Archive for May, 2013

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

May 27, 2013

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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    All That Is, by James Salter

    May 23, 2013

    Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

    Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

    James Salter is an author who has always perplexed me (that’s a backhand way of alluding to why this review promised for May 5 does not appear until May 23). His backlist is relatively slim — five novels before All That Is, all published prior to 1979 (although a couple were reissued with revisions in the late 1990s). I was first introduced to him about a decade back when a reading friend gave me a copy of Light Years. I raced through it, was impressed and immediately ordered three of the other four (I have yet to read The Arm of Flesh, republished as Cassada).

    My problems with Salter started with Light Years and continued with the other three. Again, I read them all quickly — Salter maintains a clear narrative stream and his prose is very reader-friendly, formally precise with nary a word wasted, the kind of writing I adore. In every case, his characters were flawed but interesting, the kind of people whom one normally loves to find in novels. Alas, also in every case, there was a time-delayed reaction: a week after finishing the novel, I came to the same crash landing. While I could certainly remember some scenes very vividly, I would have had trouble telling you just what the novel was about.

    I have been pondering this reaction for some years now (I can’t recall any other author who has produced it for me), because the blogging world discovered Salter a few years back and readers whom I respect don’t hesitate to sing his praises. (You can find enthusiastic reviews of all five novels prior to All That Is from John Self at the Asylum here.) So when I heard that a new novel (it is probably final as well — Salter is now 87), the first in more than 30 years, was due for publication, I resolved to treat it differently. I would read it slowly and, if necessary, plan on reading it twice.

    I half met that resolve. My first read was deliberate, but, typical of my reaction to Salter, I thought I’d “got” it and scheduled the May 5 review — discovering only when I tried to write it that I did not know what to say. I obviously took time with the reread but, a week after finishing it, still face the dilemma of trying to say what the novel is really about.

    On the surface, it is easy: All That Is is the adult life story of Philip Bowman. He is introduced as a young naval officer with the U.S. Pacific fleet in the late years of WWII, as it prepares to land in Japan. When he returns home, he heads off to college and soon after graudation lands a job as an editor with a prestigious literary book publisher in New York, a job he will hold for the rest of his life. He meets a Virginia belle in a New York bar (not Clarkes’, but he was on his way there), soon marries her, almost as soon they divorce. For the rest of his life, Bowman (always comfortable with his work) has a series of extended monogamous affairs, occasionally leaves the city for summers or even a year in the Hamptons or upstate New York. The end.

    Okay, that is a bit harsh. For starters, I quite liked Philip Bowman. Salter’s chapter on his navy experience is brief, so I’ll skip that. Here’s the opening to his re-introduction to the non-military U.S. world:

    Harvard did not accept him. It was his first choice, but his application was turned down, they did not accept transfer students, their letter informed him. In response he sat down and wrote a carefully composed reply mentioning by name the famed professors he hoped to study under, whose knowledge and authority had no equal, and at the same time portraying himself as a young man who should not be penalized for having gone off to war. Shameless as it was, the letter succeeded.

    In the fall of 1946 at Harvard he was an outsider, a year or two older than his classmates but seen as having a kind of strength of character — he’d been in the war, his life was more real because of it. He was respected and also lucky in several ways, chief among them his roommate with whom he struck it off immediately. Malcolm Pearson was from a well-to-do family. He was tall, intelligent, and mumbling, only occasionally was Bowman able to make out what he was saying, but gradually he became accustomed and could hear. Pearson treated his expensive clothing with a lordly disdain and seemed rarely to go to meals. He was majoring in history with the vague idea of becoming a professor, anything to displease his father and distance himself from the building supplies business.

    That longish excerpt is an excellent illustration of Salter’s voice. It has a “journalistic” quality to it (coming from me that is a compliment), not in the sense that the author uses reporter’s language but rather that he honors sound news reporting principles. Facts are presented without bias or emotion, background is acknowledged and where required suitably filled in. Conciseness, clarity and directness are ever-present.

    As a book reader and former editor (albeit in the news not book business), I found Bowman’s entry into the publishing business and Salter’s careful portrayal of that world both intriguing and rewarding. The novelist has been in it for more than half a century: he not only knows what it is like, he knows what it was like and is a sound enough observer that he can draw effective parallels and contrasts between the two.

    While the “business” side of the story continues through the novel, as it progresses the book focuses more and more on Philip’s personal relationships. He is charming (perhaps “non-threatening” would be a more accurate assessment) in his own way and has enough “intrigue” to his character that women are attracted to him. He falls head over heels for Vivian (and that story is well told) but the marriage quickly loses its appeal for both of them and they split — he is urban, she’s a born-and-bred rich country lady. The lesson that Bowman takes from that first love will influence the rest of his life: while he takes to women (and they to him) easily, he is very careful to limit his emotional engagement in any relationship. That inevitably means a relatively quick end, sometimes initiated by him, sometimes the woman. In his latter years, that trait means the relationships have a quality of degeneration to them.

    If I was to attempt an explanation for my own “non-engaged” reaction to Salter, I think it would come down to that: Bowman’s lack of emotional investment in his life plays out with this reader in the form of an equal lack of engagement in his story. Despite quite liking him (as acknowledged above) by halfway through the book I knew him as well as I did at the end. Bowman is not a creature who has a plan for his life: rather his talents are such that he is frequently presented with options (usually quite positive ones) and, without much thought, he chooses the path of least resistance. We follow with him along that fork of the road for a while until problems inevitably arise — it always seems that not long after, another set of attractive choices presents itself. While he faces some negative consequences along the way, none of them last for long.

    All of which means that a week after finishing a second reading of All That Is (yes, that means a week of procrastination before attempting this review) I remember it as a set of artist’s studies, designed to eventually result in a major canvas. Many of the studies were excellent, only a few were less than good — but the final “canvas”, while consistent and coherent, is a series of scenes, not a unified work.

    I’ll underline again that many readers are more positive about Salter than I am (do check out those John Self reviews). I certainly don’t find him difficult or unpleasant to read and in a few years may make another effort with one of those earlier works. For now, however, he is an author whom I just don’t seem to get — I can understand that people see he is good, I just can’t figure out why.


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