Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath

Readers will be drawn into this novel through the characters and the pace of the writing. Writers will want to discover how McGrath creates the illusion that is the surface story and how he reveals the undercurrent, the shadowed story running beneath the surface, the foreshadowing that is easy to miss.

Do you ever pick up a book just because of its cover? This is how I came to read Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath. Art is one of my passions and the white cover is brushed with colour: orange, yellow, mustard, a blotch of red, another of green, a trail of purple. As it turns out, the story wasn’t what I expected, but I quickly became engrossed and resented sleep interfering with reading time.

The protagonist, Jack Rathbone, is a charming lad, narcissist, and more. His sister, Gin, narrates the novel; she adores him, gives up her painting dreams, and supports him. Vera Savage is the older woman and accomplished artist whom the still-teenage Jack enchants, marries, and runs away with (from London to New York’s art scene, and then to isolated and tropical Port Mungo). McGrath vividly draws each character and slowly reveals the tangled web created through Jack’s ambition, Gin’s illusions, and Vera’s weaknesses. Early in the novel, there’s a hint of Jack’s narcissism and Gin’s lack of insight:

He told me he would never have worked with such, oh—grandiosity—had he not lived in Port Mungo. He found there a reflection of himself, he said, and the meaning of his life as an artist was the effort to translate that identification directly onto canvas. I thought of his repeated motifs, his rain forests and rivers, his serpents and birds, and in particular his gleaming mythic bodies staring into pools—and much as I came to admire the work I never properly understood how he saw himself in those paintings.

Jack and Vera’s fraught relationship does produce (besides art) two daughters. The elder, born in Port Mungo grows wild, a shocking child in Gin’s mind. She invites Jack and Peg to visit her in New York where she has moved. The first visit goes well, but the later second reveals tension between father and adolescent.

Port Mungo is not a story for everyone. It begins with innocence and ambition, but the lives of the characters veer into murky waters. I found it distressing and upon completion decided not to write a review. Then I changed my mind because McGrath has written a compelling story that drew me in and kept me reading. And the fact that a story stays alive after the reading of it…well, isn’t that the kind of story we would each like to write.

For another story of a sister’s love and compassion for her brother, read The Gathering by Anne Enright: The Gathering. And for one about obsession, see Obsession by A. S. Byatt: Obsession.

50 Port Mungo

Available through your local bookstore or online: Port Mungo

Been traveling: Cuba’s Oriente

Journal map sketch-1 LR
One of my sketches showing the area of my recent visit where many adventures unfolded.

 

I’ve just returned from nearly a month’s stay in the eastern tip of Cuba where I explored nature, history, the unique Baracoa style of art and its many studios, and so much more. It was my third trip to the area and each visit opens doors to new experiences and insights.

Cuba’s eastern tip, known as Oriente, offers

  • one of the few rain forests in North America (although most of us think of Cuba as Caribbean, and it is that too) where Hurricane Matthew left a path of destruction but didn’t dispel the indomitable spirit of the people;
  • the tallest waterfall in the Caribbean (the 20th tallest in the world) and many lesser ones with their own special beauty;
  • a semi-desert in the region of Maisi (say My-see) and the Terraces that step up from the lowlands to the sea with breath-taking twists and views (and for geography buffs, the Maisi lighthouse on the Windward Channel is only 80 kilometres from Haiti);
  • the Farola Highway, which creates passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, is known as an engineering marvel, not to mention an adventurous ride (and on the south shore where I set off on foot to the site of poet-revolutionary José Marti’s famous landing in 1895, which set off a revolution that aimed to free Cuba of Spain’s rule);
  • Baracoa — a provincial city with a two-kilometre-plus-long malacon, that brims with art galleries, parks, and the friendliest people you will ever meet. It’s the biggest city in the area and the starting point for numerous day-trips to places like Rio Yumuri, Rio Toa, Rio Miel, each providing its own unique experience and ambience — and Alejandro Humboldt Nation Park, a United Nations designated site to touch on only a few places to enjoy a boat ride or to hike.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting photos and stories; click below to follow my many adventures in one of the most varied and beautiful landscapes in the world (and this is not hyperbole).

 

Existential Travel (Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel)

“…we thrive or wither depending on how nourishing our environment is.”

The environment of Beatrice and Virgil is anything but nourishing. The landscape is bleak. For the most part, two characters hover around a tree in barren space.

Panned by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, I found Yann Martel’s story haunting. It slips into waking moments and has entered my dreams, which is a bit unnerving but says volumes about the power of the story.

Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: there’s neither plot nor action to speak of. But unlike Beckett, Martel’s characters are animals, not tramps – the donkey Beatrice and the howler monkey Virgil. Martel also alludes to Animal Farm among other literary references. Perhaps, too, he’s evoking the dark side of his very successful Life of Pi. Yet another aspect toward understanding Beatrice and Virgil is the obvious allusion to Dante’s Inferno wherein Virgil guides Dante through hell and Beatrice accompanies him through Paradise. However, in this story Paradise is absent. Yet, there’s still one more curve: he’s explicit about the Holocaust, making this story an allegory.

Martel is a philosopher and a writer. As he did with Life of Pi, Martel frames his story, creating a story-within-a-story. In the beginning, his protagonist philosophizes: “A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real.” This fictional author proposes two stories to his publisher, each with a front cover, a “flip book.” One side would feature an imaginative novel about the Holocaust, while the other side would provide a factual essay. Readers would have “a choice…when dealing with upsetting matters.” Hold the book one way: creativity; the other: historical fact. Given the subject, the publisher wants only nonfiction. Henry makes a ploy for including the creative story:

Fiction, being closer to the full experience of life, should take precedence over nonfiction. Stories—individual stories, family stories, national stories—are what stitch together the disparate elements of human existence into a coherent whole. We are story animals.

Henry continues to argue for the flip book idea: “But behind serious nonfiction lies the same fact and preoccupation as behind fiction—of being human and what it means—so why should the essay be slotted as an afterword?” He wants two perspectives and two front covers. He loses the argument and slips into writer’s block. Then we get into the longer middle story—the creative interpretation.

An amateur playwright (also called Henry) becomes the antagonist; the setting is his taxidermy shop where he practices his craft and displays dead animals, many in diorama, including the donkey Beatrice and the howler monkey Virgil. Taxidermist Henry has asked author Henry for his help in writing a play and the writer Henry visits and listens to excerpts read by the tall, gruesome taxidermist. It is not a happy experience, yet he’s drawn to the man, his shop, and the “conversation” between Beatrice and Virgil as excerpts from the script are read to him. Their situation is stark and as gruesome as their creator. Near the novel’s end, the author Henry reflects: “Once you’ve been struck by violence, you acquire companions that never leave you entirely: Suspicion, Fear, Anxiety, Despair, Joylessness.”

After more horror and some healing, author Henry muses about the donkey and the monkey and what his lingering memories mean: “All that remained now was their story, that incomplete story of waiting and fearing and hoping and talking. A love story, Henry concluded.”

A bleak love story, but should we ever be faced with the dystopian reality of Beatrice and Virgil, we could hope for the kind of love they shared.

Beatrice and Virgil is not a story for everyone, but for those who like puzzles and allegories and the “theatre of the absurd,” I recommend Martel’s book to you.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Beatrice and Virgil

Book Review: Fictional Fact – Imagining Klimt (The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey)

In this imagined look at the life of the Gustav Klimt, we glimpse Vienna and the bohemian lives of artists in the city during the turn of the 20th century. In The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey, we meet Klimt through the eyes of Emilie Flöge, a young, upper class bourgeois girl attending a parade with her father and sisters:

 “…our father was talking to a man we didn’t know. The man was wearing a threadbare sack suit and a pink daisy in his buttonhole. We had never seen a man wearing anything like that. He was not tall, but broad-shouldered and strong-looking. He was tan like the woman selling ices. He was carrying a leather case in one hand and what looked like a toolbox in the other.”

Emilie sneaks away to watch Klimt paint. Later he comes to the house to paint the daughters and Emilie convinces her father to allow her to take painting classes. Emilie grows into a young woman. One thing – as you can imagine – leads to another, and eventually to “The Kiss.” Emilie is believed to be the woman in the painting. The man is purported to be the artist Klimt himself. But Hickey’s story ventures past Klimt’s death, taking Emilie as far as the Russian invasion of Vienna near the end of the Second World War. Emilie and her niece have taken refuge at an old summer home that abounds with memories of Klimt’s visits. Emilie toys with the idea of travelling back to Vienna to see her city house, but resists:

“I am not ready for the accounting, not yet, the tally of buildings lost and buildings saved, paintings burned and paintings not. In my mind Vienna is still whole, I can see it. When I am stronger I can go back and face the losses. When the war ends I will go back.”

Hickey feeds the images we have in our minds about Vienna, about the sub-culture of artists, about the war and how it changed the lives of countless people. Despite the obvious research required to write creatively about such a well-known figure and period, Hickey keeps the story lively, not letting it droop into art-history mode for which I give her kudos. However, the book in many ways is a light romance, an easy read, which may be the perfect book for a lazy holiday weekend for those of us who like to snoop into artists’ (imagined) lives.

Notes about Klimt:

Most readers will recognize the art of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), since images from his “gold period” pop up everywhere on greeting cards and posters. One of these, the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” was confiscated by the Nazis during WWII. In 2006, a movie called “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, takes the point-of-view of Maria Altmann who reclaims the painting from the contemporary Austrian establishment.

While talking with an artist friend about Klimt’s style, she asked if I’m familiar with the work of Margaret Macdonald Macintosh. Macintosh’s work was shown in Vienna in 1900 at the “Vienna Secession.” Klimt was also one of the exhibitors. Some believe that her influence created the famous shift in Klimt’s style that occurred after the show. Others suggest Klimt “stole” the style. Don’t you love when serendipity and a bit of artsy gossip slip into your life?

13 The Painted Kiss

The novel is available through your local bookstore or online: The Painted Kiss

Review (& Controversy): Into Northern Lake Country (The Last Woman by John Bemrose)

“I’ve come to think of her as a sort of Mother Earth figure. You know, Lilith, Eve, the first woman –.”
“I don’t know,” Richard says….”Looks more to me like the last woman.”

The Last Woman by John Bemrose is an elegy for the ending of love; for a forest, clear-cut landscape; for simple equity for the lives of people – in this case Ojibway – who are caught in the ugly transition from “what was” to “what is.” On one level, The Last Woman is the story of a love triangle, simple and straightforward. On another, it is the story of a clash of cultures, each trying to do things for the right reasons and each totally misinterpreting motives. It is about politics where truth and justice don’t matter. It is about a land claim, secrets, ambitions and dreams, art and logic, and the totally different way that indigenous people think about and live on the land. In short, Bemrose has written a complex story, weaving the personal angst of his characters into a web that includes greed along with cultural and environmental destruction. Bemrose’s writing is measured; he doesn’t rant, although readers will see where his sympathies lie.

Over the years, I’ve bought books by the few Indians (First Nations in Canada) who managed to get published. I think that Halfbreed by Maria Campbell was among the first, along with books by N. Scott Momaday. Later, books by Louise Erdrich made their way to my shelf and some by Thomas King, plus harder to read books like for Joshua by Richard Wagamese, poets like Lee Maracle and gritty Métis poet Katherena Vermette. I own Anne Cameron’s Daughters of Copperfield, a book that generated controversy in the early 1980s (that continues to rage) about who has the right to the traditional stories, to their telling. Of course, I have the well-packaged and easy-to-embrace collections of quotes from the speeches of elders, such as Touch the Earth. And yes, academic and anthropological work sits there too.

More recently, publishing has opened to First Nations people in a way that seemed previously closed, and there’s new controversy on the topic of who speaks for whom. The editor of Write: The Magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada resigned over his editorial in the Spring 2017 issue. He writes: “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” I suspect that farther down in the editorial his admonition to “Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize” is what skewered him. I read it as inappropriate, as did many others – not political correctness, but a “middle-finger salute.”  Indigenous people in Canada (likely everywhere) are capable of speaking for themselves. They don’t need interpreters. But there is a blurry line, although both history and today’s reality badly need the First Nations’ perspective. So, back to The First Woman….

Bemrose walks a fine and informed line as he writes about the land claim and as he develops the character of Billy, of Billy’s loss over his cultural heritage, his land, and the trees gone to clear-cutting. He writes with sensitivity about the childhood attraction and, later, physical love that Billy and Anne shared, as he does with the friendship that once existed between Billy and Anne’s husband Richard.

I wonder what critics today would think about Martin, my character in Calla & Édourd. Martin is a fiction, who grew out of my experience living in Winnipeg. My empathy grew out of my grandmother’s reluctance to talk and her mother’s stories. Yet, now I wonder if readers would feel a line has been crossed. But, once more, back to the novel….

The excerpt that leads into this review fixes our thoughts on a painting and on environmental destruction and provides the title for Bemrose’s novel. But the story is about more than that, it digs and niggles down into a core fault-line. I would love to learn what readers – who have read the novel (and maybe mine) – think.

09 The Last Woman

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Last Woman

Review: Between Men (What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt)

I admit it. I bought this book because I loved the painting on cover.

What I Loved tells a story of friendship between two men, a friendship that expands to include their wives, and then their sons. A painting by New York artist William Wechsler (not the one on the cover) is bought by Leo Hertzberg, an English professor at Columbia. It is Leo who narrates the story, part saga and part thriller as it turns out.

When the story opens, the men are young and married: William/Bill to Lucille, a poet, and Leo to Erica who teaches English at Rutgers. The model in the purchased painting (and others) is Violet Blom who flies off to Paris in a veil of intrigue. The two couples become neighbours and friends, and later each have son during one summer: Mark to Bill and Lucille, and Matthew to Leo and Erica. As happens in stories—and life—trouble develops in paradise: Lucille moves out and Violet moves in. Of course, it is all more complicated and Siri Hustvedt weaves a much better tale. But this is merely to sketch the backdrop for the drama that unfolds. The painting, however, is central to understanding the story; first impressions can be superficial.

Leo describes the painting as it hung in the gallery:

Bill’s painting hung alone on a wall. If was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand—a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moves up and down the streets of New York.

It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting.

We’ll see other paintings, each obscuring details so that it takes time and careful looking to actually see what they include. Things are not as simple and direct as first imagined. Over time, Bill’s creativity shifts to include sculptural forms, boxes that tell stories almost like visual folk or fairy tales. His vision suggests trouble and, for Leo, reminders of grief. There is tragedy and heartache, desperation and loneliness beyond the art.

Hustvedt writes with precision and psychological insight, with clarity and care for her characters. What I Loved’s ambiguities subtly reflect life—its joy and darkness. The writing is ambitious, compassionate, intelligent and will leave you thinking long after you’ve read the novel’s final word.

06 What I oved

Available through your neighbourhood bookstore or online: What I Loved