by Katherine Govier
306 pages,
ISBN: 0679311815

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The Goings and Shortcomings of Noble Men
by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

The story of a man abandoning his wife in order to pursue some perceived noble course of action is as old as Homer's Odyssey. What a bitter decision it must have been for Odysseus to make upon the birth of his son Telemachus. But there they were, the relentless Menaleus and Agamemnon, knocking at the castle door, demanding that the brand new daddy honour a commitment to protect fickle Helen's marriage to Menaleus. Poor Odysseus had lost his bid to marry beautiful Helen in the first place; her cousin, Odysseus's wife, Penelope, was always a second-best. Still, he loved her, and his little son. But a promise is a promise. So off Odysseus trotted, however unwillingly, to an exciting war, followed by a devilish trip home, one fraught with all manner of trials and tribulations (that 5-year sojourn in Calypso's bed must have been absolutely excruciating). Penelope kept her story at bay, weaving and unweaving it while the clamour rose for her hand, while Odysseus achieved narrative, plot, story, and she achieved next to nothing. Read a certain way, The Odyssey is just this: man goes off to work, woman stays home and looks after baby. In 1833 as in 700 B.C. plus ta change, plus c'est la mOme chose. Alter the name, and John James Audubon frequently did (to Jean Jacques, Fifi, FougFre, Jean Rabin, Monsieur Newhouse, LaForest) yet the story remains essentially the same.
Govier has portrayed not one but two men in her novel Creation¨Audubon, the great bird painter and ecologist, no longer in his prime but at the apex of his creative prowess (and therefore, also at the height of his vulnerability) and Captain Henry Wolsey Bayfield of The Royal Navy, the man who charted the coast of Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, The Thousand Islands and the coast of Labrador. It is along Labrador's coast that the two men's fates converge and it is here that Govier has chosen to place her story. There is little known about what really transpired; the usually fertile journal entries of Audubon are strangely barren. This must have piqued Govier's imagination for the story is drawn with a fine brush. Govier's own artist's eye is focused delicately, deliberately on her own creation.
Audubon was the best and the worst sort of idealist. Tormented by his illegitimacy , his lack of credentials, his rival's unsympathetic jeers, his bad reviews, he became obsessed with the notion of painting every North American bird he could find from nature. The irony that this 'from nature' involved killing and wiring into pose 435 different birds, did not escape Audubon. That this fixation on the bird, its capacity for flight, its freedom, should emotionally and physically trap his wife, his mistress, his two sons, his engraver, and his crew caused him little guilt; the end justified the means. When his son nearly plummeted to his death, Audubon was shaken only briefly.
Audubon was a brilliant painter, coming ever closer to capturing what it was that made a bird a bird. He dissected each specimen, noting the size of the heart, the length of the bones, noting, too, incredulously, how there was nothing definitive, nothing to describe in a helpful way his need to capture it in the first place.
But if the capacity for flight is what attracted Audubon to birds, it was an utterly different quality he sought in women. Audubon's women were chosen carefully for how much they adored him, and for their unswerving commitment to him. His ever faithful wife, Lucy, managed his affairs from home, and Maria, with whom, as with the birds, he was enraptured, was at least initially always available for his little kisses. Govier is smart; her sympathies are clearly womanly but her voice is true. Her novelistic Audubon is perplexed, stunned and bemused when Maria exhibits her own tendency to flight.
Govier seems to be asking this: Is elusive the same as free? This Audubon hid as much as he revealed; he was terrified of being exposed as a fraud, and the more spun into his own fabrication he became, the less freedom he enjoyed. But as sometimes is the case, the dream was greater than the man. He finished the folio, each painting a life-sized rendition. When he died in 1851, he was quite soft in the head ("He lost his sight, after which he became childlike, at once a great man and a relic" p300), a softness that was the result of a series of small strokes which began with the brutal killing of a golden eagle specimen. Audubon had struggled to suffocate it with sulfur but failed. In the end he had to stab the bird with a large needle. The ordeal led to a collapse.
Govier's Audubon is enigmatic, compelling for his amorality as much as his vision and determination. The reader is transfixed but fascinated by the particular brutalities he practiced¨the way he strangled and vivisected, pickled and preserved, the way he clipped the wings and tried to tame the little birds only to kill them in the end. When the reader discovers Audubon himself sinking to his ankles, knees and thighs in marsh, she reacts with concern; he must not die here, in this hell-hole off the Labrador coast before the work is completed. He must extricate himself from this murderous bog in order to finish the book. It is a testament to Govier's brilliance that Audubon's obsession is transferred here, and the reader becomes as fixated on Audubon as the artist is on his mission.
Bayfield is Audubon's perfect foil. He is a cartographer whose military ambition had been thwarted. He is a measurer, but also, as happens here, the measure. By his even barometer, his servile obedience, his uncanny ability to see only what is there, we get to see Audubon as both a fool and an artist. That Bayfield manages to find something noble in Audubon's efforts, is a sign that the noble end is often a morally-ambiguous quest, and that even the most clear-eyed are susceptible in the company of men like Audubon, whose very determination is seductive. Fittingly, Bayfield and Audubon meet each other up and down the coast of Labrador in all manner of fog and disaster. Theirs is clearly a foul weather friendship. Both men are shrouded by their passions. Traveling through grey areas is the fate that best becomes them. What is a noble aim ultimately depends on one's point view. As Audubon asserts, what Bayfield achieves when he charts a land is to bring in civility, to tame the wild, to destroy habitat, to extinguish species.
Odysseus made it home, but look at the carnage. And yet, out of that came art.

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