For the past year I have belonged to a book group here in Switzerland. This is by far the best book group I have ever had the luck to join. We’re an international group of women who meet once a month in one of the region’s wine caveaus – a beautiful smoky cellar filled with wine casks and gnarled old vines in a village that dates to Roman times. We do a tasting and talk literature for a few hours – it is an evening I look forward to all month and I am never disappointed. Last month we discussed Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and this month David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is on the schedule – I cannot wait.
Sometime last year we read Jane Urquhart’s A Map of Glass which was my introduction to this Canadian writer. On the whole we were a divided group. Some of us loved the book and others a bit less. I was in the second camp. Something about the novel put me off. It is a beautifully written story and deals with emotional distance and artistic expression in an intriguing way – which might have been the problem. Like my more recent experience with Don Delillo’s Falling Man, when a character keeps his or her distance from me, I tend to respond a lot less as well. While reading it, I kept telling myself that I should love it but something held me back. However, Urquhart’s stunning and skillful writing told me that I had found an author I might like to try again.
When I saw another Jane Urquhart, The Underpainter, on one of the awards lists for the Book Awards Reading Challenge I added her to my list and I am so glad that I did. What was even more interesting about this read was that although the story is extremely different, the themes in The Underpainter are very similar to those in A Map of Glass – emotional distance and the artistic mediation of that same distance.
The story is narrated by an elderly painter named Austin and covers a large span of his life, from his childhood into his forties. I mentioned yesterday that this book reminds me of Les Ames Grises and this is mostly because the tone of the narrator is so similar – such sorrow and regret, and such a need to account for his life. Austin circles in and out of his own story and the story of one of his friends – George. The two stories are, of course, linked far more deeply than is initially expected. And the way Urquhart moves us through these men’s lives is so adept, each new experience echoing another.
Writing a novel about a completely unlikable character who needs the reader’s sympathy for the story to work is difficult and Austin was one of the most difficult characters to get on with I have ever read. He made me angry before I managed to feel sorry for him and it took me a long time to forgive him but this serves the story’s purpose in a clever way. So all I can do now is admire how Urquhart pulled it off.
The Underpainter is essentially a love story. But that completely reduces all that is actually contained in its pages – yes, it is about Austin and Sara, his artistic muse, it is also about George and Vivian and later Augusta (one of the book’s most interesting characters), but it is also about the trauma of WWI, about choosing whether to observe life or experience it, and it is most definitely about artistic passion and how different individuals manifest and serve that passion.