"He stored the Divine Light in a Vessel, but the Vessel, unable to contain the Holy Radiance, burst, and its shards, permeated with sparks of the Divine, scattered through the Universe."
This fragment of a Kabbalistic legend of creation, chosen by Adele Wiseman for the frontispiece of her brilliant and under-appreciated book Crackpot, expresses the dilemma of containment. How do we keep precious contents inside something so that we can have them when we want? Of what substance do we fashion the containers? What happens when those containers break? And how will we manage if we can't contain the substances we seem to need so desperately?
In our attempt to have and to hold what we desire, we have created many desirable holders. God created Adam from clay to contain the human spirit. Mankind tried to go one better with bone china: clay strengthened by pulverized bones. Eternal durability still eludes us, but the quest has created a ceramic legacy of exquisite treasures. Teapots, urns, vases, boxes, tureens, bowls, cups, crocks, cellars, flasks, and many other containers have been elevated to works of art by master-craftsmen. For every substance we revere, from tea to honey to ink to herbs to tobacco to whiskey to snuff to perfume to frankincense and myrrh, we have fashioned a container.
But how do we contain things that are less substantial? Memories, feelings, and the remains of the dead are the hardest for us to store. Tombs and urns are insufficient when we are overwhelmed by catastrophic loss, especially on a grand scale. Art is our only recourse.
Jane Urquhart's moving and beautiful new book, The Underpainter, examines the struggles of two artists to find ways to contain themselves in the face of enormous loss. Austin Fraser, the underpainter, evades grief by working on flat canvas. His friend George Kearns paints on china. One man disdains containers; the other treasures them. Each man is shattered in a different way.
Austin Fraser is the underpainter for whom the book is named, and in whose voice the tale is told. Born in time to see the last century out, he recounts his life in old age, taking the reader on a journey through his own life cycle, the brutal march of this century's folly, and the personal progress of the handful of characters with whom he interacts. As the sole survivor of his generation, he bears witness with meticulous gravity, giving us a detailed, textured, respectful recounting of the past and his part in it, as if the narration itself was an act of reparation. Like many memoirists, Fraser attempts to spare others by confessing the mistakes he has come to recognize. And the tale he is retelling is about the very act of repairing the damage of a great devastation that lies at the heart of his wrenching story.
As the only child of an intense and eccentric young mother, Fraser is dragged on marathon rambles all over his native Rochester (N.Y.), exposed to extremes of weather, intimidating vistas, and risky footholds. Carried off by a fever she catches on one of these foolhardy treks, she leaves Fraser to a father who neglects childrearing as thoroughly as he attends to fortune-building. Fraser is abandoned to his wealth, enduring childhood without friends or caregivers, but with a sense of privilege and the time and opportunity to draw, paint, and develop his artistic skills. In 1913 this deprived and indulged young man arrives in Davenport, Ontario for a summer on the north shore of Lake Ontario, as the idle rich of New York State did in the glory days before World War I. When Austin befriends George Kearns, a young Canadian who paints china while minding his father's china hall, the underpainter meets the china painter.
In becoming friends with George, Austin forms his first attachment since the death of his mother. It may be for this reason that he portrays George as a glowing object of desire:
"I was walking west on King Street, the central thoroughfare of the town, when I saw a young man in a long white apron leaning in the doorway of a shop on the opposite side of the street. I noticed him first because of his extraordinary beauty, his blond hair shining like a lamp under the sun, the relaxed curve of his body against the door frame.. He explained he was wearing an apron because he was sometimes called upon to help out in his father's neighbouring grocery store, which he could enter by passing through a door in the east wall of his own china shop. I felt that his white apron separated him from me entirely; as indisputably as the fact that he painted on china, a pastime of which I, a serious student of art, disapproved."
Even when he is drawn to another human, Austin is making note of the obstacles between them, and the differences that separate them. Anxiety undermines every impulse to love. But having made the first belated baby step towards the human race, Austin is able to move haltingly forward. In the emotional geography of this book, each stride that Austin takes towards fuller feelings and richer relationships is taken in a northward direction. In a daring inversion of the prevailing myth, the Canadian north is the land of richness and liberty and the American south is the impoverished, constricting environment. For when George comes to Silver Islet Landing, on the north shore of Lake Superior, he finds the light, the vision, and the sense of a secure base that allow him to paint his greatest, most appreciated works.
".Rockwell Kent and I would discuss the glamour of a north shore, how everything opens and clears there, sky, various winds, water; how light lingers long after it should in summer, as if trying to announce something vital that has been overlooked or refused."
Austin finds more than majestic landscape on the north shore. He forms an intimate attachment with a waitress, Sara, who also becomes his model. With her long simple braid, and her quiet satisfaction in serving the tourists each summer, Sara becomes much more than an artist's model for Austin, but a model of a real person, fully feeling and firmly engaged in her time and place. In another inversion, Urquhart gives the characters with the fewest resources the richest inner lives and the greatest wisdom. Sara, who goes voluntarily into hibernation each winter and emerges to blossom each spring, when the light and her lover arrive, is a noble savage, whose natural rhythms run like a motor throughout the book. The story begins when Sara bequeaths her northern perch to Austin, and ends as the aged narrator recounts his abandonment of her decades earlier.
The young adults who make up the dramatis personae of The Underpainter move forward into the wars and other travesties that were the fate of that generation. They comprise a kind of catalogue of bereavement, starting with Austin, the motherless child, then George, a wounded veteran of the trenches and other personal assaults, to his companion Augusta, a Canadian nurse whose brother and best friend are taken from her in war, and finally on to Sara, who lives in unthinkable isolation each winter rather than leave the place where she and her deceased were once together.
When Fraser inherits Sara's home and its contents, he already owns his late friend George's china collection as well. Despite his disdain for the artistic value of the enterprise, he has spent decades reassembling the shattered fragments of porcelain left after George's final hemorrhage of rage and despair. They are arranged neatly on the shelves of his empty house, clashing unattractively with the spare, modernist style of his surroundings, tauntingly quaint and sweet in a dry, cerebral world. The cups contain no liquid, the vases no flowers, the bowls no fruit, the tureens no soup. Vessels without contents, they have become a shrine to a sterile generation that cannot generate even a single offspring. Only Fraser, empty to start with, can persist in a world of such emptiness.
As a child, Jane Urquhart knew she was destined for fame on the Broadway musical stage. When she felt ready, she let Richard Rodgers know that she'd be arriving in Manhattan and would appreciate it if he would meet her at the airport. He thwarted her ambitions with a polite reply. Since then, Urquhart has set out on her own journeys, working out solutions while she's on the road. Writing is a form of exploration for her, and she is willing to travel without a map in order to create new territory. Austin Fraser, the abstracted, calculating artist with an intellectual concept, is her polar opposite.
"Obviously he's in my psyche somewhere," commented Urquhart a few weeks before The Underpainter's publishing date. "But it's strange how totally distant I feel from that character, even though I wrote it in his voice. It's the oddest thing."
Urquhart describes writing as quirky, serendipitous, and, in some ways, uncontrollable. The names of her characters, for example, "came out of the air, to a certain extent, as does everything else, I must confess." Even about her characters' actions, she can disclaim control: "I gasped out loud at what Austin did to Sara at the end of the book, but there was nothing I could do," she comments, although quite cheerfully. Being a hostage to the creative process is not at all distressing. Her goal is not to control her creation, but to take the happenstance that befalls her and make it into a book.
"In my experience, you often don't know what you're doing as a writer until after you've done it. Then you can go back, when you've seen what you've done, and begin to hone it and take it further in the direction it's already going. But in the meantime, writing is so absolutely wonderful-it reinforces my belief in the collective unconscious. Synchronicity is always available and you just open the synapses of your brain and in it comes."
Urquhart's description makes writing sound like a rather simple matter of being available to receive the book when it arrives, and to some extent, she did let the story find its way to her door. George Kearns, the young Canadian who paints china, was practically hand-delivered.
"I had begun already to write the part of the book that dealt with Austin and the north shore of Lake Superior, when my cousin Amy Quinn appeared at my door with a collection of letters and said: `Jane-look at these!!' They were letters from a First World War nurse to her lover, who lived in a small Ontario town and ran a china hall. I knew, when I read those letters, that they had to be in."
Thus Urquhart's Canadian hero became a china shop proprietor by a fluke, but nothing more apt could have been found. George loves his fragile ceramics with a commitment and reverence far sturdier than the objects of his devotion. He decorates them, protects them, studies them, and, in a way, when he is in France during the war, educates himself through them. On leave in Paris, George sets out in search of a china painter whose pieces had made their way to the shelves of his Davenport store. At his atelier, George is transported to a new plane of artistic vision after being shown the china tableaux animés created twenty years before. These were
"small idyllic worlds where animals frolicked, waterfalls tumbled, and lovers kissed before all became motionless once again. When George was shown examples of these, he felt his heart open, and then he was overcome by a tremendous sorrow.`the war finished them off altogether. Nothing beautiful and fragile could survive it.'"
He tries to describe the revelation of that visit to Austin, after the war:
" `I'll never forget that moment in Lambert's atelier.when I realized there were two worlds of art. One up there'-he pointed towards the ceiling again-`and one down here, a little closer to earth.. It made me very happy.to be able to understand this.. There is only one world of art now. .The war finished the other one off. .Only one world of art,' he repeated. `Yours.' "
When Urquhart found her china painter, she recognized him to be emblematic of his time, engaged in an amateur art that was popular in that era. She told his story, in part, to "mourn the loss of the amateur artist, the one who loves his art and is beyond fashion or ideology. The artist who doesn't exploit his art. In my opinion, much of twentieth-century art has been exploitative. We've got the artist as celebrity phenomenon, where the artist is hyped by the media to the point where his art gets lost, and he just becomes a fashion. Austin is the successful artist, but he is not a good one. He cannot stay connected to his own soul."
Loss of integrity is something Urquhart mourns, but the character of a young, tragic artist comes from an even more personal source. She is married to a highly esteemed artist, Tony Urquhart, and is very familiar with the visual personality and how it relates to the world. It is a personality to which she is partial. Before this marriage, she was married to another artist, a "young, gifted art student and printmaker, fascinated by everything visual from stump fences to printmaking," who was killed in a car accident on the highway outside Cobourg, the real model for Davenport, Ontario.
"I think the fact that Paul died when he did, when we were both so young, allowed me to remember what it was like to experience such a devastating loss early in life, as my characters do in this book," she explains.
Urquhart knew her book was about loss, but she believed she was expressing the grief of another generation. Her mother, who is still alive, was a child during the war, and Jane grew up on stories and memories of the world that was lost, the world of her grandparents. "I'm driven by a need to express emotions and to record a disappearing world," Urquhart says. "I didn't consciously set out to write about losing my first husband when I was so young, but that must have been part of it too." By telling George's story in the detached voice of the underpainter, his almost completely obscured world is described by the very same person who is responsible for his disappearance. George is the superior artist, but Austin is the survivor.
George begins painting on china because that is the surface available to him, but in the aftermath of war and abandonment, he comes to value it precisely because it does contain.
".he stopped suddenly, removed a painted teacup from one of the shelves, and thrust it towards my face. `At least I could have taken some nourishment from this,' he said. . `At least I could have filled it again and again with warmth. Can you say the same thing about anything you've done?' "
George has survived the tragedies of his young life by tending to his vessels, but eventually, they cannot contain the rage and despair unleashed by revisiting his past. He smashes each and every piece of china, in a vain attempt to force the pain out. It is only when his agony is released that Austin begins to value the containers he always thought were in dubious taste. The rest of his life is devoted to the futile task of repairing the collection that can no longer contain anything.
Urquhart was a friend, admirer, and colleague of Adele Wiseman, a writer whose identity was formed in the shadow of the Second World War. Of her decision to become a writer, Wiseman wrote:
".there was very little innocence about the world into which I emerged as a young adult. We were counting our dead.as a Jew, I knew that not only a way of life, but life itself had been preserved. And so it was even a kind of rebirth. But it was a rebirth that carried with it responsibility. In the counting of our dead I had more dead than I could ever count.I did not feel guilt because I survived; I felt the responsibility, rather, in some sense to make the dead survive through me."
In order to give her dead new life, Wiseman created a character who was a crackpot, a heroine who burst beyond the walls of any container in which she found herself-an irrepressible life force. Urquhart attempts almost the opposite: to give the dead a decent burial, first by bringing their death to our attention. Like Wiseman, Urquhart is a chronicler of a bereaved community, and like Wiseman her book contains the grief that needed to be expressed.
Both these writers take responsibility for their dead, and through their art, nurture them. This tender, stately, and intimate respect for her characters is what keeps The Underpainter from being morbid. It is an elegy: an ode on the side of a porcelain urn.
Robin Roger is editor of the alumni magazine for University College, University of Toronto.