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.

Checkout 19 – Claire-Louise Bennett

In 2016, I was highly impressed by Pond, a book that featured on my Best of 2016 list that year. Not surprisingly, I was really looking forward to Checkout 19, and was lucky to procure a signed copy from the Blackwell’s UK website.

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.

The book comprises a total of seven pieces. I began the book thinking that these are seven different chapters, but on progressing further, I noticed many themes and motifs that are intertwined, denying it the neat classification of a short story collection. However, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on some of the pieces separately, because I don’t know how else to approach it.

In the first piece called ‘A Silly Business”, the narrative voice is first person plural (as if they are complicit with the reader) and we are immediately plunged into Bennett’s highly original writing, as our narrator begins talking about books and our attitude towards them. She highlights how we go to a library, pull out six to eight books, and once we have them, we can’t really get engrossed in them. Once we begin reading a book, we immediately begin to wonder what lurks in the pages of the other tomes.

It really was just the same no matter which book we picked up. As long as there were other books we thought about the sorts of words they might contain non-stop and were thus precluded from becoming engrossed with the very book we had in our hands. The very book. A silly business. Yes, it was a silly business.

Bennett, then, dives into our narrator’s childhood love for reading, how the books she read had an aura of exclusivity about them, a hobby greatly encouraged by her mother, and yet there was a hidden corner in the house which displayed a row of books that were out of bounds for young readers. It didn’t stop our narrator from secretly opening this cupboard with mixed feelings of curiosity and anxiety, and pulling out a book – “We were looking at things that were no business of ours. Illicit things.”

In the second piece called ‘Bright Spark’, our narrator elaborates on her deep craving for solitude, and the crush she has on her English teacher, Mr Burton, highlighting how he is a critical force in her school years, encouraging her talent as a writer and in a way laying a foundation for her career. She adores him, his classes are lively and exciting, but she hates how he is seemingly quite pally with the boys, a sort of male bonding that excludes her. She wonders about his life outside the classroom. Then, one day, he fails to appear for a class and his place is taken by a substitute teacher who is no patch on Mr Burton. In a fit of boredom, our narrator begins doodling on the back of her exercise book, and failing to capture Mr Burton’s facial features in an attempted drawing, she begins to feverishly pen a story. Mr Burton later chances upon it and a bond is formed.

He was with me very strongly when I lay in the dark, it was almost as if I was made of him. Writing could do that. Here was a way of reaching someone, of being with them, when you were not and never could be. Here was where we met. Here was where the distinction between us blurred. When he returned my story to me the following Tuesday the paper was covered with him – touching it was like touching his skin.

The third piece, ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, the longest and my favourite of the lot, is a remarkable fusion of fantasy and reality dotted with a dazzling array of authors and books which played an important role in shaping our narrator’s world. Our narrator tells us how when she was in her twenties, she penned the story of Tarquin Superbus – “a very elegant sort of man who lived in a very elegant European city sometime in a previous century.” The era is never defined, but when he is having conversations with the Doctor, our narrator imagines “gentlemen in the mid-1800s so to speak – byzantine, comical and portending.” Where is his apartment situated? Vienna possibly, but Venice seems apt – “if his grasp on reality is a little shaky to say the least, Tarquin Superbus is in Venice, because, after all, what reality is there to be found in Venice?”

Our narrator subsequently chronicles a chain of events in Superbus’ life – his close relationship with the Doctor who looked like Death (“there was nothing inside of him, he was vaporous, empty as a hologram, he achieved movement, not via the mechanism of his body, but by the fact that he consisted of a substance lighter than air – Death.”), but more importantly the central feature in his life which is the acquisition of a large library of books. The possession of such a gargantuan library, at first, makes Superbus a figure of awe and reverence, and he revels in his sense of importance. But this respect quickly gives way to contempt and derision, which begins to trouble Superbus deeply.

When he confides to his close friend the Doctor, the latter enters Superbus’ visually stunning library, begins pulling out various books off the shelves and feverishly turning their pages. He delivers his shocking verdict – all the pages in the books are literally blank, there is not a single printed word.

That is the original outline of the story penned by our narrator in her twenties, an enterprise that is thwarted by an incident revealed in the final pages of this piece.  In later years, however, she adds to it the dramatic revelation by the Doctor…

The pages Tarquin, are all blank, except for one page. Within the collection there is one page that is not blank – at least not entirely. It has upon it one sentence; that’s all, that’s it – one sentence. And this one sentence contains everything. Everything.

In subsequent years, our narrator often goes back to this story, rewriting it and embellishing it with books and authors that have influenced her way of thinking with the result that as a reader what we are reading is a retelling of the Superbus story.

The Doctor provided no explanation of this sort in the story I wrote all those years ago. The pages of Superbus’ library were blank, and that was all there was to it. It seems in the retelling I have got carried away. But then I have read so much and written so much since then it is hardly to be wondered at that in the meantime some ideas pertaining to the potency of the written word, based upon direct and seismic experiences, have been developing inside of me and should find their way out…

It’s a story that acts as a framing device as our narrator then deviates from that path and ventures into a range of topics and life experiences that occupy her thoughts – how women in the earlier century, restricted to the household, were belittled driving them to point of madness; how she is drawn to shadows rather than light citing Tanizaki’s concept of ‘visible darkness’; a boyfriend who mocks her reading choices; a trip to Florence influenced by Foster’s A Room with a View; a journey to Tangier and Fez prompted by Paul Bowles’ life (“what kind of person, who had the kinds of connections and opportunities that Paul Bowles must certainly have had, feels that life in New York would be boring nevertheless?”), how she is of the view that Anais Nin should be read later on in life, “when one has solidified and feels so very sure of themselves and would perhaps benefit from coming undone, from perhaps going out of their minds”, how her boyfriend Dale keeps poetry by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath out of her reach because they committed suicide, and whether she has what it takes to be a writer.

I had read a few books by Francoise Sagan, including “Bonjour Tristesse”, which I discovered she’d written when she was just eighteen, and that threw me into a tizz for a little while because I would have been that exact age when I read “Bonjour Tristesse”, but the things I was writing at that time when I was that age had none of the clarity and assuredness of Sagan’s work, they were autotelic and inscrutable and quite often when I read back over them I didn’t understand them at all, they perplexed and disturbed me, they didn’t tell a story, they expressed confusion and despair and desire and anger, irrepressible forces which issued out of dissonance that existed between my interior life and the world around me, and nobody would want to read that…

In the fifth piece ‘We Were the Drama’, among many things, our narrator recalls her impromptu trip to the seaside city of Brighton, a spur of the moment excursion that considerably distresses her boyfriend Dale. She talks about how she had no idea about Brighton’s best kept secret at the time – Ann Quin, but subsequently comes to love her imaginative work, particularly Berg. She also dwells on how Quin’s working-class circumstances stifle and terrorize her, how her job in a Cornwall hotel is a symbol of mind-numbing tedium. Her travels to the US are a bright spot, but the return to menial work again fills her with dread and consequently compels her to committ suicide. But Ann Quin’s suicide is the not the only one that haunts the pages of this piece, our narrator witnesses another disturbing death of an unknown person in an unfamiliar place that leaves an indelible impression on her mind.

As I said before, the boundaries of genre in Checkout 19 are pretty blurred, but interestingly, the second and third parts (‘Bright Spark’ and ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’) form the nucleus of the book and the subsequent pieces build on the ideas showcased in those two sections so that this could possibly be called a novel with its seemingly disparate pieces bound together by the recurrence of certain themes, motifs, incidents and images. For instance, the man who pushes a book into our narrator’s hand when she is a supermarket cashier assigned to checkout 19, reappears later as a Russian guy who glides through the aisles at the speed of light always pushing the basket in front of him. The increasingly possessive boyfriend Dale who makes his first appearance in ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, becomes a kind of a central figure in “We Were the Drama.” Glimpses of our narrator’s story that captures the imagination of her English professor in ‘Bright Spark’ are revealed to us in some of the final pieces.

What about our narrator herself, what do we know about her? She is certainly vulnerable, yearns for solitude, is an aspiring writer with a vivid imagination, finds herself in relationships with the wrong men who thwart her creative ambition, who are a disturbing presence in her life. But there are people who also value her love for books and writing, particularly Mr Burton, her mother, her friend Natasha.  

Checkout 19, then crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality.

I’m not sure whether I have done a good job of conveying the mood and essence of this book, but my assertion – that it is poised to be one of my favourites this year – will hopefully compel you to crack open its pages and delve into Bennett’s vibrant world.

Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest offering is a treat – a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections, as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer. As a writer she always surprises – this is her first novel written in Italian, as well as the first time she has self-translated a full-length work.

In Whereabouts, this European city is not named, but from various hints peppered throughout, it can be assumed that it’s a city in Italy. It’s a book made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture.

Our narrator is a woman, possibly in her mid-forties, a teacher by profession, and she lives alone in what she calls her ‘urban cocoon’. There is little else we know about her. But that is exactly the point. The idea is not to dwell on her identity, but to get a flavor of her experiences because in many ways they are universal. She could be any one of us. Not all of the events in her life will mirror ours, but quite a few are likely to strike a chord. The chapter headings, deliberately generic – ‘On the Couch’, ‘In My Head’, ‘At My House’ and so on – could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the sense of place in the novel is largely internal.  

The action in the novel is inherently interior, we are privy to our narrator’s thoughts and her perception of the world around her. She might be alone, but she is not completely cut off. Friends, acquaintances mark her social circle, transient relationships exist too. No definite pointers of her existence are handed to us on a platter, and yet a snapshot of her persona gradually emerges.

We learn that she has a strained relationship with her overbearing mother, who tormented by old age, expresses her wish to stay with our narrator if only because she dreads being alone. But our narrator resists, she wants to cling to the independent life she has carved out for herself. The past always comes back to haunt the present, and it’s apparent that the shadow of her father’s death, when she was 15, hasn’t entirely left her. She bemoans her wasted youth, of the years spent conforming to parental expectations, when she could have rather been a rebel with a cause.

Although she’s not married, our narrator tells us of her one long-term relationship with an anxious, highly-strung man, who she later discovers was two-timing her. The end of that union is a sort of a relief because she can “look at him without absorbing a drop of that tiresome anxiety, that ongoing lament.”

Some of her friends don’t understand the choices she has made – “I bump into my married friend for whom I represent…what, exactly? A road not taken, a hypothetical affair?” Another friend envies our narrator, and seeks refuge in her spartan home, away from her harried, busy life of working and raising a family – “’This is the only place I can relax,’ she says. She likes the silence, and not seeing objects scattered everywhere.”

Chance encounters punctuating our narrator’s existence are pregnant with meanings too – a fling with a married man conjures up images of languid afternoons spent in a series of trattorie talking and relishing delicious food, a mother bathing in the sea with her children entrances her because “she was a steady pillar in the midst of that roiling force.” A whiff of sadness permeates her being when her favourite stationery shop shuts down and the family running it, who she is fond of, is no longer around.

Solitude is the dominant pulse of the novel, it throbs persistently throughout the book – “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” Indeed, solitude has its pleasures, it allows our narrator to control her time and space. And yet there are moments when she can’t help thinking, “There are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.” Essentially, our narrator wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and a refusal to form lasting ties.

The majesty of Nature also evokes a range of emotions and influences our narrator’s perspective more often than not. While on the beach, she observes that “the gray light that pervaded the sky after sunset made me melancholy”, and at another time she notices “a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.”

The precision of Lahiri’s prose is striking. Her language is minimalistic, stripped off any embellishments and feels bleached down to its bare essentials, but there’s beauty in her stark expressions, the effect they create is hypnotic. You can almost picture yourself sitting in a sun-drenched piazza in a European city, drinking in the warmth with a whole afternoon of people-gazing before you – people whose stories you don’t really know, but sudden glimpses into their lives on display can fire up the imagination of the myriad possibilities. Reading Whereabouts produces similar feelings.

I have read both Lahiri’s short story collections – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. These collections, along with her novels, have given her much fame, primarily for her exquisite portrayal of the quintessential immigrant experience, notably Indians trying to adapt to a Western land and treading a fine balance between embracing a new culture and staying true to their Indian heritage. Those were books that focused on the disconnect that people feel with their surroundings.

But Whereabouts is a different beast altogether because there are no such clear markers of people and their identities. The disconnect, the author portrays, is more with the inner self. Perhaps, Lahiri is trying to tell us that on some level we are all outsiders, that it’s a collective feeling we sense, not only when we move around the world, but also when we are rooted in the same place.

Is I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape.

Is there any place we’re not moving through? Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.