, quips about how women ‘can neither paint nor write’.

Always (it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it?

When she is not looking after her children, Mrs Ramsay spends her energy match-making and thinking about possible alliances. Mrs Ramsay knows she is beautiful but is also aware that her charms are not for everyone.

She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered; and after all, veil it as she might, and shrink from the monotony of bearing that it imposed on her, her beauty was apparent. She had been admired. She had been loved….it injured her that he should shrink. It hurt her. And yet not cleanly, not rightly. That was what she minded, coming as it did on top of her discontent with her husband; the sense she had now when Mr Carmichael shuffled past, just nodding to her question….

The novel also explores the power dynamics between Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. Mrs Ramsay takes it upon herself to pair up people and in this she attempts to team up Lily with Mr William Bankes – a much older man. Lily does not fall for it and also on her part ponders on the relationship between Mr and Mrs Ramsay and the why the latter doesn’t stand up to him a bit.

There must have been people who disliked her very much, Lily thought – people who thought her too sure, too drastic. Also, her beauty offended people probably. How monotonous, they would say, and the same always! They preferred another type – the dark, the vivacious. Then she was weak with her husband. She let him make those scenes.

To the Lighthouse is made up of three sections. The first section – ‘The Window’ – is the longest; the focal point of which is the time spent by the family and their friends at their holiday home before the start of the Second World War as highlighted above. It ends with a large dinner party organized by Mrs Ramsay – where the various dynamics between the characters come into play – and the announcement of a wedding.  

We then move on to the second section – ‘Time Passes’ – which is peppered with some of the most poetic and beautifully written passages in the novel. The years roll by, the war rumbles on and the Ramsay holiday home gradually sinks into decay. Important developments in the Ramsay family are conveyed in various chapters in parenthesis.

In the third section – ‘The Lighthouse’ – ten years later, the Ramsay family are back on the island again and this time make that much delayed trip to the lighthouse.

One of the questions that many of the key characters ponder over is – What is the meaning of it all?

What does one live for? Why, one asked oneself, does one take all these pains for the human race to go on? Is it so very desirable?

Mr Ramsay does not want his fame to diminish even after his death. Lily Briscoe does not aspire towards such lofty ideals, nor does she appear to have much ambition of being a great painter, although she does brood over the details of the creative processes of painting.

What is the meaning of life? That was all-simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

In terms of plot, there’s not much that happens in To the Lighthouse, the drama is all internal. Woolf’s writing is gorgeous, whether she is describing the Ramsay marriage, the creative energy of Lily Briscoe and the painting process, the changing of the seasons and the passing of time. The novel is a lovely portrayal of family life, of the love between a mother and her children and the accumulation of moments which leave an indelible mark on the mind.