By John Harris | June 24, 2002

In Jane Urquhart’s novels, characters of artistic temperament (artists, would-be artists and critics and fans of art) act out every possible cliché about artists except that they like drugs.

Urquhart’s arty characters don’t need drugs. They’re already in another world. It is, to start, a cliquey world of shoptalk and mentors. Usually in Urquhart the mentors are from the real world; she alludes to or animates historical characters (the names of which I’ll put in bold for the not-so-arty). In The Whirlpool, for example, Fleda sits in the poet’s corner of her tent with engravings of the English Romantic poets, dreaming of the day a Canadian poet will bring the impulses and imaginations of Shelley and Byron into "the real landscape of her country." Then she will be able, like Laura Secord, to deliver a message to the embattled cultural troops hiding in the northern bush.

In Changing Heaven Ann Frear, at age 10, becomes obsessed with Wuthering Heights, acting out scenes from it in her dollhouse. When she gets older she seeks her own Heathcliff, who turns out to be Arthur Woodruff, a student of Tintoretto. Finally, she is haunted by the garrulous ghost of Emily Bronte. In The Underpainter, Austin Fraser is so attached to the teachings of his mentor, Robert Henri, about the necessity of detachment in art, that he turns away from the love of his model, Sara Pengelly (another Byron and Shelley fan), and the advice of his friends, Rockwell Kent (a fan of Abbott Thayer) and George Kearns (who admires the china painting of Dewsbury and Develly), and indulges the voyeurism that was probably ingrained from childhood (the fault of his mother), and lives as a result a lonely and embittered life. In The Stone Carvers, Klara Becker learns from her grandfather the attitudes and techniques he’s picked up from Viet Stoss, DŸrer, and Tilman Riemenschneider. Later, she hears about Walter Allward, designer of the Vimy memorial, and goes to work for him.

Another aspect of this cliqueyness is a contemptuous, judgmental, priggish attitude to those who aren’t obsessed with art. Patrick has left his wife, "a person of uncomplicated mind," after she suggests to him that he’ll never find Wordsworth‘s daffodils in the spruce forests of Canada. Fleda looks at her husband, an historian and patriot, who is at that moment wondering why his hero General Brock‘s hat has never turned up in any museum, and realizes that her poet, Patrick, will protect her from this sort of thing, "the sordid, the ordinary, the real." Mrs. Boyle, Austin Fraser’s housekeeper, likes his paintings before he underpaints them, and so is regarded by Fraser as an idiot. He looks down on Sara, too, and George, a mere painter of teacups. Authur Woodruff slogs away teaching Tintoretto to his "intellectually limited students." Ann remembers her father, a prospector, given to turning up at her summer camps and buzzing her birthday parties with his "banal" bush plane. Klara envies other people "their small preoccupations, their carefully kept account books, the way they stood on street corners talking about farm machinery, the weather, the price of a bag of oats. . . ." Mass exceptions to "ordinary" people are Italians and the Irish, who are always, in Urquhart, natural poets, painters, and dancers.

Urquhart’s characters also try to act out the symbolism they are creating. Mainly they do this by falling obsessively in love with, and energetically fucking (in symbolic positions, clothing, and locations) people who fit into their symbolism. Often these love affairs form the basis of Urquhart’s plots. In Changing Heaven, Jeremy Jacobs, turn-of-the-century barnstorming balloonist, "The Sinbad of the Skies," is having his balloon stitched up one day by Polly Smith, seamstress at Funnell’s Fabric and Furnishing. He falls in love with her wispy, bleached-blonde whiteness, because to him it symbolizes purity. In fact, he hopes, as his greatest feat, to balloon to Antarctica or the arctic, the ultimate in whiteness, as a kind of pneumatic Parry. He dresses Polly in white, and finds white rooms where he bangs her "like ship in a hurricane encountering rocks," until she decides it’s time for marriage and a house. Jeremy puts her into his balloon, hoping this will distract her from these mundane demands. It does, for a time, though she still wants marriage. Unfortunately for Jeremy, the crowds like seeing Polly in the balloon, and they want her in it alone. Jeremy is unhappy. Not only does Polly, who he has renamed Arianna Ether, still want to marry him, but now she is getting all the attention while he is stuck on the ground messing with schedules, hot air, and parachute harnesses (parachuting out of the balloon is part of the act). He calls her a stupid slut. She is upset. Solution: he rigs her harness and she falls to her death. As he watches her fall, his love for her returns. He cashes in the insurance on her, outfits his balloon with wine, pate de foie gras and other delicacies, and heads north. He freezes to death on White Island, in the company of the skeletons of arctic explorers, sipping wine, eating pate, and dreaming of Arianna.

I added the insurance. I did that because when you start getting into Urquhart’s absurd plots, you become obsessed with subverting them by adding something interesting. Also, this enabled me to write a short sentence conveying a message that is surprising and yet somehow at the same time utterly predictable. Short sentences of this type, often set off as paragraphs, are a feature of Urquhart’s style, along with strained analogies like the one about the ship banging the rocks.

Yet another character who fucks human symbols is, of course, Ann. She and Arthur do it in motels, Arthur being married and intending to stay that way, attached as he is to his wife, house and (especially) dog. Ann ultimately realizes that Arthur’s not Heathcliff but just another unimaginative boffo who likes to screw around on his wife. She finds love on the moors, near the Bronte cottage and museum, with John Hartley, who talks like Lady Chatterly’s lover. This is one of the few cases in Urquhart of an obsessed artist-character learning something useful. Normally, Urquhart’s characters, while sensitive, are utterly obtuse, especially when in love and fornicating with symbols.

A classic example of this is Eileen, in Away, daughter of Irish poets Mary and Brian O’Malley. Eileen, like her mother, is "away." She sees spirits, talks to birds, and absorbs her father’s Fenian sentiments. She falls in love with a Fenian riverdancer, Aidan Lanighan, and, in the rare moments that he’s not line-dancing with the boys, they fuck passionately. Aiden and his gang decide to shoot D’Arcy McGee, who they feel has turned traitor, arguing as he does in parliament that the Irish should leave their politics in Ireland, that the Fenians are just another instrument of U.S. foreign policy. They leave for Ottawa, Eileen going along because, desperate for Aidan’s love and company, and eager to be a part of the cause, she has convinced Aidan that she can pack his gun since no one is likely to search a woman. As the assassination time approaches, Aidan dances to the can and Patrick, a sleazy co-conspirator, talks Eileen out of the gun, more it seems as an excuse to watch her grope around in her bodice. They take up positions near McGee’s house. McGee approaches, singing "The Maple Leaf Forever." Aiden asks for the gun. No gun! Aiden freaks! A shot rings out! McGee is dead, killed by Patrick. Horrors! Aidan is really a counter-spy. He agrees with McGee and was hoping to protect him. He calls Eileen a stupid slut and leaves her.

I added "The Maple Leaf Forever." Believe it or not, that was all I added.

Human-symbol fucking is also practiced by Eileen’s mother, Mary, a poet, who is taken "away" when she sleeps with a drowned sailor and thereafter regularly goes out to any convenient body of water to fornicate with his ghost. Her husband Brian accepts this; he recognizes that it is what makes her poetry, which is addressed only to the sailor, better than his, which is for Ireland. And Tilman Becker of The Stone Carvers, whose life is characterized by an obsessive need for open space, so that he becomes a hobo at age six, discovers after World War I that what he really needs is gourmet food. This is a good thing; he lost a leg in the war, so the life of the hobo is now impractical, and his weight/height ratio is permanently in the safe zone. He discovers the best of this food in a café near the Vimy memorial, run by a fat French chef, who turns out to be gay. Tilman and the chef fuck passionately. This relationship is, actually, the only one of this sort in Urquhart that works out happily.

But fucking symbols, while exciting, is just one way of acting them out. Fleda lives in a tent because it is more sensitive than a house to her beloved Canadian landscape – i.e. it flaps around a lot and is cold in winter and hot in summer. Patrick doesn’t find Fleda symbolic and rejects her when she expresses her love for him, yelling "housewife" at her. However, he agrees with her that the whirlpool beneath Niagara, adjacent to which Fleda has pitched her symbolic tent, is a symbol of the problems of Canadian poetry. He determines to swim it to prove that he is the poet that Fleda has been waiting for. While his real hero is (ominously) Shelley, he does know how to swim – like Byron. Unfortunately, he drowns despite his Byron-like ability, and Fleda is forced to find another victim. Tilman, when he first wanders off following the geese, is stopped from following them by Lake Erie. Thereafter, water symbolizes restraint to him. This feeling is justified later when he follows a friend across the Atlantic to WW I, and loses his leg. (Of course, he does follow his sister Klara across water to work on the Vimy monument, and there meets his French chef, which works out well for him.) Austin Fraser hates "objects" – they cry out to be loved, and so are symbols of attachment that he is forced, out of spite, to bury using his underpainting technique.

Finally, Urquhart’s arty types tend to attach political or pseudo-political causes to their art. They are priggish about it, believing that if their art is great, their opinions must also be great, and if their art has made them great, it can save others too. Perhaps it can save the world. Fleda and Patrick plan to put the "Canadian" into Canadian literature. Aidan is also a Canadian nationalist; so is George, who questions Austin’s American training and connections, seeing Austin as a typical American coming north to exploit Canada’s resources – it’s pristine environment and beautiful girls who love to pose in the nude for, and sleep with, famous American artists. Eileen and her father are Irish patriots. Klara believes that art can heal the wounds of World War I. World War I, in fact, along with Americans vis a vis Canadians, and the English vis a vis the Irish, is the great symbol in Urquhart’s novels of what reality can become at the hands of ordinary people. Such people are incapable of real thought and so are easily herded by psychos into packs and used to oppress the Irish, exploit the Canadians, and conduct wars.

It is easy to see that Urquhart’s cliché-driven novels about artists are absurd. Urquhart is a real Sarah Binks or, since there’s little of the bucolic in her, Emmeline Grangerford. Why, then, do her novels attract serious attention? Away, an especially silly novel, was on the bestseller list for 136 weeks; The Stone Carvers (admittedly much more deserving, but still not very good) was on for a year. Also, the books win awards. The Whirlpool won "France’s "Le prix du meilleur livre etranger" (she was the first Canadian to gain this honor; other winners are Updike, Nabokov, Rushdie, Marquez, etc). Away won the Trillium Award and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The Underpainter won the GG and was a finalist for the Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. The Stone Carvers was short-and-long-listed for just about everything. Urquhart recently was named a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France.

An obvious reason for Urquhart’s popularity is that her novels are, whether they are meant to be or not, a sort of confection for the "intelligensia," that large set of sometimes hysterical people who over-indulge in art and creative writing classes, who join art-appreciation and book clubs or writer’s federations, who are vaguely anti-American and carefully politically-correct, who read every word of the book and art sections of The Globe and Mail, and who aspire to artistic achievement even though they work as dentists, teachers, and book reviewers.

People like me. (In addition to imitating Urquhart’s short sentences of unexpected revelation, and subverting her plots with mundane details, I also entertain myself by regularly flipping to the back covers of her books to gaze at her photo. She fits into my personal symbolism as a photogenic lady novelist of about my age who is badly in need of rescue. Unfortunately, I have written a book that expresses enthusiasm about prospectors and bush planes, and so probably would not fit into her personal symbolism.)

Urquhart’s readers get the satisfaction of being able to follow (or at least knowing how to pretend to follow) her references to the great names of art and literature, and her descriptions of technique. They also understand that Urquhart promises to show them how artists think, and possibly how art is made.

Of course this is nonsense. No one will learn from Urquhart’s clichés how to be an artist. But even those who laugh at these clichés know that they are not laughing with Urquhart, as they would be with Leacock in the Nonsense Novels that so entertained Samuel Beckett as a boy. They are laughing at her. Urquhart’s intent is serious. She is trying to present an aesthetic that, when adhered to, leads to artistic fulfillment. She is trying to explain the psychology of creativity, like Patrick White, say, in Riders in the Chariot. Her theme could be something like, you cannot create if you cannot love.

That she has not yet broken through the clichés indicates as much the difficulty of the task as the extent of her talent. To portray the interdependency of art and goodness, of Imagination and Conscience, is to court sentimentality. Her favorite poets, the English Romantics, set out to connect poetry and goodness – Wordsworth for example, in "The Prelude or Growth of a Poet’s Mind". As Coleridge pointed out, Wordsworth did a wonderful job of portraying the growth of any mind, and as a part of that of indicating the connection between love and happiness. As for attaching the joys of artistic creation to this – well, the proof could only be in the pudding, a poem so great that it proves the point it is trying to make. In this, Wordsworth was only partly convincing.

It may well be impossible to chase this theme in the novel, which is not an autobiographical genre. In the novel, proof of fulfillment in the arts can be conveyed only through the description of such fulfillment, which means the description of a painting, sculpture, or poem. Urquhart has tried to do this through the name-dropping, the elaborate elucidations and justifications of techniques, the description of work in progress, and even (on the covers of The Underpainter and The Stone Carvers) the reproduction of the actual artwork in question. But none of Urquhart’s shoptalk goes beyond cliché. Klara’s grandfather says that in order to carve a subject you need to know what that person had for dinner; Klara works for Walter Allward, who cares nothing for "the personal." Allward is a genius, while Austin Fraser, who also hates the personal, is supposed to be a failure. Persons of "uncomplicated mind," like Patrick’s wife and Allward’s mother, are nonetheless capable of artistic insight. The picture of Sara on the front of The Underpainter indicates that Fraser’s paintings may not be, as his famous friend says, "cold." Nothing that Urquhart says about art adds up or is convincing.

This may be why The Underpainter is Urquhart’s greatest achievement yet. She wrote it in the first person, putting herself in Austin Fraser’s head, and went directly at her theme about love and art. She found herself unable to prove that detachment is not essential to art, that Fraser’s technique is not really a vital one. She even gets close to saying that art has no powers to soothe human misery – as in the case of George and Augusta who indicate that, concerning World War I, "nothing could or should be documented." Fraser is supposed to be a failure. Urquhart has said this in an interview. His underpainting is merely a compulsive act of spite that has become trendy. Yet Fraser’s narration is not underpainted; he goes directly at the details. His portrayal of his treatment of George and Augusta is chilling. The reader doubts Fraser’s failure as an artist, and thus the intended moral of Urquhart’s story.

This may also be why The Stone Carvers, though it is mawkish in the extreme, still satisfies as a story. Here, Urquhart pulls away from art and its accompanying clichés. Her carvers are engaged in copying Allward‘s models and doing lettering; except for Klara, they act as craftsmen. Also, the artwork in question, the Vimy Memorial, is familiar to many; everyone knows what it is meant to accomplish and understands that it has accomplished it. The carvers working on the memorial are vets and/or, like Klara, bereaved. Like those who come to visit the memorial, those who are working on it are seeking closure in a simple affirmation of memory.

One of the ironies of Urquhart’s situation is that, while she is writing better, the critics are getting impatient. Neil Bessner, in reviewing The Underpainter, indicated the central dilemma of the book: if Fraser is a compulsive underpainter, his narrative is likely to be underpainted too, every detail erased that could tell us who he really is and what he really did. Only a paid analyst would bother to interpret such a narration. If the narration is not underpainted and communicates in whole or part, then Fraser is not a failure. And Bonnie Schiedel, Brian Fawcett, and Robert Sibley have rightly trashed The Stone Carvers as, in Sibley’s words, "a ludicrously sentimental and overloaded piece of fiction."

So Urquhart remains our Emmeline Grangerford. Reading her, we get the same impression that Huck got when he saw Emmeline’s painting: "It was a picture of a young woman in a long white gown, standing on the rail of a bridge all ready to jump off, and looking up at the moon, with the tears running down her face, and she had two arms folded across her breast, and two arms stretched out in front, and two more reaching up towards the moon – and the idea was, to see which pair would look best and then scratch out all the other arms; but, as I was saying she died before she got her mind made up . . . . The young woman in the picture had a kind of nice sweet face, but there were so many arms it made her look too spidery, seemed to me."

Urquhart is still trying to make up her mind, still trying to produce credibly-motivated arty characters who act in ways that illustrate an aesthetic of love. It seems to be taking her at bit too long to accomplish this. However, as Huck might say, she ain’t dead yet.

3314 words uploaded June 24, 2002


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