KfC’s 2013 Project: White Figure, White Ground, by Hugh Hood

Personal collection

Personal collection

Alexander MacDonald is a painter, a successful one already in 1960s Montreal with his first New York show now being negotiated. Before he can get to that, however, he needs to make a personal journey of exploration to Barringford, Nova Scotia, a fishing village on that province’s South Shore that is his ancestral homeland. Here is the way he introduces himself to his great-aunts, Claire (aged 89) and Blanche (83), in a letter that arrives mere days before Alex and his wife plan on showing up — and staying for the entire summer:

I was born in Toronto and I’m John Arthur MacDonald’s son and your great-nephew. I know that you knew my father until he left Barringford, and of course his father was your eldest brother and my grandfather.

I’ve never been to Nova Scotia. I lived in Toronto until I grew up, and I’ve been living in Montreal for eight or nine years. Now I would like very much to take a longish trip to your part of the country, for several reasons.

My wife and I propose to drive to Nova Scotia in the middle of this month, and we should be in Barringford sometime around the twentieth [the letter is dated on May third]; we hope to pass most of the summer in your neighborhood. I am a painter, a hard fact to explain in a brief letter, and I want to make some experiments with the light and color of the coast. And I also want very much to see the house — your house — in which my father was born. So I have at least two good reasons for visiting Barringford apart from wanting to get to know you.

Hugh Hood uses that short letter to introduce the reader to two of the three themes that percolate throughout White Figure, White Ground:

  • His father was born in Barringford but left, for reasons Alex does not know, for Toronto as a young adult. Under Scottish rules of primogeniture, that Barringford house is rightly his — but his grandfather disinherited his father. Why? And while Claire and Blanche might be old, their brains are still fine: both suspect that a sub-agenda for this visit might be Alex planning to “reclaim” the house. Under the current circumstances, it will eventually become the property of their young great-niece, Ellen, who is tending them in their declining years.
  • Equally as important is the painting theme. I am not aware that Hood himself painted, but he does know his art — it is a theme he returns to in a number of his other stories and novels. Early on in this novel he makes reference to both Borduas and Riopelle, two Montreal artists who headed to Paris and established international reputations in the 1950s. While Hood never states it directly, Alex would seem to be a creative heir in the spirit of Borduas’ Automatiste movement. Given his interest in light and color, he would also seem to fit well with New York’s color field painters of the era. I won’t try to go into it in detail here, but rest assured that Hood frequently returns to exploring what is going on in the mind of an abstact painter — in this case, one who is finding his inspiration in the distinct versions of “whiteness” that are found in the skies off the North Atlantic coast. The unique “blackness” of the nighttime sky will become an equally powerful source of creative energy.
  • Not stated in the letter, but obvious even to Claire and Blanche (“he’s probably married a Frenchwoman — he probably means to conceal it” is Blanche’s observation), is the third theme: Alex has indeed married a Frenchwoman (Madeleine) and, six years into marriage, the two still have not fully discovered each other. Madeleine is not just any Frenchwoman: she comes from a prominent Quebecois family who originally wanted no part of her marrying a Scotsman from Toronto. That opinion changed when Alex acquired artistic success in Montreal, but was replaced with “and when will there be a child?” Alex and Madeleine get along with the family just fine but with that on one side and Alex’s preoccupation with his painting on the other, they need some extended private space time to fill in the gaps of their relationship — while art will still be important in the Nova Scotia summer, and Madeleine is leaving for six weeks to join her family on summer holiday in Bar Harbor, Maine, they will at least have the chance to do that. Here is an excerpt from early in the book as Madeleine, driving their overloaded, badly-balanced Volkswagen, observes her dozing husband in the passenger seat:

    When she could spare a glance from the corner of her eye, she examined him carefully, the stocky, not very tall, compactly-put-together man, her husband of six years who had a way of looking different depending on your point of view. Sitting back on his hipbones with his legs arc-ing forward into the nose of the car, worn gray trousers and black sweatshirt his comfortable working and traveling costume, his eyes closing and lips moving quietly as he discussed some quiet interior game with himself, with his plentiful coarse brown hair and clear rosy skin, he looked like a much younger man, an athlete in his high noon of activity. Alex was thirty-nine and had been thirty-three when they were married. He’d looked then and he looked now as though he were in his late twenties. He slept well, ate well, lived very comfortably, thought hard and exclusively about what he was doing, never worried, loved her, and nowadays slept with her less often than he used to. Often, but less often. What was the right assessment, she wondered. What was the national average?

  • Hood was a short story writer as well as novelist and I include that excerpt to show the descriptive powers that a short fiction writer brings to longer work. He is not flowery or obtuse, but he is thorough — in every one of the three threads that flow through this book.

    White Figure, White Ground also features a “plot”, although it is more a glue that holds those threads together than an element itself. It comes in the form of Alex’s relationship with Ellen, who becomes his invaluable assistant (he carries the canvas, she lugs his easel and paints to the distant spit where he observes and paints the sky) during Madeleine’s absence in Bar Harbor. In many ways, her life is a reverse image of his search: she knows the ancestral roots only too well and also knows she will find neither a partner nor a life inspiration as long as she remains in Barringford. The two do develop a relationship, but Hood uses it to more to illustrate the tension in Alex’s own set of searches than as a conventional plot.

    How did White Figure, White Ground hold up almost four decades after my first read? I loved it the first time and have to say I liked it even more this time around — although that is probably more an acknowledgement of what I have experienced and learned in those 40 years than it is a comment on the book itself. That definitely colors my opinion and I would add the additional caveat that while I urge Canadians to try this book, I suspect some of its elements may not land as easily with international readers. One particular aspect that impressed me on this read was the way that Hood captured the “Canada” of the mid-1960s. While the South Shore of Nova Scotia has not changed much in the half century since it was written (second generation adults are still regarded as outsiders there), Toronto certainly has — Scots are no longer the immigrant class in that polyglot city. And the picture that Hood paints of the Montreal of the time is a powerful reminder of how dramatically Quebec’s Quiet Revolution has changed that city in the intervening years.

    Setting that caveat aside, I’ll return to what for me was an even more powerful theme: fiction about painters. I admit that I have a soft spot for it (see my review of Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing). As well, Mrs. KfC and I collect art and have a number of works from the Automatistes and those who followed them. Despite the power of those personal influences, I would have no hesitation in saying that White Figure, White Ground is one of the best fictional works exploring artistic creation that I can remember.

    A brief final note: Those who do take my advice will discover that White Figure, White Ground is out of print, but online sources do have copies readily available (the picture for this review is from a hardcover first edition available for $20 from a Regina bookshop listed on AbeBooks). Indeed, since my ancient paperback was falling apart, I wanted to treat myself to a first edition hardback and had little trouble finding a copy at a reasonable price — it will occupy a treasured space on my “favorites” shelf now that this reread has been completed.

    June will mark the halfway point in KfC’s 2013 Project with my re-visit of Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man. It will also mark the end of Phase One of the project since the first six novels were all written by authors whom I had personally met — the remaining six are better described as “Canadian classics” written before my time. I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed (and learned from) this project so far — I look forward to Phase Two every bit as much.

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    4 Responses to “KfC’s 2013 Project: White Figure, White Ground, by Hugh Hood”

    1. Max Cairnduff Says:

      Interesting that it might be less accessible (if that’s quite the right word, which I suspect it isn’t) for non-Canadian readers.

      Given how I took to Berger’s A Painter of Our Time and given I find that period of art interesting this does actually sound quite tempting. How well would you say the reader needs to already know the relevant art movements?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Perhaps what I should have said is that some parts of the novel that impressed me would only be apparent to those who lived through the times. Hood makes no attempt to predict the future in this novel (although he did engage in some of that in his 12-book cycle, The New Age — his version of A Dance to the Memories of Time) but for me at least the accuracy of the way he captures the 1960s “present” stands in contrast to the way things are now.

        Also, he makes no reference to particular art schools or movements — alas, that is me inserting my impressions into the review, for which I apologize. What he does explore with Alex is how one artist attempts to capture “light and color” in an abstract painting — in the modern era, I guess you could say that quest started with Monet and has continued unabated to this day.

    2. acorn Says:

      This sounds like a very interesting novel. The theme about the house reminds me of Susan Hill’s Dolly, but this book appears more complex – and therefore more attractive. Yet another on my ‘to read’ list!

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Good luck in finding a copy — it is worth the search. And while the novel has a level of complexity to it, the central themes flow well with each other and don’t become distracting.

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