Love, Life, Art

I’ve just read the best book of the year so far: The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska. It’s a hybrid flower of a book, combining autobiography, fiction and stories about art and artists in ways that leave exquisite gaps for the reader to fill in. At its heart is an undefined question about women’s experience and the way it is transmuted into creativity, and it’s written in beautiful, limpid prose that is crystal clear in intent but fades dreamily away at the edges. There are very, very few books that I finish with the desire to instantly start all over again, but this was one of them.

The book comprises three long essays, topped and tailed by sections that introduce and conclude the fictionalized autobiographical story that weaves in and out across its entire length. The story focuses on the abiding friendship that joins four women; the unnamed narrator, who we take to be Modjeska but this is by no means a sure thing; Ettie, a wise and feisty octogenarian who could have been a fine painter but who gave it up for gardening, Clara, Ettie’s granddaughter although she is unaware of it, her mother having been the product of Ettie’s adulterous liaison, and Louise, a good friend to them all. These women love and support one another through the ups and downs they face, whether they are in their relationships, in their working lives, in illness or in confronting the past, recognizing that to some extent, there are similarities between their trajectories through a certain kind of feminine destiny. Stories echo one another and repeat themselves, particularly in love, and the first long essay intertwines a classic story of a man and his mistress, told by Louise, with parallel narratives from the lives of her friends and from women artists. The basic story is thus interpolated with variations on the theme: Ettie and Clara’s strange relationship to one another, Louise’s own discovery of her husband’s infidelity and the stories of Stella Bowen, an Australian painter best known (the narrator says ruefully) for her liaison with Ford Maddox Ford, and Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th century Italian painter who was raped by her art tutor. All the stories are gently placed under the banner of Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on the difficulty women have in telling their stories of love. ‘How can she write about a love affair when the world of criticism and opinion favours a man’s facts, or his myths, over a woman’s romance, her fantasies, her gossip? When a man writes, or speaks of love, it is to affirm his right to a narrative in which his sexual destiny and his right to tell the tale are in happy partnership. When a woman writes of love it is a risky business, for her agency with the pen contradicts her prescribed destiny as a woman.’ All the different stories and opinions gathered together here glance off of one another like a hall of mirrors, but the figure reflected into infinity is that of the woman who continues to define herself more through her relationships than through her work. To be truly creative, the narrator suggests, this phase has to be transcended, or lived through, until a self freed from compliance and neediness emerges in her own right.

I loved the first section but the second was even better. It concerned a period in the narrator’s life when she suffered an illness that caused a temporary loss of sight. This event is the catalyst for a series of reflections on the nature of suffering, the experience of isolation that illness can bring, the symbolism of blindness and the wisdom that can emerge through convalescence. Modjeska has the perfect tone for writing about upsetting, even traumatic, experience, as it is at once lucid and astute, but coolly serene, distanced and insightful. It’s like having an intellectual nurse lie a cool hand across a fevered forehead. And the jumble of memories, stories and artworks that she brings together to describe this period in her life correspond precisely to the many levels on which one has to work to restore hope and vitality to the self after a lengthy and troubling illness. When the narrator first falls ill she calls for Ettie to come and help her, and Ettie’s robust sense of survival, of the importance of calling on the resources of the intellect to do more than survive, comes shining through:

‘The fear is enough,’ she said, encouraging me to dwell there, to learn its shape, to feel its edges. ‘Don’t build on it with memories and slights.’ She had spoken to the doctor, she knew the risk, and she knew that total darkness was the fear I conjured, and not the prospect I was offered. ‘What is the fear?’ she asked. ‘What is its real nature?’ It was not a question I could accept with grace, and I wept afresh when she said that if I shifted my way of seeing (she used that word), what this episode offered was an opportunity.
‘For what?’ I wept.
‘For solitude,’ she said. She was right: for years I had avoided that empty space we call solitude, filling up my life with work and lovers, distractions of every sort. ‘Go into it,’ she said, ‘and you’ll find it richer than you expect.’

The third essay concerns the narrator’s visit to her old boarding school on a trip to England with Clara. In this section it is the education of women that is at stake, and a particular form of education at that. The narrator cites Virginia Woolf again, and her envy of the learning her brothers were allowed to undertake that she was not. It was exactly this education, the narrator recalls, that she was given, but she uses her memories to argue that Woolf did not know what she was asking for. On the one hand, Woolf had exactly the kind of flexibility of mind she herself admired, regardless of her home tutoring, and on the other, the narrator suggests that rigorous intellectual discipline is not necessarily going to produce the curious creativity Woolf values. But this is also about the awfulness of old-style boarding schools, the casual cruelty of girls and mistresses alike, the rigid hierarchy, the absence of privacy, freedom and affection. It conjures up a lost era, one we can be pleased to see the back of, but one that shaped a generation of women, like it or not.

And so this book stitches together, loosely, dreamily, issues of women’s education, their creative and romantic sensibilities, their strength in suffering and solitude, drawn from the sisterhood. I loved the way that the narrator’s experience of life was interwoven with the experience of other lives, be they of friends or of other female artists, who loved and suffered and left behind their wisdom and their visions in the work they produced. Each woman may speak from a different place, but they all contemplate what it is to be a woman, to have a specific place in the world that is part history, part biology and part unique individuality. When their voices blend together, as they do in this book, the result is a loving, respectful, attentive sorority with hands outstretched to catch the tears of each and every woman when they fall. I think you could call it girl power.


19 thoughts on “Love, Life, Art

  1. This sounds wonderful, litlove – I put an order in before leaving this! Really enjoyed the way you write about the book too.

  2. I am so happy that you loved this book. I think I’ll just post this passage, from the second section; I read it most days after I became ill, and it still defines how I think about challenging my curtailments:

    ‘When you are threatened and afraid, unable to live by the capacities and capabilities that have gone without question all your life, a great deal about how you live changes: your values, your sensory perceptions, even your loves and friendships. This Ettie had told me, but it was only by living it that I learned the lesson of her words. It seems to be, and I’ve heard it said by others similarly afflicted with illness, or grief, or losses of other kinds, that by being forced to live within a curtailment not of one’s choosing, there can be a corresponding expansion in the heart’s capacity. It is this that I came to glimpse. I came to see that what I feared, though I called it blindness, and I would never underestimate that fear, or the courage of those who live without sight, was not of blindness within itself, but of solitude; the solitude that necessarily comes with the curtailment of a robust daily life and that, on first encountering it, brings with the shadow of the solitude of child separated from mother, lover from lover, friend from friend. It is the emptiness that brings you slap up against that naked reflection in the mirror.

    I wouldn’t say I came to like it, not at all; it remained dark down there in the tunnel, and damp. At best it was as if, with my body rather than my eyes, I cold sense its shape, lift my arms safely towards the leaves, push my fingers into the loamy soil to find they weren’t immediately snapped off. Limited though it was, I began to stretch and grow into the space around me. I didn’t yearn any less for that childhood capacity to run out into the light where flowers open and birds ride in the up-droughts, and the sky, shining down, houses all that you know. I began to find small ways of existing there, that’s all, each day made up of small repeated gestures, memories and sensations to which I became as attuned as I was to the symptoms I read with the precision I once gave to books. I came to see that what is required of us at such times is not performance – that endless dance of display – but the simple task of being. In a world in which movement is equated with achievement, and pain with failure, in which established creeds have emptied out into stale rhetorics, the question that was put to me was how to live with any bigness of spirit when the soil from which it must flourish had shrunk to a small handful of loam.’

  3. Deborah – lovely to hear from you and so glad you liked the review! I think you’ll enjoy The Orchard – it is a beautiful, beautiful book for anyone working with their creativity. I’d love to know what you think of it! Fugitive – So very glad to hear from you, too – I hope this means you are home safe and sound! You have THE best book recommendations and I am so grateful to you for this one. It was absolutely exquisite, and that passage you quoted struck me also when I read it. How could it not? The whole essay expressed my experience of chronic fatigue, only in a way that ennobled it (which I would never have believed was possible). Thank you, my friend.

  4. This book is wonderful, and when I re-read it I always find something new, always a sign of a great book. I’d also recommend Modjeska’s Poppy, a memoir where she explores her mother’s life.

  5. Thank you for this. I came across Modjeska in her editing of critical writing on Australian women’s fiction back when I was doing my masters. I’d heard of her fiction but not read it. Now I will look it out first thing Monday.

  6. ….Even though I said I wasn’t going to buy anymore books this year….I think I may have to get this one. It’s always a good sign when someone says ‘this is the best book I’ve read all year’! Wasn’t she long or shortlisted for some prize this past year? What an interesting combination of essay and fiction–and anything about art appeals to me.

  7. You had me at “I’ve just read the best book of the year so far.” This sounds wonderful and refreshing after my eyes and ears were filled last night with Aeschylus’ Eumenides which turns out to be about subjugating the rights of women to those of men and silencing their voices by closing them up in an underground cavern. The Orchard goes to the top of my TBR list!

  8. Hmmm … I still am kind of resistant to putting anything on my TBR list, but you are tempting me! I am drawn to nonfiction that experiments with the genre in some way, so this sounds perfect for me, and I also love Woolf and a book that is so obviously influenced by her is hard to resist!

  9. well obviously I am going to have to send out an immediate edit to the book list I just sent to my in-laws for Christmas shopping purposes, and I do believe that list is already half Litlove recommendations as it is! What a gorgeous review!

  10. I was so excited to see this post, because I’ve been eyeing The Orchard for awhile, but couldn’t find any info about it. Now I have this whole thoughtful essay on why I should read it. 🙂 Yay!

  11. Sarah – thank you for that recommendation – I have just ordered a cheap copy off amazon! I’m trying to get hold of as much of Modjeska’s work as possible, though it is not easy. Harvestbird – I have never read any of the edited collections Modjeska has put together, but I’m hoping to remedy that soon! I think she is a remarkable writer. Danielle – so sorry about your eaten comment – isn’t that just SO annoying? But I do think you would like this – the bits about art especially would appeal to you, I think. And I would just love to know what you think of it! Stefanie – LOL! This is definitely a good counterpoint to Aeschylus! I just love books that are underpinned by female solidarity, and I very much appreciated the gentle, analytic, essentially positive message it put across. I would love to know what you think of it. Dorothy – I hate to tempt you when you are trying to abstain – you can look at it in two ways: on the one hand this is definitely one of those quirky non-fiction/fiction books that combines the best of the essay with a narrative drive. But on the other it does talk about gender in ways that might annoy you, as Modjeska does talk in a slightly essentialising way about the differences between men and women, particularly in the section about relationships. So there are reasons why you might like to read it, and a justification for why you might be able to postpone reading it until 2009! 🙂 Courtney – if it’s any consolation, I have added seven books to my Xmas wish list in the past week! Blogging is dangerous that way… but I would love to know what you make of this book if you read it! Eva – I know just what you mean, it was very hard indeed to find any information out about this book. But I did love it, and wished it didn’t end, and felt it was full of beautiful thoughts. If you do get a copy, I really hope you blog about it as I’d love to know what you think. Becca – everything you really like, I really like, so I figure it ought to work the other way! I feel sure you would relate to this on many levels, and again, I’d just love to know what you think about it if you do read it!

  12. Beautiful review litlove – I’m so glad you enjoyed The Orchard, as it’s one of my all time favourites! I particularly love the aspect of women finding a shape to their lives, through creativity, stories and reading – over the years as I’ve re-read The Orchard it never fails to highlight for me meaningful connections and timeless lessons. Alas she hasn’t written much recently, but I thoroughly recommend Poppy and also Stravinsky’s Lunch – in which she further explores women’s creativity through the lives of two artists Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith.

  13. This arrived for me last week so I’m very glad to hear that it’s so good. What a lovely review. Just to take one aspect, dwelling in the fear opens up lots of possibilities. Sounds perfect for my summer reading.

  14. Kirstenjane – how nice to have you visit! I do think I will be returning to The Orchard again – it is that kind of book. I’m so happy to read your recommendations as I have ordered both books you mention (I’ll get my husband to give them to me for Christmas) and am looking forward to them very much indeed!

    Pete – I think there is a lot in The Orchard that will intrigue you. I am extremely interested to know what you’ll make of it. Oh, if only it were summer reading here…

  15. First and foremost, Litlove, I love reading your reviews – your writing is so precise and careful and you are so attentive to the book you’re reviewing. And second, this sounds like a book I would really enjoy. Am adding it to the already-too-long wishlist.

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